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It's an obvious problem in urban and suburban jungles around the country: many people are eager to garden but have nowhere to indulge their green thumbs. And plenty of homeowners have gardens in need of tending.
Enter SharedEarth.com. Taking the Craigslist model to gardening, it helps match up prospective gardeners to those with gardens, for free. Think of it as sharecropping 2.0 -- or a kind of dating site for garden lovers.
The idea has already inspired a trend (and a TV show) in the UK. The implications for the U.S. could be huge.
Consider less wasted land, lower greenhouse gases, more local, homegrown food, stronger community bonds, and perhaps the chance to make some extra cash. It's the kind of thing that Malcolm Gladwell can dig, apparently. And while it's just getting started, the site's already shared almost 26 million square feet of land.
Just before the site launched on Earth Day, I spoke to the founder, internet entrepreneur Adam Dell (Michael's brother) about the site and where it grows from here.
How did this idea first get planted?
I wanted a garden, but I don't have the time or know-how to garden myself. So I put an ad on Craigslist and within a couple of days I had several responses. The ad said, "I'll provide the land, water and materials if you'll provide the work. We can share the produce 50-50." I found a credible person who loves gardening, but lives in an apartment. We met, came up with a plan and she got to work.
She put together some top soil, some flower beds and seedlings. Now I have a rich, vibrant garden on my property where we grow tomatoes, jalapeños, arugula, Italian figs, spinach. I love that I have a beautiful garden that occupies what used to just be a patch of grass and I'm getting fresh produce from it. My gardener loves gardening and loves that she gets to take home a portion of the produce.
When I started to investigate this, I called around to a number of community gardens in Austin and around the country. What I found is that virtually all of them have waiting lists. What that tells you is there are many people out there who would like to have access to land, but can't find it. That is why we built SharedEarth.com.
Sharecropping was a model that fell into favor during economic upheavals, the last time during the Great Depression. Why is this valuable right now?
By virtue of our private property society, we have disconnected individuals from the land. We have put them in high rises, and asked them to live their lives in urban settings, disconnected from the land. A lot of people do that not by choice but for economic reasons, and this trend has been occurring for decades. I suspect there are a lot of people who would happily share some of the produce from a garden they tend to if they could have free access to land.
By the way, the concept of sharecropping, which is really what we are talking about here, has been around for centuries. It is evident in Islam, French and Italian societies since the beginning of recorded history.
Urban gardening is becoming a bigger trend. How do you hope SharedEarth can contribute to that?
One of the things I would love for people to think about is social responsibility. If you are fortunate enough to be someone who owns land, I think you ought to be making the most efficient use of that land possible. What is more efficient: a guy who comes and mows your lawn whom you pay X dollars a month, or someone who tends to a garden that produces food to whom you pay nothing?
How well has the system functioned so far?
It's working very well and part of that success is how we define our role. Dating sites don't tell their members where to go to dinner or how to treat each other. Similarly, we are merely a matchmaking service. We do not get involved in the arrangement between land owner and gardener. When you sign up, we ask some salient questions that get to the essence of a person's abilities as a gardener and a person's interest as a landowner. Is there sun, who will do the work, when can you access the land.
In the past few months we've gone from 800,000 square feet to 25 million square feet of shared space, and we haven't really even launched yet. My goal is to see pins on every corner of the map. If we achieve that, we'll have made a meaningful impact on food production and distribution in this country, and that's a good thing. While large-scale farming conglomerates have done a great job producing abundant, cheap food, they don't do a great job producing high-quality, local, organic food. I think that is a trend we can reverse. I think there's a lot of people who get a tremendous amount of satisfaction eating what they've grown. No tomato tastes better than the one I've grown in my garden.
What about money? Beyond sharing costs, can people pay each other?
If that's something the landowner and gardener want to arrange for themselves, that's fine. But we haven't gotten in the middle of that, and we don't intend to. Furthermore, we don't intend to ask the landowner or gardener to contribute any of their produce or make any contribution to us. We are a free service. We have no business model!
Who do you think will use SharedEarth?
I think it scales all the way up to the individual who says, "I'm gonna be a farmer," and all the way down to the person who says, "I have a fire escape in New York, I'm growing some food and I could use some help." We have a few gardening groups who have signed up. We'd love to get some churches. The Catholic Church is the largest landowner in America. Imagine if churches and synagogues signed up and said, "We've got land, grow food. We'll donate some of the produce to our food bank."
How do you see a model like SharedEarth's taking gardening and agriculture over the next decade?
I think SharedEarth is something that can be meaningful in its impact, and that is my hope. Just imagine if we had 10 million acres of producing land. That would produce a lot of oxygen, consume a lot of CO2 and produce a lot of food.
Furthermore, imagine a two parent, two income family with three kids. They have a backyard with a playscape that the kids no longer use. It gets mowed once a week. What if that piece of land were tended to by a gardener who lives a couple miles away. She's retired. She comes to the property once a week and cultivates an abundant garden. She helps the kids understand the value of cultivating the land, of patience, of germinating something. That is also success in my mind.
A connection to the soil and to our natural environment raises your awareness. How much plastic do I consume, how many carbs do I eat, how much refined sugar do I consume? That connection awakens your understanding of your place in society. So many of us spend so many of our days in front of a computer under florescent lights, why not pick up gardening?
Well you probably know: the most popular online game is all about virtual farming.
Yes! If the amount of hours spent on FarmVille were spent on actual farming, imagine what we could achieve.
Follow Alex Pasternack on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pasternack