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December 07, 2016
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Beyond zero sum

Community gardens seem to be one of the up-and-coming trends in our readership area. Transition Honesdale started one last year in Honesdale, PA, and last week, we printed an article about one being started this year in Hawley, PA. In Tusten, NY, there is a proposal to start a community garden in Narrowsburg, on the Fort Delaware property and the 14-acre field on Kirk Road that currently belongs to the school district (as of press time, it had not yet been confirmed whether the venues will be available).

Although the proposal has been put together by Andrea Reynosa, who is a councilwoman for the Town of Tusten, it is not a town government project. Nevertheless, the subject of the garden came up last week at a town board meeting because the board is forming a Local Development Corporation (LDC) so that it can raise funds for various projects to enhance the town (municipalities themselves are not allowed to do fundraising), and the community garden could be one of the projects for which funds would be raised.

As a result of the LDC connection, and because at least part of the garden is proposed for school property, a member of the public raised a question as to the potential negative impact such a project might have on local farmers. Should any public facilities be used to encourage a community garden when such a thing might in fact cut into sales at farmers’ markets?

As staunch advocates of local agriculture, we are delighted to see farmers’ welfare brought into the equation. But we think this criticism is based on a faulty assumption: that we are talking about a zero-sum game. The idea that community gardens are harmful to farmers assumes, in particular, that there is only some fixed amount of demand for fresh produce, and that therefore, for every new supplier that comes in, some existing supplier must sell less.

But the market for locally grown produce is by no means fixed; on the contrary, it has been expanding rapidly over recent years around the nation. That growth is directly related to a raising of public consciousness about the value of fresh food versus the highly processed and packaged forms to which most Americans have become accustomed, in terms of health, taste, energy conservation, environmental cleanliness and sustainability. This educational process has taken place in magazine stories, marketing coops like Pure Catskills and a growing number of vendors and activities that we run into at every turn, reminding us that food is not spontaneously generated from a supermarket shelf, but grows from the soil—and is both more healthful and delicious when consumed as directly as possible from that source. Community gardens are part of this phenomenon, which is creating a rapidly growing market for fresh local foods. That means more sales for existing farmers, and more room for new ones.

So yes, some individuals with community gardens might buy less farm-market produce because they are growing their own (though others will belong to income groups that would not otherwise be able to afford farm market produce at all). But that effect will be more than offset by the fact that this garden, like other local community gardens, is part of what is creating an overall expansion of the entire market.

It is also important to note that Narrowsburg’s community garden proposal includes a teen employment component. Makers of manufactured goods like Nike go out of their way to win young people over to their brands early, to capture consumers for life. The young people working in the garden will learn about the importance of fresh food, be exposed to different varieties of unusual produce and learn to appreciate the labor that goes into growing them. Chances are, they will be consumers of fresh local produce for life.

And there is another important plus with regard to the “appreciation” factor. Because farmers comprise such a small percentage of the population nowadays, it is generally very difficult to get the public politically interested in issues such as farm bills, which have a crucial impact on the success or failure of small farmers. People who know what it actually takes to raise good food—and know how precarious the process is—are much more likely to be aware of farm issues and proponents of good farm legislation.

So while we appreciate the concern for local farmers, we believe in the end that it does not justify opposition to community gardens, or to public support of them. Along with farmers’ markets, slow food groups and farm-to-fork restaurants, they are part of what is creating the excitement that is making small local farming one of the 21st century’s growth industries. Let’s get on board.