Hard to believe but “down on the farm” means pretty close to the statehouse as urban agriculture takes root in the capital city.
Just ask Allegra Lovejoy. She never dreamed she would be managing a farm in Trenton when she graduated from Princeton University in 2014. And for a very good reason: there was no farm. But there was a dream, Kate Mittnacht had it, and it was almost a reality when Lovejoy graduated.
Urban farms are not just a piece of property that someone decides to plant on. Rather, and this is particularly true for Trenton, they are former factory sites.
In this case the factory site was located next to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. Mittnacht, a Hopewell resident who has volunteered at the organization for years and is impressed with its warmth and family feeling, looked at the razed, empty lot curving around the building and was dismayed to learn that a proposal was in place to use it as a tow and junk yard for vehicles. She proposed an alternative use, one that would be beneficial for the area’s residents as well as TASK patrons by enabling them to enjoy an attractive, open, and welcoming outside space.
It was a nice thought, but the big stumbling block was how to fulfill it. Mittnacht hit the jackpot when she talked to her friend Sophie Glovier. At the time Glovier was on the board of the D&R Greenway Land Trust and was involved in its work in preserving land. Glovier talked to D&R Vice President John S. Watson Jr., and Jay, as he is called, “really made this happen,” says Mittnacht.
Over a three-year period, from 2011 to 2014, Watson chaired the meetings at the D&R headquarters that led to Capital City Farm’s creation and definition of its goals — all shaped with the participation of the City of Trenton, Mercer County, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Isles, East Trenton Collaborative, Watson Institute of Thomas Edison State College, TASK, Escher SRO Project, Helping Arms, Rescue Mission of Trenton, Trenton High School Volunteer Club, Lawrenceville School Community Service Club, and Princeton University Community Action.
After all the meetings and negotiations, D&R Greenway was able to put together funding that allowed the property to be preserved as open space. “The Mercer County Open Space Preservation Trust Fund Tax deserves a lot of credit for this,” Mittnacht says. “Their funds were crucial.”
While the property was preserved, it was not much to look at. Indeed, it was an overgrown, weed filled, and, as the euphemism goes, used for illegal activity. The next year was spent on site remediation. By that time Lovejoy had spent a year working for the Food Project in Boston, where she had maintained a farm and dealt with 100 teenagers. When she heard of a job that involved creating and managing a farm in Trenton, she jumped at the chance.
Lovejoy freely admits she has absolutely no gardening background. She grew up in Brooklyn, where her father commuted to Manhattan as an arts educator and composer associated with the New York Philharmonic, and her mother was involved in the restoration of historic buildings. It was her time at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School that spurred her interest in how the environment affects economics. She studied farming and conservation and the economics of the food system. “It was a wonderful experience,” she says.
Lovejoy started work at the farm the summer of 2015. The first months were devoted to ensuring a storm water barrel was installed to reroute runoff from TASK’s roof, sowing a meadow filled with colorful wildflowers (a splashy announcement that Capital City Farm was a positive presence in the community), and planning what crops to grow the follow year. Isles’ work in school and community gardens was particularly helpful in deciding not only what to grow but in describing what is best suited for the area.
Environmental activity went beyond the farm’s borders. Twenty-two trees were planted along Escher Street, and the farm’s frontage on North Clinton Avenue was landscaped with flowering trees and native flowers. Arrangements were also made within the surrounding community. Compost scrap is collected from TASK and two coffee shops. The TASK chef uses fresh herbs in the farm for his recipes.
The first vegetable crops were sown in spring, 2016. Two part-time staff members were hired to help with the maintenance and harvesting.
Derrick Branch “wants to be here forever.” A native Trentonian, his parents came from farming backgrounds in the south. “They met here,” Branch says, “and now that I’m a farmer, I feel it’s a full circle of life.”
Graham Apgar is a “transplant from Hightstown to Trenton, where I’ve now lived for seven years.” An engineering major at the College of New Jersey, Apgar says his interests have traveled from engineering to art to gardening. He has used the first and last of these to build a chicken coop, and if that proves successful over time, will construct more to offer eggs from the farm.
Everyone learned a lot that first year “and we managed to feed a family of five robust ground hogs,” Lovejoy reports. Even so, there was enough left over to donate produce to the Marcus Garvey School and to families affiliated with Habitat for Humanity as well as to give cut flowers to senior centers and St. Francis Medical Center.
This spring’s horrible weather has wreaked havoc on getting the growing season started. Lovejoy orders all seed from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine. While that firm has heated greenhouses to produce and process its seeds, Lovejoy does not. Not only was her unheated greenhouse too cold to start anything in early March, the water inside was frozen for awhile.
Now eyes area on the crops underway. “This year will be our first doing garlic,” Lovejoy says. “We planted the bulbs in the fall, and while we’re not quite sure how they will survive this past winter and spring, we are really looking forward to having a garlic crop.”
Other tried-and-true performers during the coming growing season include greens such as collards, kale, lettuce, spinach, and callalloo (the last widely used in Caribbean cooking). Summer crops feature tomatoes, squashes, melons, and various kinds of hot peppers. Herbs of all kinds are grown and sold, both fresh and dried; cut flowers range from ageratums to zinnias.
“We also sell flowers, herbs, and vegetable seedlings for home garden planting,” says Lovejoy, “and honey from our beehives.” The farm is now open every second Saturday for tours and plant and produce sales. And the Capital City Farm is a vendor at Greenwood Ave Farmers Market every Monday from 1 to 6 p.m.
“The goal,” Lovejoy explains, “is to have the farm a self-sustaining nonprofit, one that not only sells produce but also enriches the environmental health of the surrounding community. D&R specializes in jump starting endeavors such as ours and we are fortunate to be supported and guided by them.”
Sustainability is also a goal of an urban garden project by the Trenton-based nonprofit Isles. Rather than just talk about it, the organization promotes it through hands o education. And Isles community food coordinator Christina Heimann feels no other New Jersey city can match Trenton’s record in this area.
Such a belief is hard to argue against when one considers that more than 90 percent of Trenton’s public schools — from preschool to high school — participate in Isles’ school garden programs. More than 1,000 students are currently growing and eating the produce from these gardens. Dozens and dozens of volunteers, from teachers to college students to Master Gardeners, are involved. And more than 2,000 vegetable and flower seeds for this year’s gardens are being sprouted at the Jones Farm Correctional Facility in Ewing Township.
The bottom line: While it may take a village to raise a child, to borrow from an African proverb, it takes a plethora of organizations to ensure a productive school garden program. And as each child is unique, so too are the school gardens, varying in produce, participation, and supplemental sponsorship. All, however, share basic goals: to engage students in hands on learning following New Jersey Common Core Standards; to bring students outside so that they can better appreciate the benefits of exercise and the diversity and interconnectedness of our environment; and to encourage and promote healthy nutrition.
Isles — which sponsored its first school garden more than 30 years ago — provides guidance on how to develop a garden; materials for raised beds; seeds and/or seedlings; and tools and equipment to prepare the soil. Isles also offers workshops on organic pest control, healthy food cooking lessons for parents, and teacher training on how to link conservation, history, science, math, and even art to the natural world.
“There’s nothing like showing a third grader how lady bugs can eat the aphids destroying their collard greens that brings home the science and balance in an environment,” says Heimann, a Trenton resident who lives at the Westminster Presbyterian Church-affiliated Bethany House of Hospitality on Hamilton Avenue.
As the number of school and community gardens grew over the years while the Isles staff remained limited, outside support and volunteers became crucial and remain so.
In 2013 AmeriCorps, the civil society program founded in 1993, became an Isles supporter under its FoodCorps aegis. The money allowed Isles to hire a staffer to work intensely with selected schools, spending mornings interacting with the children and providing lessons and demonstrations. Generally, the position is for one year. Heimann was the second staffer hired and performed her job so well that her work was extended for another year.
A major boost to the school gardens program came just last summer when pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk donated $2.5 million to a program called the Community Health Collaborative, of which Isles is a member. The goals match those of Isles: to educate parents and promote physical activity and healthy food choices for grade school children.
With that funding, Isles was able to continue Heimann’s recognized work among the school children by creating a new position and hiring her to fill it. “I love working with the kids,” she says. “Teaching them how to plant and how some bugs are good and others are horrid brings back memories of my childhood in my grandparents’ garden.”
New Jersey born and bred, Heimann grew up in Elmwood Park, and while neither of her parents — a graphic designer father and dental assistant mother — gardened, her grandparents had a huge vegetable garden in Paterson.
That time with her grandparents was instrumental in convincing Heimann to major in environmental studies at Ramapo College. In a summer job she developed and implemented a curriculum for the science and nature program at a camp. It all added up to a perfect fit for Isles and Heimann.
Early this spring Heimann sent e-mails to all participating schools describing the seedlings and seeds available and asking if they needed additional soil or maintenance help. If the answer is positive for the latter, Isles usually calls on the Bonner Center at the College of New Jersey. “We’ve had entire classes from TCNJ help with school garden builds,” Heimann says.
Two dates are set aside for plant pick-up or, upon request, for Isles to deliver. “I bring the plants to specific classes,” Heimann says. “In some schools there is only one class involved and in others there are four or five. It really varies.”
“The children are always excited when I walk into the school with the trays of plants. For some, it’s a chance to get out of the classroom, for others there is a real sense of curiosity.”
“Some schools add flowers to their mix,” she says. “Giant sunflowers are really popular. Nasturtiums are also requested, and teachers like to show how these can color up green salads.”
There is somewhat of a disconnect between the school gardens and the community gardens that Isles works with. Generally, school gardens are devoid of students during the summer while community gardens are filled with those seeking vegetable harvests throughout July and August.
Heimann addresses this in two ways. “The teachers are wonderful,” she says. “Indeed, they are the heart of this program. Some schools host summer camps, and the teachers make sure that tending a garden is part of the program. In others, a teacher will return during the summer to make sure everything is healthy and growing.”
Heimann adds: “Last summer a family living across from a school garden volunteered to take care of it in return for enjoying the fruits of their labor. That was a definite win-win situation.”
The second approach is to plant anything that is cool weather tolerant and grows quickly. “The seeds and seedlings I typically bring to schools include spinach, radishes, collard greens, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, and peas,” she says.
For schools that want more variety, Isles also offers plans that can be harvested when students return in the fall.
While many fall planted greens have survived our recent mild winters, Heimann worries that the subfreezing temperatures this past March will wreak havoc on these plantings. That would be sad but not a disaster. The enthusiasm and tangible results of the program will remain untouched. “Being part of the Grant School Garden has made me feel special,” one student told her. Another reported, “Gardening was the best school experience I had.”
School gardens then, at least those under Isles’ direction, not only enrich diets but also the lives of thousands of children. “And that,” Heimann says, “is what makes the work so rewarding for all of us.”
“About 20 companies donate seeds for our gardens,” explains Jim Simon, deputy director of community planning and development. “Many of the gardens wanted starter seedlings and Isles was not able to handle that demand. Jones Farm has a fabulous greenhouse and we asked if they would grow plants for us ten years ago. They were happy to do so then and continue to do so now. This year we will be distributing about 2,000 plants to school gardens and another 18,000 to the community gardens Isles also supports — and all will have been started at the Facility.”
The Master Gardeners have long been enthusiastic supporters of the school gardens. Under the leadership of Janet Sheppard, 11 are currently working at various schools, with more signing up with each passing year. “We garden with the kids,” Sheppard says, “adding an extra pair of hands and teach by doing. We also help organize and buy supplies.”
“And we have a month-long garden story program in the winter,” she adds, “and have donated books to the school library before spring planting begins.”
Capital City Farm, 301 North Clinton Avenue. Open to visitors and volunteers Tuesdays 9:30 a.m. to noon, Thursdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon. www.drgreenway.org/capitalcityfarm.html.
Isles, 10 Wood Street. Programs on urban agriculture, school gardening, and bee keeping. www.isles.org.