There’s No Shushing at This Library—and You'll Want to Bring a Trowel

Libraries rewrite their traditional roles in the community with gardening workshops, even their own tiny farms.

(Photo: Courtesy Northern Onondaga Public Library)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Several years ago, the Northern Onondaga Public Library in Cicero, N.Y., was in an envious predicament: It owned some land and didn’t know what to do with it. While another library might have built a new wing on the half-acre parcel, or sold it to raise money for more programming, the Cicero branch put it to the community to decide. What did the people ask for? A farm.

So in 2010, the land was cleared, and Library Farm was born.

“There is a strong local food emphasis in the region,” says Jill Youngs, who is the library manager and oversees the farm. “We have a very green-minded community. We’re on the edge of a lot of [the] breadbasket of New York. This spoke to us as a place to help us teach and learn and expose the interests of the community.”

Response in the upstate community has been tremendous. In the spring of 2010, the farm’s first season, a dozen or so plots—which are offered free of charge to anyone with a library card—were planted. Today, around 30 gardeners farm roughly 50 plots. Individuals and families can cultivate plots on one side of the land with little or no commitment, while the other side is a dedicated “community garden” where the harvest is donated to local food pantries.

The Farm Library is part of a growing trend in which public libraries redevelop their role as a community center and a place to borrow books. Many of these libraries are finding that whether they’re planting vegetables or teaching new gardeners, promoting local food is often in line with their mission. Libraries across the country have added workshops on gardening and local food.

Similar to what's happening in Cicero, libraries are taking that education beyond the classroom and into the field. In Arlington, Va., for instance, the public library system collaborated with the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia on a community teaching garden. In St. Helena, Calif.—the heart of Napa Valley—Barney’s Backyard is a fledgling vineyard planted behind the town’s public library. That’s right: wine grapes at a lending library. In about a decade, when the vineyard will be mature enough to make decent wine, board member Bob Lamborn said the product will help support the branch financially. 

Back in New York state, there are no plans for Library Farm to earn the library any money; rather, the farm is solely about increasing literacy among locals about the origins of their food in a “learn-as-you-go” environment. The kids so enjoyed clearing out several beds before planting that the children’s librarian, who also runs the Junior Gardeners’ Club, said she wished she’d let them clean up the entire half acre. Youngs says there’s even a plan in the works to plant a “weed garden” as a tool to show community members what to look out for in their own plots.

“People come to the library to find out more information about things they’re interested in, to grow intellectually, emotionally,” Youngs says. “We’re all still in a learning mode, and so a library is a great place to put [a farm].”

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