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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fair
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A first-of-its-kind study analyzes how much Madison-area gardeners produce and why
Surprise, it's not just about food!
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Vincent Smith
Vincent Smith

When Vincent Smith came to Madison to study urban agriculture, he picked fertile ground. Gardening is a growth industry here. One in three Madison-area households grows some of its own food. There is a waiting list for plots in many of the area's 50 community gardens, and there are more than 40 organizations involved in local food production, with some of that produce going to food pantries.

Smith is the first person to systematically study how much area gardeners are producing and why. According to his findings, Madison-area gardeners cultivated 48,184 food-producing gardens on 6.5 million square feet of ground to produce $9.4 million of food in 2010, but whittling their grocery bill had little to do with why most seeded, weeded and watered.

The median household income of community gardeners was $70,000, and $87,500 for home gardeners - both higher than the Madison-area's median income of about $55,000. "There is a lot of food growing out there, and for some, it is unquestionably a net gain financially," says Smith. "However, the wide range of personal and social values associated with food gardening goes way beyond the actual market value of the food."

Smith arrived at the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to get a Ph.D. after a stint as program director of the Center for Urban Agriculture in Santa Barbara, Calif. He grew up on a farm in Missouri and has a master's degree in environmental education with an emphasis on outdoor, farm-based education.

"UW-Madison has a phenomenal number of people working on food, including world-renowned environmental sociologists who study food, combined with a high community interest in food production," says Smith. "I had only been in Madison a couple of months when Community GroundWorks, then Troy Gardens, asked me to be on their board of directors. I started meeting people and networking."

As he reached out to such groups as the Community Action Coalition, Research, Education, Action and Policy of Food Group (REAP), Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC) and City of Madison Gardens Committee, Smith found that many groups and growers were looking for hard numbers on the actual value of community food production.

"Organizations needed data for writing grants, and growers just wanted to know if it was worth their effort," says Janet Silbernagel, chair of the Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development Program of the Nelson Institute. Silbernagel served as one of Smith's advisers. "Vincent decided to undertake this study because people needed it, and he was the right person to do it. That had not been studied before."

Smith realized his task was going to take a lot more legwork than he could do on his own, but Ph.D. students don't easily get funding for research assistants. He sought volunteers through local listservs who might be willing to work the summer for research credit and says he was amazed at how many students came forward. His team of nine interns included a social work major, as well as environmental science, conservation biology and sustainable development students.

Smith also enlisted 51 home gardeners, community gardeners and school garden coordinators who agreed to act as citizen scientists and meticulously record their gardening activity for the 2010 gardening year.

"What we were asking is really simple information, but it has been really hard to get," Smith says. "How much time do you spend gardening? How much money do you spend on gardening? How much did the food you harvested weigh?"

Smith trained the gardeners to keep scientific records. From the 36 gardeners who completed the study he learned that the average garden in the Madison area produces a quarter-pound of food per square foot with an average of seven minutes of gardening time being spent on that foot over the growing season.

"One thing I found fascinating was the empowering impact of the study on the people who participated as citizen scientists," says Smith. "They didn't realize how much they were producing and what it meant to them financially."

To find out more about gardeners' motivations, Smith interviewed these gardeners as well as city planners and activists. He also sent surveys to 883 randomly selected growers from both home and community gardens. He got 236 surveys back, an unusually high return.

Smith was meticulous in choosing whom to survey, using a map to locate community and school gardens and going out on foot with his interns to identify home gardens.

Smith said he randomized his sample to make sure it covered all income groups and was not biased.

"I used a random number generator to randomly select four tracts from each of these four income categories for a total of 16 census tracts. I then used a random number generator again to randomly select eight census blocks within these 16 tracts to visit."

When the numbers were crunched, the results were surprising.

Smith expected to find that financial pressure might be driving the rise in gardening, but instead found that more well-off households were more likely to garden.

Almost $10 million of food grown annually in Madison-area gardens sounds like a lot, but in terms of dollars spent on food, Smith calculated that community food production makes up only 1% of Madison's food budget and is certainly not the primary reason people are gardening.

Some gardeners, like Betsy True, a member of the Madison Area Master Gardeners Association who kept records for a year, do it for health. "I want to get away from processed foods, and it gets expensive to buy artisanal food," she says. "I can plan my diet around what I produce and eat well."

Smith, who cultivated both his own backyard and a plot in a community garden, had suspected that cost was only one reason to garden but says, "The major surprise was that so few people considered food to be the reason for gardening. I knew we would see people who had a continuum of motivations, but a majority of people are gardening for reasons other than the food itself."

Smith found 78% of gardeners report they are motivated to grow food because they enjoy gardening, and 63% because they appreciate the therapeutic benefits of getting outside and digging in the dirt.

"Our interviews with gardeners revealed other benefits associated with food gardening that we had not listed on the surveys," Smith says. "Gardeners frequently identified a 'longing to create' as a reason for food production. These gardeners expressed joy in having a hand in bringing something to life or creating a diverse place and frequently noted that the harvest was really secondary to watching the growth and development. Other gardeners expressed that gardening was a way to establish relationships with the natural world and natural processes. Many of these gardeners perceived this increased connection with the natural world to be a value for their children as well."

Smith says the information revealed in his study is "incredibly important to nonprofits," who need to prove their value to funding agencies. But, he adds, it may be disappointing to some because "it forces us to communicate the value of urban gardens in different terms. There is a strong reason to suggest that food security is a real issue, even if it is not the only issue for the majority of people."

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