1 of 3
The 31st Street Baptist Church urban farm grows a bounty of tomatoes, peppers, collards and turnips. Photo courtesy of Linda Marshall.
2 of 3
Produce from the 31st Street Baptist Church urban farm helps provide fresh vegetables to the homeless and hungry to whom it serves daily hot lunches. Photo courtesy of Linda Marshall.
3 of 3
Photo courtesy of Linda Marshall.
Urban farming is the topic of this Tuesday’s Community Conversation at The Valentine, so let’s start today on North 32nd Street between N and O streets. Three lots sit side-by-side. At one time, they held houses, but the houses are gone and the land is owned by the 31st Street Baptist Church across the street. Its pastor is the Rev. Morris Henderson, who is a man of vision and pragmatism. The church bought the lots with the intention of building a family life center. It takes time to raise construction money, however, and, meanwhile, up in Washington, D.C., first lady Michelle Obama was planting her White House vegetable garden.
Pastor Henderson put two-and-two together and said to his congregation: “It’d be a shame to obtain this land and do nothing with it for a couple years. Let’s create a garden.”
He turned to Mrs. Pearcie, a congregant possessed of a green thumb so mighty, the pastor could only marvel.
“I’m talking about that lady could grow everything from potatoes to squash to watermelons and I’m talking about huge stuff, things that would fill up the palms of your hands,” Henderson recalls. “We had squash so big you could feed a family with one.”
Mrs. Pearcie took on the garden project that first year, but age and infirmity sidelined her, and master gardeners and helpful horticulturalists and agricultural specialists followed in her path. Each knew a thing or two about soil remediation and raised beds and hoop houses with their metal ribs wrapped in heavy plastic, shielding the produce inside so that a seasonal farm becomes a year-round farm. Up went the sunflowers to attract bees. In went the beehives for raw honey.
And the land gave. In this pocket of the city where convenience stores proliferate and grocery stores don’t, the homeless and the hungry who came for church lunches every weekday soon had fresh salads along with their hot meals. They ate tomatoes so fragrant it was hard to decide whether to eat them or inhale them. They savored carrots, sweet and crisp.
“They aren’t the prettiest all the time, but they are the tastiest,” the pastor says.
Talk about urban farming in Richmond and the 31st Street Baptist church is a good place to start. The garden is now managed by the nonprofit urban agriculture tour de force, Tricycle Gardens, which will be represented at Tuesday’s Community Conversation. This conversation includes a tour of the museum’s new exhibition, A Chicken in Every Plot, which tells the tale of Richmond’s urban chickens.
So much is happening in urban agriculture in the city and region, it’s hard to keep track. Leonard Githinji, a Virginia State University assistant professor and extension specialist for sustainable and urban agriculture, can rattle off multiple organizations in Richmond involved in urban agriculture. It’s worth hearing:
“The city of Richmond manages at least six community gardens through the city's Green Richmond Initiative; Tricycle Gardens has built five community gardens across Richmond city; Renew Richmond manages two community and two church gardens; Fit4Kids has established learning gardens at 11 schools and at three community organizations; Another Chance to Excel (ACE) operates one garden; while the 31st Baptist Church in Richmond has a church urban farm and more recently, the Second Baptist Church started an urban farm in December last year.”
And this doesn’t include the healing gardens Bon Secours has partnered with Tricycle Gardens to create at two of its hospitals. The gardens provide respite and herbs and vegetables for the cafeterias. It doesn't count 26-year-old Richard Gropper, who is growing enough on 500 sq. ft. in his Carytown yard to join the roughly 48 farms, urban and rural, within a 100-mile radius selling produce to Ellwood Thompson's natural foods grocery store. It doesn’t include my Fan friend and her Fan chickens, Miss Pennington, Duffy and Athena. It doesn’t include the chefs who seek out locally grown produce.
Or Michael Simpson, who is not growing his own produce, but who owns a convenience store off the Six Points intersection in Highland Park. The neighborhood is another food desert in this city where roughly 40,000 residents lack access to fresh, nutrient-laden food, and where more than 40 percent of the population is living in a food desert or a high-poverty neighborhood with no easy access to a grocery store. Simpson is part of Tricycle Gardens’ corner store initiative, in which it is selling produce from its urban farms (one in Manchester and the 31st Street Baptist church farm) to convenience stores in food deserts.
1 of 4
Simpson’s Market owner Michael Simpson orders fresh produce every week from Tricycle Gardens so that his Highland Park neighborhood, which has no nearby grocery store, can buy fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. (Photo by Tina Griego)
2 of 4
Greens growing at Tricycle Gardens’ 1-acre farm in Manchester. The farm yields about 20,000 pounds of produce a year. (Photo of Tina Griego)
3 of 4
Greens growing at Tricycle Gardens’ 1-acre farm in Manchester. The farm yields about 20,000 pounds of produce a year. (Photo by Tina Griego)
4 of 4
Ellwood Thompson’s natural food market contracts with about 48 farms, rural and urban, within 100 miles for seasonal produce and speciality items. (Photo by Tina Griego)
“I usually get my deliveries on Wednesdays,” Simpson says. “I might order 25 pounds of potatoes, 10 to 15 pounds of onions. That’s what sells — potatoes, onion, cabbage.”
Sally Schwitters, executive director of Tricycle Gardens (and one of Tuesday’s panelists), says the interest in urban agriculture has grown exponentially. “You know when you are involved in something, you feel like everybody is involved in it, but it really feels that way now, much more than it did five years ago,” she says. “Folks are asking thoughtful questions: ‘Where was this grown? How was it grown? Who does that growing?’ …
“The present state of the food scene in Richmond, it’s like so many things in Richmond. We have our James Beard award [nominated] chefs now. We’re getting rated by all these magazines that we are the city to come to for food, yet, at the same time, Richmond is one of the worst food deserts in the country for a city of its size …
"In some ways, you can see that these worlds are so far apart, but they are really not. It’s still about feeding ourselves and feeding our families, and I think we are all getting more thoughtful about that. Whether it’s the person who is deciding to buy a bag of spinach instead of a bag of potato chips at a corner store, or a person asking a restaurant, ‘Where do you source your food?’ it’s the same renewed care for how we take care of ourselves with the food we put in our bodies and the land that allows us to grow that food and the individuals who grow that food, who truck it around the country, who prepare it in our favorite restaurants … Urban agriculture is providing a bridge for those two worlds by being a part of both of them.”
A little more than a year ago, the 31st Street Baptist Church, guided by VSU’s extension service, became the first urban church in Virginia – and perhaps the nation – to receive a United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency serial number. The farm certification is the ticket to all USDA farm resources, technical assistance and grants.
The Rev. Henderson has big plans: a greenhouse, an expanded meditation garden. Seven years after the first seeds were planted, the garden has become a farm. The family life center? It’s going to have to wait a little bit longer.