coe hosts urban farming workshop

Wesleyan’s Bailey College of the Environment was honored to have the opportunity to host KNOX, a Hartford-based Urban Farming program on October 24, 2023. KNOX’s mission is to promote a healthier and more sustainable Hartford through work that engages closely with the local community.

The Urban Farming Workshop was led by KNOX Program Coordinator Ally Gelinas. Gelinas is a certified wildlife biologist, and has a masters degree in Environmental Education. They are a Connecticut native interested in bridging the gaps between existing environmental advocacy and the needs of marginalized individuals, who are the people often facing the most immediate and severe impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. Gelinas always strives to keep equity as a central tenet of KNOX’s activities and to make sure that any action the organization takes directly benefits local communities.

KNOX currently has 21 community gardens across Hartford. The program provides free resources, such as water and seeds to individuals, and helps individuals establish their own garden plots. One of KNOX’s initiatives is tree planting. The process of selecting which trees to plant and choosing locations to place them is complex. KNOX strives to consider a number of key questions: Will the trees survive with changing climate conditions? Which communities will want the trees? Which communities need the trees most, and currently have the least greenspace or poorest air quality? The answers to these questions are necessary to keep in mind when developing plans to work collaboratively with neighborhoods, in order to prioritize the interests of the people who live there.

KNOX offers an extensive Urban Farming Program for individuals interested in developing their own farming skills. In the first level of the program, farmers plant seeds, identify key nutrients, explore soil science, engage in hands-on labs, and attend some lecture-style lessons. They learn about permaculture, a system in which multiple types of crops are grown on a mixed plot, leading to a number of benefits including increased pollination, higher disease resistance, more wildlife interaction, and a developed root system with mutualistic interactions between plants, helpful bacteria, and fungi. In the second level of KNOX’s program, participants receive their own spot in a community garden, develop an individualized crop plan, and have the experience of growing their own garden. During this part of the process they first consider variables such as pests, flooding, climate change, and face a number of other obstacles that can only be thoroughly understood through hands-on experience. The third and final phase of the program allows individuals to begin cultivating land elsewhere. KNOX provides support to help new farmers promote themselves to the public, and sell their produce through websites and social media. KNOX’s urban farming alumni have gone on to develop their own farms, juicing businesses, grow produce for a locally run pizza shop, and engage in a number of exciting other ventures! One current member of the Urban Farming Program is Travis Stewart, a recent College of the Environment speaker. Those who are interested in the program can visit KNOX’s website for more information.

KNOX also leads an Environmental Education program for elementary and middle school students in Hartford, both after school and in the summers. The program provides an environmental science curriculum, healthy cooking lessons using locally grown ingredients, and leads students in developing their own gardens. Each school in the program has at least two garden beds established by KNOX! The aim of the program is to encourage young people to grow their interest in farming and become more connected to nature.

After learning about KNOX’s various initiatives, attendees of the workshop were encouraged to break into small groups and develop mind maps to visualize the food system, which connects countless people and establishments working together to deliver food to our plates. We were prompted to think of barriers that prevent people from receiving high quality and healthy foods. Each group delivered a vastly different picture of the food system. We also realized that there is no clear beginning or end to the food system, and that resources, labor, and money are constantly cycling throughout the system. The food system looks extremely different based on what kind of food is being considered, and its structure is highly dependent on whether the food is locally grown and sold directly to community members or if it is produced by mass corporate conglomerates and moving through a more complex supply chain with more actors involved. At every level of the system, money is a large barrier between people and the quality, healthy food they need. We discussed supporting locally grown food as being one of the best choices an individual can make to support a more sustainable and equitable food system. For those who have the resources to do so, it is important to think critically about where food comes from and to choose options which are less resource intensive. People can also cause a positive ripple to spread across a local level by growing their own food through programs like KNOX, and working to distribute this equitably throughout their communities.