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Urban Farm Manager Returns To His Roots


Maya McFadden PhotoJonathon Savage returned home to Newhallville with his green thumb ready.

Savage, 37 is Gather New Haven’s (GNH) new farm manager. He has joined GNH ready to help feed the community with fresh vegetables and knowledge.

Savage stepped into the new role in March. He oversees GNH’s seven farm sites, which are used for GNH’s weekly farm stand and gardening programming.

As farm manager, Savage intends to get his hands dirty to “bring back what was lost” with community agriculture and neighbors feeding neighbors, he said.

Savage grew up in Newhallville. He recalled most of his neighbors having home gardens and using the produce for a healthier and cost-effective way of putting food on their tables. About half of his grandparents’ property was farmed, supporting about 30 relatives.

“New Haven is a city of Black and brown people, and most of us have come from agricultural roots,” he said. “Historically we are tiller of the earth.”

Savage this week returned to the neighborhood he grew up in to visit four community gardens maintained by residents. Though close in location, each garden generates differs in produce depending on the needs of the community.

By age 4, Savage had learned the basics of tending a garden from watching his grandmother weed and harvest. At age 6 Savage dug up his own garden in his Ford Street backyard. He began growing strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and collard greens just the way he watched his grandparents do.

Now in his role at Gather —the organization includes the former New Haven Land Trust, which helped people in Newhallville develop gardens and greenspaces — Savage hopes to help a new generation of neighbors grow their food.

Savage recalled a notorious 1980s drug-and-violence spot called the “mudhole” and a fence that once was adjacent from the dirt park. “It was the spot our parents told us not to go to because it wasn’t safe,” he said. “The soil was full of glass and junk so it was very easy for us kids to get cut and hurt.”

That same spot on Shelton Avenue is now a thriving community crossroads called the Learning Corridor, which Savage described as “more green and kid friendly.”

In addition to learning gardening, Savage learned recipes and ways to cook with his fresh produce from his father, who is a chef. On his mother’s side, his grandparents taught him how to cook Georgia cuisine. On his father’s side he learned North Carolina cuisine.

“It’s a grower’s responsibility to teach the next one,” he said.

While a high school math teacher, Savage grew plants in his classroom window with students and incorporated gardening into his math lessons by teaching about hydroponic and organic gardening methods.

Before taking on the farm manager role, Savage worked as a case aide at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF). Savage often taught gardening skills to the youth he worked with.

Savage offered his services and knowledge to volunteers working in Newhallville’s community gardens Wednesday.

Some gardens are organized with beds where families can grow personal produce in a bed for their home. Other gardens are structured in rows for neighbors to openly pick from.

Like other neighborhoods with many low-income residents, Newhallville found many of its families struggling to put food on the table during the pandemic. With more community and home gardens, neighborhoods could be more food secure, Savage said. This would also require gardening to be taught to youth to carry on the skill and knowledge he added.

“When you learn how to grow at a young age you learn patience,” Savage said. “You learn to not quit and how to be okay with your long term goals.”

Lifelong Newhallville resident Sean Reeves, who is Savage’s cousin, joined a group of volunteers Wednesday to make garden boxes on one side of the Shelton-Hazel Street community garden.

Reeves and the other volunteers plan to plant spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, and callaloo.

Reeves recently got into gardening to give back to his community. “I’m looking forward to when we can bag up the food and just give it out to anyone who needs it,” he said.

A vegan, Reeves looks forward to using some of the fresh produce himself rather than going to the grocery store two to three times a week as he usually does.

Reeves hope is for the gardens to become healing places for the community. “We won’t have to talk on street corners no more, because this is ours,” he said.

There are a lack of community spaces for “generational blending,” Reeves said. Community gardens give youth and older folk a space in the community to become self-sufficient, learn from each other and interact he added.

The next block over at 242 Starr St. is a small garden maintained by volunteers with Southern roots. The gardeners order seeds from down South and grow southern staples for the community.

“This community has historically thrived off of solidarity,” said GNH Executive Director Brent Peterkin, who joined the walk-through Wednesday. “These community gardens are bringing that back.”

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