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Building Empowered

By Sarah Merfeld, Senior Fellow

Trevor, our farm manager, proposed that I take on a building project at the AMI Urban Farm as vegetable production slowed this fall. Before my fellowship with AMI, my reaction would have been that I do not know how to build anything and would have no idea where to begin! That was still my immediate response, but my time with AMI has taught me to trust in my instincts, ability to problem-solve, and how to lean on my local community for support. So with the help of Katie, Trevor, Anna, and the maintenance crew at VSDB, I built a pergola in our food forest.

Here is a brief step-by-step breakdown of the building process:

I began by assessing the space and creating a minimal design that met the needs of the farm. The structure’s purpose is to provide a shaded gathering space, while serving as a trellis for hardy kiwi.

The next step was procuring the building materials: We chose to work with black locust trees, known for their durability and rot resistance. Ben, our farm manager at the Highland Campus, gave me a chainsaw tutorial and helped me cut and haul locust trees from the farm in Highland. Here at the Urban Farm in Staunton, H.A., who is head of grounds at VSDB, used his chainsaw and expertise to cut down the trees on the school’s campus.

We used the Highland locust, with it’s beautiful lichen covered bark, as the four posts. We dug two and a half foot holes, which dips below the frost line, for the posts to sit in. We back filled the holes with concrete to decrease the chance of rot and to provide a stable base.

The next step was raising the top four beams that sit on top of the posts and serve at the frame for the trellised top. These are large locust trucks, the longest being 16 feet. Working with round wood, as opposed to dimensional store bought lumber, requires extra steps to secure these piece to one another. A friend of mine taught me some basic timber framing methods to notch the round beams into one another. We used hand saws and wood carving tools for this process.

Once the four beams were secured in place, I added the angular knee braces at each joint to provide the pergola with structural integrity. I used 4x4in treated wood cut at 45 degree angles.

Next, we laid down the trellis on top of the four beam frame. We used smaller locust pieces and wood screws. We made notches in the frame and trellis pieces with hatchets so that the round wood would lay flush. The structure is very solid at this point so we were able to do all this work just sitting on top of it.

The final step was creating the two benches. I used 2x10in treated wood planks for the top of the bench and screwed in Highland locust stumps underneath for structural support. We secured the benches to the posts using metal L brackets.

We were able to use the pergola as a gathering and teaching space for our Growing Great Garlic workshop this past weekend!

This was an incredibly enjoyable and empowering project. I hope to use the insights I gained from this experience in future building projects and more broadly move forward in the world empowered to take on challenges.

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