Urban Farming is not an NGO or a company. It is an initiative to help urbanites come together and form a real community. As nice as it may be to make dinner with food you’ve grown yourself, this garden is about social change, not just food.
If you’ve spent any time in Eastern Europe as a child, then you’ve definitely had at least one neighbor who grew tomatoes on her balcony, inside of used yogurt containers. Come fall, and that same balcony would turn into a miniature factory for grilled peppers and jars of pickles. Perhaps the memory makes you tear up with joy, or maybe you are rolling your eyes, annoyed by all the playtime you missed because of having to peel those peppers. Either way, one thing is certain – our mothers and grandmothers grew and prepared food in an urban environment because they had to, not because they really wanted to. Now that there is an unimaginable diversity of products at arm’s length, store-bought produce is becoming increasingly perfect looking, yet tasteless. That’s why some city dwellers are going back to urban farming. However, this time poverty is not the drive. It’s people’s desire to provide better food for their families and live healthier, happier lives.
I learned about Urban Farming through social media. They had an open doors day and so my friend I embarked on a journey to the Druzhba neighborhood in Sofia. There, we met Nikola, the driving force behind the initiative. He helped us learn about what it is like to have a vegetable garden in the midst of apartment buildings, as well as how the urban farmer community has quadrupled over the past year.
What motivates you to be here?
My protest against the way the country is being run and my desire to show that we can lead more connected lives. This initiative is my way of counteracting the isolation of individuals in the city. Sometimes, we tend to reach for whatever we can grab, we try to be the best at everything, each on our own, and so we keep competing instead of cooperating. I wanted to show that people can work together, help and be kind to each other, without any financial incentive.
How did you get started?
In 2012, in the Nadezhda neighborhood, some friends and I created the first communal garden in Sofia. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay there the next year, because the municipality decided to plant their own garden. Although we had to leave, we didn’t give up. Instead, we planted micro gardens, of 1-2m2 all over the neighborhood. Then, in 2015, the municipal company Pazari Yug received this plot and because they had no use for it, they contacted me through Hrankoop. They let us use 10 acres of their land, free of charge. Since their mandate expires in 3 years, we really hope to have such a good relationship with the next management as well.
How did you decide to take up urban farming?
By education, I am a historian and was inspired by the piece of history that I was studying at the time. At a conference in Vienna, where I went to university, there was a discussion about the city’s history from the 19th century and I noticed that inside the inner walls there were large gardens. As it turned out, they were used to grow food. This sparked my interest on the topic and I started researching it. Actually, urban farming exists in many places. The oldest garden is in the German town Augsburg. It is a 600-year old communal garden and is used just for herbs. However, the municipality helps out there.
How does the garden here work?
This is a shared, semi-communal garden. Anyone can get their own plot and work on producing their own food. However, helping and supporting each other is a must. If anyone needs a hand, be it a neighbor near you or a newcomer from the other end of the garden, we all do our best to help. Every now and again we also organize communal activities, such as mowing the entire garden.
In the spring, we swap seeds but if someone misses that moment, they’d have to bring their own seedlings. What we provide here is the land, water, security, machines and tools, as well as the help and guidance of other urban farmers. All of this is free. The municipal company Pazari Yug takes care of the water and security, while the machines are private property. Everyone brings whatever they have and shares it with the rest of us. Besides, every time one of the participants brings lunch, someone else has made desert, and another – something to drink. We share as much as we can.
It sounds like you’re trying to build a community, not just grow a garden.
Yes, we have been a community since day one. The people who worked on the communal garden in Nadezhda still go out together. Actually, the purpose of this initiative is more to create a community, than to grow vegetables. The produce is what brought us together, but what really matters is that here everyone has somebody to count on. You can share and connect with the others as much as you feel like, nothing is ever mandatory or forced.
How many participants do you have?
We were 40 until today but we are 43 now. Last year we were just 10 and only 4 of us had actual gardens. The others just came to help.
What kind of people come to Urban Farming?
All kinds. Still, they’re mostly young, between the ages 25-35, highly educated, typical city dwellers. Our oldest participant is 77 and the youngest – just a few days old.
Do people need gardening experience to come here?
No, almost everyone who comes has no clue about gardening, but there is always someone more experienced who is willing to help and guide you through the process.
What can you plant here?
Everything that grows in Sofia and is permitted by the law (laughs).
Are there people who grow enough food at Urban Farming to feed themselves?
Yes, last year about 60% of the food on my table came from my garden here. One of the participants has a pretty big plot at the moment, so when his produce is ready, he’d probably be able to substitute about 80% of the food that he would otherwise buy.
If someone wants to start a garden here, what do they have to do?
It’s best to message us on Facebook so that we can make an appointment and you can come on site, to take a look at the plot and ask all the questions you need answered.
We strive to run the gardens on the principle of democracy, by voting, expressing our opinions, and exchanging knowledge. There is no leader or manager here – everyone shares equal rights and responsibilities. So, newcomers are free to choose whatever plot they like, out of the ones we have left.
What motivates people to come here?
I don’t know (laughs). Most just say that they want to grow their own food. A lot of people want to take a break from city life, be it just for an afternoon. As you can see, we are in the city, there are apartment buildings next to our plot, we are easily accessible from the center. Yet it is quiet and beautiful here. You can even look at it as a park that we all take care of.
How do you deal with animals and do you use pesticides?
Surprisingly, there aren’t many pests. The worst is a flock or partridge, who live in the field near us. Last year they pecked away at my neighbor’s tomatoes because that was the first thing they must have seen. My tomatoes were right behind and were spared (laughs). So, if you are going to plant in partridge country, you should use a net to cover your plants. There are butterflies as well but we don’t use any pesticides, just blue vitriol (copper sulfate).
How are you going to develop the garden from now on?
We have a few beehives now and will install 15-20 more. The honey here is amazing! I’ve seriously never tasted such good honey.
We are also looking for someone to take on flowers and herbs exclusively because we’d like to have more diversity in the gardens.
While I was chatting to Nikola, Kiro and Nikolay joined us. Two typical city dwellers, on their first trip to Urban Farming. They were happy to share what brought them to the gardens and how they are planning to grow in the urban farming world.
Nikolay: “I’ve seen communal gardens in large European cities. People just plant stuff and it looks cool. Although I’ve never really tried gardening before, I like to bring home flowers seedlings, when I travel. So I’d like to plant a few flowers here as well. We were also discussing getting a beehive, but that’s a bit too ambitious for now.”
Kiro: “You’re like that guy from the children’s book that made plans about what he was going to buy with the money from his eggs, before even getting them to the market. Lots of flashy farming plans” (both laughing).
Why are you doing urban farming on a Saturday, instead of having a beer at some park?
Nikolay: “Oh, I am going for beers at the park once we’re done here (laughs). But I guess it would feel good to make something with my own two hands, to see it grow and then taste the results.”
Kiro: “I am motivated by the opportunity to eat food that I’ve grown myself. I won’t have to buy from the store, where fruits and vegetables are not of high quality. Besides, I enjoy working the land – as a child, I used to help my father and I’ve always like it. And the initiative itself seems pretty interesting as well. I thought that there would be cool people here and now I see that they are mostly young, so I am sure it would be fun.”
As I walked around, taking pictures of the gardens, I noticed Tsvety. I had never seen someone digging holes so happily, and I just had to ask her a few questions.
How did you find Urban Farming?
On Facebook, last year. I really wanted to come but kept procrastinating because I thought that everyone here knew each other and I was worried that I’d feel uncomfortable. But this spring, at the farmer’s market on Oborishte str., I met Nikola – the initiator or Urban Farming. He told me more about the gardens and I decide to come see for myself. On my first visit, Nikola said, “Just choose a plot and start digging!” (laughs). And now I love it!
My family has a bit of land in two villages, but I never thoughts I would do farming. Yet now I feel like I have discovered myself here. Spending time in the gardens is the best way to relax.
What are you planting?
Strawberries, basil, rosemary, oregano, stuff like that. I will start small.
Do you have any gardening experience?
Up until now, I had no clue about farming. I didn’t even know which tool you’re supposed to start with. But everyone here is incredibly helpful and I am also learning by example.
If you’d like to try something different this summer and be healthier, getting a plot at Urban Farming might be a great idea.
Would you ever try growing your own food? Share in the comments below 🙂[/vc_column_text][/vc_column]
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