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USDA's People's Garden

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For participants in the Organic Trade Association’s Policy Conference March 25, 2009 in Washington, D.C., one of the sidelights was observing the spreading of organic compost on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) new organic community garden. Donating the organic compost was the Rodale Institute.

USDA People's GardenBarbara Robinson, Deputy Administrator of Transportation and Marketing at the Agricultural Marketing Service, explained that the idea of planting an organic garden on the USDA grounds came to her attention during a recent meeting about USDA’s plans to celebrate Earth Day. “People made clear that they wanted to do it, and that they wanted it have it up and running this year,” she said.

Such an aggressive timetable presented a decisive challenge, Robinson noted, given that it takes three years before a space can complete its transition to organic. That did not deter USDA from pursuing the idea further. According to Robinson, a plan quickly came together to design a space outside USDA’s Whitten complex. The plan calls for raised beds and containers, which will be ready to grow herbs and vegetables this year. Cover crops will then be added to the space as a means to facilitate its transition to organic.

“Our hope is that this will be a living garden, where people can come to be educated both on what organic is and what it is not,” said Robinson, who added that USDA plans to convert six acres of its property to sustainable practices over the course of five years. Robinson also explained that USDA hopes to eventually build a greenhouse to accompany its organic garden.

“That plan may take longer to complete, but it’s definitely on our “organic wish list,” Robinson added.

The garden, which was developed in honor of President Lincoln’s 200th birthday, has been named “The People’s Garden” in reference to the “People’s Department” that existed during his tenure in office. Its goal, according to Secretary Thomas Vilsack’s Deputy Chief of Staff Carole Jett, is to “bring whole foods to Americans” and to encourage them to get involved in food production. “The Secretary’s hope is that this will be a place that the community can come together, connect with the land, and better understand where their food comes from,” Jett explained.