A Story of Growing Home: Tenured Recruiter Turns Urban Farmer in Racine
HALO launched the Growing Home food program in 2015 through the work of Americorps VISTA workers who broke ground in Racine to establish what is becoming an urban farm. HALO received a grant by the Sustainable Edible Economic Development, Inc. (SEED) to purchase a 20 by 48 foot Rimol hoop house. A hoop house is a free-standing green house covered with clear, durable, polyethylene plastic instead of glass. HALO was the first to receive a building permit for a large-scale hoop house within Racine city limits. The hoop house is located on a vacant parking lot just south of HALO’s facilities and was constructed by volunteers at Bukacek Construction.
In August 2015, Jamie Williams and her husband Gabriel took over the program. I, Amy Macemon, sat down with her to talk about this year and what’s ahead for next year.
How did you come into the business of urban farming?
I’m not really sure. I had the opportunity to hear Will Allen speak at the Golden Rondelle this past spring and felt incredibly inspired. I told my husband, “We can do this in Racine!” Little did I know we would be doing it before the year was over. I can say that we knew as a family it was time for me to make a change. We have two young kids who keep us on our toes and whatever I do outside the home right now has to make an impact and offer flexibility. I ran into Sasha Broadstone (former Americorps VISTA for Growing Home) at the farmer’s market one day and told her that we wanted to get our hands on a hoop house and start practicing farming. She began waving her hands around saying “No! No! Don’t do that, just come take over my hoop house! I leave in 5 days and have no one to hand the program over to!” We visited HALO two days later and two days after that she gave us the keys, finished her term and left us in charge!
I recall it was quite a whirlwind..
Yes, my background is in recruiting. I’ve worked in high-volume temporary staffing, as well as high-level head hunting. I left the laptop and suit and overnight put on my grungy tennis shoes to work in the dirt. It was a major career change at just the right time. I couldn’t be happier.
What did you accomplish this year?
This year we finished out the season at Racine’s Original Farmer’s Market downtown on State St. We continued to sell the potted culinary herbs that Sasha had planted, and also began selling canned goods. She had planted a number of tomatoes that were just coming into season when we came aboard. Knowing we weren’t going to make a living being the 8th vendor at the market to sell tomatoes, we decided to turn them into salsa and offer a value-added product. It was a complete success and when we offered pickles we began selling out. As the growing season was coming to a close, we asked friends that lived nearby to commit to purchasing our produce, while we practiced a little end-of-season growing. In effect we had an informal CSA and it worked really well.
What is a CSA, for those who have never been in one?
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It means you find a farmer and pay up front in the Spring to share in that farm’s harvest through the rest of the year. In Wisconsin that typically means 20 weeks of crop boxes that you pick up. It’s cool because you are typically getting fresh produce grown with organic practices, you’re getting local food, and you’re supporting a farmer directly by sharing in the risk of crop failure or seasonal challenges. It’s usually a win-win for everyone.
So tell us about your plans for next year!
I thought you’d never ask! Well, as I already mentioned, our mini, informal CSA this fall was such a rapid success, we felt inspired to transform our program into a real CSA. We want to grow 20 weeks of produce and deliver it to subscribers in our neighborhood. In fact, it will be Racine’s FIRST urban farm CSA, which is pretty cool. The proceeds will directly benefit HALO, Inc. We are currently raising funds to make this happen.
That sounds like quite a goal, will you have help?
Are you kidding me? Yes!! This is a part-time gig for me, so while I bring motivation, passion, and overall direction to the program, I rely on volunteers and the community to not only guide me in decision making, but also to contribute the hard work necessary to make this happen. Kat Neubauer has become a fast friend who has been willing to offer sound advice gained from her experiences in urban farming, She was an intern for Will Allen’s Growing Power operation in Milwaukee. Last year was her first year running her own CSA called Neu Root Farm in Caledonia. I’ve also got Nick Demske walking me through the in’s and out’s of non-profit organizations and helping me grow my network in Racine. You probably know him. Everyone does. I also would find this whole undertaking incredibly daunting without the support I’ve received from Gateway Technical College. I enrolled in an Urban Farming and Market Gardening class this fall and received a really great crash course into this whole business. More importantly, we have developed a strong partnership with the Pike Creak Horticulture Center team there, led by Kate Jerome. They will be supporting us this year by growing seedlings for some of our programs in their heated green houses.
What about residents of HALO, will they be involved?
Yes, that’s a really good question. Our program has a few primary goals. One of them is to be an ancillary revenue stream to HALO. Fifty percent of our program profits go directly to the shelter and its programs. The other fifty percent funds the program including paying us as staff. With that in mind, we make decisions based on profitability. Second to that is how can this program be used to meet a need for the clients of HALO. We are talking about individuals and families facing homelessness in Racine. Our program offers opportunity to learn a skill, volunteer time and gain a much needed reference for employment. There are quality companies in our city willing to put our residents to work if they are in good standing in our programs. For those who have an interest in gardening or farming, this is a fun way to gain that “good standing” status and get a work reference. There is no obligation for residents to participate in this program. They volunteer just like anyone else in the community. We have seen some people come and go, but others, like Frank* de Jesus, are an integral part of our program. Frank* knows the ins and outs of the hoop house and was a huge help to me when I came on board. He also took the Gateway class with me to increase his knowledge of urban farming. I hope that urban farming is in his future too!
What should people do if they want to volunteer or sign up for a share in the urban farm?
Anyone can reach out to me for our list of needs. There are items like seeds and tools that people can donate. We also have “work days” where it’s all hands on deck. We might be building raised beds, or transplanting seedlings, the more the merrier. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our target area for the urban farm includes residents within a two-mile radius of HALO. Anyone in that area can email me for more information about how to sign up. Thanks for listening to my story.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those in this story.
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