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Urban farming cultivates a sense of ownership over food

What do you think of when you think of farming? Rolling fields of grain? Cows mooing in the background? A blue sky overhead?

Well, we’re far from the country out here. Steps away from a 490 overpass on the corner of Broadway and Meigs is the Broadway Community Garden, which is run by the 490 Farmers group.

Chloe Smith shows me around the space. She started this garden, which opened just a few weeks ago, and is the first community garden to be planted on Department of Transportation land in the state. Plots here are available for purchase, with one free lot for the homeless to tend to.

The beds are all made by found materials; pallets and old fencing all mismatched in size, and experience is not a prerequisite for participation. Smith says it’s about community involvement here, getting to know your neighbors on the road to a more sustainable way of eating.

“You feel so accomplished I think if you grow it yourself and you just appreciate it more and you’re not going to like, just take it for granted and throw it out either. It’s like a whole exercise in not wasting and learning how to value what you have and that kind of stuff. Like I know if I buy something at the store and it goes bad I’m like whatever, but if I grew it myself I’m like damn that was so much work! You’re like so mad.”

Across town, another new garden is being planted on the corner of First Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.  First Market Farm is in a perfect location, right behind the Rochester mecca of local agriculture, the Public Market. 

I visit on a busy Saturday morning and meet Leslie Knox, the director of the garden. A hobbyist gardener and social worker, Knox wanted to cultivate a space to relax — and build community.

“I’ve had people stop by, “Hi, that’s a really lovely garden, that’s a pretty garden." Those are the best catcalls ever! That’s not usually what I hear, but I’m enjoying the heck out of it!”

Almost on cue, right when I was walking up to the garden, a man in a box truck honked and yelled from his window about how nice the space is.

And over the course of about an hour, multiple people walking back to their cars with handfuls of produce asked Knox about the garden and how to get involved. She says while many people these days are focusing on eating healthier and finding new diets, not everyone is aware of what they are capable of, or what they have access to, when it comes to food.

“So urban farming in a sense is a way to empower yourself and your neighbors to have better choices in what you put in your body and where your food comes from.”

The last farm I went to has been around longer than both Broadway and First Market. You can tell just by being here that it’s older, with lush green plants spilling out of their raised beds. The Lexington Avenue Urban Farm has been serving primarily immigrant and refugee families since 2012.

Nathaniel Mich is the edible education and urban farming specialist at Foodlink, which runs this farm.

“When these families are forced to leave their homes, a lot of times they can’t take a lot of possessions with them. But they do tell me that they would often sew seeds into the hems of their clothing to carry those with them...because it’s really, you know, their patrimony, right? It’s their cultural heritage.”

In my series of farm visits, similar themes kept popping up: community, sustainability, empowerment and ownership, a connection to food in a modernized world. Mich and I talked for a while about how easy it is to forget all of that surrounded by multitude of options at a grocery store.

“Not everybody has to have an urban farm, but can you just imagine what this city might be like if everybody just had at least had like a tomato on their front porch in a pot? Right, like what…how would that change how we interact with the food, how would that change how we interact with the world around us when you understand that our food is a gift?”