Every shut eye ain’t asleep. Every goodbye ain’t gone. – Grandma proverb
Fall is funny; maybe because hibernation looks a lot like sleep. The thing we often forget is that hibernation is a vital part of life. Every living thing needs periods of rest to ensure their survival, and
prepare for the next phase of growth.
Victory Garden Initiative looks a lot like it’s asleep these days. The farm is tucked in: winter gardens planted, compost shared, fully staffed, we’re gearing up for the last Cultivate Harambee event of the summer… seems pretty groggy from the outside. It’s different. Quieter.
What is important to remember is that we ain’t sleep. Mother Earth and her employees at Victory Garden Initiative are hard at work connecting with our neighbors through the darkness of winter. We’re outfitting our new building’s community room and kitchen to hold smaller, more intimate gatherings and classes. We’re managing our systems and operations to sustain ourselves and our neighbors in virtual formats by making tutorials and videos and sharing them widely. We’re completing our annual reports and appeals so that as people approach that End of The Year Giving part of their household budgeting, they will consider VGI. We are here, as we have been for the last ten years. Teaching, learning, sharing, graciously accepting the gifts that our neighbors offer.
The thing about this season is that we’re participating in our civic responsibilities of managing an urban farm from a distance now, so that we can all be safe when the winter passes over Harambee.
What’s also funny is that when the weather breaks again, we’ll be ready! We’re growing inside so that we can install garden beds through our annual (now No Contact) Garden Blitz, put volunteers and interns back to work on our farm, host learning events for our children, and certify another cohort of Food Mentors who will be prepared to teach those who never knew, or who want to remember, how to live in harmony with the earth in the middle of a food desert in the middle of the city. We’re working on fortifying relationships with past partners, and creating new ones.
I’m kind of looking forward to starting off by spending the winter with VGI. This undercover moment to gather ourselves is vital to our growth 2021. We ain’t asleep. We ain’t gone. We just getting ready for the next phase.
Here at Victory Garden Initiative, we’ve been working on a vision for a community-led, environmentally sustainable, socially just, and nutritious food system right here in Milwaukee since 2008. At our new organizational headquarters in the Harambee neighborhood we run a 1.5 acre urban farm and just finished construction on our community kitchen and classroom space in February! On this “Urban Farm Campus” we envision a community coming together around the garden and table with neighbors to grow and cook food together, children learning about biology in the pollinator gardens in their own backyards, chefs cooking up local produce at local restaurants, and neighborhood stores stocking products created by their neighbors. This food system is as beautiful as it is strong! It provides not only nutritious food for the body, but for the mind as well. Our staff have been passionately working to build the programs and local infrastructure to make this vision a reality.
Like many other organizations, we are feeling the strain of Coronavirus. We’ve had to pause our community events and classes and, aside from our Farm Manager, our staff is currently working from home. But Wisconsin’s Safer at Home orders only confirm what I know to be true in the fiber of my being: that food production is and always shall be an “essential activity.”
In the time of Coronavirus, we all know that toilet paper has become a hot commodity, but other store shelves are emptying too. Bread, meat, canned goods, dried beans, eggs, milk, and the list goes on. Meanwhile, I keep seeing news stories and updates from major grocery stores and politicians assuring us that the supply chain remains strong and that shelves are only empty because of panic buying. All will be back to normal soon, they say. We just have to ride it out, they assure.
Personally, I’m not reassured.
The reality is, our food system has been broken for a very long time and it is only now, during an international crisis, that we can truly see the unfortunate ramifications of this. While some families can afford to stock up for months of social distancing, others are on food assistance and can barely afford a weeks’ worth of food at any time. While videos are cropping up encouraging people to bake their own artisan bread, there are people living in apartments where access to a working stove and refrigerator is not even a reality. And while supply chain experts are telling us that shelves will be restocked soon, one has to wonder how they can be so certain of this, when our food is being shipped from across the country and across the globe? Whole countries are on lock down right now and 30+ states have enacted versions of Stay at Home orders. Yes, food production, manufacturing, and agriculture are all “essential activities,” and life goes on. But how can you ever be certain about the stability of a system which relies on a complex network of moving parts, far-flung across the globe? All it takes is for one piece to buckle under the pressure and the entire system collapses.
What if too many truckers get sick and shipping routes falter? What if too many of the migrant workers and seasonal farm crews can’t work the large farms in California, Florida, and the Corn Belt in the Midwest that supply most of our country’s grain and produce? What if there are outbreaks at grocery stores and they don’t have the staff to stay open? What if all air traffic is grounded?
Maybe it won’t happen this time. Maybe COVID19 is not the straw that breaks the food chain’s back. But what about next time? What about the next virus? The next world war? The next drought? The next recession? The depletion of oil reserves? Are we certain we will have enough food to feed our families?
I don’t ask these questions to scare you, ignite panic, or bring more dreariness to an already stressful situation. Instead, I ask these questions because I believe there is a better way and that it is not too late for us all to do something right now to build a better food system for today and tomorrow. The answer is for us to stop relying on a global food system and to start building a stronger, more resilient local one, in all places at all times. I’m not saying we can’t have Costa Rican coffee, California almonds, Atlantic Cod, or even Oreo’s ever again. But we can and should produce enough food locally to supply our own communities. Global food products should be a welcome addition to our own food supply, not a necessity.
While we can’t all be full-time farmers, we can all grow some of our own food. We can grow it in our yards, on our balconies, at our schools, in our windowsills, and on our rooftops. We can grow it in our basements with the right lights. So many people have wide open grassy lawns which could be turned into productive growing space, not to mention the number of vacant, overgrown lots scattered across our cities. Now is the time to seriously consider transforming these spaces, and our lives, to build our capacity for self-reliance down the line.
This, my friends, is where Victory Gardens come in. Victory Garden Initiative has been on the front lines of this work in Milwaukee for 12 years now, building infrastructure in Southeast Wisconsin for growing local food. Each year, we install 500+ raised garden beds across Milwaukee. In 2020, we had hoped to finally breach the 5000 mark but with the current state of the world, we probably won’t make that milestone this year. But we also won’t be closing up shop either. Now more than ever we are determined to forge ahead and install as many gardens as we can to increase Milwaukee’s capacity for local food production. As of writing this, we’ve already sold 120+ gardens so far and, barring any drastic changes in the pandemic situation and recommendations from health officials, we are committed to installing each and every one of them! Not only that, but we are hopeful to sell even more, particularly in our organization’s home neighborhood of Harambee, a neighborhood that already faces food insecurity and economic disparities. These will only be heightened after Coronavirus sweeps through our nation.
In addition to building more beds for individuals to grow food, we’re also ramping up production at our own urban farm. The Victory Garden Urban Farm in Harambee has always been a community farm, serving as a greenspace for the neighborhood to gather and a hub for educational activities to teach youth and adults how to grow their own food. In the wake of Coronavirus, it is even more important to provide these services. Our new Farm Manager, Aaron, is already hard at work planting the crops for this season and plans are underway for expanding our Pay-What-You-Can Roadside Farmstand, free Community U-Pick area, and on-site Community Gardens! We urge everyone who is growing food to consider sharing the bounty of your harvest with your neighbors or local food pantry!
If you can’t grow food (we’ll dispel those myths later), you can still do your part by supporting local producers. Unless you are reading this from Antarctica or the International Space Station (please drop me a line if you are, that would be incredible!) I guarantee that you have a local farmer within ~100 miles of you. Someone, somewhere, is growing and selling food. Support them. Buy from your local farmer’s market. Visit your local co-op. Look for products from your own region at the grocery store, or talk to the store manager about getting those local products in. Visit roadside farm stands and eat at restaurants that source local ingredients. Finally, be sure to talk them up on social media and leave a positive review so others can find and support them them too!
We will eventually beat Coronavirus and the world will return to some semblance of normal. But it will have a lasting impact on our society and it is up to all of us to make sure that we learn from this experience and make the world a better place because of it. We can’t return to the status quo. Now is the time to Move Grass and Grow Food!
We’re pretty sure that the only fool-proof way of getting kids to care about their food is to get them involved in growing and cooking it themselves!
We’ve seen this play out time and time again through our own Youth Education Programs. Right now, we’re in the middle of our After School Garden Club program at Riverwest and La Escuela Fratney Elementary Schools where we are working with youth every week in the classroom and their own school gardens. Each week, we focus on different topics such as how to make a healthy snacks, take care of their school gardens, compost, and other food system activities. Without fail, the favorite part of the program for every kid is the cooking. When we walk through the door, the excitement is palpable and our educators get asked dozens of times as they walk down the hallway “Are we cooking today!?” “Will it be delicious?” “Do we get to use knives?” “Can I be first today?!”
We’ve dubbed our cooking activities the “Chef-in-Training” program and the youth love being given the responsibility of working with real cooking knives, stove tops, and kitchen equipment. We teach the kids not only about cooking healthy meals for themselves but about how cooking can be a real career and the youth delight in talking about what it would be like to work in a kitchen as a chef or to take the recipes home and teach it to their parents.
Youth have been practicing their skills up to this point and learning to follow recipes. Pretty soon they will get to put their skills to the test by creating their own recipe, which is always a hoot! In this 3 part series, they learn about healthy smoothies, come up with their own recipes, and then put them to the test! The kids come up with amazing combinations and even more amazing names for their smoothies. It’s also a hilarious opportunity for our educators to get very literal and showcase the importance of clear instructions in recipe writing by throwing unpeeled bananas in that blender or teeny tiny amounts when they don’t give measurements! Hilarity always ensues.
It’s crazy to think that the year is already half over! But our programs continue on into the summer at our own 1.5 acre Urban Farm in Harambee! We welcome schools and day cares from all over the city to our farm for field trips and welcome about 15-20 neighborhood kids to the farm all summer long to work in our kids’ garden. This summer, with our new Community Kitchen nearly finished, we look forward to expanding our Chef-in-Training program and having the kids experience harvesting produce from the farm and taking it right into the kitchen to learn how to cook it up!
It has been ten years since this wild experiment called Victory Garden Initiative began with a small group of friends wanting to help people grow their own food in the city. Since that time we have built thousands of gardens, created a thriving community farm, and educated hundreds of children and adults about the value of growing our own food right here in the city. We have purchased land, an incredible historic building, and have received the funding needed to revitalize the building and create a community kitchen. These are not small accomplishments. Because of our work, yours and mine, we have changed the conversation about food in Milwaukee.
Serving as the leader of this now flourishing organization has truly been the privilege and passion of my life. With the support of our volunteers, donors, and team members we have accomplished everything that I envisioned we could and so much more. Victory Garden Initiative is uniquely positioned to thrive even more in the coming years.
After a transformative sabbatical and some soul searching, I have come to know that it is time for new leadership to dream a big vision and drive towards new goals. With that, I will be resigning my position as Executive Director at Victory Garden Initiative as of June 30th, 2019.
Since Victory Garden Initiative’s inception more than ten years ago, connections have been made – strangers have become friends and friends have become family – all because we share these fundamental beliefs about equity, food access, sustainability and community. We share common values that forever bind us in our commitment to this community and the world. My hope is that you remain committed to this mission long after my departure, as I know I will. We are blessed to have a dream team in place for the smoothest transition I could imagine! Christine Kuhn, our farmer and educator who has been teaching, farming, and winning grants for the past year and a half will be stepping in as Co-Director, accompanied by seasoned Co-Director Ann Brummitt (formerly of Milwaukee Water Commons). Susie Ralston, our long time board president, will remain at the helm.
You will find me doing excessive amounts of yoga, spending time with my kids in the water this summer and taking some time to understand what I will do next. I hope you will all keep in touch.
I will leave you with one of my all time favorite quotes; one that I have shared with you before and one that resonates still, after these ten years.
“To live in this world you must be able to do three things:to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowingyour own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go,to let it go” Mary Oliver Letting go,~gretchen
The Good Earth, by Pearl H. Buck, has been on my reading list since Ms. McCormick’s American literature class in the 9th grade. Lucky for me, I found the novel in a ‘little free library’ while walking to a meeting recently. Spellbound, I read as the Wang Lung family went through a generation of crises that always resolved when Lung went back to the land. Wang Lung shaped his family from the earth – the money, the character, the values, and quite figuratively, the meat on their bones moved from the land, through his hands, and into the family around him. The land, always the saving grace of the family, until the bittersweet end when his son’s forsake the land, leaving us to assume that tragedy will befall them. It is the story of place-making’s inextricable enmeshment with people, land, culture and evolution.
Almost 50 years ago, my parents bought a house with land, where they raised their children, grew veggies, worked, harvested firewood, celebrated, and forest-gardened; slowly guiding the land and the family in a direction. Now they raise grandchildren there on holidays, and extended visits. Together we tend the land, harvest berries, chop wood. They calm the children, with their elder demand for quietude and order, while simultaneously teaching them something that is increasingly rare – having a deep connection to a piece of land is the center of a family.
Here we are now together, you and I and the entire VGI community, in this urban land, long ago developed from subsistence farming, to factory working, to service industry jobs. The land reminds us that we too have forsaken her, as she brings forth 1,000 year storms, diseases of excess, and crises of the spirit.
As Victory Garden Initiative heads towards accomplishing the vision for our new FarmHouse and the Victory Garden Urban Farm, I hold these stories of the land, and many, many others that I have heard through the years, in the light. This farm, now abundant and lush, needs you more than ever.
I wonder who will come make this land their own? Which families will tell stories of the farm they cared for as children? Who will understand that everything begins with the earth, and moves through our fingertips, into our psyche, through our bodies, shaping our muscles, our self-perception, our values, our culture? Who will walk here to gather ripe tomatoes for dinner tonight? Who will use the cabbage to make the slaw that their grandmother’s grandmother made? Who will tell the stories of land to their grandchildren?
It is you and I. Together with the growing Victory Garden community, and with a stirring of truth stirring in your being, waiting to bring to the forefront of your mind the call of this land and this culture that we shape together. The earth calls to you through this work that we do, and this mission, that is our very evolution.
Join us soon, for upcoming place-making activities, celebrations, and invitations to tend this good earth. Come make this place with us, especially, on September 15th, for our annual FarmRaiser, where fun, food, friends, and mission come together for a charming day at The Farm.
There is a Buddhist quote that lives in my mind, and pops forth every once in awhile at just the right moments: “If you are facing the right direction, all you need to do is keep on walking.”
This is precisely how it feels at Victory Garden Initiative right now – that we have been facing the right direction – and it’s all up to us to keep on walking toward a community-based, sustainable, healthy, and socially just food system for all people in Milwaukee and beyond.
We walk by delivering high-quality education programs, city-wide events, and by transitioning unused urban land into edible landscapes that build community, produce healthy food, and foster microlocal economies.
As we approach 2018, we are filled with excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead. Not only will we execute the 10th Annual Victory Garden BLITZ, during which we will surpass a total of 4,000 urban gardens built in the Milwaukee area, we will also usher in our 8th year of transforming an abandoned urban lot into a food-producing education farm of jaw-dropping beauty. During our summer Youth Education Program (YEP!), we will watch the children find their love for eating vegetables in just a few short months, forever changing the course of their lives. And as our Food Leader Certification Program sends our mission spiraling outward to people across the state of Wisconsin, I know that we are on the right path.
In the coming year, we will put a renewed focus on growing The Victory Garden Urban Farm. The agriculture sector in Wisconsin is the largest of all sectors, totaling 8 BILLION dollars worth of revenue, while our small-scale farmers are aging out of the industry, leaving an ever-widening gap of expertise. With your help, we will use The Farm as an opportunity to ensure that urban Milwaukeeans can conceive of farming as a rewarding and sustainable career.
Urban agriculture must be a consistent presence in the lives of urban dwellers if we are to walk toward the advancement of a food system that feeds all people healthy sustainably grown food and fosters OUR local economy, OUR people, and OUR ecosystem.
But we do not, and cannot do this work alone. We need each and every one of you to walk with us, putting your dollars and your time where your heart already lives. Every gift you give to the Victory Garden Initiative is a step in the right direction, and we are so grateful for your support. Please continue to walk with us by making your gift to VGI today.
I traveled to Sedona, Arizona a couple years ago, and made it my personal quest to understand the energy vortexes that are claimed to be present there. I mosied around at the local rock shop where people were purchasing an array of sparkling crystals that they were planning to ‘charge’ at the vortexes.
“Can you tell me what kind of energy is charging the crystals?”, I asked.
“Its energy from the earth’s force.” someone told me.
“Where does the energy come from?”, I asked someone else.
“It’s the energy of all things.”, a young man told me.
“Why is the energy here?” I asked a 60-something lady.
“Some places have more energy than others, and this place seems to have more energy every time I come here. It’s healing.”
Ever since, I have wondered, if Sedona does indeed have some kind of alluring energetic qualities, that have in essence created the space. I did get a special feeling there, that I ponder even to this day.
Eight years ago, we were approached by Milwaukee Urban Gardens because the City of Milwaukee was hopeful that the 1.5-acre lot at 220 E. Concordia could be used as an urban agriculture site. When I walked onto this lot, it was a crisp day in the very early spring. The sun was shining brightly on the entire lot and I was immediately enchanted. We imagined the entire lot lush with a harvestable forest, vines hanging with plump tomatoes, birds and butterflies fluttering about. We imagined people gathering there to grow food together, building community and living a more sustainable, nutritious life.
From that time, a handful of people were compelled to transform this land from an abandoned tax foreclosed lot to the lush urban farm that it is today. And this lush farm, now called the Victory Garden Urban Farm, drew in more people, more activity, and seemingly more energy.
Goose Island Brunch at the farm
Apparently, this piece of land has affected many others in the same way. I now give 2 or more tours per week at the farm. The neighbors come in to harvest fresh vegetables; students from area schools receive specialized, hands-on education programs about growing and eating good food; and our farmer sends produce to micro-local restaurants customers.
A couple years ago, the farm, drew a retired Belgian engineer, who brought with him dozens of edible perennials, and more fortitude than any 7 college interns advancing the farm even further.
Last year, someone planned a surprise marriage proposal at the farm. Just last week, The Goose Island Brew Company held the most charming brunch at the farm. I watched nearly 100 people who had never been there before, look around, eyes wide, in awe of the oasis before them. The Farm seems to be buzzing with more energy than ever.
Recently, as I was perusing real estate websites, I noticed the obvious donut shape around The Farm, suggesting that there are no houses immediately surrounding that farm that are either for sale or foreclosed. Unusual in this area. A sign perhaps, of this energy’s allure, bringing residents to live, work and play by the farm.
This question still wiggles around in my mind, however – Did the people bring the earth’s energy to this site or did the earth’s energy bring the people?…. Or even more, is there a difference?
Come see us and get the vibe. I dunno, bring your crystals. Maybe it’s really a thing. Can’t hurt to give it a try.
Victory Garden Urban Farm as it looks today! Photo Courtesy: Lance Massey