The view from here

Guest blogger today is Rachel Gilbert, a student at Dickinson College and intern at the Joshua Farm

It was only two years ago that I was desperately searching the internet for a research topic for my Cities, Environment and Health class and happened upon the concept of urban agriculture. I read something about Cuba, and involved as I was at the time with Spanish and a budding interest in Latin America, I wrote a paper on urban agriculture in Havana. It was during the painstaking research process that I realized that an economics professor at my very own Dickinson College, Sinan Koont, had chosen the same topic for his research. Using his work and that of a few others also fascinating by the success of essentially non-certified organic urban agriculture in Cuba, I became enthralled with the idea of growing food within the limits of urban areas. It was a novel concept to me, a freshly declared Environmental Studies major with an interested in food and sustainable agriculture. I assumed that if something like this was happening in Cuba, surely it could happen in the United States. So I wrote about the potential for the US to adopt a system of urban agriculture like the one in Cuba; I concluded that it was highly unlikely in the imminent future.
After that semester, I had my heart set on getting to Cuba to see for myself what all the hype was about. The Bush administration’s restrictive travel policies put that dream on the backburner for me, so I instead jumped at the opportunity to spend a year abroad in Costa Rica and Cameroon.  I learned more about sustainable agriculture during my time in both countries, primarily witnessing different methods of sustainable coffee production. Cuba slipped from my mind a bit, occasionally popping up as I toured the urban metropolis of Yaoundé, Cameroon and saw women cultivating vast swaths of land. It popped up as I watched women and men alike carrying heavy loads of plantains to the city markets or as they unloaded taxis full of produce. But I was distracted by the exotic excitement of Yaoundé, leaving Cuba and urban agriculture in the back of my mind.
Upon my return from abroad, I was greeted with two long awaited opportunities at the onset of my senior year. The first was the option to be a part-time student and spend my free time working on a farm. Once again, the trusty web led me to urban agriculture, this time in the form of Joshua Farm in nearby Harrisburg. Serendipitously, my Environmental Policy professor at the time had also stumbled across Joshua Farm, and to everyone else’s dismay our disgruntled class spent a Saturday morning and afternoon touring the farm and other environmental justice related sites in Harrisburg. I met with Kirsten that day, and together we worked out a loose plan for the spring. I would volunteer at the farm.
Whether by coincidence or by fate, another golden opportunity I had been waiting for appeared for that spring: Dickinson was offering a course on Cuba. And thanks to the Obama administration’s loosening of the blockade, academic trips were allowed to Cuba. Lo and behold, there was a spring break travel component to the class. I applied. I got in. I read about the Revolution, about agrarian land reforms, about urban development, health care, women and urban agriculture. I packed my backpack and headed off, spending a week exploring Cuba and the better part of two days exploring the organopónicos and urban agriculture sites of Havana, with urban agriculture encyclopedia Professor Koont leading the way. It was a dream come true.
This semester I have been blessed with two amazing opportunities to explore my newfound field of interest, urban agriculture. I have gotten to see the hard work and complexity that is required to make an urban farm work, and I have seen the benefits that society and the environment accrue from such diligent work. Whether it is children of Harrisburg or children of Havana eating organically-grown produce from within their own cities, it is inspiring to see changes being made for the good of the population and environment through sustainable agriculture. I want to thank Joshua Farm for giving me the opportunity to work with them and spend some of my weekday mornings enjoying the birds, chickens, dogs, cars, and occasional sirens of Harrisburg.

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