Wasatch Community Gardens’ downtown Green Team Farm is a job and an education for seven women facing homelessness, led by our man Loomis.
Nestled in the heart of the homeless ghetto, in what was once a weed filled vacant lot at 622 W. 100 South, new green life has been erupting. From August to October, thousands of wheelbarrows full of soil and compost were hauled in to shape raised garden beds. What was once a lot peppered with trash and needles was, by November, an emerald Eden, a sanctuary.
This is the Green Team Farm, a 1.5-acre urban intensive vegetable-growing operation, on land owned by the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, launched this summer through a partnership with Wasatch Community Gardens, the Downtown Alliance and Advantage Services, in cooperation with a valuable and hardworking handful of homeless garden workers.
The growing SLC homeless population is no secret. From the west side of the Rio Grande thru the club district, live a growing number of people with few possessions. Left behind by the “progress” of society, they occupy the position with the least privilege, assigned by one key judgment: They lack an address.
How to effectively manage this increasing burden on the city and society is the million-dollar question. Policing is difficult and frustrating, as these individuals have very little to lose. Couple that with the homeless population’s high rates of substance abuse and mental health issues, and things look bleak.
However, there are a lot of individuals in this homeless population who frankly just need a break. A series of unfortunate events, bad luck, or poor choices landed them where they are and they are indeed ready to work their way up and out. This is exactly what the new Wasatch Community Gardens Green Team Farm program aims to help people do. I’m the Green Team farm manager, an employee of Wasatch Community Gardens.
To bring the garden’s soil back to life, hundreds of gallons of compost tea were brewed and drenched onto the soil, giving it a resurgence of beneficial microbes. Armies of volunteers from numerous organizations formed bucket brigades and rake militias covered the barren soil with mulch. While returning the mojo to a forgotten corner of the city is an important part of the program, at its core it’s about the participants, especially the seven currently homeless women who make up the main labor force that powers the farm.
As part of the program, the women learn how to grow top notch organic produce, as well as learn all the facets of small scale intensive agriculture: crop selection and rotation, planting and harvesting, soil biology and management, dealing with pests, weed management, and good farm design. They also learn the small business skills needed to run a small farm: marketing, bookkeeping, budgeting, dealing with clients, and lean management techniques. Most importantly, they earn a decent wage while doing it.
The underlying philosophy of the Green Team farm is based on regenerative agriculture. We approach human interaction with ecosystems as being able to go beyond “sustainable.” Sustainability often means only doing less harm. From the lens of regenerative agriculture, we see that it is possible to be not only “less bad,” but that our actions can actually result in a net benefit of the biology with which we share space. It is possible for humans to steward landscapes and live rich, fulfilling lives while their surroundings increase in biomass and diversity and enhance the quality of life for all other organisms. This design process also applies to the societies we inhabit and, aside from growing food, the goal of the farm is to “grow” people. (sorry sci-fi folks, this isn’t a stem cell driven human row-crop experiment).
Spend five minutes behind the Rio Grande and tell me how well you handle the psychological stress. The women in the Green Team program have to face this every day. To combat this, the Green Team attempts to restore the inner peace that results in a better life outlook. These homeless women have built and maintain a sacred circle. They start the day with chi gong, yoga, breathwork and meditation. The resulting clarity and stretched muscles prepare them for the day’s hard work, because this is a working farm, and farm work is hard work, period.
The infrastructure of the farm also reinforces this commitment to regenerative systems. The farm is completely solar powered, thanks to the loan of the mighty Solar Saucer, courtesy of Scott Whitaker and the Jenkstars. In my role as farm designer and manager, I have also built the majority of the key farm components utilizing materials from the waste stream.
Shipping containers insulated with repurposed foam insulation, built out with salvaged lumber and outfitted with second hand commercial kitchen infrastructure keeps the farm footprint light. Very few items are purchased new—often discarded “junk” has a higher purpose and easily becomes useful building material.
You see, in nature there is no waste. Waste is a human design flaw. One might argue that in a society as advanced as ours, people being left behind or selecting themselves out of society is a design flaw.
While a single small urban farm isn’t going to solve the problem single handedly, it’s clearly making a difference in the lives of these participants, and to everyone else who encounters it. All who enter leave with a smile and smiles travel miracle miles.
For more information or for volunteer opportunities at the Green Team Farm, email James@wasatchgardens.org