Nestled among the towering trees and blue sky, there’s a place of sun and growth and earth, where even pint-size helpers totter skillfully among the rows of fledgling plants, where people pass around snap peas like sweets, and where grown men become kids in candy stores when imagining the peppers, squash, okra and melons that are just around the corner.
“I love eating the food and putting my hands in the dirt,” Bryce Oates said as he repaired a water line at the new Sanford Avenue urban garden. “I’ve got a fetish for digging.”
Oates is the treasurer for Big Canoe, an organization with a vision for a brighter future and a better community. Founded last summer, Big Canoe advocates sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, affordable housing and the preservation of public space. Those are big ideas for such a small group — there are 14 members now — but the creation of the urban garden marks a milestone in Big Canoe’s effort to grow.
Central to the group’s cause is the theory of sustainable agriculture.
“The whole idea centers around the fact that the food we eat travels 1,500 to 1,600 miles by the time it gets to our dinner plates,” said Oates, also a longtime member of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “We think it’s a good idea to grow our own food.”
Sandy Rikoon, professor of rural sociology at MU, said Big Canoe is part of a nationwide movement toward providing better food to communities.
“It’s an effort to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to groups that may have less access to those items,” Rikoon said. “This is a good way of providing not just food, but good food, to an area. ... The whole idea behind community gardening is the community participates in the garden themselves.”
A lot of thought goes into Big Canoe’s gardening schedule, but many decisions about what to grow are guided by people’s preferences and appetites.
“I like planning and figuring out how much I’m going to eat, so I can figure out how much I need to grow,” said Greg Baka, a Big Canoe member. “Most of what I eat never makes it to the house.”
Oates said producing one’s own food is cheap, efficient, good exercise and a great social activity. Community gardening is also a valuable practice, he said, because available farm land is diminishing.
“The city is expanding rapidly in all directions,” Oates said. “It takes much of the farm land out of use.”
In addition to wanting to add public green spaces such as parks, Big Canoe is also interested in creating more “working land” within the community.
“It is publicly accessible land that can produce something,” Oates said. “We like that idea.”
In order to share its passion for gardening with others in Columbia, the organization’s early efforts focused on acquiring land. After failing to raise enough money to buy its first potential site, the group found and bought its gardening space in December for $39,900.
“It was a perfect spot for an urban agriculture center,” Oates said about the double lot on Sanford Avenue.
After making roof and plumbing improvements to the one-bedroom home on the property, the group gained a meeting room and bathroom.
Big Canoe uses many gardening techniques on the double lot. There is lasagna gardening that features layers of straw and cardboard; double-digging, in which 18 to 24 inches of soil is loosened for planting, and the more traditional single-row garden, typical of the Midwest. The varying methods used are meant to be examples that people can implement.
“There are different ways to garden so people can come out and get ideas for how they might do things at their homes,” said Bill McKelvey, a group member.
One thing that surprised the members was how many children come to its weekend workdays. On one particular Saturday in April, the kids ate a couple of earthworms on a dare from Oates. The problem was that he had to eat one first. The kids also dug holes for seeds and watered the plants — a little too much.
“All the plants died because they were stuck in mud, but that’s fine,” Baka said. “These kids had never made their own mud before.”
The group meets from 8 to 11 a.m. each Saturday at the Sanford lots. Turnouts range from five to 30 people, depending on the weather.
“It feels like we’ve got a good start,” McKelvey said. “Now we just want to get more people to help us carry out the plan.”
The organization’s youth is an important selling point to its members, who hope to attract interested people to share the workload.
“We’re still young but very open,” said Baka. “If people are interested they can come out because this is not just for us but for the community.”