In my penultimate week on the Freindship Gardens Urban Farm, our staff managed volunteers. Now this task by itself is nothing unusual; we love having volunteers give us their time and effort. In fact, eighty percent of the work done at the Friendship Gardens Urban Farm comes from volunteers. But this week, the staff and I managed a lot of volunteers. In fact, we managed more than eighty of them. Over the span of four days. And by using this extra workforce, we were able to accomplish more than I had ever seen happen in previous weeks at the farm: All the plots were weeded to perfection and harvested to their fullest extent. We even had time to work on side projects, like helping out the Garinger student garden, which was typically out of our jurisdiction. It’s a great feeling to look at a large group of volunteers and tell them, “Well… I’m not really sure what we’re doing today.”
Such an excess of volunteers, really grabbed my attention. What if we spread this huge amount of volunteers over a longer period of time? What would this scenario mean to Friendship Gardens?
Well, this scenario would have certainly saved me a lot of work. Not to complain, but being one of four people to weed 0.8 acres, for a majority of my nine-week internship, gave me some quality time with buckets, calloused hands, and countless existential questions. But more importantly, this consistent volunteer scenario would have saved a lot of crops. If we had merely ten volunteers in the second week, when we had to give in to the squash bug infestation, we may have been able to sustain the squash crop for at least another month. If we had merely eight volunteers to help harvest turnips, we wouldn’t have had to leave the crop in the ground to grow super-massive, and rot beyond a point of human consumption. Such consistency is far more useful than eighty volunteers in four days.
It’s important to note that my point is not to belittle a volunteer force in any way; most non-profit organizations need as many volunteers as possible to succeed. However, there is a distinct difference between the quantity of volunteers in a volunteer force and their purpose. Major banks sending air-conditioned interns to a farm in the name of “corporate giving,” doesn’t really mean too much to the community surrounding the farm. Churches sending outside missionaries in the name of helping “the least of these,” don’t really have a lasting impact on a foreign community. They show up, they leave, and we never see them again. Their successors show up, they’ve never met their predecessors, they leave, and we never see them again. Volunteer forces of these kinds are not socially sustainable.
The most useful and meaningful volunteer force is not only one of consistent numbers and participation, it is also one with a purpose. Community members looking to make a long-lasting impact in the blocks where they live, are instrumental to the success of the urban farm concept. Educators aiming to pass on horticultural knowledge to undereducated community members, are instrumental to urban farming’s success. Give me eighty of those volunteers over four days, and I won’t sweat it (figuratively); at least I know that we’ll see them again.