Cultivating Community – Planting Neighborhoods with Fresh Future Farm

By Helen Mitternight

Germaine Jenkins remembers the day of the video. It was a rainy day in October 2015. Fall had been good for the farm and farm stand she’d built on a tiny plot of land in North Charleston, but this was a cold, rainy day and she and her son were alone. The video, taken by her son, then 17 years old, shows her singing forlornly about the rain and the lack of customers. And, as she’s talking to the camera, a gush of rainwater falls right on her head.

Fortunately, Jenkins isn’t one to let a little water dampen her dreams. By February, she realized that people were not going to brave the cold to come buy vegetables at a farm stand; by May, she had built a store to sell her produce so they wouldn’t have to.

Jenkins is the creator of Fresh Future Farm, a farm that sits on less than an acre of land in what is known as a food desert. She started the farm when she realized she had to shop outside of her North Charleston neighborhood to find fresh ingredients for her son, who has allergies. Making purchases outside of her neighborhood was not only inconvenient, it meant her money was leaving the neighborhood, and she was determined to change that.

Jenkins had taken courses to become a Master Gardener, but she wanted to build something that didn’t rely on the chemicals and expensive processes the program recommended.

“A lot of folks don’t realize that everybody, 80% or more, was growing their own food up to a point,” Jenkins says. “The introduction of these fertilizers you can buy in bags came after World War II when there was bomb material sitting around and they turned it into agricultural products. I got on the internet and figured out how our ancestors fed themselves before that. When I say ancestral conservation and farming, it’s what people are calling permaculture, but that term was coined in the 70s and people have been growing since the beginning of time.”

Jenkins experimented at home. A concrete slab that used to hold water was covered with soil, mulch, and waste from her chicken coop, then planted with sweet potatoes.

“I got 100 pounds of sweet potatoes I didn’t have to take care of,” she says.

At first, neighbors were skeptical about her methods, which involve putting cardboard over the ground, then layering wood chips, soil and mulch. Plants are watered and then, when the plant can grow on its own, she stops watering and allows nature to take over. The garden is built up rather than dug down.

“People, men especially, thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t dig any holes,” she recalls. “They’d say, ‘How you gonna’ get that to grow?’ We were handing out flyers to neighbors in 2014 before we had anything but grass. We might have been a little early on that messaging.”

By fall 2015, Jenkins and her family had opened up the farm stand, selling pumpkins, some vegetables she grew herself, and some vegetables she bought wholesale from Limehouse Produce.

“It was cool because folks were buying pumpkins and then taking them down the street in our wheelbarrows to their houses,” she says.

But after that cold dose of rain and reality that October, she knew she had to expand.

Fresh Future Farm has grown to include five employees, a board of directors and an advisory committee. The store has sold or distributed 15.5 tons of groceries, more than a quarter of which is grown on the farm. Neighbors have turned from skeptics to supporters.

“The reason we were able to get this store open in two months is because of the volunteer support from East Cooper and Sundrops Montessori Schools families. They really dug in and helped us,” she says.

The farm grows greens, squash and other vegetables but Jenkins says she’ll probably always have to supplement from places like Limehouse Produce and Sam’s Club. They can provide a wider variety than she can for Fresh Future’s grocery store, which is necessary since the store is about more than just selling produce grown at the farm.

“The store is for people who don’t have access to transportation,” she says. “That’s what I’m most proud of: you can get the most nutrient-dense produce from us with your EBT card (the card administered by the state welfare department to provide benefits).”

“We’re focused on creating relationships with our neighbors and we’ve done that. Whether you live in the neighborhood or not, you become our neighbor. I’m so proud of the fact that we have a place where no matter your socioeconomic background, we’re all getting along with each other. No matter how much money you make, we all have to eat.”

For years the farm has required Jenkins to work more than 60 hours a week; it’s grueling.

“People say I look young for my age,” she says. “I don’t feel young for my age.”

The farm will be reducing its hours soon since most customers show up only in the afternoons. Jenkins has been showing people how to grow gardens using her method, but she’d like to refine her systems so that others can start similar farms without her input.

“There are lots of Germaines out there,” she says. “They just don’t have the resources and information.”

Cutting hours and refining systems, however, doesn’t mean she’s slowing down.

Jenkins says she’s dreaming of expanding with an incubator kitchen that can sell foods prepared from the farm’s produce. She also hopes to add a pavilion where she and volunteers can talk to people eager to learn without standing in the blazing sunor having their own experience with rainwater incidents.

And, she’s dreaming of expanding the definition of “neighbor.”

“I was listening to this show on NPR about how the communities that bounced back the fastest from natural disasters were the ones that neighbors knew each other and helped each other,” she says. “We’re focused on creating relationships with our neighbors and we’ve done that. Whether you live in the neighborhood or not, you become our neighbor. I’m so proud of the fact that we have a place where no matter your socioeconomic background, we’re all getting along with each other. No matter how much money you make, we all have to eat.”

CLAIM OUR ROOTS

Help Us Build a Community Food Operation.
kickstarter.com/projects/freshfuturefarm/claim-our-roots-help-us-build-a-community-food-operation

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Fresh Future Farm accepts donations on its website, FreshFutureFarm.org. They have a kickstarter campaign to raise $60,000 by Aug. 19, which will allow them to purchase more land. They also could use help with labor in building the pavilion. Also, Jenkins says telling people about Fresh Future Farms is another way to help.