When David Braden moved from Oregon, Italy and Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Oklahoma in 1997 to teach fifth grade math at Casady School, he put in a garden in his back and front yards.
Sara, whom he had known since childhood when their parents taught in the same school and with whom he reconnected in Italy, where she worked as an assistant gardener while learning to make violins, had met Lia Woods, an Oklahoma City fiber artist. Lia, who was gardening a few blocks away in her front yard, would bike pass the other front yard garden in the area, and when she learned that’s where Sara lived, she stopped and asked David what he thought of her idea about building an urban farm.
David and Sara, Lia, Lia’s spouse Allen Parleir and Terry Craghead became co-founders of CommonWealth Urban Farms in 2009.
“My family gardened a little when I was growing up, but I learned to love gardening in Italy. In Oklahoma, when we ran out of room in the backyard, we planted the asparagus in the front yard. We didn’t realize asparagus would look quite so dramatic. We also built a trellis with squash growing on it and one neighbor complained but since then the neighbors are fine with our gardens. One neighbor is gardening now in her backyard.”
From Lia’s vision, CommonWealth farm evolved. “The farm—where it would be, what size, who would do what—was very much up in the air,” says David. “We started with composting first thing, even before we knew what the farm would be. We started with beer grains, composting in windrows.”
Composting is key. And David is key to the composting operation. “It’s the foundation of natural food,” he says. “Ideally it would not take so much input from outside the farm.” While CommonWealth puts all waste back into the composting operation, the greatest input is from twice-weekly pickups of date-expired produce from Whole Foods.
David has learned about lacto bacteria from Korean natural farming systems and applied some of it to CommonWealth’s compost. “It aims to increase the microbacterial activity in the soil without anything from the outside.”
Red Wiggler worms also contribute to the composting process at CommonWealth. Strangely, they weren’t added to the compost piles, “they just showed up,” says David. “It was a happy accident. They must have been in worm beds in neighboring lots years before.” Strangely as well, because David lives a few blocks away, “at the same time they showed up in the composting bed at our house.”
While David teaches full-time and manages his own garden, he spends every Saturday and many of his days off in the summer at CommonWealth. He built the beds in the first half of CommonWealth eight years ago, is the farm’s primary Stump Grubber, works on the rain water collection, teaches in the Garden School, braids his abundant garlic crop which he shares with the CommonWealth Veggie Club and builds the stone walls. (He learned garlic braiding and stone wall building at that ancient farm in Italy.) A core member of the core CommonWealth team, he and Allen Parleir, founder and director of the youth program Closer To The Earth, have built the composting operation into a process that produces CommonWealth’s nutritious, delicious food.
“When we show people the compost and they pick up a handful and smell it, it speaks for itself, it’s so rich. I like to point out there’s no dirt in it. The compost rejuvenates the soil. Plants deplete it and the compost gives the nutrients right back.”
Long composting in his own garden, he says he has gravitated to learning about it, reading books, learning more, doing the work.
David’s life is consistent with his value of farming naturally. He doesn’t have a cell phone. He rides a bike everywhere, year-round. He likes to play guitar (one Sara made for him), sing folk music and play classical violin.
“I’m proud to be part of CommonWealth Urban Farm. It’s a remarkable project. I wish there were a way to make it magically profitable…we get closer every year. I like how unashamedly idealistic it is: sustainable food production in community.”—Pat