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Get Your Neighborhood Growing: Start a Communal Garden

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Written by Julia Vantine

Launched in 2009, the Portland, Oregon Urban Farm Collective (UFC) isn’t the standard one-person-one-plot community garden. True to its name, neighbor sows, weeds, and reaps with neighbor, and the bounty isn’t sold, but bartered at a weekly market. Your “cash” is your labor, whether you pull weeds or donate a resource such as land or water.

Over the years, the UFC has grown and changed, says Holli Prohaska, UFC’s director and market manager. “The first year, we tried selling our produce to the public and to a restaurant owned by our first director,” she says. “That didn’t work out, so we developed the barter system for all collective members and starting donating leftover produce to organizations.”

Seven years in, the UFC has expanded to 17 urban gardens throughout northeast and southeast Portland. “We are in a partnership now with St. Andrews Church, and donate produce from the market to their food pantry,” says Prohaska. “This year, we are looking to collaborate more and help out other organizations as well.”

Like other urban farming organizations that have taken root in major cities, UFC gives residents the opportunity to grow their own fresh food and work together for the common good. “I am continually motivated by the growth of community involvement, the food sovereignty we are building among the collective, and the opportunity to help educate our community on gardening and food security,” says Prohaska. While a creating collective takes time and sustained effort, it’s a labor of love, and the perks are worth it, she says. We asked her how to get started.

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What’s the difference between a community garden and a collective?

The typical community garden is owned and managed by the city, and people typically tend their own plot. With a collective, landowners allow their land to be converted into a garden, and members grow food together, sharing what is grown. Also, a community garden comes with a fee, with the cost dependent on the size of plot you choose.  A collective typically doesn’t charge a fee. The UFC is free to members, and uses time as its only currency.

What are the benefits of following the collective model?

Our collective is a non-profit managed by the members and overseen by OSALT, the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture and Land Trust.  If you make your collective a non-profit, you have the ability to do more fundraising and receive grant money.

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What’s the essential step to getting a collective off the ground?

Find like-minded people who are interested in the movement and adopt people onto a collective board and planning team.   

How do you keep the ball rolling?

Find ways to let your community know who you are and what you do.  To get the word out, put up posters and flyers, and place an ad in the local papers. Put together a website. Blast your idea on social media and invite the community to get involved. Host community events and fundraisers. Get a spot at the local farmers markets.  Once your collective is up and running, get local businesses involved in supporting your events, and let your community know that those businesses support what you do.

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What are the perks of all this hard work? 

The obvious benefit: great produce. I love the look of surprise on new members’ faces when they come to the harvest market for the first time and see the enormous amount of produce they get for those couple of hours they spent working in a garden that week.

Another benefit: the potential to develop strong bonds with your fellow gardeners. Some members of our collective have become like extended family, and you create memories together. One of my favorite memories: A few years back, we lost one of our large plots of land–it was sold for development—and had to move our large greenhouse to a different location.  Instead of having to dismantle the whole thing, about a dozen or so of us dug out the posts and carried the entire thing down main streets for about a half-mile to its new location. It was a pretty hilarious and impressive parade. So Portland.

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About the author

Julia Vantine

Julia VanTine writes about health and tends her front-yard vegetable garden in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

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