In May of 2015, Winston-Salem adopted an urban-agriculture ordinance to encourage urban-food production and gardens in areas throughout the city. One of the main goals is to bring gardens and fresh produce to food-desert neighborhoods, where reasonable access to grocery stores is limited.

In response to the potential of this city ordinance, the Forsyth Cooperative Extension started the Urban Farm School, which aims to educate people interested in growing gardens to benefit their communities.

The farm school is led by Mary Jac Brennan, the small-farms agent, and Tembila Covington, the urban agriculture program assistant.

“Cooperative Extension was asked by the county commissioners to come up with some sort of program that would address people’s ability to make extra money in the center city,” Brennan said. “So we decided that an urban farm school would be one way to do that — and also address the food insecurity issue as well. The idea is that the students will learn how to set up an urban farm, farm it and then sell at a farmers market.”

The Urban Farm School is a great opportunity for individuals seeking a well-rounded education in growing a garden, growing that garden within the city limits of Winston-Salem and gaining the entrepreneurial skills to sustain an agriculture-based business, which also benefits the community.

The course is a nine-week program, specifically focused on market gardening. It’s evenly divided between the classroom and the lab, giving students varied settings within which to learn.

The classroom lectures are focused on plants, soil, irrigation, plant fertility and pest management. They also include field trips to local farms and guest speakers. Labs are hands-on classes, where site work in an urban farm garden is carried out. Students plant, tend crops and ultimately connect with the community at farmers markets.

When the idea for the urban farm school unfolded, it was necessary to find a location for the garden that would serve as a living classroom.

The farm is at the corner of Cleveland Avenue and NE 22nd Street. This collaboration between the city, the Minister’s Conference, a local faith-based organization working to solve socio-economic challenges, and the Extension created a space for students and the community.

“The Minister’s Conference was approached by the city and offered some land to use as the urban farm,” Brennan said. “Half of it is the community garden and half of it is being used for the class. We have developed the Cleveland Urban Farm. With the new ordinance, it makes it possible to have urban farms and agriculture use primary land in the city.”

Covington expanded on this cohesive unity, pointing out that the Cleveland Urban Farm has worked well for everyone.

“The Minister’s Conference was able to have some land agreed upon by the city to lease for community gardening,” Covington said. “And now having this urban farm school, there’s a joint effort in using that property for the school, but also building community involvement with the actual community garden. We have students there learning agriculture and entrepreneurship, and the community is able to get involved as well and see their work grow.”

The first group of students graduated last month. They have been spending Saturday mornings in July selling their produce at the Liberty Street Market.

“We did our first farm school in April,” Brennan said. “We started April 6 and we completed it June 2. We started with five students. We intentionally started small because we knew we’d be developing this site and we were piloting the course. The students are now producing crops and selling at the market. We want to see Liberty Market be a real asset. It’s such a great facility.”

Milgo Floyd, one of the graduates, recognizes the problems within food-desert neighborhoods and hopes that the urban agriculture ordinance might be a starting point for change.

“Sadly, Forsyth County has a very high percentage of food deserts, and having a chance to make vacant lots into farmland was just a good idea to me,” Floyd said. “Urban farming helps eliminate lots of the carbon footprint that comes in the shipping of food. Hopefully, the passing of the ordinance will be the catalyst for a paradigm shift in thinking, to start a war against our food-desert problems. I’ve always said, a healthy community is a happy community.”

The school will conduct two, nine-week sessions each year, and as more plots are able to be leased and obtained for gardens, the curriculum and the offerings will expand.

Forsyth Cooperative Extension is currently recruiting for this fall’s school, which starts in August. Space is limited, and there is an application process. Please contact the Extension office at (336) 703-2850 or by email at covingtc@forsyth.cc.

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If you have a gardening question or story idea, write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, P.O. Box 3159, Winston-Salem, NC 27101-3159 or send an email to her attention to gardening@wsjournal.com. Put gardening in the subject line. Find Amy Dixon on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon.

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