Black and blue text logoThree years ago, Leslie Taylor knew nothing about gardening. Now she knows to plant marigolds to ward off bugs, rotate her crops to keep the soil healthy, and wait a few years to pick asparagus after planting it to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Taylor learned that and more through an incubator gardening program at Isles, a Trenton-based nonprofit with a mission of fostering self-sufficient families and healthy communities.

Four smiling people stand or kneel next to raised garden beds containing plants

Leslie Taylor teases Bernice Harris about her kale and collard greens at an educational urban agriculture farm on Tucker Street in Trenton on May 25, 2022. (Photo credit: Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

It’s the kind of sustainability mission two New Jersey lawmakers say they want to support with a new bill that would fund soil testing of urban agriculture sites.

The bipartisan bill, introduced by Assemblymen Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) and Ronald Dancer (R-Ocean), would establish a grant program in the state Department of Agriculture to ensure people are using healthy soil when they plant gardens or community farming plots in vacant lots and parks.

Elevated levels of lead or other contaminants are commonly found in urban soil due to the past uses of the sites, Conaway noted.

“Healthy soil is the foundation of producing sustainable agriculture and optimizing our land in New Jersey,” he said. “Soil testing and conservation methods will improve the safety and quality of our food supply and sustain the environment.”

The bill is now before the Assembly’s agriculture and food security committee.

A man squatting in a field of dense plants holds a fistful of plan material

Jim Simon, Isles’ deputy director of community planting, tends a perennial garden at Isles’ incubator gardens on Tucker Street in Trenton on May 25, 2022. (Photo credit: Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

This is not the first time lawmakers have set their sights on soil.

In 2017, the State Commission on Investigation, an independent watchdog group, issued a report warning that loopholes in the state’s solid‐waste regulatory and oversight system allowed operators to secretly dump contaminated soil and construction debris at unpermitted sites, creating serious environmental and public health threats.

Lawmakers subsequently passed what they called the “Dirty Dirt Law” in 2020 to close those loopholes and impose stringent compliance requirements in the solid waste industry to thwart illegal dumping and soil contamination.

From dirt to lead remediation to entrepreneurship

To Dancer, the new bill goes several steps further. Ensuring healthy soil will encourage urban farming, and urban farming can alleviate food insecurity and catalyze community revitalization, he said.

“In the urban areas, we have what we call food deserts, where we have no supermarkets. If they’re not going to build supermarkets, well, we can turn an abandoned lot into a farming plot,” Dancer said. “So rather than have a blighted neighborhood, we could have a flourishing neighborhood.”

A man and woman converse in a garden

Isles CEO Sean Jackson talks with Yolanda Wimbley of Trenton at Isles’ urban agriculture site on Tucker Street in Trenton on May 25, 2022. (Photo credit: Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Sean Jackson is the CEO at Isles, which has a free program to teach people how to farm, start their own gardens, and test soil for contaminants. It now supports about 70 community, school, backyard, and institutional gardens and 200 community gardeners.

Urban agriculture’s benefits go beyond fresh produce and blight-busting, Jackson said — it helps bring neighborhood residents together.

And that kind of community-building can serve as “training wheels” for other advocacy, mobilizing residents to act as a neighborhood watch or bring concerns about illegal dumping, flooding, or other neighborhood challenges to their elected officials for action, he said.

School gardens help students learn about healthy eating, Jackson added.

A Black woman uses a trowel in a garden bed containing plants

Aliya “N.J.” Grubbs tends to her garden at Isles’ incubator gardening site on Tucker Street in Trenton on May 25, 2022. (Photo credit: Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Urban gardens also foster giving, when harvests yield more than one farmer can eat, said Jim Simon, Isles’ deputy director of community planning.

Isles’ work with urban agriculture drove them to advocate for lead remediation, as they discovered, over and over, alarming amounts of lead in soils they tested before planting. They lobbied for a law legislators passed last year to require rental apartment properties to be tested for lead.

And that law inspired Isles’ latest program — training people to become lead inspectors and remediators.

They also envision “incubating farm-to-table entrepreneurs” by educating urban gardeners on how to sell their bounty, Jackson said.

“We want to support folks and help them see this as an economic opportunity,” he said.

Aliya “N.J.” Grubbs is already there.

The Trenton resident runs a juice stand at the Trenton Farmers Market called Garden Jewelz. She has all sorts of things planted on the city-owned land on Tucker Street, where Isles teaches people how to farm.

“You see these beets? These will be juice,” she said, pointing to greens sprouting from her farming plot. “Isles makes it seem so easy that I’m like: ‘I can do this!’”

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the NJ Sustainability Reporting project.

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