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Urban Farming

Posted On July 5, 2017

Teaching sustainability and helping residents learn about community agriculture

By MONICA KREBER

A typical day for Germaine Jenkins is a rather busy one.

Jenkins starts with her dropping her husband off at work. Between 7 and 9 a.m. she is shopping for her farm’s store, then works on stocking the store, monitors social media, does crop work, laughs with customers and answers e-mails.

There’s more miscellaneous farm stuff and more miscellaneous store stuff and next thing you know, it’s 7 p.m.

Jenkins, CEO and farm and market director, said it varies but essentially, that’s the playbook.

Fresh Future Farm is not a typical farm in terms of its location; it’s right smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

An urban farm, Jenkins said, is what one would normally see done in the country – growing crops and selling them, with USDA credentials as a regular farm would – just in the middle of a city.

Urban farming has many different levels of activism. Multiple groups in the Charleston region promote community agriculture and education, with each organization doing something different but all having a similar mission in mind: to make it easier for residents in urban settings to access healthy food, and show how local harvest can bring a community together.

Fresh Future Farms is an example of one of these groups helping an area grow, sell and eat healthy food. Jenkins said they are still trying to get word out to the community about their farm – but they’re progressing.

Fresh Future Farm grows chemical-free food, along with basic grocery items. It is intentionally stationed in a “food desert” to cater to local residents. Food deserts can be in small urban areas or major cities as well as rural areas.

Thanks to donors, Fresh Future Farm was able to open a grocery store in the Chicora-Cherokee community in North Charleston; in addition to seasonal vegetables, herbs, fruit and eggs produced on site the store sells custom tees, stamps, envelopes, kitchen and toiletry items.

The farm has an observation beehive, hens, offers STEM based farm tours and teaches gardening and cooking classes.

Jenkins’s passion for urban farming and community agriculture stems from a background as a public housing resident and food stamp recipient, a Lowcountry Food Bank employee, a North Charleston homeowner, a garden volunteer and a single mom.

“All those years surviving as a single mom were perfect practice to running a small business,” she said.

Jenkins was trained in Chicago and Milwaukee through Growing Power and she is “beyond passionate” about helping residents learn about community agriculture.

“We’re just helping spread what I was taught,” she said.

Fresh Future Farm is still in its beginning phases; eventually they would like to have a greenhouse and a modular kitchen. The final phase would be getting to a point where the farm is teaching other people in the region what Jenkins was taught without having to travel all the way to Milwaukee for training.

“And hopefully we’ll be able to get to the point that we can show the permitting it takes to make it happen, so it’s not as complicated,” she said.

While Fresh Future Farm is located in the middle of a residential neighborhood and occupies land, George Nelson of Sweetbay Produce and Nursery in Huger, said urban farming does not necessarily have to mean “in the ground.”

The USDA defines urban farming as taking the form of backyard, rooftop and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space. 

Nelson added urban farming caters to people in under-privileged areas, or areas lacking grocery stores (the food deserts, like where Fresh Future Farm is located).

The biggest benefit to urban farming, Nelson said, is access to local distribution retail outlets. 

“An urban farm becomes part of a community, it supports a community, community supports the farm, and you don’t have that big separation between the consumer and the farmer like you do in the distribution model of a food chain,” Nelson said.

While food is important in rural areas, Nelson points out it is just as important in urban areas; urban farming is taking advantage of small plots of arable land or technology in an urban area. Nelson mentioned more dense areas like New York and Massachusetts that utilize rooftops for grocery stores and greenhouses.

“That’s a good use of urban farming high-tech,” he said.

Sweetbay is a commercial, hydroponic, state-of-the-art facility and is high-tech. Nelson grows with water only, 365 days a year. 

Nelson’s primary customer is Charleston County schools, where he is a provider to 18 district schools and is going into his fourth year as a preferred vendor.

His other customer is local restaurants; Nelson serves anywhere from 40 to 160 restaurants, depending on the season. Sweetbay also donates to food banks.

Nelson grows six to eight species of lettuce – his most-desired lettuce is butterhead lettuce, and he produces 2,200 of those per week – and specialties like wild arugula, toscano kale, Swiss chard, microgreens and radishes, among other items.

Four days of the week are almost identical for Nelson: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday are primary harvest days while Wednesday is a maintenance day with a little bit of harvest.

Nelson has 16,000 baby plants growing 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and he is always seeding anywhere from 400 to 4,000 seeds in a day, it just depends on where they are in the season.

Nelson said he is a “full supporter” of sustainability. He said what Sweetbay is doing is its version of how to give back to the community, while trying to stimulate and educate children on a new version of food production and community service, while understanding and appreciating the value of a dollar.

Another group that promotes education is The Green Heart Project, founded in 2009. Green Heart builds school gardens and school garden programs. Executive Director Drew Harrison said the organization works with interested schools looking to find alternative and inspiring ways to educate children about not only math and science, but healthy food as well. Green Heart then implements in-school and after-school programs to utilize those gardens as outdoor classrooms.

Currently Green Heart works with three schools in Charleston: Mitchell Elementary, Meeting Street Academy and Sanders Clyde Elementary. Green Heart also works with Sullivan’s Island Elementary and Meeting Street Elementary Brentwood campus. 

It is a total of three in-school programs and five after-school programs, serving 1,200 students currently.

Green Heart’s primary mission is growing fresh produce with the students’ involvement to get them more exposed – and excited – about healthy foods. They have a fall curriculum, a spring curriculum and then in the summertime Green Heart manages the gardens for the students.

Students are involved from planting the seeds, to tending the plants they cultivate, to harvesting and then eating what they grow, and learning along the way.

Harrison said it is also a great way to tie in math, science and STEM concepts. 

The students grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers; common items include sweet potato, strawberries, leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, onions, garlic and collard greens. Green Heart also caters to what the students want to grow.

Harrison said he first got started because he was exposed to it and became inspired through growing his own fruits and vegetables, and came to understand very quickly that he was not very connected to where healthy food comes from.

Harrison had the opportunity to work on a permaculture farm in Costa Rica while he was traveling after college and said that opened his eyes to the agriculture process and how much hard work goes into producing healthy food.

It also made him want to eat healthier.

“Being somebody that is environmentally-conscience and wants to make a difference in the world, I saw…if you want to change the world, you have to start with educating kids, and what better way to inspire them to eat healthy than through growing and eating healthy food as I’d kind of done?” he said.

When they first got started in 2009, Harrison said he got a lot of credit for starting this school garden program to educate children on healthy foods, just because it was “pretty novel” to a lot of people he spoke to about it. 

Today, the organization has the problem of trying to find resources and support to a growing number of schools that see the benefit of an outdoor garden classroom; Harrison said this shows the Charleston area’s “lightbulb” of urban agriculture and how it can not only be an educator on healthy food and classroom curriculum, but also a community organizer and cultivator; he also said he thinks urban farming is a growing appeal and is becoming a “lot more normal” in the Charleston area. 

The community aspect continues to be an ongoing focus in Green Heart’s programs as well. Harrison said one of Green Heart’s missions is for the gardens to provide an opportunity for volunteers to connect to the youth and “build community” through its programs.

“A great way to appreciate and be inspired to eat healthier is to be connected to the process of growing it,” Harrison said. 

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