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Gardening tools in place of firearms? - Community gardens could be social and economic game changers

About six years ago, Carl Awsumb read a front-page article in a Memphis newspaper about the amount of violent crime in the city and how it seems that practically everybody was buying a firearm and learning how to use it.

“I was so horrified by that,” he recalls.

That article was the necessary catalyst prompting Carl to nurture the growth of new found neighborliness through work on a community garden.

He was nearing retirement and eager to use his time to support the city he loves. The garden, which was started as a raised bed in the parking lot of The Commons in Binghampton, seemed like a logical place to combat the negative perceptions and realities people seem all too eager to highlight in the city.

“Sometimes people are worried about what they’re going to do in retirement and I realize I had the easiest transition of anybody I knew,” Carl says, and he began to recruit others like him to help.

Today, a core of about 10 people contribute to the work and Carl sees people from all backgrounds that live in the neighborhood connecting with each other over the primal experience of growing food together, and realizing some modest economic benefits.

The group soon understood that to have the greatest impact they would need to engage young people and offer modest financial incentives. Two years ago they began paying small amounts during harvest time — a dollar a pint for Cherry tomatoes, for example, that the children would then see sold at market for $3.

“Then we could start the whole dialogue about what you do with the other $2, for next Saturday, next season, next year,” Carl says.

In months when there is no harvest, there is a heap of work to do and a flat rate of $5 per hour is paid to people helping prepare for the next season.

“It gives us a chance to talk to them about the meaning of work and what they’re going to do with that $5,” Carl says.

Everyone understands that funds are limited and the money will not last, yet if they want to reap the benefits of next harvest, they can decide to continue working after the funds dry up.

It has not been easy to bring everyone together, he admits. Mistrust still exists between different groups of people in parts of the city, yet progress is being made as the initiative continues to expand.

The more Carl learns, the more he says he believes that urban agriculture could be an answer to many of the problems facing cities today, both economically and socially.

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