Down on the Farm in Petersburg

Dec 12, 2018

The city of Petersburg was once a prosperous place where railroads crossed and tobacco money changed hands.  Today it’s economically depressed, but a program pioneered by Virginia State University could help to revive the city in a surprising way. 

Young urban farmers Saajida Chohan and Paul Meyer with their Virginia State University professor Leonard Githinji.
Credit Sandy Hausman

Petersburg is an old city built from brick and asphalt, concrete and steel.  It might seem an unlikely place for agriculture, but Marcus Comer has launched a program to make it so.  A professor at Virginia State University, he applied for grants to create a place where city residents could discover the joys of farming.

"I actually caught a lot of resistance when I first came up with the idea," he recalls. "They said, 'You can’t do that!  That won’t work!’"

But Comer knew better.  Other cities were growing crops, so in 2014 he settled into a building on Harding Street where Petersburg’s black community once gathered to be entertained.

Professor Marcus Comer has built high-tech greenhouses in the heart of Petersburg.
Credit Sandy Hausman

“This building was used as part of the Chitterling Circuit," he explains. "The black artists, they couldn’t perform at the other places, so they had their own place here.  You had James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cook, all the Motown folks.”

Since then the building has served as a school and a recreation center, while the neighborhood around it changed.

“We have this lot across the street," he says, gesturing to a newly opened space. "We have  a lot around the corner.  More and more they’re tearing down the old houses and clearing land, so there’s land available.  We also have people in the community that have taken on urban agriculture as a change of lifestyle.”

And why not?  The growing season is long and rain is plentiful in this central Virginia metropolis – suitable for raising fruit and vegetables: tomatoes, cucumber, cauliflower, turnip greens, collard greens, carrots and many more crops.

Once an important stop on the Chitterling Circuit, Motown celebrities performed at what is now the Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center
Credit Sandy Hausman

Comer admits the soil could sometimes be better.

"A lot of these plots have had homes on them, so they’ve got some contaminated soil, so we do put in garden boxes in some places based on what the soil test tells us."

Comer brings a lifetime of experience to the community – leading workshops and certification programs for adults, after school programs and summer camps for kids.

His father was a professor of agriculture  at Tennessee State in Nahsville, so he grew up in the city, but his parents were both from west Tennessee  – a little country  town called Jackson.

"I would spend summers there, working with my grandfather on his farm," Comer says. "He had chickens, he had hogs, he had cows – he had it all, and he did everything the old-fashioned way."

For his part, Comer takes a modern approach to urban farming, installing a solar array on the roof of the Harding Street Agriculture Center to power greenhouses and laboratories inside.  

The key to attracting new people to farming, he says, is to show them it’s more than plows and sows.  It’s a business with good opportunities for growth.

"The most successful person is the person that finds that niche market.," he explains.  

Student Paul Meyer, for example, grows  ginger.

“It’s a little bit of as science trying to get your ginger to grow, because it’s more of a tropical crop, so you have to start it indoors to have it ready for the summer, but the local breweries, it’s a hot thing right now to sell to breweries.”

And Comer says others can succeed by producing more familiar produce for home delivery.

"As much as I would like everybody to grow something, there are some people – they don’t want to grow.  They just want to eat healthy.  You do the work for them and make it happen." 

Some of his students will become avid gardeners, but others – like  Saajida Chohan, a former professor of English literature – will have careers in agriculture, enrolling in the urban program offered at nearby Virginia State. 

“When I had my son, I just became super aware of eating differently – using the earth as a tool," she recalls. " Anything I can eat, I love to grow it!”

And to promote this new love of cultivating crops and raising animals, Virginia State offers tours of its 416-acre demonstration farm to thousands of kids each year – children who often think food comes from a supermarket. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.