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Garden Sharing: Farming Meets Social Networks

What happens when 90 million users stop growing fake vegetables on Farmville-and started getting real food from social networks.

What happens when 90 million users stop growing fake vegetables on Farmville—and started getting real food from social networks.

Two years ago, Peter Rothbart was riding through Seattle on his bike. He came to a traffic circle. In the center was a 15-by-20-foot patch of soil where the city allows residents to garden. A man was standing there, looking down at a sorry-looking bunch of plants that had been run over and obliterated by a late-night driver. Later that evening, Rothbart went to a barbecue and overheard a woman talking about how she had an expansive lawn that she didn’t have time to take care of. “What if that guy could garden her land?” he said. “It just seemed like a good idea.”

So he started We Patch, one of a dozen new websites designed to connect wannabe gardeners with landowners who have available garden space. Let’s say you have an unused space that might make a good pumpkin patch, you offer it up on the website. If you’re a gardener without a garden, you can find available space—and contact the landowner. Sometimes, it leads to a rendezvous and a handshake agreement. Other times, gardeners and landowners spell out exactly how they’ll share produce and labor from a shared plot of land. It’s like a Craigslist devoted exclusively to gardeners—without the used car parts and hopefully with fewer missed connections.

Since 2007, when Joshua Patterson launched Yardsharing from Portland, Oregon, the concept has grown to at least a dozen websites, each focusing on either a distinctive region or cultivating a certain set of gardening-related skills. Other sites have been springing up, including Hyperlocavore, BKFarmyards in Brooklyn, Urban Garden Share in Seattle, Growfriend in Los Angeles, Yards to Gardens in Minneapolis, in British Columbia, and the nationwide Shared Earth. The trend really took off in 2009 when the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, chef at River Cottage in England and the Jamie Oliver of gardening, aired a TV segment about garden-sharing, which soon spawned Landshare, a high-profile effort that has 55,000 people gardening on about 3,000 acres. And as soon as they find a partner, Landshare will be coming to the United States.

All these garden-sharing sites are designed to put idle resources to good use—to connect the estimated 40 percent of people in the United States without yard space with the 21 million acres of idle, underused space that’s currently being occupied by lawns. At the same time, municipal and community gardens are often overbooked and have yearlong waitlists. In England, the wait time can be as much as 40 years. As Landshare’s Fearnley-Whittingstall told The Times of London, “The danger with waiting is that you lose the urge. If you want to grow vegetables, you want to do it now—it's like falling in love, it starts to consume you.”

But instead of digging in real dirt, our agrarian urges manifest themselves in a game that 90 million Facebook users play: running fake farms on Farmville, growing virtual vegetables that no one can eat, and squandering the equivalent of 78 years every month. What land- and garden-sharing sites offer is the potential to transform that social networking into something like a real-life Farmville.

This whole idea of sharing land isn’t exactly new, and the idea of community—as cliché as it might sound—has been part of the American landscape from early utopian communities to the latest planned cul-de-sac suburb. As Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers write in their new book, What’s Mine is Yours, the increased interest in harnessing the idling capacity of backyards addresses our concern about the environment, the financial recession, the resurgence of community through social networking, and using technology for better efficiency. “When you talk to people, it’s about far more than the food,” Botsman says. “My dad started doing it and he sends me photos all the time. And for the first time in thirteen years, he’s knows his neighbors’ names.”

Garden-sharing remains relatively new but there are signs that it’s becoming more mainstream. The City of Santa Monica recently set up a municipal garden-sharing site in an attempt to alleviate its 200-person long wait list for community gardens. “I don’t know why every city doesn’t implement something like this,” Botsman told me. “It’s a no brainer. It’s low-cost and you can lay it on to any existing social network.”

While urban gardens may not feed the world, gardening has immediate results. It’s highly participatory and, compared to other social reforms like improved housing or schools, it’s relatively inexpensive. If the idea took hold among 10 percent of the land households in New York City, says Nevin Cohen, a professor at the New School Eugene Lang College, the effort might yield close to 113 million pounds of vegetables annually, enough to feed 666,211 people (about 8 percent of the city’s population). In cities with more spare land, like Detroit or New Haven, Connecticut, the harvest could easily double or triple. And just as Wikipedia has shown that large accumulations of small things can add up to an encyclopedic knowledge, garden sharing sites could show how the wisdom of crowds has the potential to share the fruits of farmland—and not just the virtual kind.

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