The great harvest

Last updated on July 18th, 2021 at 11:11 am

From corporations to communities, the urban agriculture movement is catching on. Be it access to healthier food, increased physical activity, sustainable agriculture or enhanced interaction in workplace and neighborhoods, the benefits are many.

People are reaching out to connect to their food sources and to each other and it’s having a positive impact on our businesses and our communities. Helwig Carbon Products Inc. on Milwaukee’s northwest side, one of the last American-owned manufacturers of electrical and mechanical carbon-related products, has provided land for employees to plant and harvest a vegetable garden.

Having recently been awarded the Gold Well Workplace Award by Wellness Councils of America, Helwig has again demonstrated commitment to the health of its culturally diverse workforce.

“The garden space is a way that we can provide a benefit to our employees during these economically challenged times,” said Jay Koenitzer, owner and  vice president of the company. “Many of our employees have no space at home to do gardening.  Working the soil, the exercise, not to mention the health benefits of fresh produce provides a benefit to our employees when times are tough.”  Koenitzer has been a gardener most of his life. He started at the age of nine growing carrots in the family back yard in Wauwatosa and realized how much better tasting they were than the commercial bought variety.

“The project began as a collaboration of the company wellness team,” said Susan Lane Cragg, registered nurse and wellness coordinator for the company.  “For some employees this has been their first garden experience.”

Cragg sees the garden as an opportunity for employees to get fresh homegrown vegetables at low or no cost.

“There have been challenges” says Koenitzer. “The garden space is on industrial land, so we will need some time to build the soil with mulch and better watering systems. This year, we didn’t get started until May and next year would like to start earlier.”

Other challenges, reports Koenitzer, have been the economy, tight budgets and coordination of the project.

“Employees have to bring tools from home and it’s been hard to get water out to the site.  We hope to have rain barrels next year. We’re committed to continuing the project,” he said.

Victory Gardens at Riverwest

In the heart of the Milwaukee’s Riverwest area lies the Victory Garden, an architecturally designed portrait of lush green living color. The garden began as a collaboration among Tom Schneider, executive director of COA Youth and Family Centers; Kris Peterka, community liaison of the Riverwest Health Initiative; and Janice Christensen, community organizer from the YMCA Community Development Center.

Named after the Victory Gardens of World War II, a campaign to encourage the use of homegrown foods during the war, the modern day concept of the Victory Garden is used in the context of urban sustainability.

“Victory” is growing food at home for increased local food security and reducing the food miles associated with the average American meal.

The 2004-2005 Riverwest Health Initiative Health Assessment showed that almost 22 percent of neighborhood residents reported skipping meals because of not being able to afford food. Forty percent reported not eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. The community garden is an effort to address these issues.

The goal of the project is to provide community garden plots to neighbors and groups, and to help share and increase public knowledge and expertise in the cutting-edge area of urban garden-farming. The Victory Garden at Kilbourn Park is located on land owned by Water Works of Milwaukee in the “triangle” of land bounded by the former path of Garfield Ave. on the south, North Avenue on the northeast, and the property lines of houses on Booth Street.

“The project has encouraged neighbors to get to know each other and become more invested in their neighborhood,” Peterka says. “People are taking pride not only in the garden but the neighborhood. It’s also teaching children and the community where our food really comes from. The vision in future years, depending upon yields, is to grow enough to sell or raise money for other community projects.”

Work began on the garden in April during the annual Riverwest Spring Cleanup Day. Volunteers and donations of wood, hardware, soil and landscape and architectural design came from a variety of sources throughout the Milwaukee community.

The result … 76 4-foot-by-8-foot raised bed plots arranged in concentric rings with spectacular plush green growth. It’s a sight to see from the top of the Reservoir Hill across North Avenue. Garden rules have been put in place. Plot owners are responsible for their own planting, upkeep, gardening tools and weed and pest control. Non-organic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are strictly prohibited. Water is available from the corner hydrant and from rain barrels. The plans are to continue the project next year when interested gardeners can again apply for a plot.

We are what we eat

Only 24 percent of Wisconsin citizens get the recommended five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables per day. There is a connection between our health and the foods we eat. The growth of urban gardening in the community and at the worksite is raising awareness of that connection by bringing food production closer to home. The result is fresh, nutrient rich, safe food, and healthier communities. Somewhere I read “First there is an idea, a couple of people, and suddenly there is a movement.” Congratulations to Helwig Carbon Products and Riverwest. Think of the possibilities if other companies and communities would turn their manicured landscapes into local agriculture.

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