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There were never any "good old days" — they are today, they are tomorrow
Just call me Lexica Agricola 
20th-Feb-2011 09:54 pm
orange-eyed frog
Pirate and I spent the weekend at the Make Money as an Urban Farmer class put on by the Sustainable Commercial Urban Farm Incubator (SCUFI) program and based on the Small Plot INtensive (SPIN) farming technique.

Wow. What an excellent way to spend two days.

A little background: about seven or eight years ago, Pirate and I took a class with John Jeavons in the Grow Biointensive method of small-scale farming and found it very inspiring. For a while we were thinking about how we could chuck life in the city and move somewhere land is cheap enough that we could have a little homestead and raise our own food and... yeah. Luckily, we realized before we actually did anything that we're both city/suburban kids — me spending my high school years living (well within the city limits of) Chico is the closest either of us comes to any experience with farming or living in the country. Plus once I got out of the Job from Hell we both looked around and realized "oh, wait, maybe it's not that everything here sucks — and you know, when my job isn't making me suicidally depressed, we love Oakland."

So since then we've been in the city with a strong desire to be able to grow fruits and vegetables and dig in the dirt, but only a garden patch that, for all that I'm able to get a surprising amount from it, is still smaller than the average picnic table, and no real idea of how to get from catering-bartender-and-office-admin-worker-living-in-46-unit-building to anything involving soil and plants and fruit trees and the like.

And then I saw the posting about the urban farming class, and after a little should we/shouldn't we, we decided to register.

Money well spent.

The first day was a classroom session, held at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. We heard from Curtis Stone, who's operating a successful small-scale farm in British Columbia; James Kalin, who's the head of SCUFI and an ag extension agent; and Eric Winders, from California FarmLink, who do all sorts of farmer-to-landowner matchmaking and business advising and more.

The second day was a field session at the Hayward Community Gardens. It started with dividing up into teams and walking around the neighborhood, looking for possible sites for commercial urban farm plots.

Now, I realize I might feel this way even if we'd wound up in a totally different group of people for our team, but wow, did we luck out! The other people we were with were all interesting and smart and engaged and from a range of backgrounds, and it really felt like we fit together well. Everybody had useful and interesting insights and questions; nobody knew everything, and everybody had something they contributed. Score!

It turned out that we headed a direction that none of the other teams did, so we were the only ones to come across an amazing site — a huge empty lot (three and a half acres, estimated one of our team members who was good with such assessments), complete with a falling-down barn-type building and water-tower thing and a rusty old railroad car, that would be perfect for urban farming.

After we all reassembled at the Gardens, we did an exercise role-playing negotiation with a property owner (another area where the diversity of backgrounds on our team was a real benefit in terms of people suggesting good questions to ask and concerns a landowner might have) before breaking for lunch. Pirate and I strolled around the Gardens going ooh, ah (look, bees! look, tree collards! ooh, a fig tree! hey, bamboo!) before coming back to the class area to eat and chat.

The class as a whole had a really interesting and diverse range of backgrounds and experience. We did an introduce-yourself-in-30-seconds thing (which some people stuck to better than others, ahem), and I kept thinking "oh, I want to talk to him" or "I'd like to find out more from her about [area of interest]".

Towards the end of the afternoon we headed down to an empty plot and Curtis demonstrated various tools (wheel hoe — nifty!) and techniques (modified double-dig technique for the narrower SPIN-style beds). By that point it was getting pretty chilly, and I must confess my attention was starting to shift from the tool demonstrations to "wow, my toes are cold".

We met a number of really interesting local folks, heavily East Bay-oriented, whom I'd like to keep in touch with. James said they'd be setting up an online thing where we can all post our profiles and keep in touch and post updates of what we're doing and how we're applying what we've used, so I'm looking forward to seeing how that works out.

Pirate and I wound up biking back to the BART station with one of guys from our team, which was also really fun. I'm used to biking with Pirate a lot, of course, and there's something really exhilarating about riding with someone else as well who's road-savvy. At one point we did an "oh, wait, quick pull a U-turn" and it was really a smooth be-like-water bike-like-a-coyote kind of thing.

One of the things that sets this class apart from some of the others I've taken before is how practically inspiring it was. I feel a lot better equipped for how do I get from here to there than I have before.

There's an eight-week SCUFI class, after which one qualifies to apply for a trainee plot on a SCUFI site. Pirate and I are definitely planning to do this (although we'll need to talk to them about the schedule — since it's Friday evening classroom and Saturday morning field sessions, he might miss some of the classroom sessions if his work schedule picks up which would be kinda nice).

Wow. What an excellent way to spend a weekend. Although I must admit that what with having spent most of the weekend effectively stuck in a classroom, I'm glad tomorrow is a holiday so I don't have to spend it at a desk.

But then, that's just motivation to get away from the desk entirely, isn't it?
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