Bringing Plants and People Together with Madi Walter

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Show Notes

Madi Walter

 

Summary

During this episode, Kurt Fuchs interviews Madison (Madi) Walter, Urban Agriculture Outreach Coordinator with the New Castle Conservation District. Madi tells us all about urban agriculture, challenges urban agriculturalists are facing, and growth with Delaware urban ag initiatives. Madi also shares her involvement in the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition and the future of urban agriculture.

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Transcript

Kurt Fuchs:

Welcome to the Farm Credit AgVocates Podcast. I'm your host Kurt Fuchs, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs with MidAtlantic Farm Credit.

I'm excited to have with me today Madison Walter. Madi is the Urban Ag Coordinator with the New Castle County Soil Conservation District in Delaware. Her background is in landscape architecture and environmental studies. She’s worked in various capacities in greenhouses, orchards, botanical gardens, small scale farms, and community gardens. She's a steering committee member of the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition, Co-Manager of the Duffy's Hope Youth Garden in Wilmington, and a graduate of the LEADelaware Ag Leadership program. It’s clear that Madi has a real passion for her work. I know after our conversation today, our listeners will find that to be the case as well.

Madi, thanks for joining me today. Welcome to the show.

Madison Walter:

Thanks for having me, Kurt. I'm excited to be here.

Kurt:

It’s good to have you.

How do you define urban agriculture?

How do you define urban ag?

Madi:

As simple as that question seems, it's actually a bit of a loaded topic. One of the things that makes urban agriculture so unique is that it comes in a lot of different forms, which means it’s difficult to pin down a unifying definition. Even the Office of Urban Ag and Innovative Production under the USDA doesn’t have a definition that they all use. Definitions often look more like a laundry list of all the different ways that people can do urban ag. Whether that's rooftop gardens, balcony gardening, community gardens, school gardens, or indoor vertical controlled environment farms. It just takes so many different forms, which is kind of the beauty of it.

I think of it more in terms of the outcome, because in more cases than not, urban agriculture is about growing food, but it's also about building a more resilient community. The outcome is the unifying factor that urban ag has in common. Whether that's improving neighborhood safety, creating a food system that addresses food insecurity issues or providing job training, urban ag is about building stronger and healthier communities regardless of what form that that takes.

Kurt:

We're talking about a sector of ag that's even diversified in and of itself and can take on any number of iterations.

Madi:

Absolutely. It's not even just what we think of as traditional urban or suburban. Alaska is considered to be really rural, but I know people there that are following practices that align with what they’re doing in New York City. It’s a wide range of different things, but all of them are interesting and cool in their own right.

Kurt:

How did you get involved in this space and what led you to this current role with Soil Conservation in particular in support of urban ag?

What led Madi to her current role

Madi:

For me, it all started with plants. I have always loved plants. From a very young age, I wanted to figure out how plants and people are connected. I have always loved the environment and for whatever reason have always felt very passionate about. As I was thinking about career opportunities, I originally thought I wanted to go into breeding plants, plant genetics and rooftop gardens. I tried that path, then wandered into landscape architecture, and then landed in environmental studies and non-formal education.

Through all of that, I always kept in mind of bringing plants and people together. One summer I took a job working as a manager of a small scale farm. I realized how impactful people's connection was to food. I realized how feeding and showing them how to grow their own food was the perfect hook into bringing them into this world of plants and caring about an environment bigger than their immediate surroundings. A light bulb went off in my head and I realized that this was it. It’s constantly growing and changing and it has just stuck.

I found myself searching for a place to do that, especially right after grad school. This job opened up here at the Conservation District and I was immediately intrigued by this organization who focuses on issues of sustainability and conservation, was reaching into that urban ag landscape. I'm originally from Kansas and I thought that I could get used to the scenery and pace of Delaware, so I took the job and here we are.

Kurt:

Well, it sounds like it's been a pretty good fit.

What do you think is driving the growth and interest in urban agriculture and community gardens?

What's driving the growth and interest in urban ag and community gardens?

Madi:

I think it has a lot to do with people starting to critically think about their food systems, whether that's about their own consumption or different production methods. It's this wake-up call for folks thinking that they should probably know more about this. I think the societal awareness that is growing.

What I also think is a big driver and what we see at the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition is that there are folks coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives that, through one way or another, are landing in this urban ag world.

What really seems to be a driving factor is that as all of these professionals and individuals are looking at their own work, in their own industries, and are trying to find solutions to issues that they are coming across. They are finding that urban ag is one potential solution for some of those issues. They start learning and digging into that world, pun fully intended. They learn all that urban ag can do and they’re completely sucked in and committed to pushing urban ag forward.

Kurt:

That’s a great segue. You briefly mentioned it, but the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition is where I first got an opportunity to meet with you.

Can you tell us a little bit more about that organization, your role in it and the role it serves in the broader Delaware Ag community?

The Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition

Madi:

Urban Farm and Food Coalition, or just the Coalition, actually started out as a soil pollutions group, which is why the Conservation District originally hooked up with this group of organizations that were working on soil pollution concerns. From 2000 to 2007, they were working on soil pollution concerns. Around 2007, they got an idea to put together the first urban farm in the state of Delaware, which is now the E.D. Robinson Farm at 12th and Brandywine in Wilmington. This really galvanized all of these organizations who had been working together and was drawing other people in.

From that point, they kept working to push issues relating to food and urban farming. Now, the organization is representative of over 60 different organizations and individuals who all care about urban farming and our local food system. We do a variety of different activities throughout the year. We have an urban Ag session as part of Delaware Ag Week, host summer urban Ag tours and quarterly meetings where we have guest speakers or we talk about related issues.  

We also have different subcommittees that allow us to tackle specific projects, which is where I come in. I co-chair our Policy Committee and our Community Garden Committees that are tackling different projects. Our Policy Committee is currently working on developing a local food plan centered on the city of Wilmington. We are looking at different policies that exist and don’t exist that would help support and strengthen an urban ag industry. We are also looking at what problems currently exist and what recommendations can we make to institute policies that will continue to grow urban ag.

The Community Garden Committee works on all issues and projects related to community gardening. We host different events throughout the year to help build a network of the community gardens, particularly in Northern Delaware. We manage a publication, the Northern Delaware Community Garden Toolkit, which is updated on a bi-yearly basis. That gives you all of the information you want to know about starting a community garden. We also provide lots of technical assistance to community gardens.

Through both of those roles and my role on the steering Committee, I do a lot of coordination and helping the people that are doing the work know what's going on with all of the projects, keep people in communication and moving together in a unified voice and direction. Urban ag is definitely growing and sometimes it's easy to have things get lost or dropped or to have miscommunication. I really see my role as a point of contact, almost like air traffic control. I keep tabs on all of these different projects, connect people and helping to grow our industry.

Kurt:

Well, as a beneficiary of your tremendous air traffic controller skills in participating in the Policy Committee, I know that these groups are all working together from various aspects of urban ag. I find it fascinating and I appreciate the leadership that you've represented on that coalition. I know in those the topics of challenges that are being faced by urban producers, some of which are familiar to our more rural traditional agricultural producers face.

What are some of the unique challenges that you've found that urban producers are facing?

Challenges facing urban producers

Madi:

When it comes to challenges, I think the word that immediately springs to mind is access. This is access to land, water, financial and educational programs, even access to scale appropriate equipment. Most of our urban growers are trying to navigate a world and an industry that was not designed with their style of production in mind.

A lot of what currently exists is having to be retrofitted to make it work for their types of projects. If you have done a DIY project where you've had to retrofit anything can probably attest that you succeed in varying degrees. Sometimes it works, maybe not as efficiently as you would hope, but it gets the job done. Sometimes there's unforeseen consequences in the future. It adds another layer of challenges on top of growing food and managing an urban farm or community garden that can be overwhelming and frustrating.

Access to land or growing space is really one of the biggest challenges. We are talking about environments where land is at a premium and small farms and operations have to compete with giant development corporations. Even community gardens or urban farms who have been around for decades who lease rent their land may be in good standing with a landlord have issues. When developers comes in and offers an exorbitant amount of money for the land, landlord will likely take the deal leaving the farmer or community garden to find another place. Finding land is a challenge and keeping hold of land is also a challenge. That makes it discouraging and hard to convince people to invest in their operation when they don't know how long they're going to be around.

Kurt:

There's certainly no shortage of challenges facing urban producers.

How can someone get involved with The Coalition?

How to get involved with The Coalition

Madi:

The obvious ways you can get involved are join one of our committees. We're always open to new members and new perspectives. Urban ag touches lots of different parts of our society, and we like to hear about different perspectives. I can guarantee you have something to bring to the table.

You can also do something as simple as following the Coalition on Facebook or sign up for our newsletter. Creating awareness and sharing it is an important step to spread the good word of urban agriculture and to build awareness of how important urban Ag is. When it comes to putting forth policies, trying to galvanize the community, the less work we have to do in educating and building understanding, the easier that implementation is.

Kurt:

Can you tell us about the Youth Garden in Wilmington? Can you tell us more about that effort and how you got involved?

The Youth Garden in Wilmington

Madi:

The Duffy's Hope Youth Garden started as a passion project by a gentleman named Konrad Kmetz, who was a big local food advocate. He spearheaded the Healthy Corner Store Initiative here in Delaware. He knew Duffy Samuels, the founder and CEO of Duffy's Hope, which is an organization that takes at-risk youth and provides them opportunities to have a more fulfilling and positive trajectory in life. Konrad suggested to Duffy to have a community garden and he agreed. They started the garden in 2008, and Konrad ran it for a number of years.

A few years ago, Konrad moved out to Ohio to be closer to his family and was looking for help to carry on the garden. He reached out to myself and Randi Novakoff, the other co-chair of the Community Garden Committee and asked if we would be willing to pick up the torch. The garden is a fabulous tool for engagement with the youth. It’s in a great location for getting food into the hands of those that need it.

We said yes with no hesitation. We didn’t want to see this end as so many community gardens do when their champion moves on. Randy and I took it over in late 2020. The world was still trying to figure out what was going on. We are currently working on getting kids back out there after some time off due to pandemic-related concerns, but we're looking forward to a new season. We're actually dedicating and renaming the garden to the Konrad Kmetz's Youth Garden in June.

Kurt:

Where do you see the future of urban agriculture in five or ten years in Delaware?

The future of urban ag in Delaware

Madi:

I think Delaware's urban ag industry is at a point right now where we're starting to see this period of experimentation spread and figure out what more can be done. I think what that means for the future is that we are going to have a very robust and very much a thriving urban ag industry. We're going to be seeing those who are working on very limited CSAs or limited distribution really hit their strides and get food out the door and into the hands of those that need it and want it.

I think we're also going to see an expansion downstate. In New Castle County, they are really working to document the projects that they are working on so that they can replicated in other parts of the state. We should see a lot more of that in the upcoming years.

I think we'll also see a big shift in policy. My biggest hope is that the convincing that we need to do to implement urban Ag friendly policies will be implemented and we'll see the those benefits as urban ag hits its stride.

Kurt:

I certainly like the sound of that future, and I know Farm Credit is excited about what's yet to come for urban ag producers across its footprint.

We’ve got one more question for you, but before we get to that, I want to go to have a little fun with our lightning round. It consists of five this or that type rapid fire questions.

Are you ready Madi?

Lightning round

Madi:

I am ready as I'll ever be.

Kurt:

Jayhawk or Blue Hen?

Madi:

Jayhawk, I'm a good Kansas girl.

Kurt:

Wawa or Royal Farms?

Madi:

Wawa.

Kurt:

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Madi:

That’s is a tough one. I am a huge sci-fi nerd.  I have room in my heart for all, but when push comes to shove, I think I'm going to have to go Star Trek.

Kurt:

Coffee or tea?

Madi:

I'm going to have to go with coffee. It's the best way to start a day as far as I'm concerned.

Kurt:

Speaking of best ways to start a day; scrapple or bacon?

Madi:

I'm going to have to go bacon. Scrapple has never quite hit me as a thing that I want to eat. It's one of those regional dishes that my husband is a big fan of. He’s from this area and tries to convince me, but I can't quite do it.

Kurt:

To each their own. Just so you know, the correct answer to that question is both.

Madi:

I will keep that in mind.

Kurt:

We have one last question that we always sign off with.

What do you advocate for in agriculture?

Madi:

Something that I think about a lot when it comes to urban ag and Audrey Hepburn is quoted as saying, "To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow." For me that's a pretty good summation of how I feel about urban ag. It's a place of hope.

When the world is overwhelming and bleak, urban ag is this act of defiance that says I'm not ready to throw in the towel. I still believe that we can create a better world and that we can create it together.

In order to do that, we need to engage in more authentic communication and build a deeper understanding. I think that’s really what I advocate for is communication and understanding. That means having tough conversations and seeing who is and is not at the table, engage in conversations, have open minds, and willing to discuss changes and opportunities. Communication of that kind takes practice. You have to be willing to practice and be patient for those changes from those conversations. It’s for everyone in the ag industry. It's really a universal skill that I think needs to take more precedence all around, but definitely within the ag industry.

Kurt:

Well put, Madi.

I want to thank you for your time today and for your dedication and commitment to urban Ag. It was a pleasure learning more about your efforts to support the urban Ag community and the many ways it can make our neighborhoods better, more resilient and more welcoming.

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