WXXI AM News

Urban agriculture regroups as Rochester halts permits for community gardens

Apr 3, 2020

Credit Illustration by Jacob Walsh/CITY Newspaper

Local urban agriculture advocates face a dilemma.

They’ve long championed community gardens, where neighbors gather to work the soil and nurture plants that beautify their blocks and provide them with fresh, healthy food. This is the time of year they’d normally be planning and planting the year’s bounty.

But, as it has with pretty much everything, the coronavirus pandemic has upended that work, much of which traditionally takes place on vacant, city-owned lots. This year, the city of Rochester will not issue permits for any community gardens on city property.

“There’s great value in gardening and urban agriculture, and it does pain us that we can’t support that with permits,” city spokesman Justin Roj said, adding that the motive for the move was to urge would-be gardeners “to stay home and stay safe.”

Roj strongly encouraged residents to grow food and garden at their homes.

The best tool for slowing the spread of the virus is social distancing, which means people avoiding gathering in groups and staying at least 6 feet away from each other.

Urban agriculture advocates had been hoping that community gardening could continue in some form, with ample precautions that incorporate the tenets of social distancing. They know they have to adjust to the situation and are currently wrestling with what urban agriculture in the time of the coronavirus pandemic will look like.

On Friday, a collective of advocates, activists, and policymakers known as the Urban Agriculture Working Group is convening a meeting via Zoom called “Gardening in a Pandemic.”

Nathaniel Mich, the edible education and urban farming specialist for Foodlink who serves as a staffer for the working group, said the discussion will build on a fundamental question: How can activists and advocates best support growers and gardeners when they can’t gather with them -- or even among themselves -- in person?

“We’re reinventing how we do everything,” Mich said. “Gardens will be a part of that.”

That may mean looking for alternative ways to garden as a community.

Petra Page-Mann, owner of Fruition Seeds, an organic seed company in Naples, Ontario County, noted that even without a lot of land, people can still grow their own food. Container gardens are a viable option for many, as are gardens in raised beds, she said.

“There’s always going to be a place for community gardens, even in pandemics,” Page-Mann said.

Buffalo’s Massachusetts Avenue Project, a nonprofit urban farm on that city’s west side, launched a program called Seeding Resilience, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It has developed a detailed map listing stores where people can buy healthy, locally grown and produced food, as well as places where people in need can get assistance.

The organization has also started offering workshops over Zoom about growing food.

Mich said advocates in Rochester are looking to adopt some of the Massachusetts Avenue Project’s approaches, particularly the virtual workshops. Working group members want to sustain people’s interest in urban agriculture and help them get through discouraging mistakes.

Page-Mann also has skill-sharing on her mind. Fruition Seeds’ website features blog posts, video tutorials, and webinars on growing and gardening. Page-Mann offers many of those resources at no cost and has eliminated the fee for her online Seed Starting Academy course.

Mich and Page-Mann see demand growing for such services.

“What I have noticed is that in general, there has been a big surge in interest in gardening,” Mich said.

He suspects that people are seeing how coronavirus has stressed the food system and how the pandemic has exposed inequities around food access. In translation: Affluent people with cars can drive to supermarkets and spend considerable money panic-buying and stockpiling food, but poorer people may not have money to spend on nonurgent needs and they may not have vehicles to load up with groceries.

Page-Mann backs up Mich’s observation with numbers. She said her business has sold between four to five times the amount of seeds this year than it had at this point last year. Most of those sales have been vegetable seeds, but flowers are also selling well, she said.

“I think people are realizing that we need to take care of ourselves in a lot of different ways,” Page-Mann said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.