Greenhouses, chickens, aquaponics, fish, worm composting and bottomless veg.In Buffalo, New York, urban farming is a wild school, entrepreneurial incubator, neighborhood food resource and youth powerhouse. All from a few vacant lots with the seedling of an idea taking root in a block club…
On Buffalo’s west side, 40% of the population is under 18. There aren’t many jobs, even for those who want to work and learn. Diane Picard saw them hanging around—14-year-old boys or 18-year-old girls, wandering and wishing for something to do.
She also saw potential in the typical rust belt downslide of the day—alongside growing food insecurity marked by a lack of decent groceries and a glut of tired bodegas selling cigarettes and Twinkies, Buffalo has 16,000 vacant lots and little inclination to do much about it.
For Picard, what started with an awareness of rootless teens pointed to opportunity: one that presented as rows of carrot and potato and beet green seedlings. She devised a scheme to pay those teens to be urban farmers—to care for the land that surrounded them, to enliven their neighborhoods with roaming farmstands, and to brainstorm and vocalize their way to a newfound pride.
“Youth come to us with a perception of farming as being something that other people do. They can’t imagine why you’d bother with work like that. Some just don’t want to get dirty. For others, their knowledge of vegetables and fruits is so limited that when they first start with us, they can’t identify much of it, let alone benefit from the enthusiasm that comes from seeing an eggplant grow when you know what parmigiana tastes like. So it’s all very new for them, but whatever the hesitation or misconceptions they might have, we get them in with the worms and the mud on the first day. They look at us and say, ‘You want me to do WHAT?’ but six weeks later, they’d be smiling.”
As they work in the dirt, the teens and grown-ups chat about what’s right in front of them: the disappearing grocery stores, the inner-city bleakness, the lack of municipal wherewithal. And that’s the thing about getting your hands into the dirt of a solution: seedlings grow as well as informed opinions. The vacant lot grows bushy and green and fruitful, and the rookie farmers, as Picard puts it, “Just get it.” And they get loud about it. Within weeks, it became clear: The teens who used to wander, rootless, were their own best advocates.
“Our youth have spoken before the school board and the mayor, lobbying for change and earning the blessing to work this land and make it into something good. They’re very intimidated by grown-ups in suits, for the most part. So to see a 16-year-old step forward and use her voice—to stand for something and to be heard, and then to enter into a collaboration with those very same suits—they realize that people in power are just people, just like they are.”
Beyond the shovels and work gloves, the Mass Avenue Project gave these unexpected entrepreneurs a chance to feel commendable in a public way for the first time in their lives. And as Picard has seen in her alumni, they take that sense of possibility with them.
“Schools are so overburdened, and students don’t get a lot of affirmation. They don’t get listened to much. We provide a place where they can collaborate with adults, and say what they think. And the work that they do here is a natural antidote to resignation or boredom—you can’t be ambivalent about a living thing that you cared for that grows. It’s universally delightful. As long as you’re paying attention to a garden, no matter what it grows, you’re constantly gratified.”
And, no wonder, so are the people in the neighborhoods where the mobile farmstand appears.
“We bring the food we grow to low-income areas, refugee resettlement organizations, churches, community halls, holiday fairs. Our youth farmers have taken it further and have developed their own brand of salsa and a chili starter… they’re not just selling ingredients, but the beginnings of a complete meal for people.”
In Burma and Africa and Eastern Europe and Vietnam, Twinkies aren’t the norm—fresh vegetables and fruits are. The immigrants of Buffalo’s inner city flock to the farmstand on the block with cries of, “Of course!” and “About time!” because for them, fresh ingredients are a daily desire.
“We could learn a thing or two from our immigrant communities,” says Picard. “Most of us are on such a time crunch, and we’re too tired to cook, let alone cook well, local and fresh. We’ve lost our skills and our rituals around family and food…”
By cultivating teens who cultivate the earth, Picard and the Mass Avenue Project team change the “givens” of inner city life. “A farm stand, as well as a chance to work, should be a given no matter where you live. There’s no reason why not—especially when you’ve got space and willing hands.”