The Fairbanks Soil and Water Conservation District (FSWCD) worked to address food insecurity issues in the low-income neighborhood of Bjerremark by making urban agriculture accessible to the public. In fall 2016, the district surveyed the neighborhood to determine what barriers residents faced in growing food, and to get a sense of what classes they would like to have available. Results showed many residents lacked the knowledge or experience to grow their own food and didn’t know where to start.
Through diverse partnerships across Fairbanks that ranged from UAF Cooperative Extension, Fairbanks Community Food Bank, Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), churches and others, FSWCD created a 12-class agricultural curriculum. The classes addressed how to garden from start to finish through hands-on activities and workshops. Topics included garden bed preparation, soil nutrition, seed starting, container gardening, growing herbs, weed management, hands-on planting, preservation, garden tours, berries and jam and cooking classes. Agricultural technical assistance and conservation planning were highlighted throughout classes in partnership with NRCS. To reduce barriers for residents, classes were free of charge and child care was provided.
Many Bjerremark residents live in transient housing and are unable to build garden beds or lack startup funds. FSWCD partnered with landowning organizations in the neighborhood—Fairbanks Neighborhood Housing and the Corinthian Baptist Church—who were interested in hosting community gardens. By soliciting donations, using recycled materials, and partnering with local volunteer groups, two new community gardens with 32 new beds were created at zero cost to the host organizations. Local residents participated in building the beds and grew food for the first time in 2017.
FSWCD supported an existing community garden at JP Jones Community Development Center by partnering with their Summer Food Program for at-risk youth. FSWCD offered free afternoon agricultural lessons to participants using the available garden space, and by pairing agricultural education with food programs, children begin to think about where their food comes from and the value of growing it themselves.
This grant contributed to and advanced the urban agriculture movement within the Bjerremark Neighborhood. FSWCD supported the existing fledgling South Side Farmers Market through mutual promotion of the importance of growing and purchasing local foods. Through hands-on educational workshops with both adults and children, FSWCD spread agricultural knowledge and expertise. And by creating community gardens, there are now easily accessible places for residents to grow their own food in perpetuity.
The two new community gardens in the Bjerremark neighborhood will continue to thrive from the coordination and partnership that FSWCD created throughout the summer. Both gardens have appointed leadership and garden groups to lead decision making regarding participation, overall maintenance and problem solving. Pathways were forged with farmers who now know the community gardens accept donations of excess plant starts for upcoming seasons. Many of the participating gardeners attended the gardening workshops on soil health, seed starting, plant care and composting, and will be able to apply these tools and knowledge to the community gardens.
As part of the Urban Agriculture grant, FSWCD offered free soil sampling to Bjerremark residents and fertilizer recommendations specific to the soils. These tests enabled gardeners to actively manage their soil nutrients and contribute to the overall soil health.
During the Urban Agriculture Program, FSWCD applied for and was awarded an AmeriCorps VISTA with a three-year contract. One of the VISTA’s duties is to compile all materials from the 12 agricultural classes and combine them into 3-4 easy-to-use teaching curricula that can be used by Master Gardeners to teach the public and fulfill their program’s volunteer hours.
The gardens are a continuing presence in the Bjerremark neighborhood and are a testament to the plausibility of successful community gardens in in Fairbanks. They serve as an inspiration to current and future urban gardeners.