Urban ag seen as model for generating income in High Point

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Urban Farm Facilitator Victoria Binder inspects From the Ground Up's hops crop in east-central High Point. (photo by Jordan Green)

From the Ground Up — a project of a local foundation — is attempting to help residents of east-central High Point supplement their income through urban agriculture.

Victoria Binder, the urban farm facilitator for From the Ground Up, glanced down at the sidewalk as she approached the hops farm on Park Street.

“There’s a burned jacket,” she said. “I’m kind of disturbed that it’s here.”

When Patrick Harman, the project director, put in the hops crop on a vacant lot his family foundation purchased for $3,500, neighbors warned that the house across the house across the street was a brothel. Only two houses on the block are legitimately occupied. Nearly half of the lots are vacant and a condemned house next door with a collapsing porch ceiling faces the same fate.

But the 54 hops plants present a magisterial sight, rising about 10 feet off the ground, the sticky vines climbing strands of coconut-husk rope suspended from a network of wires manipulated by a pulley system, while the bone-colored, high-rise High Point Jail towers in the background.

The hops crop is Harman’s special project, part of an ambitious set of experimental urban agriculture initiatives that organizers hope will set a template for profitable enterprises in the economically depressed east-central core of High Point. Picking up on the recent craze for craft beer, Harman attended a hops farming conference in western North Carolina and visited a state demonstration farm near Asheville last year. He’ll get the first harvest of pinecone-like flowers in mid to late August, but the perennial doesn’t really produce an optimal harvest until the third year. The harvested cones have to be dried, and most brewers like to use pelletized hops, so Harman will either have to make an expensive investment in a pelletizer or pay someone to do it for him. He’d like to partner with a local brewer, maybe Brown Truck, but that decision is still a ways out, and it’s far from clear that the venture will net any profit, he said.

The Hayden-Harman Foundation has facilitated farmers markets at public housing communities, the High Point Library and High Point Regional Hospital with Lee Gann, a local farmer, for about four years. From the Ground Up launched last September and is in the midst of its first growing season. The group is responsible for three farms, not counting the hops operation, in east-central High Point, and Binder said the project is indirectly involved in 10-15 gardens.

“This first year is a research year,” Binder said. “We’re trying to figure out how much time and resources go into getting one of these things started.”

Harman added: “The long-term vision is someone else is out here instead of us. We’re kind of covering the start-up costs, which is a barrier for a lot of people. We’re keeping track of everything we put into it and take out, so at the end of the year we can say, ‘If you plant a bunch of tomatoes, you can earn $800 net through 46 hours of labor,’ or whatever it is.”

 

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On Monday afternoon, Binder and Harman unloaded two folding tables and pitched a tent in an underutilized parking lot fronting a desolate strip shopping center on East Green Drive. They spread out tomatoes, okra, carrots, turnips, string beans, summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers and eggplant, mostly harvested from their Whiteoak Street farm, along with some watermelons and cabbage provided by Gann.

Before Binder even had time to arrange the produce, Melanie Joyce, a resident of the Morehead Courts public housing community, strolled up to the table.

“You know what I’m looking for — tomatoes,” she said. “How much are your watermelons? Those snaps are delicious. I ate the whole thing last time.”

With 30 minutes left in the two-hour market, Harman and Binder had collected $40.

“That might be a record,” Harman said.

“That is a record,” Binder said.

The shopping center is located in one of High Point’s seven food deserts, and with the impending closure of a Food Lion grocery store on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, the community is facing a deepening crisis of food access. While providing fresh produce to residents like Joyce is a benefit of the project, the primary aim is to address the poverty that causes grocery stores to shun the area in the first place. Median household income in east-central High Point is roughly one-third of what households across the city take in. The organizers hope to create micro-enterprises that can help residents earn additional income.

Latishia Bahena, a stay-at-home mom whose family depends on her husband’s earnings, was growing flowers and herbs long before she considered the possibility that it could become a money-making venture.

“I love the herbs; I like to teach people what they can do with herbs,” she said. “I know in the South we love seasoned salt. Several years ago, I had some issues with water around my heart. That’s when I started using herbs because I had to cut out salt. I love to cook, and I needed to find a way to season my food.

“When people pass away, we flood the church with flowers,” Bahena continued. “I say, ‘I want my flowers before I die.’ I’m not waiting for my husband to bring me any. That’s how I started growing flowers.”

From the Ground Up set Bahena up with a vacant lot on Thissell Street so that she could expand her yield. Bahena regularly sells her flowers and herbs at the markets hosted by From the Ground Up, which move from Green Drive to Washington Street, the hospital and the library over the course of the week.

“A lot of people in my community think you need to be doing something wrong to make money,” Bahena said. “I want to be that person to show people there’s a better way to make money than doing something negative.”

Bahena said she’s earned as much as $75 a day selling her flowers and herbs. With scarce rain and temperatures hovering in the 90s for the past couple weeks, however, her flowers have taken a beating. She discovered that it cost $1,500 to get the city to turn the water on for the vacant lot, and Bahena felt bad about running up the neighbor’s bill to irrigate her crop.

“Next year we’re getting water installed,” Binder said, “and getting drip irrigation so we can get some money out of this for her.”

During a recent visit to the Whiteoak Street farm, two boys who had been hanging out in front of the house across the street came over and volunteered to water the plants. Then they soaked each other, and eagerly accepted two cucumbers and a handful of okra from Binder as a thank you.