Tucked in the alleyway behind the sleek, modern wood and metal storefront of the Bailey’s Crossroads Recreational Equipment, Inc., otherwise known as REI, is a flourishing employee-operated garden housed atop two large steel shipping containers.
The garden is a small green reprieve among the never-ending asphalt and consistent hum of delivery trucks milling about the nearby loading dock, but even more interesting than the unique location of the garden, is that the produce it yields goes straight back to the store’s employees as part of an employee-supported agriculture (ESA) program.
A play off the more familiar community-supported agriculture model, REI employees share the harvest of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for the week, which are conveniently delivered to the store’s employee break room. Then, all of the funds from the informal farmers market in the break room are circulated back into the garden’s maintenance and upkeep.
“This is a very Bailey’s Crossroads-type of project,” says Ronnie Crusta, operations sales lead at the Bailey’s Crossroads REI and founder and lead grower for WEeFarm34, the umbrella organization that administers the employee garden. “Every REI has their own culture and flavor set by the store manager,” she says.
And that unique store culture is in large part what allowed the employee garden to take root.
In late 2016, Crusta, who has been growing her own food in some capacity for most of her life, was looking for a new way to not only grow food for herself, but for those around her, as well. She asked her manager to establish a rooftop garden and to her surprise, she not only got a yes, but an enthusiastic one at that.
However, it quickly became apparent that a rooftop garden wasn’t feasible due to weight limitations, but Crusta’s manager was quick to point out the two shipping containers in the alleyway behind the store. They’re owned by REI and although their interior storage space was in use, the tops of the containers weren’t.
Crusta recruited some of her fellow employees and encouraged anyone who was interested to pitch in with whatever they could. One of those early volunteers was Jim Lee, the shipping and receiving lead at REI who has an engineering background. Crusta put him in charge of all building-related tasks for the garden. Others were good at photography or carpentry, so Crusta put them on social media and construction duty, respectively.
A couple of months later and with lots of help from fellow employees, in February 2017, the WEeFarm34 garden was up and running.
The garden is made up of several large wooden boxes constructed out of reclaimed pallet wood, lined with a thick, fish-safe pond liner, outfitted with a custom-built drainage system and filled to the brim with dark brown, fish emulsion-fortified soil. Leaves, vines and flowers spill over the edge of each box, growing everything from beets, spinach and turnips to kale, strawberries and even sage.
During the summer months, the garden provides employees a bounty of produce, but as Crusta points out, its benefits extend far beyond fresh, seasonal produce.
“It’s not just the vegetables,” Crusta says. “It’s when people come up here and it’s this moment in their day … they may only have a 15- minute break, but they can learn about a new bug or plant they’d never known about.”
Shared garden spaces, like the one Crusta and her fellow employees have established, are growing in popularity according to Niraj Ray, founder and CEO of Cultivate the City, a nonprofit organization that helps local groups establish and maintain community gardens.
“More and more employers are realizing … the potential for these sorts of spaces as another amenity,” Ray says. The therapeutic benefits of gardening are well documented and Ray notes that shared workplace gardens in particular allow employees to reap the many benefits of gardening, as well as improve team building and communication among employees.
But for Crusta, the REI employee garden isn’t just about growing food or building community with her coworkers. For her, its purpose and impact is more lasting: “It’s about opening people’s minds up about where nature is and what it is.”