We are here to help, wherever you farm (Keeping the Farm)
(Editor’s note: Brooke Jones is a Farm Bill Program Manager at USDA NRCS Service, Delaware.)
Google the word “farm” and the images that come up will typically show a red barn, some dairy cows, a few chickens, and rows of perfectly-lined corn — all situated in a picturesque country setting.
And while these photos are true of many operations, it doesn’t encompass those farms that grow in a completely different setting — an urban setting.
While urban farms may not have the traditional farm “look,” they provide many valuable benefits, including empowering people and communities to directly solve local food access issues by producing locally grown fruits and vegetables.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has been assisting urban farmers for more than 10 years and continues to do so today — providing technical and financial assistance to help make critical on-farm improvements.
Assistance includes, but is not limited to, the following:
• Soil health practices: NRCS can help urban farmers develop strategies for improving soil conditions tailored to a farm’s specific needs through things like cover crop practices. NRCS can also provide best management practices to help farmers avoid growing crops in contaminated soil.
• Managing weeds and pests: NRCS can advise on crop rotations and various types of mulches to reduce weeds and manage insects that harm crops. NRCS can also help with the installation of bat and owl boxes, promote beneficial insects, and companion plantings.
• Pollinator habitat: Pollinator habitats help to increase production yields by attracting birds and beneficial insects, such as butterflies and bees.
Pollinator plantings provide habitat along with providing nectar as a food source contributing to a healthy ecosystem that is essential for farmers to grow food.
Recently, two urban farm operators began working with NRCS in Delaware to improve their urban agricultural operations — the Food Bank of Delaware and Bellevue Farms.
The Food Bank of Delaware operates a three-acre urban farm that grows a wide variety of vegetables to support their Community Supported Agriculture program, seasonal retail farm stand, and on-site Healthy Pantry Center.
Shortly after breaking ground in 2017, the Food Bank installed two high tunnels and began planting immediately.
After experiencing the benefits of season extension and protection from harsh weather and pests, they will be adding an additional high tunnel this spring with financial assistance from NRCS.
The FBD also applied for and received approval for technical and financial assistance for an organic waste composter.
“We were looking for ways to generate compost on the farm and return it right back to our production areas,” said Kyle Brolis, FBD Farm Manager. “The food scraps generated from our commercial kitchen and pantry program along with the crop residue from our farm provides us with a steady stream of compostable material. We needed a system to help us manage the organic matter better.”
Bellevue Farms operates a diversified agricultural operation on one-acre in Wilmington, Del.
The farm is split between a half-acre plot that grows about 2,000 pounds yearly of tomatoes, greens, turnips and other vegetables for their farm stand, CSA, and youth grower program. The other half-acre plot is managed and maintained by 25 community growers.
The Director of Bellevue Farms, Elisa King, learned about available NRCS technical and financial assistance through fellow urban farmer, Matthew Williams of Conscious Connections Inc.
The success of his high tunnels motivated King to apply for a high tunnel and compost bin for their small operation.
“Our goal for the high tunnel is to extend our growing season and allow us to run the youth grower program longer,” said Elisa King, Bellevue Farms Director. “Our goal for the compost bin is to manage and recycle yard waste in an efficient and effective manner to nourish the soil. Our current pallet system is too labor intensive. “
NRCS soil conservationist Tabitha Edwards explains that NRCS technical assistance for composters makes management simple and effective.
“NRCS experts can provide producers with a sufficiently sized composter for their operation, as well as recommendations on how to manage the organic waste to generate material that will benefit soil health and increase plant production, Edwards said”
Also lending a helping hand is the New Castle Conservation District in Delaware. “Urban ag is a broad field with lots of variation falling under one umbrella,” said Madison Walter, NCCD’s urban agriculture coordinator. “Through our urban ag mini-grant, education events, and site visits we’ve been able to provide site-specific assistance to nearly 30 urban farms and gardens in the last three years.
“It’s vital we continue working with our partners to build these programs and keep moving the UA community forward, together.”
If you are an urban farmer and are looking for support with conservation activities to achieve local, healthy and a sustainable food supply, contact us.
To find the USDA Service Center nearest you, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov and click on the “Contact Us” tab.