"A breath of fresh air…literally and figuratively": Volunteering at three non-profit farms in Maryland

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Johns Hopkins University
The literature about agricultural volunteering is growing, but there is a need for more qualitative research on the subject. Volunteering’s implications for volunteers, farms, and communities are especially important to understand. This dissertation involved a case study of volunteering at three non-profit farms in Maryland: an urban community farm (City Farm); a therapeutic farm (Therapy Farm); and a volunteer-run, faith-based farm (Faith Farm). I conducted over 190 hours of participant observation, as well as semi-structured interviews with 16 volunteers and three farm leaders. The first paper (i.e., Chapter 4) explores the theoretical foundations and critiques of civic agriculture vis-à-vis building community and food security. I conclude that—with regard to volunteering—the sense of community was neither completely lacking nor fully present at the three farms. The meaningful interactions and sense of a common purpose strengthened feelings of community. However, these feelings were dampened by the high volunteer and staff turnover, the distant origins of some volunteers, and the solitary nature of certain tasks. Moreover, the three farms employed creative strategies for providing free and affordable food, but food provision was not the farms’ only goal. In the second paper, I describe the scope of tasks that volunteers performed and explore the ways that volunteers can contribute to or detract from farms’ missions. Volunteers’ contributions included forming a critical mass for labor and being competent and dedicated. However, staff members also needed to schedule and supervise volunteers, which entailed expending time and effort. Furthermore, volunteers could make mistakes or work slowly. The final paper examines the antecedents and consequences for the farms’ volunteers. Interpersonal connections, exercise, and professional development were among volunteers’ reasons for volunteering, whereas severe weather, competing commitments, and the strenuousness of farming were three potential deterrents. The desirable consequences included stress relief, social connections, satisfaction, learning, and rewards and affirmation. Still, I experienced, observed, and heard about minor, undesirable health effects and issues with supervision. The role of race and community engagement is also addressed in this chapter. I conclude the dissertation by discussing practical and theoretical implications, directions for future research, and strengths and limitations.
Volunteering, civic agriculture, community food security, food insecurity, farm labor, alternative agriculture, sustainable agriculture, non-wage labor, public health