Elizabeth (Lizzie) Prather works with the Billings Metro Project as a community garden coordinator. Lizzie was a part of the Americorp VISTA program.
I began to have a love of gardening when I was younger and would garden with my parents growing up. I also gardened at college when I went to UW-Green Bay. I majored in environmental policy and planning. I have had a passion for sustainability and local food since early on in high school when I did a speech for my communications class on climate change and researched ways to become more sustainable. I also became a vegetarian when I was sixteen because I felt it was a sustainable food option.
I was the Americorp VISTA community garden coordinator from January 2014-January 2015. I worked alongside another Americorp VISTA. I found this job because I was looking up entry-level sustainability jobs and it eventually led me to the Americorp website. I looked at environmental positions on the Americorp website and came across the community garden coordinator position in Billings, Montana. One of the things that drew me to this position was because we were creating sustainable food options.
I gained a lot of experience in my year with Americorp at the garden. Americorp VISTA is a twelve-month volunteer position. We provide indirect service and make it a goal to create sustainable programs and fight poverty in the areas we serve. There were 20 of us in Billings and we were a part of the Billings Metro VISTA Project. My partner was Liz, and we worked with the Billings Parks and Rec. Liz and I collaborated with other VISTAS who had successful community gardens so we could gather more information.
I had an internship the summer before this position, but this was really the first time in a professional setting for me. When I first got to Billings there was an orientation for VISTA about how to organize groups of people and volunteers. In the first week of training we also learned a lot about how to fundraise. I also found it difficult that I had to fundraise for the first time and felt awkward asking people for money. I was very nervous at first, but it turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the job.
We advertised the garden pretty well. I got experience writing a press release. We also had two to three interviews for newspapers and news stations. We hung flyers around the low-income neighborhoods and handed flyers out in the local schools. I really enjoyed doing this, and I felt that we got the word out pretty well.
All of this was new for me and I learned so much the first year with VISTA. I did not organize people or anything prior to my experience with Americorp. I gained knowledge of the local food options of people in poverty. I learned the connection of sustainable food choices and people in poverty. I also learned how to fundraise and ask for supplies. We worked with over 200 volunteers throughout the summer. I learned how to write press release, event planning, and advertising. We planned an event at the end of the season to raise funds for the garden and it was a great experience for me. People definitely enjoyed the garden. There was some frustration in the beginning because of the ground squirrels getting into the food but we put up a fence. Overall, people were very happy with the garden.
My role in the food system was giving people the knowledge and access to grow their own food. We provided workshops to teach these skills to the gardeners. We brought in master gardeners to come in and teach these classes. We also hosted food camps where kids would come out to the garden. I sometimes would help out with the food camps if there were too many kids for the other volunteers to handle.
I was probably in the garden 70-80% of the time. The garden is in a big, open space near the outskirts of the city near the south side. There was a school and a neighborhood nearby, but that was it. The garden was located here since it was a food desert where a lot of low-income people lived. In the beginning we had to do some office work and work on connecting people with resources they needed for the garden. We would start off answering emails and figuring out how to organize plot owners. In the winter we researched a garden manual of what to plant and how to plant it. During the summer we would go out and talk to the plot owners and water communal areas of the garden. I would sometimes plant, weed, and one time I even helped to put up a fence.
I went to the garden one afternoon and met up with Jan. Jan talked about how excited she was about the garden and having fresh vegetables to take home. She was one of the low-income gardeners and she told me how much money she was saving on food for the summer. She even planned to can some of the vegetables for the winter months. She even agreed to be part of the advisory board when I left and that meant a lot to me.
We had a lot of trouble with the soil in the garden. We didn’t realize how hard it would be to grow plants in Billings. The soil was like clay and lacked nitrogen. We tried to use some compost but it still didn’t work. Plants were growing up with yellow leaves so that’s when we talked to staff and decided not to keep the garden organic. We originally wanted to make the garden organic and half way through the summer we weren’t producing enough food. We sat down with staff and decided the focus of the project was to provide low-cost food so we decided to switch to a nitrogen fertilizer. I did come to this job excited about the sustainable aspect of it so it was hard for me to switch to the non-organic garden… The fertilizer started to help grow the plants and we felt we made the right decision to go non-organic. We are hoping that will help for the next year.
This was the first year of the garden. There were 250 volunteers and 47 plot owners. In the garden we grow zucchini, beans, pees, spinach, radish, watermelon, raspberries, grapes, strawberries, and many other vegetables and fruits. We decided on these foods because of the growing season in Billings and based on what seeds/plants we were able to get donated. I wrote a grant to get a greenhouse and one of the main points I made was the greenhouse was needed to extend the growing season for low-income people. I felt this was very important for our goals as a VISTA project.
A lot of the people in Billings knew about the garden by the end of our first season. This past year they drew more people in and got more produce out of the garden. When we had events at our garden people would ask us how to apply to be a plot owner. Most of the plot owners were white because a lot of people in Billings are white. I would say just under half of the plot owners were low-income. We couldn’t really attract homeless people since they had more on their mind than trying to come to the garden every day. We planted the communal areas so we could donate some of the food to other food banks in the area.
A lot of middle-income people were attracted to the garden. Since it was a city organization we couldn’t say that only low-income people were able to come even though that was the original goal of the garden. I think some people thought it costs too much. There was a deposit fee of 15 dollars and it ended up being around 40 dollars. We tried to wave the fee. We got a lot of seeds donated and tried to help lower the cost. We fundraised the money for the seeds. We also had people donate seeds to us right away once word got out about the garden.
Sense of community is a benefit of having a community garden—a place to come together and help out your peers. A lot of the plot owners became friends and people were careful to leave produce in the communal area for the other plot owners. Many also shared the food they grew on their own plot of land. I think people garden as a hobby and a way to save money. I do it so my environmental impact can be minimal. In the future I want to have my own garden, but I don’t want to be a coordinator of a community garden—I want to work for a grassroots environmental nonprofit fighting [for] environmental issues.
— Claire Prather