In center of city, a farm is born

Organizers will publicly launch the Charlotte Urban Farm Project this weekend, planting crops Saturday in boxes made from recycled pallets on a vacant uptown plot.

It’s the first step in a larger venture that organizers hope will cultivate a greater sense of community as it brings together refugees and others to grow fresh, local food at a network of sites throughout the city.

Want to go?

Who: The public is invited to the Charlotte Urban Farm Project's Planting Day.

What: Project supporters will shovel dirt, plant vegetables, build planters, accept donations and conduct a raffle.

When: 10 a.m- 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Eighth Street between Caldwell and Brevard streets

Details: http://www.clturbanfarm.org/

The project, developed on a shoestring by a group of refugee advocates, so far has relied exclusively on volunteers, donated land and recycled materials, said president and program manager Lindsay LaPlante, a 26-year-old Winthrop University graduate.

The project aims to begin by providing a central place to help refugees, many of whom arrive with agricultural skills, find paying work as farmers. It plans to generate revenue to pay workers by selling produce at the nearby 7th Street Public Market, LaPlante said.

“By fostering the health of the people in the community,” she said, the project also will be “fostering the health of the community itself.”

Even though the project is starting with refugees, organizers want to work with anyone interested in urban farming, LaPlante said.

“We’re starting with the refugee community because you have to start somewhere …  ” she said. “It’s just sort of a launching point.”

She is lining up future partnerships with other community groups. She is working with Habitat for Humanity to use the organization’s excess land, for example. She also is working with Central Piedmont Community College to establish a horticulture certification program that could teach new skills to the project’s workers.

LaPlante, who began working with refugees while in college, started researching urban farming after she met a group of Bhutanese who she said had no choice but to work in a chicken processing plant despite being vegetarians.  

She set out to develop an urban farm project for refugees in Charlotte herself, but has since joined forces with a group of refugee advocates pursuing a similar idea. The group, pursuing nonprofit status, has formed a board of directors and secured its first plot – almost an acre and half on Eighth Street between Caldwell and Brevard streets in uptown’s First Ward – via a temporary donation from Levine Properties.

The company, which has significant uptown holdings, eventually plans to build housing there, part of a bid to create what president Daniel Levine called “a significant, 24/7 neighborhood anchored by a very significant public park.” That development is probably five or 10 years away, however, and Levine said the farm project is welcome to use the land as long as the company isn’t.

He said it didn’t take long for the project’s organizers to convince him of its merit. Levine, whose stepbrother is a farmer in Weddington, said he thinks Charlotte residents and corporations should support locally grown produce “in a very significant way.”

“What can be more local than growing it, selling it within a block and a half and getting it from farm to table that fast?” Levine asked. “It’s just the ultimate in freshness.”

Rachel Humphries, who helped plan the project and is director of Refugee Support Services of the Carolinas, said the project will benefit refugees and non-refugees alike by allowing “all of us to thrive together.”

For refugees, the project can alleviate some of the stress of resettlement by providing a familiar, agricultural setting, she said. For non-refugees, the project can offer the opportunity to learn new farming techniques, try new crops and explore different cultures.     

Marci Mroz, who also helped plan the project, echoed Humphries.

“We want to show them the American way,” Mroz said, “but we also want them to show us the ways of their lands.”

She helped start an urban farming venture last spring near W.T. Harris Boulevard and Rocky River Road, but it failed when the suburban site proved too difficult for refugees to reach on public transportation.

 “We want people uptown to see it … ” Mroz said. “Then, we can branch out into other areas.”