The Blair CD started planning its Urban Ag Program by working with established partners in the community. The goal was to convene different stakeholders in the community, further build capacity, and help develop a long-term urban ag program for the district. Staff met with the Healthy Blair County Coalition and municipalities in Blair, which requires stormwater permits for state and federally regulated Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4), to request assistance reaching people who may be interested in learning about urban agriculture practices.
The program needed to be built from the ground up, involving grassroot partners. Through this outreach, the Healthy Blair County Coalition partnership proved to be effective. A new “Urban Ag Network” was developed through the coalition’s network of hospitals, schools, churches and human service organizations.
The goal for the Urban Ag Program is to enlist new/beginning urban farmers, excite citizens about eating wholesome food, increase stormwater infiltration through municipal-owned gardens, and help urban farmers find market outlets.
The district hosted a variety of “urban farming” workshops. Collaborating with a group of direct market farmers in the region who are vetted as qualified educators and mentors, the district organized workshops to teach basic urban farming practices. They were designed to provide “how-to” tools and connect farmers/mentors to new/beginner urban farmers.
To engage local government, district staff met with municipalities who hold MS4 permits to explore how to use urban ag sites for harvesting rainwater and improving soil infiltration to help meet the requirements. It was also a goal to create opportunity for citizens in food deserts to grow, sell and consume locally grown products by eliminating barriers and address potential zoning issues.
Two bus tours, an urban ag symposium and a Farm2Fork event were held to engage elected officials, city planners and economic developers. Those involved demonstrations of community gardens, roof-top gardens and development of green space for urban development and potential economic opportunities.
Current efforts have been about building capacity, educating staff and the community about urban agriculture, and finding key partners who will help continue the urban ag work. The first step was finding like-minded people in our community who wanted to learn about urban farming or become urban farmers. An email distribution list (Blair County Urban Ag Network) was created and a Facebook page started. Through these channels, information is distributed about upcoming events and educational material are posted.
The partners gained are essential to the program’s sustainability. Those include: statewide urban ag group lead by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture; Urban Ag contact within USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service; Altoona City Council and Altoona Planning Commission. Communications is maintained with teams of economic development organizations: Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission, Altoona-Blair County Development Corporation, and the Republic Food Enterprise Center. Staff members of all the organizations listed are part of the 200-member Urban Ag Network to ensure continued communication and planning.
Under district guidance, there are now five urban gardens planned for installation in the next few years, and two gardens have already been installed by organization who were awarded private mini-grants.