The Connecticut River Coastal CD led a successful collaboration among the many people and groups that comprise, or have an interest in, Middletown’s agricultural community. It has formed the basis for what the district expects will be a long-term effort to put a larger spotlight on agriculture, support implementation of sustainable agricultural practices, build community interest and engagement in farming/backyard gardening, and make fresh local produce more accessible to those at risk of food insecurity.
Project partners were identified and recruited to participate in the effort, and convened for ten planning meetings over the grant period. Primary partners included Long Lane Farm, a cooperative student-run vegetable farm at Wesleyan University; Forest City Farms, an organic vegetable farm on City land; Middletown Regional Agriculture Science & Technology Center, a high school program drawing students from a 17-town area; North End Action Team, a community organization focused on the North End neighborhood, that has two community gardens and runs a farmers market; the Family Resource Center, which serves at-risk families at Macdonough and Farm Hill elementary schools, and runs school gardening programs; the Middletown Food Corps program, connecting kids to real food and promoting health through food/nutrition education, gardening and cooking activities, and access to farm-fresh food; a food and nutrition consultant who works on early childhood health issues; and the City Department of Planning, Conservation & Development, which supports local agriculture by leasing land to farmers, and through its Commission on Conservation and Agriculture. Other collaborators included Middletown’s Community Health Center, St. Vincent de Paul (the local soup kitchen), and the restaurant, Café 56.
The district developed conservation plans for Long Lane Farm and Forest City Farms focused on protecting natural resources and enhancing productivity, which make the farms eligible for USDA NRCS and Connecticut Farmland Restoration Program funding. The plans lay the groundwork for implementation of practices, including conservation cover to improve pollinator habitat; crop rotation for soil health; cover crops to prevent erosion; seasonal high tunnels to extend the growing season; mulching to conserve moisture, prevent compaction, reduce runoff, and control weeds; and nutrient management to ensure optimum levels and prevent nutrient run-off.
On the education and outreach side, the district planned, publicized and held a variety of well-received community activities, including the Meet the Experts Gardening Q&A at the North End Action Team Erin Street Community Garden; Put Local on Your Plate, a very popular three-part cooking series held at the Community Health Center with demonstrations led by local chefs focused on using seasonal local produce, and separate healthy food-related activities for children; spring and fall family-friendly educational farm days at Forest City Farms, with soil health, composting and beekeeping displays and resources, hands-on planting activities, farm and environmental-themed crafts, tastings of foods prepared from farm produce, live music, a farm stand and tours (with additional support from a Rockfall Foundation grant). An educational flyer on lead-safe urban gardening was developed and distributed since no appropriate resources were available for Connecticut.
What started as an NACD funded grant project has taken on a life of its own as those involved have recognized the value of meeting at the table, and working together to strengthen the agricultural community and promote access to, and use of, fresh local produce for at-risk city residents. Collaborating with a diverse group of partners has been energizing and rewarding, and has resulted in many productive, positive connections. At a December 2017 meeting, the program to date was discussed. It was clear that partners are excited about the accomplishments and are committed to keeping this effort going.
Planning for 2018 activities was started, identifying new partners to enhance our efforts, and seeking new sources of funding. The group will work more closely with the City’s Commission on Conservation and Agriculture, engage new farming operations, and collaborate with the public library on programming. In addition to continuing the popular cooking series, a spring “Getting Started Gardening” program was discussed along with supporting and enhancing the North End Farmers Market, a source of fresh, locally grown produce that provides seasonal relief from the food desert. Several items planned for the grant period but not completed yet include providing technical assistance to the downtown community gardens, and assisting with soil testing for community and home gardens.