WORDS BY MARGARET LEROUX + PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATIE NOBLE
Amanda Barker is a young, urban farmer with a vision. In a scruffy neighborhood of a city where both grit and grittiness prevail, she has created a little oasis to grow vegetables and give them away.
When she started farming three years ago, Amanda followed a simple idea: “People who don’t have a lot of money shouldn’t be limited to poor-quality food,” she explained. Today, she’s finding it a challenge to maintain that ideal.
Nuestro Huerto, loosely translated as “Our Backyard Vegetable Garden,” is the name Amanda chose for the plot—a little less than half an acre—that borders a parking lot for towed cars. A pair of rusting tanks on railroad property across the street loom over it. The tiny farm is in the backyard of Iglesia Casa de Oracion, the House of Prayer Church, home to a vibrant Latino congregation that embraced the idea of giving to the community by growing.
Amanda first noticed the spot where Nuestro Huerto now thrives—back then it was overgrown with weeds—when she rode by on her bicycle. At the time she was a graduate student at Clark University studying for a degree in environmental science and policy. Her urge to start a garden was “not so much a passion for growing and living off the land as a response to the need to lead a more sustainable life,” Amanda said. “I was starting a summer internship and realizing I didn’t want to play the [job hunting] game. I decided I’m just going to do my own thing.”
The previous summer she helped design a butterfly garden and a native plants garden while working for a city program that employs young people on cleanup and beautification projects in Worcester parks. While learning how to be a manager and how municipal projects get funded, Amanda decided to start her own garden and contacted Reverend Raúl Elizalde, pastor of Casa de Oracion.
It was a meeting of two idealists, both of them endowed with generous amounts of the aforementioned grit. Rev. Elizalde and his wife and co-pastor, Evelyn, came to Worcester in 1983 at the invitation of the Southern Baptist Convention to start a church. After worshipping in rented and borrowed space for 15 years, the growing congregation embarked on an ambitious campaign to build their own church. They purchased three acres bounded by Southgate and Canterbury Streets, in an area that once housed many of Worcester’s now abandoned factories.
It took almost 10 arduous years to raise a million and a half dollars and build the church. During the permitting process Rev. Elizalde found that the property, unlike most of the neighborhood, was not contaminated by lead.
“To find a good piece of non-contaminated land was an achievement,” said Rev. Elizalde, “We’re very glad we did.” In 2006, the 200-member congregation moved into their church—a utilitarian but comfortable and beautifully maintained building. There are services in Spanish and English with bilingual translators and an active youth ministry led by the Elizaldes’ daughter, Abigail, who also is an ordained minister.
When Amanda came to the church to ask if she could start a garden in the back end of the lot, members were willing, if a little skeptical.
“We want to do whatever we can to impact the community in a positive way,” said Rev. Elizalde. But, he admitted, the traditional Puerto Rican cooking familiar to most members of the congregation is not known for a prevalence of fresh produce. “I’m not even good at eating vegetables,” he said.
Nuestro Huerto started in 2010 as 13 raised beds; the church donated materials and labor to build them and Amanda got free soil from the city’s compost program. The farm’s website (www.nuestrohuerto.org) describes a commitment to sustainability. The produce is described as “handshake organic—that means we can’t pay for certification, but are happy to show you how we run the farm and give you our word that we adhere to organic processes.”
Last summer Amanda more than doubled the garden’s capacity, adding 100 cubic yards of compost. “So many dump trucks came, church members at first thought it was a mistake and sent them away,” she said. “It took a while to get that sorted out.” Amanda also secured donations of seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Maine and High Mowing Organic Seeds of Vermont.
She recruited volunteers from her class at Clark, her housemates and from the community to help weed, water and maintain the vegetables. In exchange, they could pick whatever they needed. Amanda sold some produce at a farmers market—heirloom tomatoes, peas, beans and rainbow chard were the most popular.
The idea was to enable the garden to grow and become self-supporting, but that hasn’t happened yet. Buying vegetables directly from a farmer is a new experience for many of Nuestro Huerto’s neighbors. “They come to the market with coupons from WIC [the Women, Infants and Children food and nutrition program for low-income residents] but the coupons don’t buy a lot,” Amanda noted.
The first year vegetables from the urban farm were donated to Pernet Family Service, which serves some of city’s most impoverished families. “We operate a food pantry, although it’s rare that we’re able to offer fresh produce,” said Sheila Dooley, the organization’s executive director. “It was a real treat for our clients to receive them.”
Last summer produce was donated to The Village at Cambridge Street, a shelter program run by Worcester Housing Alliance. The congregation hosting the garden also received vegetables. “We’d come outside after Sunday services and there would be bags of Amanda’s produce lined up along the front walk,” said Ivette Olmeda, a longtime church member.
At summer’s end, Amanda hosted a block party for the congregation and neighborhood residents. Her parents came from Pennsylvania and helped cook; church members gathered at tables and sampled stuffed peppers and other vegetarian dishes.
“The food was beautiful, although not the typical dishes our members are used to,” Ivette said. “It was good for them to experience these examples of healthy food.” Adds Rev. Elizalde, “Amanda is a hero for what she’s done.”
This year, as the third season of urban farming got under way, Amanda was elated at the construction of a greenhouse she and friends built about a mile and a half from Nuestro Huerto. “We live in a land of such bounty and generosity,” she said, describing how Heirloom Harvest Organic Farm in Westborough donated the steel hoops and plastic covering in exchange for helping tear down an old greenhouse and build a new one.
Over the winter Amanda and a friend also built a trailer for her bike so vegetables and supplies can be delivered. Everything has been a learning process, though. In the blog where she recounts her farming experiences, Amanda described the tedious process of consensus construction. “Because we are designing this greenhouse from the ground up without much more than a few rough sketches on a piece of cardboard, the planning phase is lengthy and extensive,” she wrote.
On a cloudy afternoon in late spring, a chilly wind whipped across a patch of early spinach as Amanda weeded while musing about the challenges she faces. The friend who helped plan and manage the urban farm has moved to western Massachusetts; the co-founders of a co-op where they all lived have moved on too. Amanda lives frugally and supports herself with odd jobs, but there’s no fulltime employment on the horizon and her student loans are coming due.
There’s still a lot of paperwork to complete before Nuestro Huerto can be registered as a nonprofit and a program to sell CSA shares in the farm has attracted only a few participants. As the sole person in charge, the responsibilities of the farm weigh heavily upon her. “I try not to focus too much on the numbers. I consider this project an investment,” Amanda said.
“The farm is my work and my passion,” she said. “It’s not like I go home and lead a different life.” Daunting though urban farming may be, Amanda considers it “rewarding, fun and inspiring.”
Margaret LeRoux, a regular contributor to Edible Boston, writes and scouts out local food in central Massachusetts. You can reach her at email@example.com.