Surprisingly, it was a farm foreclosure and a supermarket fire that helped to revitalize local agriculture in northeast Rochester, NY.
Neighborhood resident Shirley Edwards led a charge to transform an urban area with no grocery store and a 2.7-acre abandoned lot, into a thriving vegetable and fruit farm, run by the community itself.
“Shirley’s vision from the beginning was to have a farm that local residents and youth could participate in and benefit from,” said Kara Finch, who submitted the award nomination. “She has been the driving force behind all of it from the very beginning.”
To honor Shirley for her vision and tireless work to create an urban gardening oasis, Gardener’s Supply presented her with the 2008 Garden Crusader Award for Urban Renewal.
Northeast Rochester has the largest number of contiguous low-income neighborhoods within a 15 county area. When the only local supermarket burned down in 1999, thousands of people were left without an easy way to buy fresh produce. Many people in the neighborhood don’t have cars, so their options were to shop in expensive corner stores that don’t stock produce, or to take a bus or hire a cab in order to get to a larger store.
Around the same time, a farm that had sat neglected for 20 years was foreclosed on. Shirley saw the land as an opportunity to bring farming back to the city—and help residents learn about gardening, nutrition and fresh food along the way. “A lot of people in this neighborhood don’t have space to have a garden, and if they do, they might not have the tools or the skills,” Kara said.
Shirley Edwards always loved to garden. She was already helping to revitalize neighborhood housing through her work as executive director of the Northeast Block Club Alliance. Adding a gardening component was a natural extension.
“Shirley wanted to share her love of gardening and help residents have access to fresh food,” said Kara. Shirley and other local residents worked with the city to create Greater Rochester Urban Bounty (GRUB), a grassroots organization that helped organize the urban farm.
Before any planting could happen, there was a whole lot of work to do. At the time of foreclosure, the farm was filled with dilapidated buildings, garbage and weeds. The buildings were demolished and 22 truckloads of debris were hauled away, Kara said. Through GRUB, residents prepared the soil and started growing produce and selling it at the public market. Each year the program grew. Now it is a full-scale urban farm with vegetables, grapes and fruit trees.
“Shirley put hundreds of hours and so much money into this project,” Kara said. “We get seeds and transplants donated. But Shirley took it upon herself to supply just about everything else. She was often out there until 10 p.m. working on the garden with her daughter. Weeding it and maintaining it.”
The farm is now called the Vineyard, which is appropriate because the farm’s century-old grapevines still yield an abundant harvest.
The Vineyard is a verdant mix of vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, a sculpture garden and a meditation garden. It also has a growing educational component. “People also just come to be here. The other day a guy came to sit in the flower garden and paint,” Kara said.
Neighborhood youth work on the farm in the summer, learning how to farm and how a business operates. The young people sell the produce at a farm stand, the farmer’s market, through CSA shares and to restaurants. All of the money that is generated goes right back into the program.
An agricultural training center is now under construction on the Vineyard. It will include a commercial kitchen, a conference room and a greenhouse. The center will be used for trainings, gardening workshops, community events, cooking and nutrition classes and to jumpstart food-based businesses. Next up? A tool lending library for the neighborhood. And perhaps a youth center in the basement of the training center.
What started as a modest urban market garden has become a multi-faceted program that helps to engage and educate the public and help the area develop economically through food based businesses.
Just as Shirley envisioned.
Editor's note: We were saddened to hear that Shirley Edwards passed away in September 2008, shortly after we announced this year’s Crusader Awards. Shirley left a wonderful legacy in the farm, gardens and educational programs of Greater Rochester Urban Bounty (GRUB). Staff and volunteers continue her good work at GRUB, inspired by her vision of healthy, affordable food for all. For more information about GRUB, please visit their web site: www.grubrochester.org
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