Signs of Growth

Berkeley's Student Organic Garden Association gains popularity

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Kai Ridenoure/Senior Staff

There’s a fence on Walnut Street laced with morning glories.

It extends for a city block, enclosing a quarter acre of potted baby greens, lettuce heads sitting pleasantly beside other vibrant greenery and a number of peaceful volunteers. A handmade sign on the flower-ridden fence reads: UC Berkeley Student Organic Garden Association.

“They just continue growing and growing,” said Claire Parker, senior and SOGA volunteer, looking at the morning glories.

At times, the delicate purple flowers’ tenacity has led the garden to appear more like an exclusive “secret garden” than a public space.

But the garden is open to any and all. Sitting on Walnut and Virginia streets, SOGA is a space for student gardeners and community members to explore agriculture, toy with design and simply partake in the joy of gardening. It’s a space of growth — both for plants and the urban agriculture movement, which has gained traction with larger audiences in recent years.

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Kai Ridenoure/Senior Staff

“We’re starting to see more community members walk into the garden and ask about us,” Parker said. “It wasn’t like that before, but that’s our goal — we want people to know we’re here.”

SOGA was founded in 1971 as a student project. A group of students wanted a space to learn sustainable agricultural practices first hand. Now well into its 43rd year, it’s gaining the attention of people outside traditional ecocircles.

Today, many college students spend their summers WWOOF-ing — exploring these new agricultural landscapes through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Growing kale and herbs is common practice.

Even succulents are cool.

According to Kathryn De Master, professor of sociology and political ecology of agrofood systems, within the last few years, urban dwellers and young people have shown increased interest in local farms and sustainable production across the nation.

“(Farmer) is a really interesting, shifting definition right now,” De Master said. “One definition is someone who makes a livelihood by producing food for others. But today farming is a profession that more people identify with. That wasn’t the case before. It’s a big cultural shift.”

For professor Miguel Altieri, however, this change is not just a matter of culture — it’s also a necessity of the times.

“The issues of urban agriculture and food became really popular as people realized that all crises of our times — natural disasters, obesity, poverty, climate change — are connected with food systems,” said the environmental science, policy and management professor.

SOGA is a local example of this global phenomenon. It’s one of more than 30 public gardens in Berkeley, the majority of which sit in the city’s public schools.

“When I wrote my graduate thesis in 2008 on urban agriculture, is was a bit of an anomaly — people didn’t know what I was talking about,” said Jezra Thompson, the school district’s gardening and cooking program supervisor.

“But today, you see interest in urban farming across the board — from policies at the state level to the fact that we have a school board interested in integrating a garden-based program into the our curriculum,” Thompson said.

Last year, the Berkeley Unified School District agreed to provide one-time funding this year for the gardening and cooking program, becoming the first district in the nation to support a districtwide garden program.

The university has also shown greater interest in these green movements. In July, UC President Janet Napolitano announced the UC Global Food Initiative — an effort across the UC system to support healthy eating, sustainable agriculture and food security. Recently, the College of Natural Resources also announced the launch of a new minor in food systems.

These studies focus on time outside of the classroom. That’s where SOGA comes in.

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Kai Ridenoure/Senior Staff

“My philosophy is that we can change the world, one garden at a time,” Altieri said. Each fall, his students plant their own garden bed at SOGA. Students’ grades are based on the plants’ survival.

This in itself can be quite an ambitious learning curve for some students, but it’s only a small part of a larger lesson on the need for just food systems, said Altieri.

Gardening, it turns out, is about more than just the educational benefits for many students new to the trade.

“It’s important for student’s emotional and physical well-being,” said SOGA’s summer operations intern, Matt Duffett on student access to spaces for field work.

It’s also about community. Kate Kaplan, a manager at SOGA, encourage students to close the gap that persists between the university and its surrounding communities. Kaplan facilitates the Berkeley Urban Garden Internship decal, which brings students to the garden on a weekly basis.

This community is evident at the end of a busy work day Sunday, as the volunteers gather around for a potluck. As SOGA continues to grow in popularity and size, it maintains its focus on the building blocks of the organization: individual volunteers.

“I don’t identify as a farmer,” Parker said, chewing the mint leaves picked earlier in the day.

“But then again,” she mused, “I think everyone has a little bit of a farmer in them.”

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