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Urban Agriculture Fellowship Prepares Residents to Be Social Entrepreneurs

Community and backyard gardens are spreading in Virginia, as more people take an interest in locally grown food. Now several initiatives are helping people become urban agriculture entrepreneurs, including an intensive program at Tricycle Gardens. 88.9 WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details and read about the 2017 Tricycle Gardens Urban Agriculture Fellowship, the Lewis Ginter Urban Gardener Program and the VSU Urban Agriculture Certificate.

Transcript:

Standing over a freshly weeded row of dirt, Amy Wildermann shows a group of students how to use a broadfork.

Amy Wildermann: Stick it in and you can do an acrobatic jump on the broadfork...

The Tricycle Gardens Urban Farm Manager hops on the human-sized farming tool. It looks like a giant, u-shaped fork. She uses her body weight to gently move the tines in soil.

Wildermann: It’s fun!

The students are Urban Agriculture Fellows, a program that Tricycle Gardens has expanded in size and scope. Working part-time over 11 months, 10 fellows get classroom instruction and field experiences helping run the non-profit’s urban farms.

Wildermann: We’re in the classroom once or twice a week. We have experts from all over the state coming to teach everybody about everything you need to know about the business and practice of urban agriculture.

Who’s a typical fellow? Program manager Beth Nelson says many are backyard gardeners, some have “urban homesteads,” converting half their property or more to feed their families and neighbors.

Beth Nelson: And they’re interested in doing it for their livelihood be it to earn their living wage to support themselves and their family or as a part of their connection to their local community.

The program is a partnership with the USDA-National Resources Conservation Service and Bon Secours Health System. A new aspect this is year is each participant earns a certificate recognized by the USDA. Local and national specialists teach topics ranging from soil biology and plant pathogens to marketing and customer relations. Nelson says a primary goal is preparing people to be entrepreneurs.

Nelson: It’s one thing to feel good about the work that you’re doing but if you can’t make a living wage and support yourself, then you can’t do it for very long. Starting a small business we know is very risky and then you add in farming to that when it is dependent upon nature and all of the good and the bad that comes with it, it’s just doubly risky. So farmers put themselves out there everyday and we want to do everything that we can to help them be successful.

Developing a business plan, bookkeeping and using data to track profitability of crops is all a part of the curriculum. So is the science of soil.

Fellows: Look at the soil, it’s so healthy!

Fellows Dita Beard and Ash Hobson Carr continue prepping a vegetable row, admiring the rich brown earth. Carr has experience as a backyard gardener. The fellowship, she says, takes things to a new level.

Ash Hobson Carr: When I started I didn’t even know all the things I didn’t know. All of the life that’s below the ground, the soil, how we keep that healthy and how much research is coming out with that. Almost everyday I’ve learned way more than I can even articulate at this point.

Dita Beard joined the program with a Masters in urban and environmental planning. She also worked with UVA’s Biophilic Cities project which studies the positive role of nature in urban environments.

Dita Beard: Exposure to nature is an inherent need for humans and in urban environments it can be difficult to get the exposure you should be having with nature.

After years of research, Beard wanted to get her hands dirty, to see what’s actually involved in building sustainable green spaces.

Beard: I think I’m feeling very entrepreneurial. This program constantly keeps that as an undercurrent of social entrepreneurship. I’ve been brainstorming a lot about pairing a small farming and growing operation with other related things, maybe having a cafe where we use the food from the farm or having a nursery where we provide subsidized organic heirloom local species of vegetables to people who want to get started in gardening.

Other fellows plan to pursue medicinal uses of plants, natural hair care and Richmond’s first rooftop farm. In addition to the sustainable and business practices of urban farming, participants study social justice components.  Beth Nelson points out that while Richmond has a reputation as a “foodie” city, a quarter of the population lives in poverty.

Nelson: How do we balance that? How do we reach out to members of our community without being simply do-good volunteers that come in, swoop in and do something for one day and then leave without getting in touch to who those people are and finding our common humanity and then working together to put into place longer term solutions that will be better for everybody.

Tricycle Gardens’ program is one of several initiatives working to expand green spaces and locally grown food in the region. Virginia State University launched a 10-week-long Urban Agriculture Certificate Program, with classes held Saturdays at the school’s Randolph Farm. Urban farming expert Duron Chavis is training Richmond neighborhoods in horticulture and community-building through the three-month-long Lewis Ginter Urban Gardener program. And this spring, the city of Richmond continued its free Urban Agriculture Learning Series. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.