Friday, April 17, 2009

The People's Garden At USDA: From Green Fever Dream To Rapid Reality

When Ob Fo stopped by USDA's DC headquarters at the Jamie Whitten building yesterday to check out the progress of the People's Garden, it was a veritable beehive of activity (although there won't be a beehive installed anytime soon), in order to get the garden ready for USDA's Farm to Fork Festival, the April 22nd Earth Day event. There was a big crew of workers building raised beds and hauling flats of starter crops, garden designer and National Resources Conservation Service landscape architect Bob Snieckus was on hand with his partners, and People's Garden project director Valerie Frances was sitting on the ground, sorting though her note cards, deciding what veggies were going to go where. Secretary Vilsack wasn't around to watch his enthusiastic employees, however, because he'd just left for the first ever Group of Eight (G8) Agricultural Ministerial in Treviso, Italy, where he'll be confabbing with global leaders about the world food supply.

Ms. Frances (pictured) and Mr. Snieckus took the time to chat with Ob Fo, and both are completely thrilled with the project. Mr. Sneickus has been working on transitioning the overall landscaping at USDA headquarters to organic management for at least two years. And despite the fact that she's officially the executive director of the National Organic Standards Board, and thus beyond busy to begin with, Ms. Frances is delighted to be in charge of the garden. But Ms. Frances said that during the initial garden ground busting on Lincoln's Birthday Bicentennial, she wasn't even aware that a garden was being planned.

"A friend sent me the news release about the asphalt breaking, and the next day I went out to see the parking lot," Ms. Frances said. "And I thought wow, cool, maybe something is really going to happen here!" On March 23rd, Ms. Frances was asked to lead this phase of the project, and she happily accepted.

For the last three weeks, it's been one long happy veggie-addled slog. Mr. Snieckus's plan for the People's Garden has something to interest every kind of gardener, and to illustrate various ways of gardening. There's a section for containers, there will be trellises, there's a bioswale and rain garden section to illustrate water conservation, there's even a ceremonial section called The Three Sisters Garden, to showcase traditional foodcrops of Native Americans: Beans, corn, and squash. Mr. Snieckus said that rather than waiting three years to transition the garden to organic status, raised garden beds are being built of reclaimed local timber from downed trees, and organic soil is being brought in. The Rodale Institute has provided hundreds of pounds of organic compost, because USDA's own facility, the Agriculture Research Service in Maryland, was accidentally mixing in flatware that was made primarily of biodegradable materials, but which also had plastic binders.

"They were doing everything else right with the composting," Ms. Frances said. "The turnings, everything, but the plastic was getting in, and you can't have that in an organic garden. We'll use them when they work that out."

Ms. Frances said that most of the young transplants for the garden are coming from Tuscarora Organic Growers, a cooperative of Pennsylvania family farms that distributes organic produce and crops to the Pennsylvania/DC/Maryland gardening and restaurant worlds. She said that Tuscarora has been great, and that she's hoping to bring in Maryland growers for the next round of planting, for the Summer crops. At the moment, the Spring crops being put into the garden need to be able to withstand frost.

"You can get frost here until almost Memorial Day," Ms. Frances said. "So right now we're doing lettuces, beets, chard, spinach, cilantro, parsley, and the whole family of cole crops--broccoli, kale collards. We're going to seed radishes because they come up really quick, and some peas. In the containers, we'll have a whole bunch of herbs, mints, and edible flowers, like violas and pansies." (In picture: Ms. Frances, another USDA volunteer gardener, and Mr. Snieckus)

Ms. Frances said that she finds the whole project "unbelievably exciting," after having toiled away at USDA during the Bush years, when things were very very different. She's particularly enthusiastic about what's going on for next week's Earth Day celebration.

"Lakota Nation Elders will be in the area next week, and we're going to do a blessing of the seeds. The corn we're planting is traditional dent corn, which Native Americans used to make flour." Ms. Frances smiled. "I just can't believe we're doing this."

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is across the street from USDA, and on April 25 and 26 they're having a series of special events to highlight how native communities of the Chesapeake utilized natural resources.

Another excellent element of the Earth Day celebration: Ms. Frances said that 24,000 packets of organic heirloom seeds have been donated by Seeds of Change and Southern Seed Exchange, and these will be handed out during the event.

"That's amazing," Ms. Frances said.

It seems as if every aspect of the garden has now been thoroughly considered, down to tiny details like the kind of buffer plants to be used to keep rainwater from the adjacent parking lot from contaminating the organic part of the garden, and how to keep de-icing salt from passing trucks from getting on the garden beds in the winter.

"We're planting all kinds of tall and native grasses around the perimeter of the garden," Ms. Frances said. "It's good as an educational planting, and great for protection."

Ms. Frances said she's not sure how long she'll remain in charge of the project, given her "day job."

"They're looking for someone to oversee the garden full time, " Ms. Frances said. "Someone to troubleshoot on sight."

All the same, she's already requested a greenhouse so the garden plants can be started from seed. "It's not very carbon efficient to have to truck in your plants," Ms. Frances said. "But right now we have to to make this happen."

Secretary Vilsack gave the greenhouse the green light. As Ob Fo said yesterday--congratulations to the Secretary and his staff for making the People's Garden a reality. Regular readers of Obama Foodorama know that back in February, Ob Fo cried rotten beets after Secretary Vilsack busted pavement on Lincoln's Birthday Bicentennial for what seemed to be a largely fictitious People's Garden. The reveal that it was then primarily a publicity stunt: A damning conversation with USDA's own press rep Terry Bish, in which he admitted that firm plans for a food garden weren't really in place when the Secretary grabbed the jackhammer. There was also a photo (above) of the Secretary holding garden plans handed out to the media, and these plans turned out to be for an entirely different USDA project. The photo remains on USDA's website; compare it to the actual plans for the People's Garden at the top of this post. There was also a bizarrely changed press release posted on USDA's own website; the initial press release for the People's Garden didn't mention a word about food crops being grow in the incipient garden. As originally conceived, the People's Garden was supposed to be a 'teachable moment' for conservation, energy, and water issues. But as excitement built in the media and blogopshere about an organic food garden at USDA, the plans seem to have changed accordingly. Especially after First Lady Michelle Obama visited the USDA as part of her thank-you tour of government agencies, and spoke glowingly of community gardens across America. Then, FLOTUS broke ground for her own garden at the White House, it became international news, and the rest is history. Organic gardening is an unstoppable train, and now, there really is a model food garden being built at the USDA headquarters, which will be seen by millions of visitors to DC each year. So there will be no more quibbling with the fact that the garden was something of a stunt to begin with...the fact is, it's now real. Also worth mentioning: Based on the e mails Ob Fo gets from newly happy USDA employees, Secretary Vilsack's garden plans have drawn his own already sustainability minded employees out of the woodwork. Longtime USDA employees--and most of them have very long tenures--who were very quiet about their own personal Ag politics regarding organic practices during the Bush eras are now feeling much freer to speak up, just because of the garden. That's a swell thing for the Department, too. And a swell thing for Secretary Vilsack.

*The USDA's Farm to Fork Festival for Earth Day will be in front of the Whitten Building on the National Mall, 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM; there will be interactive demonstrations and information for children and adults about composting, organics, beekeeping, pollinators, soil, destructive bugs, and MyPyramid. "Special guests" include Woodsy Owl, Sammy Soil and Power Panther. Secretary Vilsack will be making an appearance at 10:30 AM. USDA is also sponsoring a day-long conference on Global Food Security--Monitoring The Earth's Resources. Go here for details.