Originally published in Maryland Today | Written by Sara Levin
On a steamy July morning, in a small community garden between the First Tabernacle Beth El church and a rowhome featuring Baltimore’s characteristic white marble steps, Neith Little points out the segments on the body of a beetle peacefully crawling around in the soil she cups in her hands.
“The segments are not as obvious on this guy because he doesn’t have much of a waist,” she said, helping clue in an observer as to what kind of bug he might be. “He’s a chubby, chubby beetle.”
Little, the University of Maryland’s urban agriculture extension educator for Baltimore, is leading a small group of urban farmers and backyard gardeners through a hands-on (and hands-dirty) session of Farmer Field School, a program she’s run since 2017, reaching some 400 people over the years. In today’s class, students are learning about soil textures and invertebrate identification while also harvesting crops and preparing part of the garden for a new shed. It’s all part of a larger effort to help city farmers gain the skills to raise crops for their own use or for sale–especially important in places like Baltimore where many residents live in food deserts.
“Believe it or not, there are about 25 farms in the city that sell at least part of what they produce,” said Little.
This community garden belongs to the Ashland Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that offers community services in East Baltimore. It’s one of the partners that University of Maryland Extension teams up with to reach people throughout the state for informal education on topics like woodland stewardship, watershed protection and restoration, and food safety and preservation.
On this day, folks from a variety of backgrounds have gathered to sharpen their urban agriculture skills. Morgan Jackson and Maggie Flaherty work in a quarter-acre city farm belonging to Atwater’s, a restaurant and specialty foods company with four locations. In the summer, they grow eggplant, squash, tomatoes, green beans and flowers, then sell the crops in a market in its Catonsville location, cook them up for staff meals or give them to employees to take home.
“Now that I have my footing at Atwater’s farm, I really want to connect more with urban growers in Baltimore City,” said Jackson, who hopes to add flax, sesame and crops from her colleagues’ home countries to the farm. “There’s a lot of knowledge to share, and camaraderie, too.”
As some gardeners picked basil and the classically Baltimorean fish pepper, others took in a lesson on how to assess their soil’s texture: silty, sandy or clay-y. “I like to say that your soil texture is like your family,” said Little. “You get what you get, and you’re stuck with it unless you move somewhere else.”
Backyard gardener Geraldine Willis brought along her own family connection that day: her 14-year-old granddaughter. “I’m trying to interest her in the outdoors,” Willis said. “She spends a lot of time indoors. She doesn’t like bugs.”
Willis, who grows cucumbers, zucchini, red beans, snow peas and more in her garden, hopes that her granddaughter will learn to take up her own innate love of dirt and everything that sprouts from it. “I’m very much an earth sign–I’m a Virgo–so I can’t help it,” she said. “I’m so grounded. I’m in the soil all the time.”