The Bailey College of the Environment had the pleasure of hosting an event with Travis Stewart, a passionate Hartford-based gardener and farmer and an advocate of the KNOX Urban Farming Program, at Wesleyan on September 19. During the event, Travis shared with the Wesleyan community how starting a garden has evolved his relationship with food, and how it has allowed him to find physical, mental, and spiritual healing. The event was funded through a five-year grant from the Robert F. Schumann Foundation, focused on supporting a food justice and environmental justice network in Connecticut and building pipelines for student engagement on these issues.
“This urban farming workshop provided opportunities for students to be exposed to and learn from a BIPOC farmer and community leader, and to move toward more respectful partnerships between Wesleyan and the community,” said Malana Rogers-Bursen, the project coordinator for Food Security, Environmental Justice and Sustainability with the Bailey College of the Environment. “Our hope is that just like Travis visited Long Lane Farm to exchange farming knowledge with student farmers while he was on campus, students will visit Travis’ farm as well, in order to continue the knowledge exchange.”
Travis Stewart’s Journey
Travis Stewart had an unlikely introduction to farming. It all began with his daughter’s science fair experiment incubating eggs, which eventually hatched into two chickens. After the project, the family was set on what Travis described as a “chicken frenzy” of adopting more and more chickens and learning more about what they could offer beyond eggs. One contribution from chickens is fertilizer, which Travis used to kickstart his garden. He developed his interest in gardening and began to investigate the complexities that come with growing plants and learning about soil biology. He has since expanded his garden and farm to include a number of crops as well as animals, including tilapia, rabbits, and chickens.
Just as Travis’s garden began to develop, he was faced with an extreme challenge: a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, an immune-system cancer. After a period of receiving modern treatments, he made the difficult decision to forgo medication and seek natural forms of healing. He dedicated himself to his garden and began nourishing himself with his own homegrown fresh fruits and vegetables. He found his daily gardening extremely therapeutic, and it helped him not only to cope with his illness, but also with his struggles with grief. He is currently in remission and continues to use his passion for his garden as a tool for healing.
Community Involvement with KNOX
One key element of Travis’s journey with farming was his involvement with KNOX, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to teach urban communities about farming and gardening. The organization has 28 Hartford-based community gardens, and helps beginner farmers by donating free seeds, compost, and information. Travis has been working with KNOX for two years and encourages those curious about gardening or urban farming to take advantage of the invaluable advice and resources provided by the organization.
Advice for Beginning Gardeners
For those considering starting their own garden, Travis has some advice as a seasoned urban farmer. The first step is to ask yourself why you want to start a garden. Having a purpose is important, as the process will present many challenges, especially at the beginning. Another key question to ask yourself is which groceries you can offset by growing in your garden. Travis advised leafy greens as a good place to start and advised against beginning with root vegetables, because in order to have optimal soil quality a root network must develop, and harvesting these kinds of vegetables may disrupt the natural pathways and organisms that are necessary for a healthy garden. He also advised that as a beginner, less is often more: focusing on a few key plants, because too many can quickly become a jungle!
There are multiple approaches that can be used to start a garden. Travis recommended either a raised bed garden or a non-till garden, both of which provide more control over the soil. Utilizing homemade compost can be an effective way to make sure the soil is nutrient rich. A non-tilling approach allows root networks to develop, and is more cost-effective than a raised bed method.
Looking to the Future
Even after years of experience and developing new techniques and gardening practices, Travis continues to expand his understanding of urban farming. Aquaponics is one area where he is hoping to develop a more effective system. Aquaponics is a farming system that requires a balanced environment between aquatic plants, fish, and other organisms. He also hopes to learn more strategies to “fight the enemy”—the bugs and other animals that want a bite of his garden. One strategy he has employed to some success is utilizing smells from herbs like turmeric and ginger to cover the scent of fruits and vegetables and deter bugs.
Travis’s future goal is to create a 100 percent closed-loop system where his urban farm becomes self-sustaining (i.e., animal waste is used for fertilizer, plants grown can be used to feed his animals). He also hopes to integrate new elements into the system; for example, he plans to introduce bees on his farm!
Gardening can be a useful path towards healing and can help bring urban communities together in creative and collaborative ways. By growing and consuming natural foods, people can utilize fruits and vegetables as natural medicine to develop their relationship with food and improve their health. Urban gardening and farming can often be a challenge, but it is the process of learning to “listen to the music of the garden” that allows people to overcome difficulties and find the satisfaction that ultimately comes from this practice. Travis Stewart encourages us all to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty, and begin our own gardens. The time to start growing is now!
To find more information about Travis, check out @farmwithme on Instagram and across all social media platforms!