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Mitchell keeps ‘community’ in community gardens
Picture by Rhiannon Fionn-Bowman
August 10, 2011
I first became aware of Ryan Mitchell through his blog, The Tiny Life, devoted to “a social movement where people are downsizing the space that they live in.” So I wasn’t surprised when he showed up to our meeting last fall in a Smart Car – after all, it’s one of the tiniest vehicles on U.S. roads today. Nor was I surprised to learn that he was the mastermind behind the community garden in my area, Mountain Island Lake, in northwest Charlotte, because a big part of the “tiny living” movement includes sustainable living decisions.
Mitchell, 27, started the garden in September of 2009. A recent graduate at the time from the University of North Carolina Asheville with a Masters degree in Human Resources Management, he was looking for a new job. His work as a corporate headhunter paid well, but wasn’t fulfilling - unlike his current position in management at Americorps.
When he started the garden, Mitchell was not a master gardener - not even close. In fact, he will be the first to admit he’s still learning as much as he can about gardening from the Internet, books and anyone willing to share their knowledge.
Not only did he lack expertise when he started, but also he lacked a plot of land for the garden. His backyard was too shaded to grow vegetables. But that didn’t stop him - he reached out to Cooks Presbyterian Church on Mount Holly-Huntersville Road, where his mother is working to become a minister.
The church offered him office space and a large plot of land down the street, on a parcel that had been given to the church years earlier. And once he had the land, Mitchell found volunteers who, he said, now do the bulk of the work. The commitment from volunteers allows him to stay on call 24/7 for his paying job at Americorps, looking for strategic partnerships and grant monies.
But his full-time job and flourishing garden don't keep him from making plans for improvement. This year, he expanded the community garden to include a chicken co-op with nine hens and one rooster. The co-op, like the garden, is run mainly by volunteers.
For Mitchell, the mission of the garden and the co-op is not primarily about volunteering and producing food – even though the volunteers have contributed almost a ton of fresh produce to Friendship Trays, a non-profit organization that delivers hot meals to area citizens who need them.
Instead, getting people to spend time together and fostering friendship and trust is his goal, he said, and the garden and the co-op are the conduit for that.
“It’s the social aspect that’s important,” he said. “Today, a lot of us are disconnected – we don’t even know our neighbors.”
Mitchell works to see that everyone in the community feels welcome in the garden and that participation in the co-op is affordable.
Currently, the community garden has 27 plots, each 100 square feet, and 15 members of the chicken co-op. Gardeners pay $30.00 per year for their plot, which includes seeds, water, tools and classes. They’re also expected to volunteer for at least 10 hours in the 3,000-square-foot garden located in front of the cluster of individual plots which produces the food donated to Friendship Trays, Mitchell said.
Chicken co-op members pay $50 each year, which covers costs associated with buying and caring for the birds year-round. The members take turns tending to the birds, refilling their water bucket and food trays, making sure their nesting box has clean hay, making sure they’re all healthy and moving their rolling coop to a fresh patch of grass.
It doesn’t take long for gardeners and co-op members to see the return on investment of their money and time. Gardeners get the satisfaction that comes from growing their own food and the co-op participants get fresh eggs.
The whole system operates on the honor system, which is working great, Mitchell said, and even better: No one has dropped out of either program, he said.
In his ongoing effort to learn as much about gardening and livestock as possible, Mitchell regularly visits local farmers and shares the knowledge he gains with the volunteers and co-op members. Though he doesn’t describe himself as a “tree-hugger,” he has come to realize that his interest in living small and sustainably stems from a lot of environmental concerns.
"It’s one thing to eat at a restaurant that uses local ingredients, and another thing entirely to collect your own eggs and pick your own vegetables," he said. Growing your own food, raising your own chickens - this is eating local in its purest form.
“These things are offering solutions,” Mitchell said of the garden and the chicken co-op. “There is an ideal that is better than where we are at now,” he said, “and we should always try to improve.”
In the not-too-distant future, Mitchell would like to expand the garden into a 5-acre urban farm on which to raise chickens, goats, bees, tilapia and possibly pigs, he said, while always supporting gardening. A lot of puzzle pieces will need to snap into place in order to achieve that goal, Mitchell said, and he is seeking grant funding and land.
“The 5-acre farm is kind of a pie-in-the-sky thing right now,” he said, because it would have to be self-sustaining financially and he’d probably have to hire a small staff.
But pie-in-the-sky or seeds-in-the-ground, Mitchell continues to think big in his quest to live tiny.