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An Urban Farm Worth Saving

Kids with vegetables at Urban Oaks FarmUrban Oaks Organic Farm has an improbable history. It is recognized state-wide by high-end restaurants and by out-of-town farm stand customers as the best—and only– year-round local source of fresh, delicious, high-quality certified organic vegetables. The greens, especially the lettuces and arugula, have won awards as the best in the state. And regular customers to the farm stand insist that the farm’s kale is more tasty than any other.

Still, the farm is much more than the best source of organic vegetables. Urban Oaks is located in the very center of the oldest and lowest income neighborhood in New Britain, CT.  It is a neighborhood characterized as a “food desert,” within a city which itself has been consistently ranked as the third most food-insecure community in the state of Connecticut, despite the mix of incomes in the city’s larger population, and the enormous wealth in other parts of the state.   There are no nearby supermarkets, and the scattered small stores in many neighborhoods in the city are unable to stock quantities of fresh high-quality produce.  Consequently, families in the farm’s neighborhood are faced with mostly unhealthy food choices. Urban Oaks’ mission is to do whatever possible to alleviate that situation.  

In 1999, when a handful of New Britain city and Connecticut state officials invited two farmers from Bolton to relocate their farming operation to one of the lowest income neighborhoods in New Britain, their original thinking was, on the surface, to revive the site of a long-abandoned flower farm, restoring the original agricultural purpose, and keeping the space green. Through the city, the state originally invested almost $500,000 in the project of intensive clean-up and full restoration of six of the original greenhouses and then provided modest additional grants for approximately ten years. Ultimately, their deeper aim, and that of the farmers, was to establish and maintain a source of fresh produce and engaging educational opportunities.

The certified organic farm that emerged, 3½ acres of fertile fields with 7 greenhouses, operates year round.  It increasingly meets significant needs and growing demand for fresh, local, and organic food within New Britain and the surrounding communities. The value of the farm continues to grow, because of its vital presence as flourishing green space within the heart of an inner city, and because of its high-quality produce.

The plan now, and the need, is to restore the capacity the farm enjoyed when state grant funding was plentiful. It was always understood that this unique farm, representing sustainability, health, and promise, is the responsibility not just of its managers and workers, but of the entire community.

The staff and board of Urban Oaks take very seriously the farm’s obligations in terms of taxes, payroll, utilities, insurance, and other on-going financial responsibilities. From the beginning, all profits have been returned to the operations of the farm: unlike for-profit businesses, there are no shareholders, and no highly-paid administrators. In the last few years especially, since the state contribution has dried up with the recession, the board has been working hard to achieve a reasonable balance between the farm’s economic stability and its social justice activities.  In addition to fundraising to make sure the daily operations are effective and fully supported, the farm has written grants for and is planning and implementing other projects: enhancing energy efficiency, crop productivity, advertising, and accountability.  

Especially visible and highly popular within New Britain neighborhoods during the summer of 2014 was our pilot mobile market project.  Thanks to a very generous grant from the federal Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, managed locally by the Central CT Regional Planning Association, Urban Oaks’ quickly well-recognized refrigerated truck travelled four days each week to sites within the city of New Britain from June through September.  The goals were two: to increase sales, and to provide direct access for customers who are otherwise unable easily to get to the farm.

Many families who are the farm’s neighbors rely on the Supplemental Nutritional Benefits Program, marginally beneficial at best, but recently cut by the US Congress.  The farm has tried to make up for those cuts by writing grants to double the SNAP purchases, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) vouchers, and the CT Farmers’ Market Nutritional Program vouchers that are available to eligible persons from July through the end of October.  Thanks to those grants, this past summer the farm was able to give away $13,000 worth of food; families happily took home healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, affordable for at least a while. 

And while customers are at the farm, they can see that healthy food growing!  In addition to growing educational partnerships and programming with schools, children and parents who come to shop at the farm stand for the first time often get a spontaneous tour of the farm, to learn that food does not just come from stores. Within the farm stand itself, informal nutrition education goes on as customers compare notes about how to use sometimes unfamiliar vegetables, as well as through easy conversations with the farmers themselves, and through custom-made recipe cards. 

Because the farm uses no chemicals in its farming operations, there is an extra benefit for all the people who live in the farm’s neighborhood: they are free from risk of contamination from the air and water, which might not be the case in conventional farming areas.  Finally, as a result of the farm’s very presence as an oasis of green in a neighborhood struggling in many ways, residents have said for years that just seeing a working farm as they walk or drive by, or look out their windows, brings them pleasure and hope.

Investment in all of those aspects of Urban Oaks Organic Farm is investment in New Britain, in Connecticut, and in what has begun to be recognized nationwide as the food of the future. 

 


 

Urban Oaks is seeking support for our crowdfunding campaign! After a wonderful fifteen-year relationship with a phenomenally generous landlord, the land will be put up for sale next spring. Our best hope to save our certified organic farm is to buy the land ourselves, but we do not have the resources. The fertile, nutrient rich soil is prime alluvial silt. If bulldozers demolish the greenhouses and concrete foundations are poured, our farm will be gone forever. We need your help.

Help us keep Urban Oaks alive. Please tell your family, friends, and neighbors how important Urban Oaks is to you and to the North/Oak community of New Britain. Please visit www.gofundme.com/UrbanOaks to donate.

  

Elizabeth Aaronsohn is a 15-year volunteer and now chair of the board at Urban Oaks.  She is a recently retired professor of Teacher Education at Central Connecticut State University with 53 years of teaching experience. She was a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the sixties and has had a life-long commitment to peace and justice.


Featured Image of Marantha Community Gardens courtesy of Grow Windham.