© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Challenges facing urban farmers working to feed people in need

Cultivate Charlottesville depends on volunteers to plant, nurture, harvest and distribute free produce to people who need it.
Cultivate Charlottesville
Cultivate Charlottesville depends on volunteers to plant, nurture, harvest and distribute free produce to people who need it.

Richard Morris spent most of his life working for corporations, but about five years ago he got the chance to lead a non-profit called Cultivate Charlottesville. To him, it felt like coming home.

"My mother was an Alabama farm girl, grew up in the South." he explains. "She had a green arm, not just a green thumb!"

He grew up thinking of food as something you shared with your neighbors in need.

"Sometimes when people ran short of funds, maybe there was a week before they’d get their next paycheck, they knew they could come to our house, and my mom would send them out to the backyard, and they could take whatever they wanted," Morris recalls. "She always grew more than we needed. She had a saying: Plant a Row for the Crows, and that meant rather than fight nature, just plant extra for others."

Cultivate Charlottesville would grow fruit and vegetables at three sites in the city – depending on volunteers, including local kids – to raise and distribute crops.

"Young children, everything is still magical to them, and I’ll be honest. Growing is still sort of magical to me," he says. "You’ve got this synergy -- sun, soil and seed. This little seed produces this plant that produces all of this food1"

And he felt working in a community garden was an important learning experience.

"There are so many workforce skills that you can acquire in the garden: how to take care of things, how to work cooperatively, how to be a leader, how to prioritize, how to assess things."

Today, Morris serves as a consultant to the program, which operates three different spaces near public housing projects and eight school yard gardens. Over the last decade it has produced more than 123,000 pounds of fresh produce. But the man known to neighbors as Farmer Rich says there’s a problem.

"One of the challenges that urban agriculture has is that it can be a hard sell to get very valuable real estate to grow veggies."

And sometimes land that could be used to farm is already occupied.

"If you have a vacant space, the neighborhood kids are playing there, so we didn’t want to come in and take something from an existing neighborhood. And then there’s the issue of water – can you drop a well, can you tap into city water? I would say the third thing was we wanted to make sure that residents felt that the garden was a place that they could come to."

That idea has sparked what Morris sees as one possible solution. Before the Civil War, the land now known as Washington Park was part of a plantation, farmed by slaves. After the war it was reclaimed by the Black community as a place to celebrate freedom and family.

"Booker T. Washington Park was an amazing space. Parents could leave their children at the park and know that they would be safe. Black residents felt welcome and safe at the park. There were so many activities for them to do. It was kind of the hub of the Black community."

It was also a place to recognize the important contribution made by Black farmers. In 1944, for example, it hosted a Victory Garden exhibit with more than 200 displays of food and flowers.

Now, Morris and the current leadership of Cultivate Charlottesville hope it will, again, be used to produce food. They’ll host The Power to Grow – a roundtable where participants will discuss using one-quarter acre of the nine-acre park – for a community garden. If participants agree, they’ll make their case to city council later this year.

The Power to Grow will be held Tuesday at 5 in Charlottesville's African-American Heritage Center. For more information, go to:


Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief