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Down on the Urban Farm in Newark

The Greater Newark Conservancy is showing inner-city kids that playing in the dirt can be very good for them

newark raised beds
Credit: Jane Primerano
Some of the raised beds at the Greater Newark Conservancy's Hawthorne Avenue community garden

Government agencies and nonprofits can’t supply all that is missing from the lives of inner city children, but with imagination, donations, and a knowledge of agriculture, the Greater Newark Conservancy is helping them get a nutritious diet.

It’s also setting an example for other urban centers.

On a Court Street lot behind the iconic Krueger-Scott mansion is an acre oasis of gardens owned by the city and managed by the conservancy. The parcel once held the outbuildings of the beer baron’s estate; now it springs to life each year with sunflowers, raspberries, and plenty of vegetables.

Besides the Court Street farm, a larger parcel on Hawthorne Street functions as a community garden where residents lease their own plots. There are 200 4- by 8-foot raised beds that are leased by residents who pay $10 a year and receive $20 worth of seeds, according to director of Urban Agriculture Justin Allen.

Robin Dougherty, the executive director of the conservancy, said the not-for-profit group would love to expand the reach of its Urban Agriculture program, but an economic boom in the city may present difficulties.

One of those difficulties is right there on Court Street. After years of standing empty, the Krueger-Scott mansion, which overlooks Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, may be in for gentrification. Neither Dougherty nor the conservancy’s director of development Brian Morrell would discuss the name of the potential developer, but Dougherty said the goal of the project would be a “makers village,” where artists or entrepreneurs could live where they work.

Another makers village is in the work in the Ironbound section of the city, developed by RBH Management and anchored by Aero Farms, a hydroponic grower.

Dougherty said discussions of the Court Street site are very preliminary, and Morrell said they haven’t stopped a project to bring irrigation to the site.

State-owned property

The future of the larger of the two farm plots, a state-owned parcel on Hawthorne Street, is more secure, Dougherty said.

“The city can move quickly,” she said, adding that the wheels of state government turn slowly, so the conservancy can count on farming that plot for the foreseeable future.

The state initially offered the conservancy the full five acres that had once been designated for a new high school, but the group decided half of the land was enough. Across the street from the Hawthorne Avenue Elementary School, the community garden is tended in part by students from the school who named it the Hawthorne Hawks Healthy Harvest Farm.

Vacant lots around the city serve as smaller urban farms. Dougherty considers this an excellent use for any city lot too small for building.

newark lavender
Credit: Jane Primerano
Bees buzzing around lavender at the Prince Street headquarters of the Greater Newark Conservancy

The conservancy recruits teenagers from all Newark high schools as paid interns. They work 25- to 30-hour weeks in the summer and 10- to 15-hour weeks during the school year. Between 50 and 60 students work at the conservancy each year, many on the farm. Others work the farm stands around the city. From May to September the students sell produce six days a week downtown, at the airport, even at city hall. Organizations holding community events often invite them to set up a booth. Some regular customers drive right up to the conservancy headquarters, a former synagogue saved from demolition by a small group of preservationists. “Drive-by vegetables,” Dougherty calls it.

Collaboration with the city’s high schools is vital, she said. Students come from all around the city. “It’s word of mouth, the kids talk about the program to their friends,” Dougherty said of the best recruitment efforts.

Kitchens under construction

The synagogue and a modern addition hold the offices of the conservancy. Two kitchens are under construction with a goal of supplementing the Urban Agriculture program. A teaching kitchen is designed to help the high school students learn cooking skills. The other kitchen will serve as an incubator for entrepreneurs. “People have ideas, but no place to launch them,” Dougherty said. Creating batches of jams and jellies and anything that preserves food from the urban farm will benefit the program, and the city.

Food incubators will get a boost if a bill working its way through the state Legislature is passed. Assembly bill A3732 would direct the state Department of Agriculture to authorize and advise food hubs, such as an incubator kitchen, anywhere in the state, according to Louis Crescitelli, chief of staff of the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus (R-24).

Dougherty believes the conservancy’s program can translate to any city with a supportive administration. “There’s a huge interest in other cities around New Jersey,” she said. “They want to go from food deserts to becoming part of the culture again.”

The jury is still out on the current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s commitment to the program, she said. He was elected on a platform of reducing crime and bringing the school district back under local control. Cory Booker was more focused on fresh food, but Dougherty said it took a couple of years for him to really support the conservancy. The city administration did not respond to a request for comment.

“It takes a year to get set up,” Dougherty said of a new administration, adding, “It is incumbent upon us to show how land use impacts other priorities. She pointed out Philadelphia has done a great job using its vacant lots.

These lots are not rare in rust-belt cities, but often the soil is severely contaminated, so a city has to have a way to bring in soil suitable for agriculture, Dougherty said.

Another program transferable to other cities benefits the urban farms.

Clean and Green provides jobs for those released from prison. These ex-offenders built the raised bed for the community garden as well as benches and a gazebo. Their skills took the program from the small vacant lots into a true community garden. “Clean and Green is what allowed us to really take on farming,” Dougherty said.

An additional factor in the program’s success is the cooperation between the conservancy and other agencies. The New Jersey Historic Trust provided funding for initial restoration of the synagogue, Morrell said. Prudential provided grants for the gardens and its employees help on the two farm plots, as do employees of Horizon and other Newark-based companies, he explained.

The assistance from workers in the city is invaluable, Allen said. They set aside a workday each summer to help out, he noted.

The conservancy also works with a food pantry located at St. James AME Church, diagonally across MLK Boulevard from the Krueger-Scott Mansion.

Jane Primerano is a veteran independent journalist currently specializing in agriculture and agri-business. She has worked as a reporter, photographer, and editor for both legacy and digital publications. Active for several years in the Society of Professional Journalists, she is now Regional Director for the Mid-Atlantic and New English region of SPJ.

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