A mustard seed of faith, hard work and heart are helping to cultivate a historic Asheville neighborhood.
In 2014, Southside Community Garden was established as a food source for residents who lacked accessibility to grocery stores.
“There were no grocery stores in the neighborhood when there used to be eight or nine scattered around the Southside neighborhood in the ’50s and ’60s,” said co-founder Roy Harris, who spearheaded the initiative with Shuvonda Harper, Musa Farfan and Gwen Hill.
Now, reintroduced as Southside Community Farm, it has become a place where neighbors work side-by-side planting seeds for season crops. It’s a respite and meeting place for those in need of conversation, peace, healing and connection. It’s a communal table for strangers to become friends over a shared meal.
“This garden has been everything for this community,” Harris said.
The leaders’ base principles were for the space to produce food, honor history and collaborate. It was also imagined to be a place to heal, build relationships and teach, among many other purposes.
Much of it has come to fruition, but the work is far from over.
Located on an urban plot of land of about 0.36 acres, Southside Community Farm is proving that much can be done with vision, determination and the support of a community.
FEEDING A NEIGHBORHOOD
The Southside Community Farm is on land owned by the Asheville Housing Authority. It directly serves the Southside residents who may not otherwise have access to fresh, healthy food.
Last fall, a rebranding effort dropped the word “garden” from the name and replaced it with “farm” to clarify its focus on food production for the Southside neighborhood, said farm manager Chloe Moore.
“Southside neighborhood exists in food apartheid. It doesn’t have a grocery store. It has limited access to fresh and health food,” Moore said. “Our focus is on being part of co-creating a web of food sovereignty for the Southside neighborhood. Food sovereignty is about the community having control over the food system. And it’s about not just having food access, but food access people want and that’s culturally appropriate.”
The term “apartheid” addresses the aspects of food insecurities based on race and economic factors and justice, she said.
“Apartheid kind of suggests how systemic it is,” Moore said. “How intentional it is that there can be communities like Southside that are racially and economically opposed and because of those factors don’t have fresh, healthy food that are right next to communities in Asheville that have plenty of healthy food and plenty of grocery stores and lots of food options.”
Another goal is to build community and solidarity with other Black and brown people in the Asheville area, Moore said.
“It’s important that we have places that are still for us Black people and that there are places we can interact with land and in ways that are healing and beneficial when there’s so much trauma around land and displacement from slavery to sharecropping to more recently redlining, urban renewal and gentrification,” Moore said.
Southside Community Farm is honoring what the neighborhood used to be and reimagining what it can be for present and future generations.
“It’s important because it gets us back to part of our history, who we were,” Harris said.
A wider focus is to bridge communities of all backgrounds and demographics. Over the years, the farm and the pavilion regularly attract those who needed a moment of solace, a shoulder to cry on and serving for a bit of joy and fellowship, he said.
A few of the leaders launched a fourth Sunday dinner in the style of traditional family gatherings. Attendees are encouraged to contribute a dish, but it’s not required. In April, nearly 15 people of diverse backgrounds and demographics were sitting at the table, he said.
“The reason why I started it, some people get so wound up in everything we do during the week that we don’t even eat together anymore,” Harris said. “We were represented by Black, white, young, old, intergenerational … for two hours having a meal together. That probably doesn’t happen very much in Asheville.”
Moore is leading the next generation of farming for the community, said Harris, who referred to her as “the future.” Since January 2021, Moore has continued the work started and carried on by many before her. Under Moore’s direction, it is expanding into a flourishing urban farm with diverse crops. And the Southside Community Orchard, a 0.15-acre plot, is under development across the street from the farm.
“We are expanding what we’re doing and we’re not like a community garden in that we don’t have plots that people can rent,” Moore said. “We’re more focused on food production, and that’s for the Southside neighborhood.”
Moore works with assistant farm manager Kate Wheeler, the leadership team of co-founders and dedicated volunteers, she said. It’s supported by many community residents and partners, including the Housing Authority, Bountiful Cities and Green Opportunities.
This spring, the farm is growing potatoes, onions, garlic, radishes, sweet peas, kale, collard greens, beets and mustard greens and more. In the summer, peppers, tomatoes, corn, squash, watermelon, okra, peanuts, black-eyed peas and other produce will be harvested.
In raised beds, there are medicinal herbs and species used in traditional African and African American folk medicine. Chamomile yarrow, mint, lemon balm, tea herbs and plants that can be used for first aid treatment to support the immune system are in the mix.
Blueberries, strawberries, perennials, blackberries, pears, apples and elderberries will be available throughout the year. The farm and orchards are to serve as “an inviting public space” and “a lush food forest that people can enjoy and harvest from,” Moore said.
Residents are welcome to visit the farm and harvest ingredients — items are conveniently stored in the refrigerator in the pavilion as it comes available.
Community members are welcome to pitch in any time, but there are a few scheduled dates for volunteer work days 10 am-2 pm May 15, June 12 and July 10.
On May 1, Southside Community Farm hosted the first of its farmers market, scheduled on the first Sunday or every month through October. The market creates a platform for herbal medicine and produce farmers and prepared food vendors.
HOW TO SUPPORT?
Currently, Southside Community Farm has a GoFundMe campaign to raise $50,000. Donated funds go toward the farmers’ market series, youth entrepreneurship program, Southside grocery program and other projects.
At Southside Farmers Market, vendors are paid a living wage rate to be part of the farmers’ market, which is different from the tradition of markets requiring vendors to pay for a booth, Moore said.
“We want to ensure the markets are profitable for them, and we can’t promise a certain number of customers,” she said.
The youth entrepreneurship program participants receive hands-on lessons on farming, food and creating their own business, then sales experience at a summer farmers’ market.
The Southside grocery program, including an outdoor food pantry, will launch this summer at the Southside Community Orchard. It will include food grown at the farm and orchard, as well as dry goods from local producers.
“We are expanding our space this year,” Moore said. “We’re growing more and utilizing hillside areas near the Southside farm plot. We’re also expanding the Southside Community orchard space so that gives us more room to grow, physically.”
She aims to implement a seed-saving program to increase sustainability and resiliency. It would allow the farm to save its own seeds, therefore buying fewer from seed companies. Also, it would increase the ability to share seeds with the community. This season, a “little free seed library” was introduced on the pavilion that welcomes anyone to take a seed packet to grow a home and container garden.
A goal is to acquire a mobile market that will be used to take fresh food and other goods out of the farm and directly to the homes of residents.
“We need to meet people where they’re at and not just hope people will come to us,” Moore said.