A Little Non-Profit with a Big Reach
This week on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez speaks to Ellen Barnard of Community GroundWorks, a Madison, Wisconsin based non-profit organization that connects people to local food. Community GroundWorks features a number of programs including urban farming and classes for at risk youths and youths who aspire to be future farmers.
Community GroundWorks aims to build the farm business in such a way that actually could end up being a somewhat of a social enterprise mostly through urban farming. Right now all of the gardening and farming operations which Ellen helps oversee are small enough to be cultivated by hand. They have over 300 community gardens and a five-acre organic farm in the Madison, Wisconsin, area and throughout Dane County. Ellen, through urban farming, is proving everyone can farm organically and sustain their own food needs on a small scale.
In addition to teaching urban farming, Ellen teaches at risk youths how to garden and farm at the Goodman Youth Farm. She says by “teaching children how to eat and grow real food” she hopes they will go home to their parents and tell them that this is what they want. The Goodman Youth Farm also offers a beginning farmer training program where young people can take classes and participate in hands-on learning to one day become farmers.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Ellen Barnard, who is president of the board for Community GroundWorks, a Madison, Wisconsin–based nonprofit organization that connects people to nature and local food. In addition, Ellen is an urban farmer herself. Her home boasts a lawn turned raised-bed vegetable garden, chickens, fruit trees, and bushes, all within the Madison area. Welcome, Ellen.
ELLEN BARNARD: Hi. Thank you, Theresa, it’s great to be here.
TM: You know, I kind of love this topic of urban agriculture and know that you’re doing much more than just urban agriculture. And I want you to tell us, what is it that you’re doing there with Community GroundWorks, as the president?
EB: Back in 2001, there were a bunch of people who were, let’s say, stealth gardeners on a patch of land that was owned by the State of Wisconsin.
TM: (laughing) I love that!
EB: Yeah! And then they were informed by the State and by the City of Madison, because it’s inside the city, that that land was slated for development. And that group of people said, “Whoa, no, we don’t want to lose our gardens and this great open space.” And so they organized as the Friends of Troy Gardens, because Troy is the street we’re on, and they had called themselves the Troy Gardens, even though technically they weren’t supposed to be there. So they started organizing, and they ended up basically getting the option to buy this land for no money but have a land trust that owns the land. It’s the Madison Area Community Land Trust that owns the land.
And what they did is 26 acres within the city limits, and we have more than 300 community garden spaces, and that was where they started, was to basically formalize these community gardens. And these community gardens serve residents in the area, most of whom are low-income residents who are trying to grow food for themselves, and then some of them are just people who live on plots of land that aren’t big enough to grow food on. So they have community gardens. We have an organic farm—it’s currently at 5 acres, not all of which is in production at one time; about 3.5 acres in production at any one point in time. And that organic farm has a CSA and a market stand and sells wholesale to the area grocery stores and restaurants. We also have some restored prairie woodlands on that space.
And over the years, in addition to what we’re doing on that patch of land, we started expanding into garden and farm education. And so what that means for us is that we have a kids’ garden, and we do a lot of kids’ programs, teaching kids how to grow food and how to eat the food that they grow. So we have wonderful things like a bicycle blender and a little outdoor kids’ kitchen where they can cook food and learn how to process and cook food that they grew in their garden. We have programs that we do in schools, and then we also just got a grant to develop a school gardens curriculum for the whole state. So we’re helping teachers develop their own school gardens all over the state of Wisconsin.
TM: And, you know, you’re doing this, I heard that you were able to get the land donated and put into a trust, a nonprofit trust.
TM: But how are you funding all this other wonderful work you’re doing?
EB: Well, that’s such a great question. And we have more, too, and then we also have a youth farm that’s funded by a foundation. It’s called the Goodman Youth Farm; the Goodman Foundation funds it. And we do work with at-risk youth on that site.
So how are we funding it? Through tremendous hard work on the part of our staff in getting grants to fund it, for the most part. We also, the farm mostly funds themselves with their sales. We’re seeing a change in the CSA market, and we, like other CSAs, did not get as many participants this year as we had in the past, and so we’re very, we’re paying a lot of attention right now to the business model of the farm, because we want to make sure that it doesn’t lose money—that’s important, so there’s nowhere that that money could be made up.
But the rest of the organization—so the education work that we do is funded by a variety of grants from all sources, some very large, some very small. We also do, obviously, our board does fund-raising and does the best we can for that. And we always do at least one or two events on the land to raise money. And then we also have a contract from the county to not only operate our community gardens but now we operate and oversee all of the community gardens in the county. It’s all over the city of Madison and then also in other communities in the county. And that’s been the big project. We took it on because somebody had dropped it. And it’s really cool because we’re organizing the people who garden there, and we’re working on starting, we’re starting to try to get grants to offer them some garden education and some Gardener-in-Residence programs, so that people who want to do community gardening can actually get some training in the skills that they need to do so.
TM: You know, I apologize for jumping right into, wow, how are you funded? The reason I said that right away is, I thought it’s not going to be the State, because the State just defunded the Farm to School Program—they didn’t spend that much money in it anyway, but they defunded that. I understand they’re defunding the Wisconsin Local Grown. I mean, the list of the things that they are “defunding” is certainly a statement, while they fund unlimited use by CAFOs for water. So that’s why I kind of jumped to that.
EB: No, it’s a great question. And we struggle. You know, nonprofits always struggle, and we are struggling with funding.
We are incredibly lucky. So the school garden program, for example, is a gigantic fund that’s a partnership, and it is funded partly through the State, partly through the university, so we’re very lucky that way. The Kellogg Foundation just gave us a grant to do early childhood education gardens. So there are private foundations, and most of our funding does come from private foundations. You’re correct that the State of Wisconsin—I think many of us know this—is moving away from support of local, organic, small-scale, all kinds of, all of those efforts—
TM: Farm to School.
EB: —and, yes, all of that stuff that we’ve worked so hard to build over the years. And so it is, right now it’s incumbent upon us to find private donors of all stripes, as well as, you know, our goal is to try to build the farm business in such a way that actually maybe it could end up being somewhat of a social enterprise business and feed a little bit of funding back to the organizations that support some of the other work. That’s not an easy thing to do with a farm because, as we know, it’s really hard to make any money on growing food.
TM: Unless it’s certified organic. And then those farmers are doing pretty well.
EB: Well, we are certified organic, so that’s one of the great things about our farm is we are certified organic. But even then, you know, we are super labor-intensive. At this point we’re only doing hand-scale. We’re trying to look at how do we do a little bit of mechanization where it makes sense but doesn’t use too many resources. We’re all hand-scale, so when you think about what that means, you know, it’s the effort of a whole bunch of paid staff and then a whole bunch of volunteers to manage to take care of that and pick and process the produce that we grow.
TM: You’re right—in those kinds of conditions, you can’t scale up easily, and it’s hard to buy equipment, and stuff like that. However, it isn’t just food that you’re growing. I mean, you’re educating people, aren’t you, while you’re doing that? The Goodman Youth Farm.
EB: Yes, well we are—so the Goodman Youth Farm is educating at-risk youth as well as hopefully, some of them actually have graduated into our farm internship program. The other thing we have on the farm is we have a Beginning Farmer Training Program that we’ve been developing. And that’s actually one of the things we’re most excited about and trying to grow and trying to get increased funding for, because a while back, some of our interns asked that they actually get some formalized education in farming while they were working there. And so we’ve developed a curriculum, and one day a week, on Mondays they get in-classroom, basically, instruction on all kinds of things about farm business and about how to do a CSA, how to…you know, all the information about how to do organic farming. And so we’re actually training new farmers.
And some of the kids from the Youth Farm have moved into that program because they’ve been bitten by the farming bug. And I think it’s one of the most wonderful stories to say, wow, these kids who were considered at risk are now learning to be farmers, and hopefully someday being birthed out into the world. We have graduated out a few farmers who are now doing CSA farms of their own and other forms of organic business farming, basically. And I think, really, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of, is that we are actually trying to train the future farmers of America in a really functional way. And again, that’s the area we want to grow in and do more of because we know that we’re losing farmers every year, in large numbers.
TM: You know, it’s so, so important, and it’s just so excellent that you’re doing this, and especially in an urban environment. You know, there was a dreadful op-ed in the New York Times recently called something like “Why Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment.” And you know, this idea that, “Oh, we have to do this because we have to feed the world,” when just there’s so much evidence that we can actually feed ourselves. We don’t need industrial ag. And you know, this is kind of a model in so many ways for what urban ag could be—the community, the education, the youth, the farmers. Do you see it like that, Ellen?
EB: Well, I’ve been involved in Community GroundWorks for two years, but I have been… So my partner trained with Growing Power, actually, and learned their urban ag model and took their five-month program. And we, ever since then and for a long time before that, I mean, I’ve been growing my own food for my whole adult life.
EB: So I have had really great role models who have been doing smaller-scale farming that was all about not harming the environment and teaching people to grow food.
And so with Troy, what we’re really trying to do is put those skills in the hands of as many people as possible, so that whether you’re urban farming—I mean, if you’re doing what I’m doing, where I grow seedlings for all of my neighbors, and we do some small [unclear], so every spring we grow seedlings for all the neighbors, because we have a greenhouse, and then we sell particularly autumn produce, mostly greens and things like that, to the neighborhood, and all that. So it’s not a huge-scale farm by any means, but it’s another model where I can show my neighbors, “Listen, we can all grow food in our backyards and in our front yards and our side yards and in our neighborhoods and share those spaces, and have really great food to eat and food that we control in terms of how many chemicals or not, and what types we get, and all of that.”
And I agree with you, I’ve seen data that says that actually if everybody was doing organic farming on small scale, we could feed the world. And it’s just that our imagination limits us in terms of “But how could we possibly do that?” But then there are those of us, at Troy and in other places, who are saying, “Oh, this is how you can do it.” This is how you can take a small plot, a 25 by 25 or a 35 by 35 space, and produce a tremendous amount of food on it.
TM: It is amazing how much food you can grow in a small space.
TM: We have a community garden and I have a garden partner, and we grow all our own onions for all year, and we store them; we grow all our own garlic for all year; we grow all our own potatoes for all year, squash, and those things that you can store. And then we give a ton of it away because the two of us can’t… And every year we go, “Augh, how is it we’re growing so much food?” And of course we’re doing it organic.
So this idea of urban ag—I had the wonderful opportunity to go to Milan, Italy, for the World Trade Show. And the U.S. pavilion was a demonstration of urban ag. They had, in the pavilion, growing down, they had boxes all up and down the pavilion with kale and broccoli and every kind of vegetable you can think of, in containers hanging off the building.
EB: Exactly! So this is, you know—so I’m obviously really passionate about this, and I’m really passionate about teaching people to do it. And you know, that’s part of what we get to do at Troy. We kind of have the whole gamut, right? So we’re teaching our community gardeners who have their plots with us or somewhere else in the city; and then they’re also trying to teach farmers how to do, you know, basically small-scale organic farming at a 5- to 20-acre farm size and really produce some intensive crop production on small spaces. So that also, of course, means teaching people how to steward the soil and keep it healthy, and then how to do it in such a way that you don’t have to use pesticides. So how do you manage the issues that come up, and water management and all the other things that happen when you’re dealing with urban spaces, you know, because water’s pretty expensive to purchase from the city. So it’s one of the most fun things to see.
And then the other part, of course, is teaching kids how to eat real food. We’re in a part of Madison where there’s a lot of low-income households, and so many of the kids that participate in our kids’ programs have never seen a vegetable, or barely seen a vegetable. And what we love is that these kids, they learn how to grow them, they learn how to eat them, and then they go home and they say to their parents, “We need to do this, because we want it.” And I think that’s where the transformation of culture starts happening, right there.
TM: I am just sitting here smiling with happiness as you say that. Just really lovely to—and I’ve heard this over and over again: gee, put a child in a garden and all of a sudden they want to eat broccoli. And that, over and over again, and that’s why I love these projects, such as yours, where you’re looking at the Madison area school gardens. And Common GroundWorks has a Gardener-in-Residence Program for existing schools—is that correct?
EB: There are some that participate in our Gardener-in-Residence. I don’t know the number this year but we are trying to grow that. And then we also just added a Gardener-in-Residence Program at Badger Rock School, which is a charter school here in town that has its own greenhouses and hoop houses and is in the middle of a low-income neighborhood. And so it’s a very, it’s a wonderfully mixed group of kids, all of whom are low-income kids. And yes, so we have a Gardener-in-Residence Program that’s just starting there too. And so we have all kinds of places where we’re teaching children to grow and eat real foods.
TM: Well, for those of you who are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Ellen Barnard, president of the board for Community GroundWorks, a nonprofit organization in Madison, Wisconsin, connecting the communities with local food, with schools, and with education, just a wonderful project. And they have a website. It is CommunityGroundWorks.org. And Ellen, I’m just so excited to hear Madison, one of my favorite towns that is just so progressive in so many ways, really looking like it’s on the cutting edge, even, of this idea of urban agriculture and how it brings communities together, how it can do education, and so on.
You know, the original, I guess it was the Friends of Cherokee Marsh?
TM: What was the group that originally was just gardening there, illegally or however?
EB: That was the Friends of Troy Gardens. And so our original, our land, our 26 acres, bordered Troy Road. That’s where we got the name. And that was a group of about fifteen neighbors plus other people from the area, but it was the fifteen that started the Friends group, and they were the ones who… You know, this is how it works, right? Somebody sat down in someone’s kitchen, and a bunch of them sat down in someone’s kitchen and said, “Wait, we’ve got to save this land.”
And you know, now, I didn’t mention but there’s also cohousing on the land, which developed as a whole part of the project, and there are a bunch of households. Some of the people, in fact, who live at the cohousing work for Community GroundWorks and the farm. So it’s pretty cool because they’re right there, they just walk out their door and they walk over to the farm, which is several dozen yards away.
And so what they did was over time they got a community organizer to help them, and over time they advocated for first getting this land, and I think they paid a dollar for it; then getting it into a land trust; and then developing the community gardens so that people could continue gardening there; and then adding on the farmlands, the cohousing land, and the prairie and other open space. And so over time it all built up. And then they did start a nonprofit, and the nonprofit started picking up more of the educational work. Certainly that’s just grown exponentially in the last five years, and we’re doing so much amazing education that has been enabled because we have the space and we have the expertise and we have this passion. So that’s the story of the whole place.
And now, actually, interestingly, the Friends group disbanded but they’re going to regroup and start again, because they’d like to do more events and fund-raising for the whole organization, because funding is changing and sometimes it’s really hard to figure out how to find all the money that you want, and we need as much help as we can.
TM: Yeah, that is a lot of work. But you know what? When I think about what you all did for the last fifteen years, from 2001 to 2016, fifteen years, I am so impressed. And you all have proven that you have a lot of tenacity.
I’m wanting the listeners who, if you are going to be traveling through Madison, Wisconsin, the Troy Gardens is open to the public, and they have an interpretative trail. And how can people find the Troy Gardens, Ellen?
EB: What you want to do is you want to find Troy Drive in Madison, Wisconsin. And actually the easiest way to find it is to look for the Mendota Mental Health Institute—that’s the terminal end of Troy Drive. And so if you find Troy Drive and drive down there, you will see the farm. You can’t really miss it because the kids’ garden is the closest to the road, and you’ll see all this colorful stuff. And then you’ll see all the community garden spaces.
You park on the road, and you can just start walking in and you can walk around. There are trails all over. You walk past the community gardens, and in the back of the land, and behind the community gardens, you’ll see our great lawn, which is where we hold festivals and things like that. And then beyond that you’ll start running into the trails that go through the prairie. You can also wander through the kids’ garden, which is to the east of the community gardens. And then we also have—and then you’ll see our farm stand, which is open for the next few weeks, anyway. Of course, we’re going to run out of season. But if you come by and it’s during the season, we have farm stand hours on Thursday evenings from 4 to 6:30. Otherwise you can just wander around.
If you see any of the fruit trees that have fruit on them, you are welcome to pick the ones that have a little sign on it that says that it’s a community fruit tree. And many of them are. We keep people from harvesting too much, but there are fruit trees all over the land, as well as raspberries and grapes. And so we really, those are all kind of public and common places where you can wander and taste and explore what it’s like to have all of this stuff in one place, coexisting.
TM: I’m curious, how many people are involved in Community GroundWorks, do you think?
EB: Oh my…wow! Hundreds! I mean, so we have 330 community garden plots, and then we’ve got the staff, which the numbers vary, but we’ve definitely got more than 25 staff. And then several dozen volunteers, and then all of the participants, so all the kids who are getting programming, who come through. So, I mean, our impact really is in the many hundreds, either people who work for us or who use our land or participate in our programs, or who buy our food. We’ve got a, our CSA is 120 families, I think, give or take a few, and so there’s all of those folks who enjoy getting a weekly share for the season. So many, many, many people all over, particularly the north side of Madison but really all over the city and extending way out into the county now. So we often talk about being a little nonprofit with a big reach.
TM: Well, I’m hugely impressed, and also so…I don’t know, proud, I think, or I don’t know how to say it, but of people who want to do something and come together to do something, can do a lot.
TM: They can create a lot. And you have hundreds of people now involved in this urban food and farming project that’s really changing people’s lives and influencing a lot of people. So kudos to the Community GroundWorks. And I love the fact that your first word in your name is Community because it’s just such a tremendously hopeful and optimistic way that people can come together and actually be humanity together, I guess you would say.
EB: Well, I agree with you. Again, I am a community organizer. And it’s very interesting, I was participating in a community art charrette a while back, and everybody else there was either a visual artist or a sculpture artist or whatever. And so they got to me, and I’m like, “Well, I guess I’m a social change artist?” And I do believe in the power—
TM: I like that!
EB: Thank you. The power of community organizing to effect social change, and to make things better—and better for the people. I mean, I am definitely an old-school progressive person that way, and I really do believe with lots of work, and working together in partnership, we can transform all kinds of parts of our world. And our food system needs that. I really feel like we’ve seen a huge change in our food system toward a focus on eating real food and eating more locally, at least in some places.
TM: Well, I’m looking forward to the day when we can say, “Gee, twenty percent of our food in this city is actually grown right here in the city.”
TM: And I think that that’s something that we could work for. And I know, having just talked with you, that if we all got organized and we had people who were community organizers like you, Ellen, I think if we wanted to we could do that, and that’s something we could strive for.
EB: No question. I mean, again, if we could put greenhouses on every new building, just think about how much food we could grow, and how long we could grow it for the season. And if we could put rooftop gardens on any building that can handle a greenhouse, and if we could put gardens in every housing development, use all of the open space that we have; and quite honestly, if we could get all of my neighbors to change their silly green lawns into garden plots, they could all feed themselves. So…and it would be such an amazing thing, and there’d be way fewer chemicals in our rivers and streams. So there you go. I’m preaching now, but…
TM: Well, I think what you’re telling us is that we have problems but we have solutions.
EB: We surely do.
TM: And certainly, getting together with your neighbors, getting to know your neighbors, there’s just so many positive aspects of it.
So CommunityGroundWorks.org, for those of you listening. Talking with Ellen Barnard, and what a wonderful urban ag project that is a model for cities all over the country and probably the world. Ellen, it’s just really been a pleasure to talk with you. And a huge thank you for all the good work that you’re doing and the inspiration, I’m sure, that you’re feeding all these hundreds of people around you, and those of us listening, and myself.
EB: Thank you so much, Theresa. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.