March 27, 2017
This post is the third in a series – Letters from the Low Country – about food and agriculture in the Netherlands, written by Laura Genello as she studies organic agriculture at Wageningen University.
The Netherlands is a country with a heavily industrialized food system. Yet in between the bricks and canals of Amsterdam, nearly 200 registered urban gardens grow. On the first sunny Saturday of spring, I took a train to the western edge of the city to see one of these urban farms in action. I walked under an overpass and past a ramshackle squatter community to arrive at an orchard of tidy rows of fruit trees awakening for the season. I grabbed a pair of work gloves and joined a group of volunteers at work digging new flower and herb beds on a small hill.
The orchard was Fruittuin van West, a biodynamic, pick-your-own urban farm on the edge of the city, and the volunteers were working with Cityplot, an Amsterdam-based collective that provides urban gardening education. I caught up with Cityplot’s Amsterdam coordinator, Ann Doherty, to learn more about what they do.
Founded in 2010 by local gardeners, Cityplot has found their niche in the intersection between urban farming and education. They host an annual workshop series for gardeners, operate frequent urban farm bike tours, run an educational garden, and even offer garden consulting and management services for restaurants. Their work focuses on promoting food sovereignty, and their workshops often center around the general theme of self-sufficiency. The volunteers are here today to begin prepping the soil for Cityplot’s latest endeavor, a CSA called Pluk! Groenten van West (Pluck! Vegetables from West) that will be run on the margins of the existing orchard.
For Cityplot, the Pluk! project aims to provide a centralized hub of production and educational activities that previously were spread out on assorted small plots throughout the city. Like many CSAs, they are recruiting members to invest in the farm at the beginning of the season in exchange for a weekly (or bimonthly) share of the harvest. However, at Pluk! members will be encouraged to harvest their own produce on scheduled pick-up days, a practice that both reduces labor requirements for the farmers and promotes greater community involvement in the project. Moreover, Ann hopes members will also take advantage of the fruit offered by the orchard. Educational activities will continue at the site, and to do so, Cityplot coordinates with several government-sponsored initiatives such as boerderij-educatie (farm education), in which schools receive funding for annual farm field trips. But, as we dig the beds, Ann surveys the land that will somehow become a farm that produces food for 40 members in the next few months, and wonders aloud just how they will get all of the work done.
Cityplot faces many of the same challenges as urban growers in Baltimore, such as access to space and uncontaminated soil. The hillside on which we are working forms the walls and roof of the orchard’s farm store: an earthship built into the land for insulation. If there’s one trait urban farmers around the world share, it’s a resourceful approach to space. Like Baltimore, the city of Amsterdam helps to facilitate the growth of urban farming, by making it fairly easy for aspiring gardeners to claim a plot, and even receive some funding for startup costs. However, finding an unclaimed patch of land in the Netherlands is a challenge as old as the country. And, as in Baltimore, many of these gardens have complex social missions and cannot be funded from sales of product alone. For Ann, another challenge is ensuring the inclusivity of their programming for the city residents who may benefit the most from urban green space and food sovereignty. Urban farms and gardens are often initiatives of people who have the resources to enable them to do so, and ensuring a location and environment that promotes inclusivity for lower-income residents can often be a challenge. In choosing to locate Pluk! in this western neighborhood of Amsterdam, the Cityplot team hopes to make their services more accessible to the surrounding community.
Despite the challenges, however, as the sun starts to go down, volunteers finish turning over the sod in the last bed, and conversations in several different languages drift over the group. The draw of digging in the soil today has brought together an international team of people of varying ages. We feel productive and satisfied looking at the evidence of a job well done. As Cityplot looks to the season ahead, and the beginning of a new farm, it’s hard to deny the gravitational pull of urban agriculture.
Images: Laura Genello 2017.
This work by Laura Genello and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images in this post are not included in the Creative Commons license.