The Urban Farm
Mike Peacock: Welcome back, friends. Thanks for joining us again. As always, it is an absolute honor to have you here with us. Today on Aldersgate OnAir, we are thrilled to explore the world of urban farming.
Simply put, urban farming is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations as the growing of plants and raising of animals in and around cities. Urban and community agriculture is reshaping local food systems across the country. Urban farmers and gardeners are creating new opportunities for increasing the economic, social, and environmental effects of growing food in and around these cities.
Now, as cities across the nation are growing and farmland is swallowed up by urban development, our access to fresh and local farm products decreases. We find ourselves sourcing our food from further and further away, increasing our carbon footprint while decreasing the freshness of the food we consume.
Now, luckily, a trend is emerging to save some of this farmland in the midst of these urban areas. In this episode, we’re going to dig into how an urban farm in our own backyard is becoming an important part of the fabric of the city of Charlotte.
Our guests today are Zack Wyatt, Director the Carolina Farm Trust, Larken Egleston, who is serving his second term as a member of the Charlotte, North Carolina city council, and Brooks Shelley, Director of Marketing and Engagement here at Aldersgate. I am ridiculously excited to be bringing you these three very special guests who are absolute rock stars in the field and who are working tirelessly to make this dream a reality.
Zack, Larken, Brooks, welcome to Aldersgate OnAir. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Zack Wyatt: Thanks for having us.
Larken Egleston: Glad to be here.
Mike: Yeah, I think this is a fantastic topic. I’m personally really excited about it. I’m also personally invested in the concept itself, so I think there are a lot of great perspectives we’re going to get from each of you today. Zack, let’s get started with you. If you could tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to found the Carolina Farm Trust and help Aldersgate create The Urban Farm at Aldersgate?
Zack: Yeah, again, my name is Zack Wyatt and I founded Carolina Farm Trust in June. June 9, 2015, is our IRS birthday, so we just turned 5 earlier this year. Our mission is to redesign our regional food system from production to consumption by protecting farmland, fostering the ecosystem with sustainable farming, and then building the next generation of Carolina farmers.
What we really want to do is work with the existing farming community. What can we do to make them successful? Business 101 just does not work in the farming industry and especially on the small farming, community farm scale. Then how do we work with the consumers so they could actually participate in the local food economy because it’s very difficult?
As far as it relates to Aldersgate, we thought urban farming definitely was going to be something we were going to get into, but we just didn’t realize it was going to be this fast. We were just extremely thankful to Brooks, Aldersgate, Suzanne. Erin Barbee at the time, Director Admission Advancement at Aldersgate, came to us and had this idea. It was just Erin kind of talked about it in the first ten seconds we were sitting down at lunch and, the moment she said it, my mind just wandered on how awesome it was going to be. Then, holy crap, the responsibility now [laughter] creating something like this from scratch.
We were just beyond excited at the time. Again, very thankful for Aldersgate for giving us the opportunity. Then, more importantly, just giving us the patience to get something like this off the ground because it’s no easy task.
Mike: Yeah, for sure. Thank you for that. If you wouldn’t mind to just give us a quick definition for the listener, what separates, say, an urban farm from a traditional farm? How do we define that?
Zack: I mean all it is, is the farm in an urban setting. Aldersgate was kind of our first experience dealing with something like this and, you know, it’s easy. When I talk to my rural farm friends, they just kind of laugh at the urban farm concept.
But I have to say that, in the next decade or so, urban farms are going to play a major role in our food system. I think the urban farms are really going to drive the importance and relevance of rural farms just because of the generations upon generations that have lost what farming really is. I think the more that we can have urban farms so people can kind of see it from a day-to-day perspective, the more they’re going to understand the value of our farming system as a whole. I think that’s a really critical point.
Mike: Yeah. Awesome. Larken, as a city council member, I’d love to hear about your background and what actually inspired you to run for city council in the first place?
Larken: I had grown up and lived in North Carolina my entire life. I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, went to Appalachian State University and been in the mountains of North Carolina and then moved to Charlotte in 2004 to attend Johnson & Wales and get a culinary degree, so I’ve got a food and beverage interest that ties in really nicely with trying to change the way that we look at our food system and that’s part of why I’ve been so drawn to Zack’s idea and so supportive of it.
For me running for city council, I’d been and, actually, Brooks and I served on one of these together. I’ve been involved in a couple of community organizations. Brooks and I, at the time, were both on our neighborhood association board together. That’s how we first met.
As I got more and more involved in the community, having grown up with parents who were very involved in Winston-Salem, though they never ran for office, I’ve always felt kind of a sense of civic duty. But as you become more involved, you start to realize that some of the issues that you’re really passionate about, the biggest impact you can have is to be the person that has that vote on whatever that issue is.
For me, with my passion for transit, my passion for affordable housing, historic preservation, a lot of the things that I really care about that shape Charlotte and kind of steer it in the direction that it’s going to go are city government issues. And so, as I got more involved in those and became better versed in how to affect that change, I realize that being the person in that role was the best way for me to do that, I thought. And so, I ran in 2017 for the first time against a long-time incumbent. I was successful there and was reelected in 2019.
It’s been a great experience. It’s incredibly challenging. Charlotte, we’re one of the biggest cities in the country that has a part-time mayor and city council. That does not mean the hours are part-time, only that the pay is part-time.
As we discussed before we went on air, I am actually in Ashville today doing my day job, which a lot of folks don’t realize most of us have day jobs.
It is a challenge. It’s essentially working two full-time jobs, but it’s an incredible opportunity. I get to meet a bunch of amazing people. I get to, like I said, help steer Charlotte in a direction that I think is best for it. Part of that is making sure that people are not as disconnected from their food as they’d been throughout most of my life. I think, coming from that hospitality industry, food and beverage background, I sort of had a front-row seat to see how little people knew about where their food came from.
One of the issues that I’ve been involved with in our community is fighting childhood hunger, and I think one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that fresh, healthy food is available to people as close to where they live or work as possible. Disbursing that food network so that not every food source is hundreds of miles from the end-user, I think, is a great way to attack some of those challenges. I think Zack’s concept can be a proof of concept that hopefully others will take and run with when they see the success I’m certain he’s going to have.
Mike: Yeah, I think that’s epic. I love the fact, also, that you have a culinary background, which I think is not something a lot of people in your field have. You’re approaching this with an actual knowledge of the product and a knowledge of how things work. I also think it definitely brings a really unique perspective. I wish more people in the world would have even the slightest concept of where your food really comes from and how it gets from point A to point B. I think that’s something a lot of people just truly don’t understand at all.
Larken: Yeah, not a lot of culinary degrees in politics.
Larken: It was a passion of mine from an early time in my childhood. I worked in restaurants upon turning 16 in Winston-Salem. Even though I went to App State and got a business and marketing degree, I’d always had a passion for food and wanted to go and kind of scratch that itch in culinary school, and certainly glad I did. Even though I don’t cook professionally anymore, I think it does give me a really good insight into some of those issues like food insecurity.
Mike: Yeah, for sure. In the context of, I guess, city planning and zoning, how do you see urban farming benefiting the city and the residents of your local area of Charlotte?
Larken: Zack’s urban farm at Aldersgate is actually in my city council district, and so this is not theoretical for me. It is very real. I think, just as I mentioned, it’s closing the gap between the producer and the user in our food network, in our food constructs.
Not only does it give people the opportunity to know who is growing their food, they need to be involved in the process of growing their food but they get fresher, healthier food. I think they have more of an appreciation, maybe more of an open mind to try new things. There’s so much about it, I think, that can connect people not only back to food but really back to the environment. That’s a thing, in a city like Charlotte that’s the 15th biggest city in the country and one of the fastest-growing, to be able to have not natural in the sense that it’s untouched, but I think pervious surface that is well maintained and done so in an environmentally friendly way and that is enriching the soil and not stripping the soil is allowing for stormwater to soak into the ground as opposed to runoff into our creeks.
There’s so much about it, I think, that touches not only on the food security and healthy eating and healthy living but also a healthy environment, which has been something that our city council has really tried to prioritize. That’s hard to do. It’s hard to balance that when you are one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.
I think it has to play a role. We have to have open space. We have to have conservation areas for farming but for anything that can help with our tree canopy, help clean our air, clean our water, and I think this will do a lot of those things.
Mike: Cool. Hey, Brooks. Your turn. You’ve been sitting there all quiet-like. Aldersgate has set aside seven acres on the campus to serve as the farm. Why is supporting urban farming important to the Aldersgate community?
Brooks: Aldersgate started here 72 years ago. Like Larken said, we fall in his distribute and I only live four minutes from here, so I’m fortunate to live and work in Larken’s district. The acreage….
Larken: That’s what you say, fortunate or unfortunate?
Brooks: [Laughter] We’ll talk later but the acreage used to be Winsor Swim Club, so it was a community swim club. When it closed, we allocated the land, acquired it, and just haven’t done anything with it. We’ve got 231 acres and that was just a piece that we had as well.
Typically, people think of retirement living and senior living communities as the buildings and the actual community within. But Aldersgate has made an intentional effort to consider the community outside and to become part of the community that’s outside.
We want to be a good neighbor. We want to embrace the community we’re in. We have arguably the most diverse population in the east side of anywhere in Charlotte.
We also fall in the food desert and it’s difficult to be in a food desert and be a good neighbor at the same time and have the capabilities to do something different. Fortunately, like Zack said, we had people that met people that knew other people, and everything just kind of came together.
That seven acres of land can now become a farm that takes EBT and WIC payments, is a learning lab for our local high school, and can actually be intergenerational programming for our elders as well as high school students, middle school students, preschool students. It really gives us an opportunity to embrace the community in every aspect, both internal and external.
Larken: If I can piggyback on something that Brooks said there that is really important, the ability to take the EBT and the SNAP and make sure that this is not only accessible to affluent people who want to go to a farmer’s market and have fresh, local produce, but that it’s available to people who oftentimes don’t have access to that kind of fresh, local food is a really key piece there that I want to make sure we don’t miss. I’m glad Brooks brought that up because we do have areas of our city where people don’t have access to that fresh food. They might only have access to a corner store, convenience store type of place that they have to do their grocery shopping and they can’t get food that is healthy for their family. That’s a big piece of it is to make sure that it’s something that can be accessed, whether you are highly affluent or maybe not as much. I’m really glad Brooks touched on that.
Mike: Yeah. Actually, as am I because that kind of brings us to the next thing we’re going to talk about, which really kind of hits that home. I’m in the Seattle area where, of course, we have the world-famous Pike Place Market, which happens to be in the middle of some of the most rarified air for real estate prices in the country.
It’s also a major tourist destination where people kind of come to eat, drink, dine, take in all of the sights. It’s really cool. It’s got kind of this whole mix of things going on there, but there are literally millionaires shopping next to suburban moms who come to the city or next to lower-income seniors and people who are probably having a tough time making ends meet.
What’s also unique about the Pike Place Market is that it also provides a variety of social services for children, seniors, and it even has a food bank and a really cool herb garden. It’s truly a salad of cultural and socioeconomic diversity and it works.
Along those lines, in your mind, how does urban farming contribute to Charlotte’s communities from a social and environmental perspective? What other benefits do you think communities receive from incorporating farms into these urban areas?
Larken: Yeah. I think Charlotte has a need. I told you I’m actually doing this interview from Ashville, which has an incredible food community here. We’ve recently done a study at the city or the city partnered on the study that looked at our farmer’s market access in terms of where they are geographically in our community and looked at how many of them accept those sorts of benefit payments like SNAP and EBT. Charlotte is really woefully behind some of our other peer cities in North Carolina like Raleigh, like Ashville. Ashville is much smaller in population but really had better access for their residents to a lot of these markets, as did Raleigh, the capital, which is half our size.
Charlotte has fallen way behind on that and, to Brooks’s point, being over in east Charlotte, there are a number of markets that kind of pop up in smaller markets near our center city but, as you get a little bit further out, we have one big regional market down in southwest Charlotte. But Aldersgate is more up in northeast Charlotte, and that area really hasn’t been served in any sort of a – I can’t think of the word I’m looking for right now. But with any consistency, I guess, is what I mean.
There have been some that have kind of popped up and then they disappear. There hasn’t been any consistent presence for this type of a market in that area. Yet, I think that there is a huge demand. I do think that it’s so much about food security. It’s about creating community, creating a place for people to come together. Obviously, it’s six feet apart right now but, I think, looking long-term, this is a place that can be a community gathering spot as well as a place for people to address food insecurity, to address healthy living, and to address environmental issues that we’re facing.
This is what I hope will be one of many a decade from now or even five years from now. I hope that people see what’s happening here and try to find other places because this isn’t the only food desert. It’s not the only part of our city that’s lacking something like this. I hope that whether it’s Zack doing it or Zack handing that blueprint off to others doing it, that this is something we can replicate throughout the city.
Mike: Yeah. Zack, what are your thoughts on that?
Zack: Yeah, just to pick up, Mike, just from what Larken was saying, we are the 15th largest city in the country and I don’t think another city rivals us from a greenspace perspective. Charlotte, in my opinion, does have a unique opportunity to be a global leader in food sustainability, in creating an environment where we’re feeding ourselves. I think even with COVID kind of bringing a lot of the supply chain issues kind of coming into it, and I’ve talked to a lot of farmers that I know and not one says we cannot feed the region, because we can.
As far as kind of the social aspects, when you really kind of look down to it, racial injustice is born out of agriculture. Climate change is agriculture. The health and nutrition piece, the upper mobility piece, the three pillars of life piece, it really all kind of comes down to this agricultural component that we’ve kind of gotten away from.
The biggest thing is that this is not something we can preach from the mountaintops. We have to create these experiences for people to really make a behavioral change, which we are asking them to do. That’s kind of a really cool aspect of the location of The Urban Farm at Aldersgate is bringing people from Queens Road West, from the banks.
We had a great meeting with one of the banks before COVID hit and they were going to bring 75 people down to the farm with executive leadership. I just kind of made an offhand comment, “Okay, well, how many of those executives have actually gone from Windover, across 74, and kept going on Eastway?” They all kind of got quiet and they said, “You know, probably not a lot, if any.” [Laughter]
But they are the ones making these key decisions in our overall community, so it draws people, and especially from Charlotte. We’re not the only ones that are having segregation issues. But we all are guilty of kind of living in the bubble that we want to put ourselves in. Having these urban farms in different parts of the city makes people go to places that they don’t normally go and I think it’s very eye-opening once they do.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Those are some amazing perspectives from all of you there. I forgot to ask you earlier. In regard to the farm at Aldersgate itself then, describe it for us. What are you growing and how often are you switching out products that are being grown?
Zack: This is our first year, so our lease started in April of 2018. It took us about a good two years to get some funding together to really move forward. It was a lot of human capital.
When we got the property, there were still four tennis courts on it, two cinderblock buildings that were falling down. The property really hasn’t been touched in 20, 25 years, so it was very daunting kind of walking into that and, like, okay, well, what are we going to do here?
In the best-case scenario, it’s hard to get funding for these projects but I need $30,000, $40,000 just to tear things down before we can start building. We didn’t really get a lot of smiling faces on the other end. But I got to give it to Accenture who really reached out to us from some press that we’ve done and they pretty much did that for us over two years.
This is our first year of actually getting the farm activated. We hired our farm manager February 1 of this year. His name is Ashanti Selassie.
Pretty much going down into, again, soil that hasn’t been touched. The tennis courts have been under concrete for 50 years. There are all sorts of challenges just walking into it.
He’s done a great job. We have one of three fields planted right now, for the most part. He started one the second field right now. Right now, we’ve got tomatoes, okra, eggplant. We’ve got some watermelon growing, a bunch of basil, squash, zucchini, some green beans, so I think he has some hibiscus that he’s planting on that last row, which is really cool and some different greens that actually flourish in the summer.
Our goal is getting that first field and second field planted this summer. Last year, we planted about 30, 40 trees, and a couple of berry bushes. The trees have actually done great: persimmons, figs, redbuds, magnolias. We’re really looking at the whole space from a horticulture standpoint making sure that some trees are taking from the soil and other trees are adding the nutrients into the soil. We work with TreesCharlotte on that project and we’re getting ready to talk with them.
This fall, we want to plant ballpark probably about a couple hundred blueberry, a variety of different berry bushes: blueberries, elderberries, blackberries, raspberries. Then probably another 50, 60 trees this fall. Then get the rest of the fields planted and then, sometime next year, about half the acreage is in woods, so we’re going to start to thin those out a bit and then really kind of cultivate an edible forest going forward from there.
Providence Day School, which is a local private school, came in and built an apiary for us and we should have two hives, hopefully, in the next couple of months that will be then a home for a dozen hives hopefully by the start of next year. There are a lot of things happening and a lot of infrastructure work that we’ve been working on. We’re finally starting to show some fruits of that labor.
Zack: Not being too on the nose about it.
Mike: Ba-dam-boom. Folks, we’ll be here all week. [Laughter]
Mike: Yeah, that’s amazing, though. Clearly, it’s taken a lot to run these kinds of places, and not just from a staffing point of view but also from an environmental maintenance perspective and making sure that every t is crossed and every i is dotted.
We’ve talked a lot now about the kind of impact on the community at large, whether it’s just a local or even a global community. Let’s kind of switch gears then and we’ll kind of tie it into what you’re doing here at Aldersgate. How do you see, Zack, urban farming contributing to the quality of life of our elders specifically?
Zack: Yeah, so the hard part with COVID, I think, I mean Brooks and Larken will know, the biggest piece has just been the community engagement that just kind of come to a halt. Hopefully, by mid next year, we actually have a trail and a bridge that we’ll have to repair, fix, and get back. But it’s connected all the way back to Aldersgate’s residents, so it’s something they can come down and walk. They can come down with their golf carts and kind of park.
We’ve already been talking before COVID. We kind of presented the idea to Suzanne and her team. Obviously, we do some quarterly farm to table dinners with the residents. What can we do with the chefs on a regular basis with certain things? What can we do for board meetings and getting residents to come down and kind of volunteer with the farm stand?
Really, just present the farm as the residents, how they want to engage with it. Some are going to want to get their hands dirty in the dirt. Others are just going to want to come and walk around.
We have a retaining pond right now that looks a little barbaric, but I had some conversations today with some artists that were going to be doing some really cool active work with that. We’ll have some kind of seating around it. We have a little corner that will have a fireplace with some benches around it. It is definitely something that we want the residents and staff to engage as much as they want and, really, it’s our job to kind of create that environment, make it accessible, so they can kind of take full advantage.
We were talking, Mike, with your team. It’s one of those things where, from a living standpoint and if you’re on that third stage of life, you should be having the best food that is grown on earth at that point in time. It’s great. I’m really excited. Once we’re able to get residents down and they can kind of look and kind of see what’s going on.
Everyone that comes down, we had a local publication come down to do a feature on us that hopefully will be published next month. The editor was like, “I didn’t realize it was going to be this cool coming down here.” [Laughter] Which is just great to hear because I think people just don’t know what to expect. I can’t wait for that first busload of residents to come down and kind of take a look really of what their team has really kind of put together and give us the opportunity to do.
Mike: Yeah, I’m sure that’s going to be an epic event. Definitely looking forward to hearing more about that, for sure.
Brooks, I’ve talked to you now several times, so I’m familiar with you and what you do but one of the things that we always keep coming back to is Aldersgate and the commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. Right? How does The Urban Farm support and enhance those commitments?
Brooks: To tag onto something that Zack said a minute ago about getting upper management and CEOs from other companies to go where they usually don’t go, that’s pretty much what we do. We try to get people who usually aren’t at the table have an opportunity to be at the table to come up, pull up a chair, and be at the table.
Again, this is probably the most diverse area of Charlotte. Increasing transportation, public transportation, making sure that people can actually go places that they need to that is equal to other people who can go places they can go to.
A lot of what we want to do with the farm is not only make it a farm but make it a culturally relevant farm, so food that’s grown there is something that a different nationality would like to see, different age groups would like to see, and different income levels would like to see. We’re just excited to have something that gives another level of diversity to not only our campus but our community internally as well as our community externally.
We’ve got a resident garden onsite where the residents have plots where they go out and they like to garden, still. They have taken a huge interest in The Urban Farm, not only from an aspect of the cool factor but also from an aspect of going and volunteering and knowing that the potential is there for much of their food that they eat here coming from a farm that’s right in the backyard.
It is a huge benefit to the community, both internally and externally. From a diversity, inclusion, and equity standpoint, making it affordable for all and accessible for all is just a huge community benefit.
Mike: Man, that is so epic. I absolutely love that. Larken, here at Aldersgate OnAir, of course, what we’re doing for the Aldersgate community, we have a lot of focus on our elders, of course. Can you tell us a little bit about how Charlotte is addressing the need for senior housing, including affordable housing? As this housing is developed, how do you envision urban farms supporting these developments?
Larken: Well, I think the market rate need for senior housing is being met by the market. We handle all the rezoning, land use decisions for the city on the city council, and the number of market-rate and, really, also, luxury senior complexes that are coming in front of us is staggering. The market is really taking care of the demand that is there and the demand that is coming in the gray wave that everyone sees coming.
For affordability, I think that’s really more in our wheelhouse. We have done a lot of things on affordability, not the least of which is that, historically, every two years, there had been a $15 million affordable housing bond and, in 2018 after a slew of us got elected for the first time in 2017, as well as a new mayor, Vi Lyles, our mayor here has really championed all these efforts as well. We put a $50 million affordable housing bond on the ballot. Voters overwhelmingly supported it and we are doing that again in 2020 and we hope that voters will once again support it.
More than tripling the affordable housing bond in each bond cycle was one of the big splash things that we did, but we’ve done a lot of things that haven’t maybe been as big a splash or as much of a frontpage headline. One of those that I think most directly impacts seniors is, we created a program and now former councilmember Justin Harlow, who represents part of west Charlotte, was one of the leaders on this, called Aging in Place.
Essentially, what it did was it said the city can’t artificially adjust your tax value or even your assessment and the bill, but what we can do is help you, help you to cover that bill. In a city where we are growing as fast as we are and the housing market is spiking as quickly as it is, we said, “If you’re a homeowner over a certain age and under a certain income, we have dollars that we can deploy to help you close that gap. If your tax bill went up $1,000 and you’re on a fixed income and that $1,000 might be the reason you’re not able to pay that tax bill and become delinquent on your taxes or would have to make the decision to sell even though you didn’t necessarily want to, we can help you close that gap that you are experiencing or that you’re facing because you just happen to have bought, 20, 30 years ago, in a neighborhood that suddenly is one of the hot markets in our community.”
We have created programs that have been laser-focused on trying to make sure seniors can age in place until they’re ready to go to somewhere like an Aldersgate because we want them to have those options when they’re ready for them, but we don’t want them to feel pushed out of their home before they think it’s time, before they’re ready. Again, it’s about creating options both in the style of living, I guess, the style of housing, but also in the price points. We’ve tried to make sure that that variety is there on the affordable end of the spectrum because we know the market is going to take care of the higher end price-wise.
Mike: Yeah. I think that’s a detail that probably gets missed a lot when we talk about the very hot button that is taxes, allocations, and whatnot. Finding that you have allocations specifically to help a small group of people that really needs the help rather than changing the entire structure for everybody who may or may not need that level of help makes more sense. I think that makes it a lot more approachable for people. Honestly, I’m a little surprised that we don’t hear more about that on a global scale.
Larken: Yeah, we try to create these things with a scalpel, not a hatchet.
Mike: [Laughter] Nice. I’m going to have to steal that. I can actually use that as a culinary reference as well.
Larken: If you’re using a scalpel in the kitchen, I have other questions.
Mike: [Laughter] Yeah, right? Precision cuts, brother. Precision cuts.
Hey, Zack. You already described for us today kind of what the farm looks like and what it’s going through. What are the plans for the future? What are you going to add and what’s it going to take for urban farming to be able to supply communities and food service establishments for the long-term?
Zack: Yeah, I mean zoning is a gigantic issue. There are just so many restrictions that are out there on what we can do and what we can’t. From a non-profit standpoint that we just trying to create enough revenue to survive but put under the same restrictions of a developer who is going to turn a piece of property over and make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars is very challenging. Just from trying to get an electrical permit where we have to have all these drawings and everything else, so it takes $1,000 to a $4,000 thing with the snap of a finger.
We’re trying to work with Larken. We have an email out to some other folks in the city because the city is kind of going through a transition of, I think, revising the entire zoning laws. We want to have a seat at the table there for the long-term future but we’re working with Aldersgate right now to try to get The Urban Farm rezoned to a neighborhood services classification, which will really open it up to give us a lot of flexibility to do a lot of cool, different things, having small events, being able to sell off-farm product, so we can have a much more full offering to support the community and to Aldersgate specifically. That’s really the farm as kind of the place maker.
It’s a really great proof of concept that I think just really has the legs to do something all across the city. With this opportunity that Aldersgate gave us, we kind of pivoted. How can we have an urban farm network all across the city? Based on this project, another landowner who has 28 acres in Huntersville, which is not too far, we got a lease on that, which could be the largest urban farm in the country.
The sky is the limit here. We’re starting to develop some relationships with the county. We need much stronger relationships with the city. Really, kind of rethink our supply chains and really look at urban farming almost from a risk management perspective. We have a very archaic cap system of food distribution for those in need. Yes, we’re filling a hunger problem, but there is no nutrition there and all we’re doing is creating a much bigger health problem kind of on the other end.
Again, it’s really kind of having a starting point and that’s kind of where Brooks and Suzanne, Boris, and the rest of the C-leadership over at Aldersgate and the board of Aldersgate, I don’t really even think they realize what the true potential of what this thing is and what they’ve started. There have been a ton of organizations around Charlotte and I’m sure across the country that have really tried to do this in the past and failed. Really, it was just timing. This thing has kind of taken off. We’ve started to kind of get some funding because people are starting to pay much more attention to it and giving us time for it to really go. This isn’t something where, okay, we sign the lease.
Again, I was naive in thinking that we could probably do it right off the batt when we did do it. But this comes down to such a basic thing that people kind of gloss over it. But we need to kind of keep this, again, as a proof of concept that can move the needle, especially with Charlotte. I’m sure you guys have had it in Seattle where you’re trying to have these major impacts and we’re trying to do them in silos and, clearly, it’s not working.
What we’ve been really trying to do with our messaging is, how do we use agriculture as a vehicle to really kind of touch on a lot of these big, social problems that we’ve been trying to deal with but aren’t really dealing with them? Number one, just with diversity and racial injustice.
Yes, we need to have a slavery conversation, not in a classroom, not in a hotel ballroom, but on that damn farm because it brings that presence of mind and it brings emotion to it. We have to address the issues that we’ve had to deal with in the past on a variety of different levels. The metaphor just being down there, it takes a lot of the animosity almost out the window. We’ve had some conflict outside having discussions but when we kind of bring them into a farming element and everybody is out there, the conversation just completely changes.
There’s a lot of opportunity here. East Charlotte is rapidly changing. Eastland, the whole transition with Eastland Mall with MLS kind of coming in, so right now it’s really about leadership. The faster that we can kind of get these concepts proven and people can pay attention to them, we can get them on bigger and bigger scales.
Larken, with the video that we’re doing tomorrow night talking to some architects and we were kind of sitting at the UNCC building in Uptown. I’m like, I want a visual of all these parking lots with the roof on it and we’re going to grow stuff on it. Just imagine that. Just imagine what the carbon footprint of that is and the visual, even from the towers above.
There are so many things that can be done that are not hard. We just have to go do them. That’s kind of where coming back to the concept of really what got this off the ground was the scale. No one is going to get excited about an urban farm on a corner lot. It was the acreage that people paid attention to.
Like I pinpointed before when Erin Barbee and I were kind of talking initially. It’s a lot more than just getting this farm up off the ground. The responsibility to utilize an asset that we were very lucky to get is huge and we take it very seriously.
Mike: Yeah, for sure. Larken, do you want to expand on that at all?
Larken: Which part? There was a lot to that.
Mike: Yeah, there was a lot to that. Just your perspective on what it’s going to take to really kind of make this happen, to be a tangible thing for the future, to make sure that communities can integrate these kind of farms not only for community consumption but also for food service.
Larken: Well, it takes someone to be the pioneer, and that’s kind of what Zack is doing here. I’ve come to realize even more now I’m elected to office, people have, myself included, a difficult time imagining something that they’ve not seen before. Until you’ve got it and you can take someone to it and show them and they go, “Oh, man. That’s really cool. That’s not at all what I thought you were talking about,” you get pushback.
We’ve gotten pushback, as Zack and Brooks can attest, from a couple of folks in this community who I think, over time, even if they never actually admit it to us, will end up loving this but they don’t have necessarily something that they’ve seen before that matches this description and they have trouble figuring out what is it that’s coming into my community. They might be picturing cows grazing out there. I don’t know, but having that proof of concept – we’ve used that term a couple of times, but having that not only can get buy-in from the community that, “Yeah, that is the type of thing I wish I had in my community and is there a chance for us to make that fit?” but it also can bring sponsors in. When people see something like that and see the buzz that it’s creating and the people that it’s attracting and they say, “I want my business to be a part of something like that,” it makes it easier as you go along.
This first one is always inevitably going to be the heaviest lift because you’re selling people on a concept they haven’t seen whether it’s as their soon to be neighbor or as something that you’re asking them to sponsor. But I do think that it should get easier over time as people see the impact it has and the placemaking that it accomplishes in our community. I certainly hope, like I’ve said, that it’s the first of many.
Mike: Yeah, man. I hope so, too. That would be absolutely incredible. Brooks, I know we’re just getting going on this particular farm, but where do you see this farm fitting into the ecosystem at Aldersgate? Is this something that you plan to use to supply a larger portion of the foodservice operation?
Brooks: Well, it’s a lot like Zack said. The potential is almost endless. There are so many different avenues that we can pursue and different directions we can go in. How cool would it be to actually have your culinary grown right here? That would just be incredible. We really don’t know to what extent it’s going to grow to – no pun intended.
Brooks: We really want it to be a hallmark that will hopefully be the catalyst and start other places doing things and other people doing things. Just starting to help out the community because, as we’ve seen recently, community is pretty much all we’ve got.
Mike: Yeah, I think you’re right about that. Be the catalyst. Be the change. Those are statements that I really like when I hear them. I like when I see them in action. Clearly, that’s something that all of you on your own levels are involved in. But the fact that you are all working together on this concept, on this level, I think is awesome because it really does take people working together to, as you were saying, illustrate the concepts, show how it works, show people that it actually does work, show that this is a tangible thing and not a fantasy from some crazy person’s head. This is actually something that can physically work.
That being said, we’ve talked about a bunch of stuff today and I had a pretty epic list of questions and topics, which you all answered very thoroughly, so thank you for that. But did we miss anything? Is there some other piece of information that we need to make sure we get out there to all the greater communities to help people fully understand what this really is?
Larken: I’ll lead off one thing on the policy side since we just talked about – Zack was talking about putting living roofs. You could have buildings downtown where you’re growing produce. Talked about the fact that some people get their hackles up when they hear about a farm moving in next to their street or at the end of their street.
I hope that people in Charlotte specifically, but really anywhere, will be more open-minded to experimentation. I think that we have got to be constantly trying new things. They’re not all going to work, though I’m quite confident this one will.
But that’s one of the things. We run into so much resistance as a city when we try to experiment with anything from a change in the way we look at parking, a change in the way we look at land use, transit, anything. Anything that is something that you’re not accustomed to seems to make people very, very anxious. I can understand that anxiety and I can understand wanting more information but, ultimately, you won’t know whether these things can work or not unless you’re willing to try them.
My message would just be to people, we know what a lot of the challenges are. We don’t know what the solutions are and we won’t find the solutions if we don’t try some things. We’ve got to be more willing to take a little risk and try something that might, at first glance, seem out of the ordinary because maybe it’s the out of the ordinary stuff that’s going to ultimately be the answers to a lot of the problems we’re facing.
Zack: Yeah, I mean I think just from what Larken mentioned. It is the old adage, just nimby, “We love the idea. Just not in my backyard.” Even just from the basics of a small farm [laughter] that we’re growing organic produce on and how that is going to impact a neighborhood. Even that has some negative connotation to it.
It was great. Even when we first announced the project to Windsor Park, there was an overwhelmingly positive feedback from them. Continue to get it. Scott Robinson, who is the neighborhood president over there. We’re trying to find housing for Ashanti, who is our farm manager. Any time a rental pops up, he’s texting me, giving me all the information.
There are folks across the street that are just kind of poking their heads in and walking by. That’s kind of the part of, to Larken’s point of, yeah, we’re going to get negativity regardless. But it’s just dealing with it.
I was reading something the other day of just being over in Europe and people were getting in fights. But two seconds later, they were fine. They’re moving on. I think we can’t be afraid of conflict. We can’t be afraid of confrontation. We have to deal with it, obviously, in a constructive and respectful way. But just continue to have the doors open and continue the conversations.
Most people are just kind of wanting to be heard. Some obviously are more hardheaded than others. But just being transparent and doing your best to do the right thing.
Mike: For sure. Brooks, to close out this amazing conversation and to bring us all back home, can you share with the world how can people support The Urban Farm here at Aldersgate?
Brooks: My typical response to that is, come visit us. But right now, it’s a little bit more difficult to come visit us. So, check us out online. You can see us at aldersgateccrc.com or carolinafarmtrust.org. But take a look at it and reach out to us. Spread the word. Let everybody know what’s going on because the more people that know the better off we all are. Just check it out and ask questions.
Mike: Absolutely. To quote a certain very famous cartoon from the ’80s, “Knowing is half the battle,” right?
I’d like to thank all of you for hanging out today, giving us your time, and engaging us in a really fun conversation. I think it’s really cool because the three of you come from three different perspectives that are all working together. I think we really got the best of all worlds today and I know the listeners are really going to enjoy all the information that was given out plus hearing all of your individual thoughts on these, for sure.
Thank you, again, Brooks, Zack, and Larken for joining us here at Aldersgate OnAir. Please, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep fighting the good fight. Be the catalyst. Be the change.
Brooks: Thank you.
Zack: Thank you very much.
Larken: Thanks, guys.
Mike: As always, thanks to all of you, our amazing listeners, for hopping on board and coming along for the ride. It’s truly an honor to have you with us, and I really do mean that. I hope you all see how truly blessed you are to have such an amazing example of awe-inspiring agriculture right in your own backyard. Not that many places can have such an epic claim to fame.
If you haven’t yet, please do yourselves a favor. Do as Brooks says. Go check it out and make sure you check out the Carolina Farm Trust at carolinafarmtrust.org and, of course, Aldersgate’s own website has plenty of cool info as well as aldersgateccrc.com.
Don’t forget to send in your thoughts, ideas, questions, comments, and random examples of awesomeness to [email protected] so we can address those in future episodes.
Until next time, take care and I’m looking forward to talking to you again real soon at Aldersgate OnAir.