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Agriculture can blossom where you would least expect it — even in inner cities

products produced in Indiana
MADE IN INDIANA: These products were produced in Indiana. Some were made by small enterprises based in urban areas.
Determined Purdue University students and Extension educators help others grow food in unlikely places.

The agriculture industry is becoming increasingly captivating, as Purdue University Extension horticulture educator Ricky Kemery knows all too well. The Allen County educator sees the potential benefits community gardening may provide to the farming community.

“Urban residents can connect in that way so that they might understand the food systems more and might go to farm markets to talk with local farmers directly,” Kemery says. “So that’s a benefit. The more people that know how food is grown, and know what it takes, the more they will appreciate the food that’s grown for them.” 

Two Purdue students are on track to improve the quality of life for the community of Gary. Jocelyn Dunn, an industrial engineering doctoral candidate and member of NASA’s Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation 2014-15 mission, and Katie Chustak, an undergraduate in agricultural education and sustainable food and farming systems in the Purdue College of Agriculture, are co-founders of the nonprofit organization Earthonauts. 

Determined to succeed
A group that provides educational programs and develops supportive relationships to promote health and community, Earthonauts already has its foot in northwest Indiana’s door.

Its mission revolves around the three pillars of sustainability: environmental, economic and social. These have been implemented in work at the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center in Crown Point. 

Earthonauts constructed two hydroponic trees in the cafeteria, where the juveniles share the responsibility of properly managing the plants. Such programs educate the youths in some of the methods involved in agriculture, and enable volunteers to develop relationships with the youths while sharing their knowledge. 

“These outreach events at Lake County Juvenile Detention Center have been so rewarding,” Dunn says. “The design of our lesson plans and hands-on activities is the greatest success so far, as we’re getting 100% positive feedback from the residents and teachers.”

Perhaps more intriguing is the response from those participating in the programs.

“The youth at the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center have been very receptive,” Chustak says. “It’s exciting to see how their curiosity and creativity piqued when talking about topics such as photosynthesis and water quality.

“We also incorporate core values into the activities — such as resourcefulness, resilience and adaptability — for character development. We were happy to learn that they are eagerly looking forward to our return.”

Effort expands
The Earthonauts team is growing and coming together from communities in Indiana, Michigan, Florida, Washington, D.C., and Canada to address the needs of food deserts and marginalized communities by developing opportunities in sustainable agriculture. 

A food desert is an urban area in which it’s difficult to buy affordable or high-quality fresh food. Marginalized communities, which are poverty-stricken groups confined to the lower edge of society, often end up being food deserts. However, Purdue student Cameron Mann has documented that food deserts exist in many parts of rural Indiana, too.

The detention center is just the tip of the iceberg, as Earthonauts has a much bigger picture in mind. 

“Thus far, our work has been focused on the youth at the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center,” Chustak says. “We hope to expand to local schools and to acquire a plot of land in Gary.”

A plot could hopefully be developed into a community garden, she explains. That would be a hefty feat considering the Steel City’s reputation, with numerous locations in the city entirely abandoned; many areas lack sidewalks and streetlights.

Bring ag inside cities
Many people would consider this to be a risky venture, but the Earthonauts team stands determined.

“The agricultural industry is an exciting industry,” continues Chustak. “It’s diverse, and new innovations are constantly being developed. I think that it is edifying and encouraging to see the work that other groups are doing."

Dunn adds, “The biggest challenge of starting any new venture is finding the right people for the team. We’ve been fortunate to have a great group of enthusiastic volunteers, but it still takes time to define roles for everyone and get the work distributed rather than resting on the shoulders of one or two.”

Allen County’s 7-year-old community garden initiative rents out 25 plots of land to interested residents for a small fee. They grow plants and vegetables of their choosing while learning about agriculture in the process. 

With the growing popularity of local fresh food, an increase in community garden projects may lead to increased traffic through farm market lines, Kemery observes. Earthonauts has a similar philosophy.

“Community gardens provide a unique forum for community building, the production of healthful foods and the cultivation of hope,” Chustak says. “Our model is nontraditional in that we are utilizing hydroponic technologies to enable year-round production, freedom from concerns of urban soil contamination, and encouragement of innovative and creative thinking.” 

As its name suggests, Earthonauts likes to envision everyone as astronauts, traveling through space aboard a spaceship called Earth. Earth provides air, water and land resources, and people, as Earthonauts, need to maintain these life support systems.

Challenges ahead
As with any operation, Earthonauts has had its fair share of bumps in the road. “Hydroponic systems, which grow plants without soil while utilizing a mineral-nutrient solution in a water solvent, require careful monitoring and maintenance,” Chustak says. “It has been a constant learning process to refine the systems.”

As for the hope of launching the Gary community garden, Kemery has a valuable 2 cents to chip in. He notes that many community gardens don’t last when certain factors aren’t there, such as proper tools, maintenance, clean water and, most importantly, community interest and involvement. 

Often, getting a community garden established turns out to be the most difficult part. Depending on location, there may be local regulations to tend to or red tape to get through in order to begin the project legally, Kemery says. 

All in all, community gardening is capable of providing a better quality of life for everyone involved, if properly maintained. From a juvenile detention center to existing community gardens to a potential garden in northwest Indiana, the important thing is that people are coming together to learn about agriculture, Dunn says. 

People are saving money, feeding their families, learning things they never thought possible, teaching one another about agriculture, supporting local farmers at markets, and coming together to better themselves and their communities. Earthonauts is always looking for new opportunities, as well as faculty and community members to join the team in their mission of cultivating hope, Dunn concludes.

Miller is a senior in agriculture communication at Purdue University.

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