In preparation for the Bennett Community Farm's upcoming season, the Chester Housing Authority decided to look south for inspiration, and found it in Cuba, a nation where an increasing proportion of the agricultural production takes place in cities.
Natania Schaumburg, who manages CHA's two-acre farm, spent nearly two weeks in the Caribbean country this past winter to learn more about the farmers' small-scale, organic farming methods and food sovereignty (the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food) efforts, and apply some of the methods to Chester's largest source for homegrown fresh, healthy food. "The techniques I learned about in Cuba will further our goals of producing the highest quality, nutrient dense produce without the use of chemicals," said Schaumburg. "Some of the growing methods I saw while there inspired me to creatively use space that is otherwise unfit for growing.
"While in Cuba, Schaumburg visited 10 farms, ranging from small family farms with five to six employees to 25-plus acre farms with more than 150 employees. She learned how Cuban farmers creatively work with different spaces of land, whether it be with "organoponicos" (city gardens with raised beds), "backyard gardens" (an individually maintained plot for personal consumption only), or intensely terraced hillsides, which help prevent soil erosion and direct storm water. "Seeing the terraced hillsides has given me inspiration for further plantings on the hillside at the Ruth Bennett Community Farm," said Schaumburg. "I'd love to one day have a productive fruit orchard on the hillside utilizing some of the methods I saw.
"She was reminded of the benefits of intercropping, which involves planting beneficial plants alongside other main crops to deter harmful insects while attracting pollinators, and is excited to implement that method into the farm.While some of the Cuban farmers' methods were so drastically different than those used at the Bennett Farm – such as the fact that many farms use oxen to plow soil – Schaumburg commented that their philosophy was the same as the Bennett's: Chemical-free produce is key to healthy bodies and healthy land.
That has been the guiding philosophy since the start of the Bennett Farm more than a decade ago – to give Chester residents access to fresh produce so they could lead healthier lives. "The first few years we had our fingers crossed hoping that our small community garden would survive," said Steven Fischer, CHA Executive Director. "Once it survived those early years, we were able to expand it and bring in people like Natania who are sophisticated in urban farming. We make investments like the Cuba educational training trip to ensure this is a well thought out effort that has a course for the future."
Bennett Farm has been on a consistent year-over-year growth pattern, engaging more long-term funders and finding ways to be self-sufficient, such as selling the produce. This summer, CHA will run a weekly farm stand on Thursdays from June 6 through the end of October, supplying The Food Trust's "Food Bucks" to customers who shop at the market and accepting EBT/ACCESS and WIC/Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) vouchers.