Sunday, August 14, 2022

Wilmington-area ‘community learning farm’ plan wins $200,000 federal grant

Feast Down East is looking to use roughly $200,000 in the USDA grant funds to create a “community learning farm.” (Port City Daily photo/File)

WILMINGTON — Local nonprofit Feast Down East (FDE) is one of 23 nationwide recipients of a first-time grant program under the newly established Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovation Production.

The organization received just over $200,000 for a one-year planning phase, according to Sarah Daniels, a former FDE director who will act as a consultant for what she called a “community learning farm.”

“A community learning farm in an urban setting can help show people that even with a relatively small parcel of land, you can do small-scale agriculture really efficiently, whether for personal or commercial production,” Daniels said.

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On Tuesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the recipients — chosen from a pool of 578 applicants — of roughly $4.1 million in grants and cooperative agreements provided by its new urban agriculture office. Feast Down East is one of three recipients to receive the federal funds for a planned project, along with the city of New Haven in Connecticut and the Center for Land Based Learning in California.

Seven organizations received money to implement already designed projects, including the Association of Africans Living in Vermont to Common Ground Producers and Growers in Kansas. An additional 13 cities and counties across the country received funding for community compost and food waste reduction projects.

“I didn’t think we had any shot of getting it. I just found out [Wednesday] that there were 578 applications,” Daniels said.

While she’ll head up the programming side of the project, a local small-scale farmer named Rob Collins of Copper Sun Micro Farm will lead the project’s land assessment work, according to Daniels. She said there are tentative discussions regarding a piece of land at the Flytrap Downs rugby field near the Northside neighborhood, along with several other locations in the Wilmington area.

USDA Under Secretary Bill Northey said the agency supports all types of agriculture, “including the work being done by urban farmers and community gardeners.”

“I look forward to seeing the innovations in urban, indoor, and other emerging agricultural practices that result from the agreements, including in community composting and food waste reduction,” Northey said.

Daniels, who along with her consultancy work runs an FDE program called the Cape Fear Food Council, said the idea of the community farm project is to create a place in Wilmington to educate the next generation of farmers “with a purposeful eye on equity” — so that all people, “not just middle- and upper-class white folks who can afford to go to a college across the state or the country” can learn about agriculture and develop business skills needed to run a small garden or farm.

The idea of building a farm somewhere near Northside is appealing to FDE, she said, because it would tap into some of the people the organization already focuses on. Ultimately, it’s about a “pipeline of future farmers with an eye on equity.”

“We’ll be able to intentionally engage people from the communities that we’re trying to serve and provide opportunities for,” she said. “Whether it’s getting people involved who want to start a small-scale urban farm or a backyard garden — doing training programs, youth development engagement so young people can start seeing this as a viable career option, that these are feasible things [to accomplish]. And even younger than that: field trips for younger kids to introduce them to where food actually comes from, and be able to put their hands in the dirt and be inspired to think about agriculture.”

The nonprofit has a lot of work to do in the coming year, according to Daniels, including land assessments at possible sites, environmental impact assessments, and soil testing.

“And before we jump into building the farm, we need to find out what the need is, what kind of education would be beneficial, the target audience most interested in being engaged, and how folks can co-create on the programming side,” she said.

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