I consider the work I’m doing at the LibraryFarm to be the main portion of my studio practice this summer. The LibraryFarm is 1/2 acre of public land in Cicero NY. The land belongs to the public library where my partner works. A lot of her graduate work focused on the future of the library as a public institution. Now that books are cheaper than ever before, and more ubiquitous than ever before, the shape of the public library is shifting. What she remains committed to is the basic governing ethic of the public library: that resources should be shared, that the public library should be a kind of “university of the people,” that privacy, and civic rights should be principle values. If no public libraries ever existed in the US, and some politician were proposing to start one, they’d be lambasted as socialists, yet even the most crazy right-wing people tend to be pro-library. So the public library is a kind of readymade institutional infrastructure that can be used to experiment with new kinds of social sculpture. A lot of my partner’s research in grad school was about how to extend the library into things like public wood and metal shops to help people make things that they want to make without buying all kinds of expensive tools. She also looked a lot at food politics, food deserts, and urban agriculture. She came up with the idea for the LibraryFarm and has been the main organizer.
The idea of the LibraryFarm is to utilize the public land, and work the land collectively. Some of this is outlined well in a book by Darrin Nordahl called Public Produce. Some of the food grown would be used by the participants who grew it, and some would be donated to local food pantries. The LibraryFarm is also a response to the current economy. It is a way to help people in the community save some money of food and learn some things that our grandparents might have known but that never got passed down. The LibraryFarm should be seen as a part of the tradition of Victory Gardens.
Last winter we held a planning meeting and we weren’t sure how many people would show up. We were expecting maybe five or six non-library staff. We were thrilled that around 35 people showed up in the dead of winter and how many of them came specifically because they were interested in the idea of shared labor. The library is supportive, but for the time being we are not able to use much of the library budget so we’ve had to get creative.
I’m particularly proud of the way we got the land plowed. The land has not been farmed for a long long time, and the soil was packed so tightly you couldn’t dig it with a shovel. We needed to get a tractor in to turn the land over. It only cost about $200 to hire a farmer to do this for us, but we learned that the library wasn’t willing to let us spend that much. It looked like the whole idea was going to have to get shelved. But then my partner told me about how the parks department has contacted her to ask if they could borrow an LCD projector from the library. Meg (my partner) said that the library never uses this particular LCD projector and that she wishes she could just sell it but since the library is a public institution there are all kinds of restrictions that prevent them from selling their equipment. I’m guessing that there are good reasons for these restrictions, maybe to prevent some corrupt city worker from selling off library equipment and pocketing the money or something. But in this case the result was that a perfectly good LCD projector was being left unused at the library. The parks department, on the other hand, didn’t have money to buy their own LCD projector, so every time they needed to use it they had to borrow it from the library. When I heard about this I suggested we work out a barter to get the land plowed. I’m really proud of how it worked out. The parks department got their projector and the library got their land plowed and no money was needed. Unfortunately there was a fair amount of paperwork that needed to be signed off on by both the board of directors at the library and the parks department. This delay meant that we couldn’t get the land plowed until late June, later than we would have wanted to get started this year. But the most important thing is that it got plowed and that we can get started since having such hard land was the bottleneck that prevented us from doing everything else.
The Department of Public Works used a Bobcat instead of a tractor. Less romantic, but it still got the job done. Here is a video of them plowing the field:
And here is what it looked like after it was plowed:
It looks a lot smaller in the video than it does in real life. You can’t see all of it in the video. There was a section that we couldn’t plow because there are buried power lines, so to the left of what you can see in the video is another section of plowed land. Plus it just looks much much bigger in person, dauntingly so. In the video it looks like a small manageable plot of land.
Another thing I’m proud of is all of the people who came out of the woodwork with special skills. There is a local small landscaping business who volunteered to help us move compost. This is important because we really need to improve the soil. It is going to take years to do this. I’ve never seen such awful soil. As a native Midwesterner I’m used to digging anywhere to uncover the richest, blackest dirt in the world. But here in Syracuse what isn’t clay is rock and it is just awful. This landscaper helped us move enough compost to get started, but quite a bit more is going to be needed.
We have another person who knows AutoCAD and he laid out the design of the LibraryFarm.
A local boy scout has made the LibraryFarm his eagle scout project. He is going to be building a large compost site as well as a number of raised beds. When we plowed the land we discovered that some kind of gravel road or driveway used to go through part of it. So about 1/3 of the Library farm is gravel, not very good for growing things. We are going to need to build a lot of raised beds for this section. The good news is that the weeds don’t grow very fast in the gravel.
Every Tuesday evening a group of us meet to do work on the LibraryFarm. Last Tuesday I was able to put in a full days work and it was about the most pleasurable work I’ve done all summer.