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OppySpotlight: Jamie Bruno & Urban Agriculture Cooperative

The Oppy’s Spotlight Series exposes Sternies to writers, artists, and causes outside of our typical professional networks. This month’s article highlights Jamie Bruno, co-founder and Program Director of the Urban Agriculture Cooperative (UAC) based in Newark, NJ.

Jamie has worked in urban agriculture in Newark for the last eight years with various nonprofits. Outside of the UAC, Jamie is an Artist and Data Analyst. She served the Greater Newark Conservancy as their first Foodcorps Service Member between 2014-2015. In 2017, Jamie helped to develop creative messaging for green infrastructure and environmental education projects as a Resident Artist with Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and coLAB Arts in New Brunswick, NJ under a National Endowment for the Arts Grant. Notably, Jamie is also my sister. The Oppy is excited to feature Jamie’s story so that our readers can learn more about urban agriculture and the UAC.

Tell us about yourself and your career journey so far.

I went to school for Fine Arts at Rutgers Mason Gross. After I graduated, I began to realize that I wanted to do something a little more pragmatic. It took me a few years to decide what that was, and, eventually, in 2011, I took a 6-month farming trip around the US.

I was craving something more purposeful in terms of my interaction with land and sustenance, and questioning a lot about city life. During that farming trip I visited a bunch of intentional communities: some were farm-to-market farms, some were subsistence farms – it changed my career path. I started working with nonprofits in urban agriculture and food system development from that point.

Jamie tending to alpaca during her farm trip

The farming trip sounds like a pivotal experience in your life. Describe how you decided to take that trip and a memorable moment or story from it.

After college, I wanted to heal my relationship with food and my relationship with myself after a really intense undergraduate experience. A lot of the farms that I selected to visit had very strong intentions about healing land, and very strong identities. I visited a healing and subsistence farm in North Carolina in the early spring and an off-the-grid ranch in Arizona. There are so many stories to choose from. The one that comes to mind was right before I visited a Hari Krishna farm, which was a great experience. I was at a farm-to-market farm in Denton, Texas during tornado season. I was living in a tent on their land. The people that ran the farm were building these earth domes, and they told me, “If a tornado comes, you can just go to the earth dome and you’ll be fine.” That was kind of scary. Of course, I was fine. Afterwards, at the Hari Krishna farm, I had time to unpack, rest, and reflect. They had 100 acres and these gorgeous and curious cows. Both places were dedicated to healing and were at different levels of growth.

What’s an earth dome? 

An earth dome is a handmade clay shelter. On the property there were several types of these dwellings. Glad I never had to try it out!

Earth dome

Before we go further, define urban agriculture for our readers.

Sure! I would define urban agriculture as any kind of agriculture or gardening practice within an urban space. It’s really simple. It could be a community garden. It does not necessarily have to grow food; for example, it could be a rain garden, which is a garden that intentionally stores water to prevent rain from causing erosion or pollution problems. Or It could be as simple as flower bombing a vacant lot.

Sidebar: Jamie has made a flower bomb for me before. It’s a little ball of seeds that you can throw on soil that will eventually emerge as flowers in a wild fashion.

Ok, back to your story. Your farming trip was in 2011 and, here we are, almost 10 years later. Have you been working in urban agriculture since that trip? 

I’ve been working primarily with nonprofits and I’ve had a lot of transitions. Actually, I took that trip in the middle of living in Korea for three and a half years, nearer to the end of my time in Korea. The timelines are a little complicated. So, after my farming trip and the end of my time in Korea, I came back to the U.S. and I moved to Newark, New Jersey. I knew Newark had an adopt-a-lot program and I had several artist friends from college that were living there, including my partner at the time. It was the perfect place, close enough to home and family who I missed after being away for so long and an interesting space for agriculture. I remember that I’d seen some things online about folks involved in that space so I thought, “This is where I want to be.”

Before we dive into the UAC, is there anything about your experience in Korea that informed your path to urban agriculture?

I was very inspired by Korean culture and I loved the landscape of the city itself. It was highly mountainous. One of the things that was fascinating about living in Korea was the generational divide between the elder community and the younger community. The elder community had been through so much change and turmoil – colonization, civil war. Younger Koreans had a different mentality.

I was captivated by one space in particular. I lived in the center of Seoul, on Nam San which is a mountain north of the Han River. Around the mountain, closer to the peak (where there is a park), there are some older communities of people who had been affected by ongoing development in the city. There were swarths of demolished areas where people had begun to grow food, and I thought about that a lot. Despite cultural differences, urban spaces globally go through similar struggles.

Let’s talk about the Urban Agriculture Cooperative. You are the co-founder, along with your other co-founder, Emilio Panasci. What led you to found the UAC?

Emilio and I had a business in 2015 to late 2016. We picked up compost from cafes and some larger agriculture businesses in the area and composted those food scraps into dirt using worms (this is called vermicompost). Eventually, we found out that we were non-regulatory and we had to shut down. New Jersey’s composting rules are very complicated. In fact, we’re now stakeholders in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s rule change preparations. We advocate for easier pathways for community composting and micro-small scale food waste management at community gardens.

Anyway, that experience led me to start working with Planting Seeds of Hope, Emilio’s nonprofit, and we started developing a little advocacy unit for urban agriculture within that nonprofit. Then we realized that we needed to spin it off and make it its own thing – and that’s how Urban Agriculture Cooperative was born.

Jamie and co-founder, Emilio Panasci with Market Manager Eddie Godfrey at a UAC coordinated farmers market in East Orange in 2018

 UAC’s mission and vision is to help heal the food system, to create a more inclusive, equitable system that our community owns itself. The activities that help us achieve our goals are as follows: farmer’s market work, advocacy work, and legitimizing urban agriculture itself by establishing safety parameters and safe operating practices; for example, we help urban farms and community gardens with access to comprehensive soil testing. We also help communities that want to build farms and gardens of their own.

An NRCS soil test for a future garden site coordinated by UAC

On the advocacy side, our mission encompasses food justice, environmental justice, and social justice in New Jersey. BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) make up less than 2% of agricultural owners nationally. Being located in Newark, it is part of our mission to help spur more entrepreneurial development in the food system.

What are some specific examples of UAC’s activities? 

(By the way, the lingo is “urban ag.”)

We are in our third year now. Our first year, we didn’t do much more in urban ag than engage in some bulk purchasing on behalf of farms; for example, buying several tons of compost and topsoil collectively and helping to distribute it.

We also started running farmers markets with a direct mission to aggregate from several local and urban suppliers. When you think of a farmers market, you might think of something like the Union Square Greenmarket where there are many different vendors. But the demand in Newark is different. For a small farm or Newark-based urban agriculture practitioner who would like to bring products to market, the demand is still being built. So we wanted to start aggregating these different urban agricultural products and create a more public funnel for folks to sell their products. This wasn’t something that existed in Newark before, i.e. bringing multiple products from different urban farms together. It was very important to create a highly visible market for locally grown products and for products specifically grown in Newark by Newarkers.

We started an online farmers market, The Cooperative Market, this past June, primarily to support safer purchasing practices during the pandemic. But we had been building towards a virtual market for years. Before, you would have had to be aware of a community garden, or a market pop up, in your neighborhood to benefit from it. That can take a lot of digging – you might not necessarily know that there’s a garden five blocks away from you unless it’s heavily advertised which can be a burden on the garden depending on its size. It’s hard to know unless you have a funnel. The best way to make it easy for your regular Joes and Janes who are not necessarily interested in sustainability or farmers’ markets to buy urban ag products is through an online buying platform. So that’s why we wanted to aggregate demand and build an online farmers market, to take some of the pressure off those small farms to get their names out.

A Cooperative Market farmer box ready for pickup

We also do fiscal sponsorship for a lot of small farms. Fiscal sponsorship occurs when a loose organization of people, like a community group or even a small business, may want to access grant funds for public benefit, like free food distribution. You need an intermediary, which is where a nonprofit like the UAC comes in. Often, the nonprofit will be a fiscal sponsor on behalf of these organizations so that they can access grants. We do that for the smaller groups we work with, like the community gardens.

Describe more about why this work is meaningful to you and your connection to Newark. 

When I came to Newark in 2012, there was already an incredibly dedicated and passionate community of urban agriculture practitioners, artists, and people in nonprofit spaces and restorative justice. There are a lot of heavy hitters in Newark to contend with, a lot of vibrant people that want to see their communities changed for the better and their neighbors lifted up.

I initially thought, “Maybe I’ll start my own garden?” Then, I realized there were so many great gardens that already existed and that my place was to support the growth they were already engaged in. Not trying to reinvent the wheel, but rather creating systems and development for folks who have been living there and who have experienced the effects of being underinvested in to help them succeed.

Coalition building with several organizations at a community garden in Newark, NJ – 2017

What’s been going on recently with criminal justice has highlighted that these communities need more investment and attention, especially chances for small business development.  Newark has a bad reputation compared to the rest of New Jersey and the surrounding region, but I think a lot of that is due to naivete, bias, and racism. People think, “Oh, Newark is so bad. How do you live there?” But people also live in New York City, Brooklyn, and Jersey City – very diverse communities that also have high numbers of crime without half the stigma that Newark has. It could be that Newark is associated with the Black Power movement as well as the 1967 riots/rebellion. There may be an aspect of that in people’s collective unconscious, which is impacted by deep-seated inherent biases in white communities. I think the more we listen and hear black communities, the more we share stories and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and the more we encourage diversity and anti-racism, the more we can heal those deep-seated attitudes and biases.

It sounds like positive community efforts were already well underway when you arrived in Newark. How have you seen the city evolve in the past 10 years?

I’ve seen a growth of social entrepreneurship nonprofits and small business development nonprofits, and with the Black Lives Matter movement that’s only increased. All of these efforts are coexisting in the same space and happening at the same time, and all these things have been bringing more investment to underfunded communities in Newark and across the country. 

However, Covid-19 threw us a curveball. It’s difficult to contend with that because there are still so many people that are impoverished and so many different communities that are struggling. Different nonprofits within the food sector and people across all sectors in general have stepped up and started doing massive distributions to folks. Covid-19 is hard, but it’s making us all step up and realize what’s important. People can’t go out to the bars as often so they are volunteering more. That’s what I’ve seen in the past year and I hope it continues. I don’t know if that addresses your question but it’s what we are contending with now.

UAC-coordinated volunteer farm build with local high school West Side High, Newark

How did the pandemic impact your operations at the UAC?

We were already working on aggregating demand and developing a market for local agricultural products pre-Covid. I think because of that, and because of our close connection with like-minded organizations in our community, we were able to catalyze those efforts to quickly receive funding to create a food hub and virtual farmers market. 

With this grant, we built the logistics and began administering the online farmers market.  Also, we received a couple more grants specifically for training in food and farm safety for our staff and similar organizations in our space. Because of this investment, we’ve been able to grow over 150% in the last year, adding two part-time positions. When I ran the numbers, I thought to myself,  “Wow, we are creating so much more impact.” We’re in a different space than we were last year.

Our growth is also due to a lot of hard work. We are building an incredible staff. I feel really blessed because of that. We have a great Market Manager, a Social Media Coordinator, and a few talented Interns through an academic credit program as well.

UAC staff packing farmer boxes in 2020

Would it be fair to say that the pandemic has pushed more focus into your space, more investment and urgency? 

Yes. You know, it’s funny. We’ve been preaching this message for years and years and it takes Covid-19 to show the delicacy of national and international supply chains and to prove the necessity to create more local supply chains. So even though that may have been an interest to some people before, more now realize that we need to strengthen these local supply chains. Covid drove that home in a huge way. It felt very strange to experience that transition; maybe everybody had some time to meditate on it. We need to do it. It’s not only going to heal and add equity in the food system, but it’s also a necessity for the environment.

What is UAC’s focus for the future? 

We have great grant writers and have been very successful with securing grant funding so far. However, we need to do a better job in terms of compliance and developing our organizational structure. Part of that is fundraising and developing our board a little bit more. I’m hoping that we can develop a network of multi-level funders over the next few years, plus some strong board members that can help advise us.

All right, let’s move on to the quickfire questions:

  • What’s one word that describes you? Fun!
  • Favorite type of dirt? Organic matter – an important component of dirt.
  • Favorite agricultural product? Compost thermometer
  • When is the best time of the year for local veggies? Every time of the year for local food, though spring, summer, and fall are usually more plentiful! 
  • What are you reading right now? Community-Scale Composting Systems by James McSweeney
  • What’s one thing you can’t do now that you want to learn? Perhaps an MFA with a focus in Supply Chain.
  • If you could meet anyone alive or dead who would it be? Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for refuting the tragedy of the commons.
  • Who is the most important person or persons in your life? My two wonderful sisters Teresa (aka me) and Nicole, my lovely parents, my incredible dog Mr. Fred, and his best friend, Niya aka Ms. Flats.
UAC, in partnership with the Farmshed Alliance, invites Newark’s agriculture community to visit low-cost sites for potential expansion

So what’s your elevator pitch for why an MBA graduate should get involved or work in urban agriculture?

Well, Emilio is the Executive Director and I’m the Program Director of the UAC. Neither of us has a background in financial analysis, although I do have some expertise in data analysis. We had really been lacking in financial accountability and management, and we’ve seen a lot of similar nonprofits with the same challenges.

Actually, I have a great story about this. We were recently involved in a pro bono program with a large financial firm that allowed us to create a financial model for our food hub and online farmers market system. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to have financial accountability, e.g. the ability to track our sales and revenue. That program was great because both the non-profits and the employees of the firm had to apply to participate. It was highly competitive, and everyone involved was invested in our success. We were blessed to have smart and dedicated folks involved, and it shows the impact of a business skillset in our space – and we learned a lot!  Our level of financial literacy as an organization is so much higher after this 10-week investment.

That’s so cool. So, absent pivoting to a career in urban ag, how do you think somebody who is inspired to help could begin to get involved today?

First, discover. Do some research online, start following some food system development  nonprofits and foundations, or consider donating to an urban farm in your neighborhood or a BIPOC farm or farmer. You could donate to UAC as well!  Also, choose to purchase products from local and environmentally restorative farms.

There’s so much you can do with a search engine at the tip of your fingers in addition to exploring what’s in your neighborhood. Depending on where you live, your city or state government may keep a list of farmers’ markets and local farms. That’s where I would start.

Now, more than ever, we can benefit from learning about diverse people, businesses, and non-traditional industries and about how to apply our skills in their service. Please contact the Oppy to learn more about how to get involved with any of our OppySpotlight causes or if you would like to nominate a person or a cause to be featured in an upcoming OppySpotlight.

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