By Julie Rawson, NOFA/Mass Executive and Education Director
NOFA/Mass in the beginning stages of creating a program to focus efforts on our more suburban members. Initially we will focus on Middlesex County and do some serious and in depth research with our NOFA/Mass members, NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professionals, and activist organizations to get the lay of the land with respect to personal and public organic farming and gardening projects.
With this information we hope to shed light on and educate about best practices regarding organic matter development and carbon sequestration in the soil with food production as the vehicle. We want to highlight innovative gardening practices, progressive public organic land management and enhance the connection between service providers and those interested in organic gardening and land care. Hopefully the inspiring successes of those innovators who are on the ground can be spread across the region to those who are hoping to heighten local organic food production. This article is the first in a series.
Expanding (sub)urban edible gardens
In mid March when spring still seemed very far away, it was nice to speak with Ben Barkan. Ben is exemplary of the surge of young folks who have entered farming and are quickly finding successful niches in the market place. Ben founded his Arlington based business, Home Harvest, in 2008. He and his staff provide services that include design and installation of edible gardens, raised beds, landscaping, stone masonry, chicken coops, and greenhouses.
I am always curious about what kind of personality, or perhaps upbringing, allows a person to strike fearlessly out into the world to do what he or she is passionate about. It really started for Ben when he was 15 and got a summer job with Dennis Busa at Lexington Community Farm (formerly known as Busa Farm).
Here is the story, according to Ben:
“I fell in love with the physical labor of farming while working at Busa Farm… Dennis Busa was my mentor and manager while in high school. He was really supportive. I continued to work on Dennis’s farm part time while starting my edible gardening business. I grew up in Arlington and working at Busa Farm was sort of a spontaneous summer job. It was challenging. I had autonomy, and I really enjoyed it. I found out quickly that it would be hard to make a living at farming, and I looked at landscaping as an alternative.” After graduating from high school, Ben worked on over 30 organic farms in Massachusetts, Oregon, California, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. “Inspired by meeting so many awesome people, I decided to start an edible gardening company in Boston,” said Ben.
“While I was traveling in Hawaii, I got a job setting up a vegetable garden. Back home, I got my first client from a connection through Busa Farm. I started the company at 18 and am now 23.” “Organic farming seems to be an emerging trend and a lot of young people are starting to see farming as a career path. Farming offers a lot of self worth,” observes Ben. “Younger people are starting to realize that we need more small-scale, local, and bio-diverse farms. I am currently learning so much in my last semester at Stockbridge School of Agriculture in the Sustainable Food and Farming program. With the proper ethics, I think farming can be a way to save the planet. The most sustainable option of all however is to grow food for yourself. All of our gardens attempt to mimic nature’s efficiency–biodiversity is an important part of sustainability.”
Knowing that growing in cities often means dealing with lead in soil, I asked Ben about contamination issues. “First we take multiple soil tests and find out where the contamination is the worst,” said Ben. “Reducing the bioavailability of lead is crucial. Liming and adding compost can reduce plants’ ability to uptake lead, and a heavy-duty barrier is necessary sometimes. We can also take tissue samples to confirm that the produce is safe. Too much of the wrong type of compost can have negative impacts. Our compost is primarily made from leaves and grass; it’s well rotted and not too rich. When growing in compost made solely from food crops, you can have too many nutrients, which causes adverse effects. Our compost is a custom mix and with all our gardens, we are relying on microbial activity and mineralization. We are letting the microbes do the work.” Ben does not use foliar nutrition sprays. He feels they are not necessary because plants absorb nutrients most efficiently through their roots. He also believes that micronutrients are rarely deficient in Northeast soils and is concerned that some organic growers use copper sulfate sprays for disease control, which can cause toxic levels of copper to accumulate in the soil. Ben is planning to graduate from The Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass in the spring.
Additionally, he took a 5-week permaculture design course in Oregon. He has attended numerous NOFA events. “I remember when I was at the 2009, 2010, and 2011 NOFA conferences and took workshops on soil chemistry; now I have been studying it in school and appreciate having the base foundation I acquired from NOFA,” says Ben. “I remember hearing Paul Stamets talk about mushrooms and how they can save the world. NOFA was great at introducing me to a lot of topics. Will Allen was another real inspiration.” Ben also hopes to learn more about herbalism.
I asked Ben what is remarkable about him and/or his business model. “Every garden we design and install is different. Harmonizing each garden to suit each landscape makes a lot of sense. I think the one-size fits all approach is not a good idea because each site is different. The design process takes a little longer with our methods, however our resulting gardens are more holistic and take the entire property into consideration. We try to engage our clients with our work. We want to teach them so they can maintain their own gardens. We try to listen to their goals, and we work with a wide variety of materials when building our gardens. Some customers want to maintain their own garden, and some hire us year after year to maintain [their garden]. Often, a few years after the installation, customers are confident enough to plant and tend to their own gardens. Education is a part of sustainability. Knowing how to generate your own fertility and grow your own food is important.”
Our conversation shifted to climate change. Ben shared his thoughts: “I think encouraging more localized and bio-diverse systems will help ameliorate climate change. There will be less carbon in the atmosphere. Tillage is a part of the problem, and we generally don’t till. We are huge fans of sheet mulching and mulching in general which mimics the forest. You can go into Hadley in the spring and see dust particles in the air from all the farmers plowing up their fields. That is carbon and soil I want to keep in the soil by minimizing soil disturbance. Our sheet mulch consists of cardboard, newspaper, compost, wood chips from local arborists, and local leaf mulch, especially for use with perennials. We don’t use peat moss or cocoa fiber. We try to keep all of our materials locally sourced.”
Lastly we discussed how we must move forward to promote more local agriculture in the urban/suburban setting. Said Ben: “Education is going to play a huge role. During World War II, 20 million Americans grew 40% of the nation’s vegetables. We did it before and we can do it again. Growing your own produce is empowering and the positivity is contagious. I think the movement toward local food systems is already happening. It just has to do with showing people what is possible. So much organic and nutrient dense produce can be grown in a relatively small space. A lot of people don’t know where to start. We teach folks how to take soil tests and work with lead contamination and provide a maintenance manual, discussing how to maintain gardens organically and sustainably. Getting this movement to spread is about sharing the knowledge.”
And here are Ben’s closing words: “I get really excited when I see people growing their own food. I think it is one of the most positive things we can do for our environment and for ourselves. There is such immense satisfaction in tending to your plants, watching them thrive and mature, harvesting the bounty and sharing the harvest with friends and family. This is really what humans evolved to do. Reconnecting with where our food comes from is profound and in need.”