From artists to musicians to farmers, Asheville, NC is truly an oasis in the generally conservative rolling landscape of North Carolina, a home to the motivated younger generation committed to changing their world. Our short visit only gave us a taste of some of the unique approaches people in the area are taking on living an alternative lifestyle; yet within the few days of our visit, we came across one of the most unique approaches to urban agriculture we’ve seen thus far.
The number one irrigated crop in America is not corn or soybeans, but grass. The common lawn is our biggest waste when it comes to talking about utilizing our urban and suburban spaces. Now viewed as almost a measure of status and abundance, grass has become deeply imbedded in our idea of pleasantry. Patchwork Urban Farms has a unique way of addressing this issue. Sunil, the founder, is beginning to transform these lawns into gardens to feed our neighborhoods, producing something we all could use more of: real food.
The idea is to have multiple “Patchwork” plots all over the city provided by private parties. The average American does not have time to maintain a large garden, even if they have the perfect space for it. With work, kids, school, a house, and a million other commitments, it is often times just too much to take on. Patchwork is approaching this reality by trying to pair farmers with time and no land, with people who have the land and no time. The landowners offer their backyards under contract to be farmed in exchange for a share in the CSA produced from all the sites. It is a true win/win, as the owner does not have to tend to the land, but still reaps the aesthetic and edible benefits; in turn, the farmer gets a variety of sites to work with. Sunil also describes his quest in the terms of his desire to “shift the consciousness of land ownership from exclusive to inclusive,” changing the focus to communal as opposed to individually held properties.
Sunil really doesn’t feel he has chosen this path for himself: “It just started happening to me.” There is a clear path laid out for this entrepreneur, as within months of beginning to advertize his desire for property, he was handed three sizeable (and one quite developed!) patches to work with. During our visit we were able to see all three, scattered within a 15-minute drive from one another close to the heart of Asheville. The first, called Pearson Gardens, was owned and operated by a non-profit called Bountiful Cities for 15 years. Completely run on volunteer power, the land had seen many ups and downs. After hearing of Sunil’s vision, Bountiful Cities proposed he take over management of the 1.5-acre site. It has provided quite the “incubator” home base, as many established perennials and infrastructure were already present. Sunil harvests most of his produce from this garden, supporting at 18-member CSA within six months of Patchwork becoming established. He also has a flock of chickens (just beginning to lay!) for their egg CSA. Although currently personally funded, Sunil is working on a crowd-sourcing campaign to be launched in the fall to kick start some larger infrastructure needs; with his model, however, it’s clear he has become good at working within a tight budget.
The other larger site is owned by permaculture enthusiasts. The Chactaw Street site, along with housing Khaki Campbell ducks and an abundant flower and Allium patch, is an important spot for community outreach. Smack-dab in the center of a suburban food desert, Sunil has used his corner site to start a produce stand that serves the neighborhood one day a week. “It’s important just to have a presence,” Sunil recognizes, “As farmers, we really need to help people get this reconnection [to their food]. You can’t preach, just need to literally put it all out there. The point of all of this is not just to grow good food, but to reconnect people with that primal part of themselves.”
Sunil has really used the reality of the “variability” in the patches he has access to to diversify, letting the land really conduct what he grows at each site. When presented with rocky soil that will take at least two years of intensive management to become fertile paired with a steep slope, he decided to put in an aquaponics system that will be installed by the end of the summer. “Constraints help design,” he explains, “Steward all land, not just the good stuff.” And Sunil has no shortage of it. Now juggling 7 sites all in various stages of production, he has 5 applications for site development “on the backburner.”
But Sunil has a greater vision than just having a handful of sites to himself; eventually he wants to establish a “patchwork network.” He hopes to cultivate enough interest from land partners to eventually offer patches to other farmers interested in becoming involved in this model. “I see this way more as a movement then as one farm or farmer,” he states. With his conviction, there is no doubt in our minds his colorful patchwork will spread rapidly.
“Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking,” said Dorion Sagan, an acclaimed microbiologist and author. This is the mantra we have been living by on this trip, and see reflected in the bright eyes of this man determined to involve his surrounding community in their own food production. A network highly entangled and extensive is a support system unsurpassed in strength and opportunity. We thank our readers, friends, family, and the sites we have visited thus far for helping us create our network; you’re a truly invaluable link in the chain of what makes this all possible.