Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Volunteer's Perspective

The 2014 farming season is my first volunteer season at City Green. With that in mind I am honored to have the opportunity to contribute a post to the City Green blog about my experience.

I learned about City Green when the recipients of the 2014 Dig In! grants were publicized in March 2014. A change in my employment circumstances had recently opened up an opportunity to take on new volunteer work. As a hobby gardener I’ve been interested in growing vegetables, and from some reading on environmental issues I have come to believe that small farms and community gardens can have a significant positive impact on the health of the community and even on the global environment.

Pat hard at work weeding the squash

City Green offers the opportunity to satisfy both of those interests and make a small contribution to the greater good. It does this through its educational and outreach programs and through its Farm facility in Clifton. I had hoped to work at an educational program in Paterson, but the cancellation of an event put that hope on hold temporarily. No worries, though. There is always work to be done at the City Green Schultheis Farm, and that is where I have spent my volunteer hours.

Volunteer work is like an internship. It should be a learning experience for the participant at the same time as it provides the organization with labor. In some organizations however, interns and volunteers spend their time chained to the various pieces of equipment that the organization employs in accomplishing its mission, with little learning taking place. That does not happen at City Green, and that makes volunteering there such a great experience.

The City Green staff members are passionate about their work and mission, and they pass that passion on to the volunteers. Because the mission of City Green includes “cultivating education in public health, nutrition and the environment,” the staff members also take advantage of every opportunity to teach. What have I learned as a volunteer? Among other things, I’ve learned

     Some of the history of the organization, of course.
     How City Green came to the Schultheis Farm, and what had to be done (and still has to be done) to make the City Green Schultheis farm a productive organic farm.
     That City Green has an impressive range of outreach and educational programs from its summer camp programs to its support of community gardens throughout northern New Jersey to its work with men and women in transition at the Straight and Narrow organization in Paterson.
     Some of the soil conditions that facilitated or hindered the growth of the crops planted during the 2014 season.
     That carrots are harvested with an implement that looks like a prop from a slasher movie.
     That it takes about two full days for the smell of fish emulsion to wash out of one’s hands.
     That a high concentration of wood chips in the soil can inhibit a plant’s intake of nitrogen.
     That the purple hyssop that grows in the flower garden above the parking lot at City Green Schultheis Farm is a native species, is a member of the mint family, and has a square stem, as do all members of the mint family.

So City Green is a great organization for lifelong learners, but there’s also real work to be done. Having spent three years living among dairy farmers in New York’s Mohawk Valley, I did not harbor any illusions about the nature of the work I would be asked to do. I expected to get dirty, sweat, raise blisters, and go home tired. I was not disappointed in those expectations.

Pat and his wife Jody seen in the far back weeding along with other farm volunteers

What kind of work have I done during my volunteer sessions?

     Raked the ground to get it ready for planting.
     Planted seeds and seedlings.
     Pulled and hoed weeds.
     Dispensed fish emulsion fertilizer.
     Raked wood chips.
     Spread mulch.
     Picked and sampled some of the best strawberries I’ve ever eaten.

Working for City Green, and in particular working at City Green Schultheis Farm, has some intangible benefits as well. Traffic noises from the local roads are constant, yet there’s always a song sparrow, killdeer, mockingbird, or cardinal nearby calling out above the roar of the trucks and motorcycles. With equal parts courage and patience one can crouch down and watch a constant exchange of honeybees at the beehive, or one can observe bees and butterflies as they shuttle among the many flowers that have been planted on the grounds. Willie, Harry, and George, recent additions to the farm family, are as entertaining as any cat videos on YouTube.

I am grateful to City Green for the opportunity to contribute, in however small a measure, to their great work. It is my hope that the tribe of volunteers will grow as news about that work continues to spread throughout northern New Jersey.

by Pat Walsh

Pat Walsh volunteers at City Green along with his wife, Jody. He enjoys gardening, hiking, and writing and is a member of the Bloomfield Civic Band.

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