Backyard Growers grow community “one veggie at a time”
By Heather Lyn Wood
When Janice Edwards attended a local business networking event in late 2009, she intended to get a few business cards, make an appearance and go home. Instead, she made a friend and left with the makings of a very big idea.
Edwards, along with Amanda MacLean, now runs Alameda Backyard Growers, a grassroots network of over 70 Alameda food growers. The two women hit it off in the back row of the business mixer and decided to start something together. In the beginning, they weren’t sure what that something would be.
“We knew we wanted to do something for the community; something that would affect it at a basic, practical level,” Edwards says.
After discussing a few options, they settled on the goal of building a sustainable local food supply. They named the group “Growers” instead of “Gardeners” because they wanted people to make the connection between gardens and the real food they produce.
This connection is one that Edwards knows must be nurtured to survive. As a child in rural New Jersey, Edwards “was always out in the woods, picking berries” and says she learned from her parents an appreciation of where food comes from. But after years without a garden or forest in her backyard, Edwards feared that she was losing those ties to the land.
“I found that if you’re not actively engaged in the natural world, connecting with plants, you lose that practical knowledge. You lose the sense of interconnectedness you have when you’re growing your own food,” Edwards said, and she did not want that to happen.
The former marketer-turned-nonprofit grants manager lacks any trace of the snobbishness sometimes found in the Bay Area “foodie” crowd, and is not preachy about what people eat. But she is concerned about the separation between consumers and what they consume, and she wants to start a dialogue about it. Edwards and MacLean believed that home-grown food could strengthen the bond between local residents and the land around them.
“I can go to Trader Joe’s and buy a plastic carton of blueberries, and they might be fine blueberries. But if they’re from Chile, there’s a pretty big disconnect between me and those berries. I’m not necessarily going to know what it took to grow them, because I never saw that part of the process,” Edwards said.
Last February, 30 people showed up at High Street Station to hear Edwards and MacLean introduce their goals for the group. The idea was relatively simple: grow some, keep some, give some away. Seven months later, the group is going strong. At monthly meetings, members brainstorm, share information and exchange backyard edibles.
The group aims to be friendly and accessible to people of all skill levels. Between one third and one half of the group’s members are experienced growers; others are working their first-ever plot of land. Together, they troubleshoot solutions to issues like aphids, splotchy leaves, and cabbage worms.
The group embraces a range of concepts, but the basic purpose is two-fold: support people in creating a more sustainable lifestyle, and get food into parts of the community where it is needed. After eating the fruits of their labor, some members have donated surplus to organizations that serve low-income residents. One, the Alameda Food Bank, serves an average of 1,350 recipients per month.
The Growers also recently launched a Fruit Gleaning Project, through which group members will harvest ripe fruit from the trees of property owners who cannot or choose not to glean the trees themselves. The fruit will then be donated to the Food Bank. This project prevents the fruit from going to waste and, Edwards hopes, “encourages us to see our community for what it can sustainably produce.” This sharing of food with neighbors and other groups is a central focus of the group’s mission to “grow community one veggie at a time.”
Edwards and MacLean are pleased with the group’s success, but have no plans to slow down anytime soon. They plan to lead a series of gardening workshops and assist with the raising of a community garden at Ploughshares Nursery. On October 10, the group will host a work party at Alameda Point as part of the nonprofit 350.org’s “10/10/10” anti-global warming campaign, the only 10/10 event registered in the City of Alameda. The group also plans to organize a series of speakers, movie screenings and public forums to promote what Edwards calls the “edible ecosystem”: the conscious incorporation of food gardens into peoples’ living spaces.
Edwards sees the Growers group as a resource not only for current gardeners, but Alamedans who need help getting their hands in the dirt. One stumbling block that Edwards identifies is lack of physical space to grow.
“A lot of people rent houses or apartments and aren’t allowed to put in a garden, or they own condominiums and have no space for one. But all over the Island, there is usable land, and people should have access to it regardless of their income situation or rental restrictions,” she said.
One solution, Edwards believes, is the creation of more community gardens. She also hopes to unravel the perception that gardening is difficult and intimidating. “Some people really want to grow their own food, but they aren’t sure what to put in a garden or how to take care of it. There is a lot of trial and error, and sometimes it helps to do it with others and laugh at your mistakes. Even if you just have a cherry tomato in a pot, you’re growing,” she said.
Edwards sees Alameda as one of the country’s most fortunate microclimates, capable of supporting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. She believes that groups like the Growers can help build a permanent, mutually beneficial relationship between the Island and those who live on it.
“I’m just amazed by how nature works,” Edwards said. “You give a plant soil, seeds and water, and nature does the rest. Things just want to grow.”
To learn more about Alameda Backyard Growers, visit the group’s website at http://backyardgrowers.spruz.com/.