It's the "Year of the Farmer" at the Indiana State Fair, and that means that on each day of the fair, a different farmer will be featured. Corn and cows will be well-represented, but you'll also have the chance to meet mint-growers and urban gardeners. Maggie Goeglein Hanna fits into that latter category — she's director of the Fall Creek Gardens at 30th and Central, a sprawling field of beautiful beds right behind the brightly painted exterior walls of the Unleavened Bread Café. The work Hanna's doing — helping families in the poorer parts of the city gain access to fresh produce — has been brought into sharp focus given recent events like the closing of Indy's Double 8 Foods grocery store chain.
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NUVO: How long have you been "urban farming" — and advising other folks about this?
Maggie Goeglein Hanna: I've been growing veggies and herbs since I was a little girl, and I took the Master Gardener course here in Marion County in 2008, although I wasn't able to complete the required volunteer hours to become certified. My urban farming experience started with a year-long experiment in urban homesteading in 2010 and then continued once I was hired at Fall Creek Gardens in 2011.
NUVO: How'd you wind up at the fair this year?
Hanna: A member at a neighborhood church was able to connect us at FCG to the State Fairgrounds — in particular, we were introduced to the greenhouse manager, where we've been able to start seeds each winter for the garden. This is our first real connection to the actual fair, however, and I'm very honored to have been chosen as a Featured Farmer.
NUVO: What are the primary questions people ask?
Hanna: I hear from many people who are just getting started growing food and have lots of questions about the basics, particularly organic practices. Pest and disease management is a big one, since the "quick fix" of spraying a pesticide or herbicide isn't allowed. I also see interest in raising chickens and bees, and community gardening in general.
NUVO: What are your outreach goals?
Hanna: Our outreach goals are to be a physical resource for Mapleton-Fall Creek and nearby neighborhoods — by "physical" I mean that we want our neighbors to know that they can come and have a plot in the community garden to grow food for their families. We also are an educational resource for anyone, near or far, who wants to learn about gardening and other ways to grow and preserve food in the city through our classes, workshops, and volunteer opportunities in the demonstration garden. We'd also like to start a tool library, where you can rent gardening tools and equipment to use and return.
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NUVO: What are your concerns? Soil toxicity in urban environments? Eliminating food deserts?
Hanna: You mentioned some of our primary concerns. Growing up in smaller communities, I had no idea just how important it is to get urban soils tested for lead, other heavy metals, and pollution left behind by former industry. At FCG, for example, there used to be a Laundromat/dry cleaner which has left dangerous solvents behind in the soil. This is why we have capped the soil with a 12-inch layer of mulch and do all of our planting in beds that are at least 12 inches deep. The last thing that I want is for a family to start something as healthy as a garden, only to learn that they've exposed themselves and their children to something in the soil that causes disease or affects childhood development.
Food access is another huge issue. Gardens can't single-handedly solve all of the larger institutional problems that contribute to food deserts and the social justice side of food access in city communities, but I believe that we can be a visible, vocal part of the solution. One of our ongoing challenges at FCG is dealing with theft from the community garden plots, but the flip side of that is that people WANT fresh foods. This produce is going home with those who are taking it; it isn't just being destroyed or vandalized. The desire is there — the challenge is finding how to increase our outreach and ability to engage the community.
NUVO: Is a challenge encouraging poor and minority people to do this, or are they on board?
Hanna: This is a great question, but a tough one to generalize with a quick answer. On one hand, there are many people who live in poverty that can talk at length about the garden that their grandmother grew each year, and about helping put up tomatoes or beans each summer. Gardening has always been an important tool for keeping food — really good food — on the table. In fact, the idea for Fall Creek Gardens came about as the result of a neighborhood survey where gardening was mentioned over and over as a favorite interest or pastime by people in the community from all walks of life.
On the other hand, unless you really prioritize your garden as a way to lower your grocery bills, then for someone who is struggling financially, trying to raise children on a single income, etc., a garden can seem like way too much work — very impractical and more like a luxury or a hobby. Growing food can be hard, hot work, and that can be a real obstacle if you are already barely getting by.
NUVO: What are benefits besides cost savings? Better taste or nutrition, for example?
Hanna: I think the easiest way to answer this is to imagine a tomato that you buy in the grocery in January — and then compare that to one that you buy at a roadside stand in August. It is hard to believe they are actually the same thing, isn't it? This is true to greater and lesser degrees with just about all homegrown or homemade food, from cucumbers to eggs to home-baked bread. If you can grow that tomato for yourself, then it doesn't matter whether there's a farmers market nearby or whether you can afford to do your shopping there.
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I don't have the proper studies at my fingertips, but the general consensus is that commercial produce is grown more for shelf-life and its ability to withstand global transportation than it is for flavor or nutrient value. With organic gardening in particular, your goal is to grow rich, fertile soil which supports healthy plants and offers them an enormous array of nutrients, minerals, and micronutrients, and that has to be better for our bodies as well. The basic premise of ecology is that nothing in the world is separate or distinct, that everything is connected to and affected by everything else, and that is true for the food we grow and eat too.
There is also value to getting outside and getting exercise, and to spending some time in nature, particularly for urban communities where greenspace is very limited. With a community garden, this is also a space where you can meet neighbors that you otherwise might never know, and so we hope that the garden contributes to a sense of connectivity and place.
There is also a sense of pride when you eat something you've grown. In my experience, children will try a bite of just about anything if they planted it and helped to weed, water and harvest it. Gardening also teaches patience — nothing happens instantaneously in the garden.
NUVO: What's hip right now? What are you getting a lot of questions about? Chickens, perhaps?
Hanna: Chickens are a hot topic and so are bees. I'm also hearing a lot of interest in canning, which I think is great.Maggie says, “’My’ day at the fair is August 13th, and I'm happy to say that I'll be accompanied by several of our community gardeners and interns, who do so much of the work around here. This is truly a shared honor, and I am so glad that all of their dedication and hard work is being highlighted. We'll be at the fair all day on the 13th, from a breakfast with the Fair Board to a parade in the evening and lots of time interacting with fair-goers in between.”