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Planting Seeds of Life and Possibility in Newark

Updated: May 20, 2022

Greater Newark Conservancy’s Hawthorne Avenue Farm, Newark, NJ

April 13, 2022

Mark Kearney, Farm Manager

Shannon Murphy, Assistant Farm Manager

Liam Stiefel, Community Greening Coordinator, Jesuit Volunteer Corps

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On a beautiful, cool April morning, I found my way through the streets of the Clinton Hill Neighborhood of Newark, when all at once I saw a beautiful, open green space open. “This must be it!” I thought as I pulled down Hawthorne Avenue on the full, three-acre city block dedicated to a community garden and farm. As I surveyed the gently crowned-hill lot, I sensed the soil bouncing under my feet. It was obvious that tons of wood chips, soil and compost had gone into making this soil fertile over the last ten years since it was created. That’s when I met Liam Stiefel, a volunteer from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps serving here for a year as Community Greening Coordinator. In his smart-looking sun cap, he greeted me and offered me a tour.

History of City Bloom - Hawthorne Avenue Farm

The Hawthorne Avenue Farm is a three-acre property that was formerly an open lot awaiting construction of a new school. When the school was not built, it was decided that, instead of letting it sit barren, it could be put to use as a space to produce local, pesticide-free produce. Since 2012, the Greater Newark Conservancy has been managing the farm, along with the help of hundreds of residents, our Newark Youth Leadership Project interns, and numerous volunteers. The lot is under a one-year lease with the School Housing Authority. Many of the urban farms across the city are sourced through the city’s “Adopt-A-Lot” program and rented for $1 a year. The program was originally created to clean up and maintain abandoned lots. Although rented, the plots are still in the city’s land bank and can be taken back for development. Farmers are exploring pathways to purchase land for reclamation and to prevent future development.

View of the Farm and Community Garden

In Newark, it is common practice to top the land with wood chips to enrich the soil and avoid contact with contaminants like lead. The urban farmers and tree service companies have a mutually beneficial relationship: the tree service companies dump loads of wood chips on the farms that they would otherwise have to pay to dump. Hawthorne Avenue Farm topped the land with soil in addition to wood chips. As a result, there is about a five-foot peak from the sidewalk to the center. The farm features a hoop house, gateway tunnel leading to the community log circle, about 65 production rows, strawberry beds, self-aerated compost rows, a community garden, seating and sunning areas, a couple of storage sheds, an educational garden space, a pollinator garden, and an orchard with more than 130 fruit trees; including apple, pear, peach, plum, figs, and sour and sweet cherries. On the northwest side of the block is the “Plot It Fresh” community garden with over 230 8’x4’ beds - each about 18” deep of rich soil above ground. Hose access stations make watering easy for the community gardeners who rent each bed for $15 a season. Liam explained, “Some come as far as Irvington to take care of a plot and enjoy this natural, community setting.”

Environmental and Food Education

Just then I spotted a teacher from Hawthorne Elementary School, located just across the street. “That’s Ann Jansen, the second grade teacher who is making the farm her classroom.” explained Liam. I watched her with her wheelbarrow full of soil. She had already planted lettuce seedlings in two of the educational garden beds. Liam went on to explain, “She even plants wheat seeds in the spring with her pupils. They watch them and care for them through the season. When October comes, they go out and harvest the wheat, actually winnow it, and then grind it. The final product is the loaf of bread they make around Thanksgiving. Ann is a big proponent of taking your curriculum outside.” Talk about connecting kids with their food! What an eye-opening, educational experience!

Running a Community Garden

The community garden portion of the farm just opened during the first week of April. Plot it Fresh’s hours are 8:30 am-12:00 pm Monday and Wednesday, and 4:00 pm-7:00 pm Tuesday and Thursday. The garden will be open on Saturday mornings as well, and they are currently looking for a community member to open it on Sundays. Roses lined the cut-white fence walkway that guides community gardeners to their plot. A large mound of rich topsoil was available for gardeners to fill up their boxes. “Many of our gardeners are from Kenya. They really know what they’re doing because they’ve been doing it most of their lives!” Liam commented. “They grow things like Callaloo and spider plants - native ethnic foods that can’t be purchased in the stores.”

Ecological Paradise

While the farm isn’t certified organic, they follow organic farming practices. That makes this a safe, beautiful space. I noticed dozens of small song birds in the trees and then spotted two hawks. I was told that they do a great job taking care of the rats . What an amazing thing to see such birds in the heart of the city! One of the primary goals of the farm is to make it an accessible, welcoming, beautiful, peaceful place for the neighbors to visit - a community space. I noted benches that lined the hoop house, and some clustered picnic benches and a few barbecue grills to encourage those who want to make this their pass time place. The educational area features a rectangular space of bricks with bright-colored benches all around to accommodate 30 students and a teacher. That area is surrounded by the pollinator garden and small trees to make it a somewhat-private experience.

The farm has its own farm stand to make their produce available to the neighbors at a reduced price. They accept SNAP and WIC vouchers and partner with other community organizations like Clinton Community Action and the Urban Agriculture Cooperative (UAC) to expand distribution of the produce. Liam explained, “This area has been a food desert for quite a while. There’s a full service grocery store about two miles away from here, and a bunch of smaller grocery stores, some independently owned, and a WholeFoods downtown. Yet, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, they can buy it here really cheaply.” The 2022 farmer’s market locations and times will be posted to the organization’s website soon.

Farm Work and Youth Leadership Development

To help facilitate the farm experience to the neighbors, the farm partners with neighboring Hawthorne Avenue School and their FoodCorps service member to hold an annual spring and fall festival. Class groups from PreK to 8th grade come to visit the farm. Newark’s Rutgers University and Essex County Community College students complete their internships here at the farm through the Newark Youth Leadership Program (NYLP). “For 20 years, the Newark Youth Leadership Project (NYLP) has seen hundreds of youth participants graduate and thrive. Through mentorship and exposure to outdoor and horticultural activities, their program guides high school students in their development of interpersonal, leadership, and communication skills.

By this time, Shannon Murphy, Assistant Farm Manager, joined us. She shared, “We empower and enrich our interns’ lives by preparing them for college, by improving their technical skills, and by exposing them to the natural environment. During the 6-week summer program, interns are given the opportunity to work in one of several departments: Our Youth Farm Stand, Environmental Education, Horticulture, and Urban Farming departments each give the interns unique training and hands-on environmental education. Once the summer ends, the connection to our interns continues as we hire a number of interns to continue working with us throughout the school year. And our commitment to youth doesn’t end at high school. College student mentors, many who have already participated in NYLP, work with the interns during the summer. Mentors enhance their skills by becoming leaders and role models for the high school students.” Shannon added.

Farm and Conservancy Classes and Events

Greater Newark Conservancy’s headquarters hosts educational space for monthly cooking classes with a local chef, Chef Afi, called Family Fun in the Kitchen, and Second Saturday Family Adventures on the second Saturday of the month- all in an effort to connect people with their food and to inspire discovery, play, and creativity in nature. Other farm-based events include March’s “Seed Distribution” and Seed Starting workshops led by urban farmer Charmaine from “Giving One Tenth” Community Garden, April and May’s “Plant Giveaways”. High Mowing, Renee’s Garden, and Lake Valley Seed Company are amongst those who have donated their seeds from the previous year to enable seed distribution. Social Media, the website, and flyers invite the community to participate in these events.

Cooperative Nonprofits support Local Food System

The Urban Agriculture Cooperative (UAC) supports Greater Newark Conservancy and other urban farmers and local growers in a big way. They provide an online platform that allows the public to see items for sale and the farms and the farmers they are coming from. Each farm’s mission is posted to help the consumer choose what farm produce they want to buy. Every week the site is updated with the new produce and food inventory, including produce from our very own Hawthorne Avenue Farm, and the hydroponics center at the Outdoor Learning Center at Greater Newark Conservancy. The hydroponics system is run by Facilities Manager Keith Williams, with help from NYLP interns. Clinton Hill Community Action (CHCA) will also be supporting the farm this year. They have already by holding events, providing resources to the community, and volunteering at the farm. CHCA rented some community garden plots to raffle off or give away to South Ward residents. They are deeply connected to the Clinton Hill community, providing many campaigns and projects. Greater Newark Conservancy is proud to partner with these organizations to make Farm Stand happen this summer.

Shannon’s Journey to Hawthorne Avenue Farm

When asked how Shannon found Hawthorne Avenue Farm, she shared her story. Shannon grew up in New Jersey and went to East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania to study hospitality. She thought she wanted to be an event planner. Her interests directed her toward eco-tourism. She became interested in the food system and the intersection of social justice issues. She found a WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farm stay opportunity in southern Maryland. There she helped run a 35-family CSA. She fell in love with growing food, sharing it with the community, and cooking it. As she gained knowledge and wisdom from her mentors and nature, it was incumbent upon her to share.

Growing- and Food-Integrated Classroom

For the past two years she worked as an FoodCorps service member, a branch of Americorps. Directly in the classroom, with hotplates and blenders, and in school gardens, she worked with pupils, pre-K through eighth grade, to teach kids where their food comes from, how to grow it, pick it, and prepare it to eat. The class incorporated literature, math, science, history, and social studies. The kids really loved it!

When asked, “What keeps you here?”, she responded, “I enjoy the community aspect of this work. People truly do look out for each other. We share resources; we share food. I see the farm connecting to the greater urban community.”

Why we do this

Towards noon, I met Mark Kearney, the farm manager. He’d been shopping for PVC water pipe fittings most of the morning. Sitting on an overturned bucket with a large pipe-wrench in his hand, he welcomed me to the farm. He explained, “Everyone is really supportive of each other here at the farm. It’s a pleasure and a labor of love - that’s what farming is! I get to show the young kids that eating veggies is fun.”

Mark, himself, is an inspiration to the whole community. He came to the farm ten years ago through a prison reentry program. The first farm was located on Court Street back in 2011. He shared, “Robin Dougherty, the Executive Director at the time, came to me and said ‘Let’s set up a farm!’ That’s why I am here!”

Leaving a Legacy in Others Lives

He went on, “I’ve had countless experiences with young people one-on-one where I have left a legacy in their lives. The time they come to the farm and plant a seed and then see it grow- they will never forget that! Five years later these young people are still growing their own food. I work with college and high school students in the Newark Youth Leadership (NYLP) program. I work with environmental science volunteers. Ely, a young college intern, was one of those. She showed up every day at 9 am. Although her shift was supposed to end at noon, I noticed she was still working at 2 pm. I asked her why. She said, ‘I feel so good here!’ She was hired as a year-round college intern, and she has been able to spread the news about this wonderful place to all her classmates, friends, and family.”

Mark continued, “Another high school girl working at the farm had a mother who had never visited the farm. One day, US Senator Cory Booker came to the farm. She got her photo with the senator. He offered to write her a letter of recommendation for her college application. Her mother was ecstatic! She asked, ‘How are you meeting these people?’ and she replied, “I go to the community garden!” Now she is off to college.”

This Farm can Build Lives

“Emmanuel started at the farm two years ago. He just needed a way to earn some money. This is what it is about: a village raising children.” Mark said. “Just plant it! Life is in that seed. When they plant it, watch it, and see it come up, they say, ‘I was part of that!” They start telling everyone about how amazing seeds are. They tell them, “come to the farm and see!” I have a vision for the city and how this farm can build lives. It takes time to change the mindset. Every day I come to the farm I meet people just like Emmanuel. I’ve learned that when I plant the seed and someone else waters it, then miracles happen.”

“Cesar Presa was a volunteer here years ago. He came to me one day at the farm and said, ‘I would like to do this farming for a living. How do I do that?’ Mark responded, ‘You can! Take a course.’ He went on to take the Master Gardener course and then applied for the farmer job at West Side High School. He got it. He’s the first paid farmer at the school, and he and the kids love it!”

Farming Empowers People

Mark declared, “Farming empowers people. When they learn that they can eat chickweed or purple dead nettle as food or medicine, they realize they don’t have to go to the drug store every time they are sick. I get to teach and share this with others.” As we prepared to say goodbye, Shannon shared, “Mark’s nickname is ‘Solomon’ because of his wisdom, his passion, and his love for people. Every day, he finds joy. Mark has been touching lives at Greater Newark Conservancy farm for over 10 years now. He can’t get enough of it. He continues to inspire people one at a time and even give them the little bit they need to get started in their lives.”

Author: Farmer Karl

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