Written by Nancy Erickson, Communications Coordinator for the Catalogue for Philanthropy
Picture this: It’s Wednesday morning. You’ve been answering emails for two hours straight. Your eyes ache from your screen. Your office has no windows and smells a little like stale coffee. For lunch, you eat something greasy and instant.
Now picture this: You’re breathing in fresh air and kneeling in a garden. You smell basil and freshly tilled soil. You hear a bee buzzing nearby. Your gloves are caked in dirt as you pull weeds. The sun warms your skin. You have gathered a basket of fresh produce, ready for today’s lunch.
If the second scenario sounds a little more appealing to you than the first, then consider embracing your inner farmer by volunteering at Common Good City Farm. This is what I did recently, and I recommend it for anyone who would appreciate a break from their work to reconnect with nature and accomplish some good.
Common Good City Farm uses their plot of farmland to promote sustainable agriculture and healthy nutrition in their local community. Their many programs include selling fresh produce to community members and businesses, employing high schoolers over the summer, teaching children about nutrition, and providing the community with a wide variety of workshops. You can learn more about their programs here.
I signed up for their Community Volunteer Day, an event specifically designed for folks who only want to try their hand at farming for a one-time commitment. It was a beautiful Saturday morning when I arrived a little after 9. As I approached the main entrance, I was struck by the explosion of GREEN right in the middle of the city block. The lot was immediately adjacent to a playground and surrounded by apartment buildings. Inside the gate I saw an open shelter, with camping-esque kitchen ware and Christmas lights strung around the rafters. Since I had arrived early, I watched staff give an orientation to the City Farmers, the longer term volunteers who would be guiding the first-time volunteers for the morning.
My first task of the morning was to slice lemons for the water cooler for incoming volunteers. Hydration and sunblock would be important that day–it was hot! I also helped wiped down tables as fellow one-time volunteers flowed in.
At 9:30, all 34 volunteers received a tour of the farm (a typical Community Volunteer Day gets 30 people). There were four tasks for volunteers to choose between:
- Prepping spinach beds in the hoop house
- Widening beds for winter preparations
- Harvesting basil plants (to be sold at Bacio Pizzeria!)
- Tilling the soil along the outside fence
I chose option 4. This involved pulling weeds and removing rocks. Quite a bit of rocks. An insane amount of rocks. A passerby slyly congratulated us on our fruitful rock harvest. It was highly satisfying work and surprisingly relaxing.
In my opinion, gardening together is a more engaging environment to socialize with people than the typical DC happy hour; conversation felt less forced and more organic (no pun intended). I enjoyed getting to know other volunteers’ motivations for coming this morning. Some reasons I heard included:
- They loved gardening and needed a contrast to their Monday-Friday DC professional careers.
- He wanted to get to know his community better; he lived only a few blocks away but had only recently heard about Common Good City Farm.
- He had been feeling discouraged about climate change and wanted to tangibly do something.
- She wanted to make friends.
One of Common Good’s missions is to “contribute to a sense of connectedness, vibrancy and sense of place.” In my short time volunteering there, I felt this connection to the neighborhood. Urban farming is a way to connect people to healthy food, nature, and each other when they might otherwise remain siloed apart in their separate apartments. Community members can come to the weekly farmer’s market for Common Good’s fresh produce (which participates with WIC, SNAP, Produce Plus, and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program). At one point some local kids grabbed gloves and joined us in picking out rocks. Apparently this was a common way for local kids to come have fun and keep busy on a weekend.
At noon we finished and surveyed the fruits of our labor. After hours of sweating and getting our fingernails dirty, we had managed to remove a good portion of the rocks from the land. It looked remarkably more garden-like. Go team!
Then, all the volunteers were treated to a lunch made primarily from vegetables grown by Common Good. It was a vegan’s cornucopia: organic, fresh, plant-based, locally sourced. Food always tastes great after working up an appetite and people happily enjoyed the meal and each other’s company until there were hardly any leftovers. The group dynamic was satisfied, warm, and communal. After lunch, people peeled away while I and a few others stayed to clean dishes and wipe down tables.
If this sounds like a refreshing and enjoyable experience, then consider volunteering with Common Good City Farm. If you only want to come farm for a one-time commitment like I did, then you can sign up for a Community Volunteer Day. In the past these occasions only took place twice a year, but beginning in 2020, Common Good will be meeting demand for volunteer opportunities by providing Community Volunteer Days every month!
Or, if you’d like to get more deeply involved, you can sign up to become a City Farmer. This is a 12-week commitment to help out on the farm once a week alongside 5-10 fellow volunteers. Being a City Farmer provides a sense of ownership over the produce, builds skills and relationships, and lifts up Common Good by accomplishing more difficult tasks. This opportunity is especially useful for high school students who need to fill service requirements at a single location.
If you’re interested in getting your hands dirty and volunteering with Common Good City Farm, then check out their volunteer page. I loved my time there, and I am sure that you will too.