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An urban farm to cultivate more than crops

Friendship Gardens' Henry Owen in the Garinger greenhouse, where he envisions an aquaponics project. Photo: Amber Veverka

In a weedy, unused corner of land behind Garinger High School in east Charlotte, a dream is taking shape. It’s a dream of connecting school kids to the earth, low-income communities to food, and unemployed adults to jobs.

It’s called the Friendship Gardens Urban Farm, and it’s the work of a team led by Henry Owen, program director of Friendship Gardens. The project received a $75,000 grant from Wells Fargo to turn 2 acres behind the school into a food production and education center, starting this fall.

Friendship Gardens is a partnership of Charlotte’s own meals-on-wheels program, Friendship Trays, and Slow Food Charlotte, two nonprofit groups. It organizes volunteer gardeners to grow food for Friendship Trays’ meals for shut-ins. The group has about five dozen community farms, and a network of backyard gardeners.

Friendship Gardens

Click here to learn more about Friendship Gardens.

The urban farm concept is an idea whose time has come, supporters say.

“I think there’s lot of enthusiasm for local food, in Mecklenburg County in particular,” said Katherine Metzo, Friendship Gardens garden development director. “We have a lot of hope in the potential for the project.”

The Garinger farm will occupy what now looks like a forgotten corner behind the school athletic fields. On one end sits an untended school garden, next to a cluster of mature apple, peach and pear trees. There’s a former practice field no longer used by the school. And – a surprise – a full-scale commercial greenhouse, which the school once used for a horticulture program.

A vision of mulch, and much more

When Owen stands at the center of all of this and takes stock, it’s clear he sees something other than weeds and work.

“We’re going to mulch under the fruit trees and plant more,” he says, pointing to the school garden area. “And rehab the pergola to use as a welcome space.”

He walks down to the practice field and strides around, gesturing. “The shed will be here. Off the shed will be a covered area, an outdoor classroom. The farm is going to be organized into 40-foot-by-40-foot squares, and on this concrete pad will be a produce-washing area.”

Owen paints a picture of tilled squares, first planted in cover crops to boost fertility, and irrigation laid in to keep everything green. He describes school field trips, bee hives possibly tucked into a secure area farther away, and laying hens, added in year two or three and to be housed in secure, mobile grazing pens.

The farm’s produce will feed Friendship Trays recipients, ideally with plenty to spare.

“We want to find ways to use the food in the community – sell it here at reduced prices maybe, or send it home with some student volunteers,” Owen says. Adults with barriers to employment could work at the farm, gaining skills that could transfer to the business world, Owen says. The farm could provide training for people who want to learn homesteading or market farming skills, and students would get hands-on experience in horticulture.

Fish and grubs, not just plants, will have a role

Friendship Gardens’ farm has two other components: The school garden, and a 100 Gardens aquaponics project. The 100 Gardens group was launched by Ron Morgan, a Charlotte architect who plans to create educational aquaponics gardens – tanks where tilapia are raised, and whose water nourishes vegetables grown in trays. The aquaponics project would be paired for information exchange via Skype with “sister gardens” in Haiti, which will feed the poor there. (See the Charlotte Observer’s article about his project here.) The tilapia-vegetable project would occupy part of the greenhouse, once Owen and 100 Gardens get money to add heat and air conditioning.

Sam Fleming, co-director of 100 Gardens, said giving high school students a chance to learn aquaponics opens doors to them that traditional farming might not.

“We use aquaponics as a platform for hands-on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education,” said Fleming. “Aquaponics is more the lab coat-clipboard kind of farming. You’re dealing with water testing and fish, and it takes on a different angle to food production that intrigues a lot of people.”

It intrigues Julie Jones, a second-grade teacher in Charlotte who is launching “Grub to Grub,” a venture that raises black soldier fly larvae – grubs – on food waste and then feeds the grubs to farmers’ chicken or fish. Jones’ Grub to Grub won first place in the Social Venture Partners Charlotte inaugural SEED20 nonprofit funding competition this year.

Jones visited Garinger recently to tour the site. The Garinger farm could serve as a demonstration site for Grub to Grub, she says, with food waste from the farm and school feeding the flies, and the grubs replacing purchased fish food for the tilapia. It’s an idea that excites Owen and others, who are looking for ways to intertwine goals and activities at the farm. “We’re starting to touch on a closed-loop system,” Fleming said.

School garden can connect community to school

The school garden is the third component of the farm. Garinger just hired longtime CMS volunteer Bobbie Mabe for the position of family advocate, someone who works to increase family involvement in the school.

Mabe, who has worked with the Shamrock Gardens Elementary School garden, part of the Friendship Gardens network, says plots of vegetables are the perfect place to bring communities and a school together.

“The first thing I want to do is go in and assess the needs of the students and start a garden club with students,” Mabe says. “I’m imagining the garden to be something students will take ownership of.” And, she says, a school garden is a great spot to host events that draw parents and community members to the school. A former school counselor, Mabe says a garden is “a way to reach kids emotionally.”

With all the hope and promise of an urban farm that seeks to educate, train and feed the community, there come significant challenges. The site’s location, for now, is wide open to trespassers. And the farm will need more money and labor than it now has.

Owen is well aware of the hurdles and is working on solutions. He hopes to enlist neighborhood support in keeping an eye on the farm, and he’ll be on site at least part time. As with Friendship Gardens, layers of volunteers will help keep things running. The future shed might turn out to be a shipping container, less likely to be broken into than a normal structure. As far as future sources of money, Friendship Gardens’ Katherine Metzo says she’s confident grants will be found and she’s hopeful sales from vegetables and eggs, plus value-added products Garinger students may create, will help pay for programs.

 “We’re really excited. We also feel kind of like the dog that caught the bus,” Owen says. “It is a little leap of faith – like anything cool is.”