Jolie Olivetti: Dispatches from a helter-skelter bike tour!

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Here is a piece by a friend of the Womens’ Garden Cycles Bike Tour, Jolie Olivetti, who’s recently been hanging out in Pittsburgh while on her own bike tour of farms.    Read on to find out more about Healcrest Community Urban Farm and Jolie’s adventuring…

 My name is Jolie Olivetti, and I’m currently an off-season neophyte vegetable farmer. I spent one summer apprenticing at the organic, CSA-style, 14-acre crops operation at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln, MA and fell in love with field work, dirty paws and all. I’ve come to farming via a fascination with urban communities’ and organizations’ efforts to unplug from the mainstream food system, bringing matters of nutrition, food security, and community autonomy home to local soils. Frost dates in the NE have me uprooted for the time being, so as part of a desire to expand my horizons and learn from different urban farms and gardens, I hope to visit examples of such endeavors in cities around the U.S. What’s more, the admirable opus of the Women’s Garden Cycles Tour has inspired me to try a little reporting on what I experience.

I whirlwinded it in Pittsburgh for three days, rising and falling over the city’s undulating terrain and exploring what I could. I had the opportunity to be a part of two different responses to vacant land in Pittsburgh. I joined some City High students and the Pennyslvania Cleanways Coalition to haul trash up a steep slope in the Hill District and into a giant dumpster, ideally discouraging further use of this vacant lot as a dumping site. Rewarding work indeed, but better still to fill the spaces drained by the exporting of industry with something constructive to combat accumulating rubbish. The following day, I made my way up the hefty grade of Pacific Ave, going north from Liberty Ave. in the Garfield/East Liberty neighborhoods. At Hillcrest St, a sign for the Healcrest Urban Community Farm invited me to “stop up!” towards the vigorous growth around the edge of these former residential plots. And so I did, climbing even a bit more into that thicket and then beholding the Farm’s resurrection of derelict urban spaces for the nourishment of the community. It was a Saturday community work day, and volunteers had stopped up to help with such tasks as felling trees, removing rubble, sawing trunks into fence posts, and digging three-foot deep fence post holes for a deer-deterrent fence.

According to Maria Graziani, the proprietress of the land and the vision of Healcrest, the farm consists of 1.7 acres of 15 pieced-together plots, formerly abandoned and tax delinquent. Maria bought seven of these lots in a city auction in early 2004 and thus the project began: a rainy spring kicked off the year-long process of cleaning up after the site’s most recent previous use as an illegal dumping grounds. As Maria puts it, “a revolving door of volunteers from in and around the Garfield community” have been the primary supplement to her own labor. Additionally, Maria, in partnership with University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, started a youth intern program at the farm in 2005; there have been paid youth interns working at Healcrest ever since. The group built the first garden in 2005. While the members of the youth crews have been the chief recipients of Healcrest’s harvests during the farm’s first three growing seasons, the produce has also supplied a fundraising event for the farm and has been sold at a weekly on-site farm stand.

Healcrest will eventually consist of visually diverse gardens separated and linked by interconnecting pathways, a fire circle, a pond, hoop-houses, and rainwater collection devices. Here is how Maria describes the present and the future at Healcrest:

“Healcrest is now in partnership with Grow Pittsburgh, a larger urban farming initiative organization that acts as our fiscal sponsor. Through this partnership, Healcrest Urban Community Farm will be looking to co-create a larger youth farming intern program. We also have forged partnerships with the UPMC St. Margaret School Partnership and will begin establishing Garden Clubs in 3 local schools, Urban League Charter School, Fort Pitt Elementary and The Neighborhood Academy. The schools will share a large school garden and the produce will supplement lunches and snacktime at each school. In addition, there will be a large garden that will house the produce we will sell directly to local businesses. Looking to provide specialty crops to the Caribbean & Asian community, like okra, sweet potato, hot pepper, thyme, lemongrass and calalloo, we will localize a produce need that definitely still participates in large distribution across states and countries. The high school intern project would revolve around these entrepreneur and community-based projects equally – teaching them how to run a farm business and how to support healthy food in schools and be positive role models to the youth younger than them.”

I was a post-hole digger for the afternoon with its hint of November chill and thick clouds shifting over patches of blue. Volunteers shared tools and swapped tasks and sometimes hit concrete or metal as we discovered foundations and pipes like buried treasure. I pictured the houses to which this land used to be host, with their killer view of the city. This was multimedia soil, replete with leavings of a human-built environment, and digging it in was a powerful act.  This group was reclaiming land for itself and this neighborhood; this work confronts dilapidation with creativity. Now it is a farm and vital community resource with a killer view of the city.

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