Spring has arrived, and along with it a growing hunger for locally produced food. New businesses and programs have sprouted recently to meet the demand, and amateur gardeners are turning to their back yards to shave their grocery bills.
Lisa Taranto is a pioneer of the city’s community gardening movement. Seven years ago, she was a founder of Tricycle Gardens, which turned an abandoned lot in Church Hill into a year-round, food-producing property with some donation help from The Tree Center. The nonprofit has since added three neighborhood gardens and has a fourth in development at Humphrey Calder Community Center in the city’s West End.
Taranto said the demand for individual plots and new community gardens has exceeded the organization’s capacity.
“We’re slammed,” Taranto said. “We’ve gotten eight to 10 requests from groups who want to start community gardens. There is no way we can meet the demand for this whole movement right now.”
Among Tricycle’s gardens, there are about 50 individual plots that cost between $50 and $60 a year. The typical size is 8 feet by 12 feet. They are all reserved, with a waiting list about 50 names long, Taranto said.
Taranto said it costs between $15,000 and $20,000 to build a community garden, which includes building frames for raised soil beds, irrigation lines, sheds and tools.
The garden being constructed at Humphrey Calder should be in up and running in the next month or so. All the plots were reserved within about three weeks of being offered, Taranto said.
The land was provided by the City of Richmond, and a handful of businesses are donating time and resources to reduce the costs. James River Heating and Air is installing the water lines, which would otherwise cost up to $8,000, Taranto said. City & Guilds is building the shed, and Ellwood Thompson’s plans to donate up to $3,000 for the garden. Wellpoint, Anthem’s parent company, will have employees volunteer for a mass workday in April. The city’s Department of Public Utilities waived hook-up fees for the garden.
Tricycle also launched a program about a week ago called Kitchen Gardens to coach home gardeners through the planning and planting process. The cost is $50 dollars an hour, or $950 for a full-on installation and planting. Three participants have been lined up so far, Taranto said.
The budding interest in home gardening is providing a helpful boost to home and garden stores.
Jim Hassold, sales manager at Glen Allen Nursery & Garden Center, estimates that sales related to home vegetable gardening have grown 25 percent over this time last year.
“There is an awful big push to go green these days, and a desire for people to grow their own vegetables and control the pesticides and chemicals that go into them,” Hassold said.
According to the Associated Press, industry surveys show double-digit growth in the number of home gardeners digging into the dirt this year. Mail-order companies report that they are selling out of seeds for basic vegetables such as tomatoes and onions.
But not everyone who is concerned about the source of their food has time to toil in the soil.
Community supported agriculture is another branch of the local food movement that is gaining steam in Richmond. There are more than a dozen established CSAs serving the area. The model is as follows: Urban and suburban dwellers purchase a share from a small rural farm, and the farms uses a central drop-off point to deliver fresh produce on a weekly basis throughout the growing season.
Frog Bottom Farm in Appomattox County is a newcomer to the Richmond CSA market.
Ali and Lisa Moussalli moved in to their recently purchased farm in Pamplin, Va., at the beginning of the year. The couple had been farming for several years on leased land in Loudon County while saving enough to establish their own farm.
They are offering 125 shares this season at $550 each, or subscribers can purchase a half-share for $300. According to their brochure, a single share provides enough vegetables to feed a family of four for one week.
“If you are eating fresh local vegetables every week, there is no cheaper way to do it. I think that must be appealing to people,” Lisa Moussalli said.
Moussalli said they started advertising in early February and have reserved about half of the available shares.
“We’ve still got space, but we’ve gotten a lot of response,” Moussalli said. “People tell us there are not enough farmers serving Richmond.”
Moussalli said industrial food scares and changes in the economy are driving forces behind the increased demand.
Dominion Harvest, founded by entrepreneur Howard Brown, is another business formed to bridge the gap between local farmers and city dwellers.
Brown started his “web-consolidated CSA” with a start up investment of $45,000. Customers sign up on the company’s website to receive recurring vegetable deliveries throughout the season. The food comes from several farms that Brown has forged contracts with; most are within 100 miles of Richmond.
One beneficial aspect of consuming locally produced food is that is helps support the state’s rural economy, Brown said.
Brown and his one other employee will pick the food up from the farms and bring it to his warehouse to organize. Then they will deliver food packages to customers on a weekly or biweekly basis. Eggs, cheese, meats and jams will also be available. Brown is offering two packages; one is $37 per delivery, and the other is $52.
Brown is initially accepting 150 customers but might expand later in the season. So far five have signed up, but Brown said that is because he hasn’t started the big marketing push yet. That starts next week with a booth at the Monument Avenue 10k.
“I think Richmond is a town that is pretty sensitive to what they eat and where it comes from,” Brown said. “Ukrop’s is pretty good about finding local farms, we have Ellwood Thompson’s, which is expanding, and farmers markets in Virginia are growing at a very fast rate.”