Urban farm, garden blossoms in northeast neighborhood
When strangers showed up on her doorstep with a bag of mustard greens, Swarnnie Hill-Law finally had the answer she'd sought for months.
She had been curious about the tractor moving dirt and the cars going to and from a former church and an adjacent vacant lot in her northeast Oklahoma City neighborhood.
Hill-Law said she accepted the fresh produce once she learned that it came from Freedom Farms & Greenhouses, an urban farm nestled in her Creston Hills neighborhood.
"I didn't know what was going on, and then they brought me some greens. I cooked them and brought them to the staff," she said, noting that Restore OKC had already given older adults and other families some of the garden bounty.
"I thought it was awesome that they could reach out to help somebody in the neighborhood."
The produce giveaway was among the various projects that sprouted from Freedom Farms, a program created by the faith-based nonprofit Restore OKC in partnership with Langston University.
Caylee Dodson, Restore OKC's executive director, and Ernest Odunze, the agency's community outreach director, both live in northeast Oklahoma City. They decided that Restore OKC's Freedom Farm programs could be expanded by partnering with Langston. Dodson said the goal of Freedom Farms is to give students opportunities for economic development, employment and expanded educational opportunities in northeast Oklahoma City. She envisions students learning agriculture, horticulture, animal showing, animal husbandry, marketing, sales, culinary arts and 4-H leadership concepts in the urban farm setting.
The partnering organizations' biggest challenge was finding the land needed to move the project forward.
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The right property seemed elusive.
"I remember riding around with Caylee and Ernest and I thought we're not going to find anything. I was almost going to give up," said Micah Anderson, Langston University Cooperative Extension's horticulture extension educator.
Then they found a vacant church building on property nestled in the Creston Hills addition generally bounded by Martin Luther King Avenue, NE 30, Interstate 35 and NE 23.
"The Lord just dropped this place in our path," Dodson said.
One of the organization's donors purchased the former Joy Missionary Baptist Church building at 2222 NE 27 and adjacent property for Restore OKC in May 2018. Dodson said the nonprofit moved onto the property in August 2018 and successfully got the property rezoned for the urban farm in January.
She said Restore OKC had an office at Mount Carmel Baptist Church prior to obtaining the former church. With the church property and several adjacent vacant lots, Restore OKC currently has a total of five acres in the neighborhood.
Dodson said the urban farm program is being rolled out in several phases. One of the first phases was something Restore OKC had already begun before joining forces with Langston. Dodson said the agency's classroom gardening program has been implemented in several public schools in northeast Oklahoma City and Langston University Cooperative Extension will now bring the 4-H curriculum to the schools and the farm's after-school and summer programs for high school students.
Another part of the program is a community garden, which is perhaps one of the most noticeable aspects of the farm. On recent Friday afternoons, Restore OKC staff, volunteers, supporters and neighborhood residents like Hill-Law have gathered together to plant a variety of vegetables and herbs including greens, beets, Swiss chard, turnips, spinach, radishes, thyme, oregano and rosemary. Ann Miller, Ph.D., Freedom Farms' director, said the garden will abound with watermelon, okra, tomatoes and green beans in the summer.
Another aspect of the farm is the installation of three commercial greenhouses that were donated to the agency. Dodson said these will be used to employ high school students to grow food after school and during the summer. She said the food will be sold wholesale to help sustain the program. Dodson said both Restore OKC and Langston hope students who participate in the programs stick with it for the duration of their high school careers so that they may be eligible for concurrent enrollment and scholarships through Langston's School of Agriculture and Applied Sciences.
Praying lady's legacy
Odunze said Restore OKC saw the farm, and particularly the garden, as a way to continue the legacy of the late Luetta House, wife of the Rev. Zadrow House, who led Joy Missionary Baptist.
"She walked and prayed on this property for a long time," he said.
Odunze said House had wanted to use the property for the community. He said "her dream for a garden is realized" with the Freedom Farm and the community garden will be dedicated to her and her family on May 2.
Anderson, with Langston, said he is excited about the urban farm project because it has long been his dream to connect youths in urban settings with agriculture and horticulture education. He said he grew up on a farm and his father was a farmer and entrepreneur who didn't shop at a grocery store because the family's farm yielded what they needed.
Anderson predicted that young people will enjoy learning how to grow their own food and how to maintain the community garden and other plants.
"It gives them the opportunity to take care of something," he said.
Anderson's co-worker Keisha Watson Scott and Joshua Ringer, Langston University Cooperative Extension assistant educator, said the curriculum will include other aspects. as well. Scott, Freedom Farms' manager and Langston's urban agriculture technician, said she hopes to bring goat milk to the farm to show the students how to make products from it.
Ringer said he thinks the Freedom Farm programming for youths may open up career paths that some urban youths would never have considered otherwise.
"It's really aligned with what we were wanting to do especially building up our food program in Western Oklahoma," he said.
"As you get exposure to plants and animals, it opens up a whole new path of options."
To learn more
For more information about RestoreOKC and Freedom Farms & Greenhouse, call 642-0886 or go to http://www.restoreokc.org and https://www.freedomfarms.farm.