“Food deserts,” neighborhoods where people must walk at least a mile or drive 30 miles to access a grocery store, are rife in both urban and rural areas throughout the U.S. Planting a community farm on your church’s land can help the most vulnerable members of society gain access to fresh fruits and vegetables they might not otherwise be able to afford—or to find at all.
Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland, which owns 63 acres, found there were many low-income single parents in its neighborhood struggling to buy healthy food for their children, says Beth Burgess, director of facilities and outreach.
Here’s how to get started:
Survey the community (six months-ongoing). Assess “food security” in your neighborhood, through written and other contacts—don’t rush this step!
Survey the land (three months). Get soil samples tested to determine what plants will grow best (check www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension for info). Get skilled advice about fencing and irrigation systems.
Plan crop rotations (one month). Using expert input, create a five-year garden rotation calendar—rotating crops deters insects and aerates soil. To ensure a strong first harvest, consider easy-to-grow plants such as tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, and greens. Plan how you will get needed tools; consider creating a “tool library” whose contents can be checked out.
Break the news and break ground (six weeks). Spread the news, then gather your congregation and neighbors for a celebratory four-hour session to till the plot—and get a wider circle involved! For farms larger than 5 acres, consider hiring a professional to finish tilling.
Grow seedlings (two months). At the groundbreaking, pass out packets of seeds, egg crates, bags of soil, and instruction sheets, and ask participants to grow seedlings at home. Or grow seedlings en masse in a humid, well-lit greenhouse.
Plant and tend your crop (throughout growing season). Follow recommended seedling spacing; mark beds with signs indicating what crop is planted where. Recruit volunteer teams to water and weed consistently.
Harvest and distribute (throughout season). Research beforehand the picking technique each crop needs. Gather volunteers to harvest twice a week, store the produce, and hand it out; coordinate food drops with local food pantries and families in need.
Cost. A community farm can require a considerable amount of funding, depending on its size. A larger farm will require full-time staff as well as part-time volunteers. Research local businesses and organizations for grant funding and donations; Cedar Ridge Community Church’s inaugural quarter-acre plot is costing around $5,000 (including startup materials, such as a deer fence).
Bottom Line. One acre of farm can feed several hundred families a week! Cedar Ridge plans to take fruits and vegetables to neighbors, homeless shelters, schools, and nonprofit organizations throughout the area.
For more about food justice, Read: Just Eating? Practicing Our Faith at the Table, by Jennifer Halteman Schrock. Watch: The Global Banquet: Politics of Food (Maryknoll World Productions). Visit: www.communityfarmalliance.org.
Jeannie Choi is an assistant editor of Sojourners.