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Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.

Kathryn Hutchison — VISTA volunteer and Alternative Energy Resources Organization staff member on Growing Community Project in Helena, Montana

Kathryn Hutchison photo

Kathryn Hutchison is a VISTA volunteer working with the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) in Helena, Montana. Her efforts in 2007 resulted in several nascent community gardens throughout Montana's capital city. In this installment of Conversations from the Field, NCAT agriculture specialist Tammy Hinman sat down and talked with Kathryn about her perspectives on community gardens, local food and food security.


Q. Can you describe your community gardening efforts as a VISTA volunteer and AERO employee?

A. We started a project called the Growing Community Project—the goal of the GCP in Helena is to develop neighborhood gardening projects within walking distance from most neighborhoods. We work with an empowerment model of organizing, where the process of organizing neighborhoods around an issue is as important as the product, neighborhood community gardens. We are essentially using community gardening as an organizing tool with a goal of getting people from across the spectrum to get involved in food security together. For example, older folks who cannot drive, but have skills in gardening, and students that do not know much about gardening at all. The project brought diverse organizations together such as neighborhood associations, churches, the Helena Food Share and others that were interested in these issues.


Q. How did you get involved with this project?

A. I had previously worked on bioremediation efforts after Hurricane Katrina within New Orleans, which included working with the community garden network there. From that perspective, it was appealing to work for two organizations, AERO and WEEL, in Helena that work on sustainable agriculture and low income issues. It was also appealing to work with residents on educating them how to grow their own food.


Q. Did you have gardening experience in the past?

A. I had just returned from working with community gardens in New Orleans and I had worked on a farmer incubator project in Vermont prior to that. I had also lived on a few farms doing mostly homesteading scale gardening. Through my small farm and homesteading experiences, I was more interested in working on a project that grew food for oneself and neighbors rather than for market.


Q.What does food security mean to you?

Raised bed garden photo

A. To me, food security means that people have access to food, be that through grocery stores, transportation to get to a store and the money to buy it once you're there. It also means the ability for people within a region to be able to have access to land and to make a living growing the food as well.


Q. How is the community gardening movement addressing food security nationally?

A. There are many reasons that people are food insecure and it is hard to address them systematically. Community gardening can help people to become producers rather than just consumers of their food so that there are more options to food access. Nationally, people have been able to find land on abandoned lots in cities, and turn it into a food producing garden. In this way, people can be the producers and be near their food as well—they do not have to rely on a store to be open.


Q. Are there models that produce more protein and carbohydrates, rather than just vegetables?<

A. The community garden in Missoula raises chickens and there are some models that use aquaculture elsewhere in the country. In these situations, there is usually a garden manager that makes sure the animals get the attention that they need. Models vary so much nationally, but it's usually fruit and vegetable production so far as I know.


Exploration Works, Helena MT

Q. How is the community gardening movement addressing food security within your community?

A. The process is just getting started within Helena. We are working in partnership with the City Parks and Recreation Department. The gardens we are working on are all on public property—some cities do that and some do not.

It has been a challenge to make things happen quickly. We have to have consensus of the neighborhood. This has been an asset to our project.


Q. How so?

A. In order to maintain a relationship with the Parks and Recreation Department and the City Commission, we also have to maintain a good relationship with the residents. They (the parks and recreation department) are public offices that are accountable to the whole neighborhood. Because of this we are forced to address everyone's concern. It takes a lot of time but it is also the strength of the project. All cities have public park land, this project could make a model where we use the asset of public land to address the issues of food security as well.


Q. What does sustainable agriculture and local foods mean to you after working with this Community Growing Project for a year?

A. Sustainable agriculture and local foods is a way of raising food that sustains the viability of the land. In the context of my work it means maintaining a broad-based access of ways to raise food, so that land is accessible to everyone. To me, sustainable agriculture also supports all of people's basic needs, like affordable housing and quality of life within the community.


Q. What do you see as the biggest issue facing the sustainable agriculture movement today?

A. People are becoming alienated from the food system by just playing a consumer role in it and depending on a flawed system for their access to food. In Montana another big issue is access to land to produce food. Who can afford to buy land and produce food with high property values and taxes?


Community garden photo

Q. What do you see as the biggest issue facing the Community Gardening Movement?

A. Being in touch with people around the country that are working with community gardening efforts, property values are an issue for even long-standing gardens. It is not a money-making venture and in the gentrification process community gardens lose their appeal for city commissioners that need to keep that land within the market. As gentrification happens in cities, community gardens are also losing out to housing projects.


Q. Are there models within the community gardening movement which are similar to the land trusts and easements?

A. Yes, and I think that land trusts are the most encouraging and successful tool that the community garden movement has to use. Burlington has a land trust that keeps land vacant for community gardens, as well as Philadelphia. Detroit and Pittsburgh also have policies for vacant land that loan land to residents in the form of a community garden or CSA garden.


Q. What do you think about the SPIN movement?

For more information on SPIN, or Small Plot Intensive Farming, see a feature on The New Farm.

A. From what I know it seems like a great idea. New York City has one in the Bronx which supports folks within the community so that they can make a living or supplement another income by selling the food that they grow in community gardens. It seems to be a good option for folks who face barriers to finding good jobs, like language and expensive childcare. I am not sure how that would work in Montana, but in larger cities it seems to be a great idea.

There are a lot of different models and the challenge is to find what works locally within Helena and Montana.


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This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014