Success of tiny Red Oak Farm rooted in hard work
Sometimes a farm occupies rolling acres of countryside with a barn, silo and tractor.
Rarely, but occasionally, it will be on a vacant city lot that someone would have had to mow if it weren’t for the garden teeming with vegetables. And now the vegetables can be sold to people with WIC benefits and perhaps very soon those with food stamps, or SNAP benefits.
Nicole Bauman is an urban farmer. She grew up on one of the those country farms in Ontario, raising vegetables in a garden. After graduating from Goshen College, she moved to Elkhart in August 2009 to be part of the Mennonite Voluntary Service unit on Prairie Street. During that two years as a volunteer, she helped found Rise Up Farms and the Elkhart Local Food Alliance.
In the past several years, Bauman and her husband Jason Shenk helped shape Prairie Wolf Collective, an intentional community in several buildings along Prairie Street. The couple lives in Red Oak Community House with others who want to avoid using fossil fuels, so they heat with wood and use candles for light.
As Bauman looked around her community, her neighborhood, she saw a need for fresh, local food. When she saw an adjacent vacant lot owned by the city, she saw an opportunity to make a little income in something “rooted here,” as she put it.
She already had a little garden space and got permission to use the lot. She planted an eighth of an acre with multiple heirloom varieties of more than 40 vegetables.
“Look at how much food we can grow on this little lot,” she said.
She and some volunteers weed and cultivate plants by hand. The tall plants are producing so much she isn’t sure how to sell it all.
Fifteen families are in her CSA program getting weekly shares of fresh food. She and those in her household are canning and freezing the bounty. On Thursdays, she sets up a market stand in the outdoor kitchen at 1721 and sells what they harvested that morning.
This isn’t your conventional roadside stand or even farmers market booth. It’s one woman with a passion for growing things. It’s her trying to make a few dollars, but doing it on her terms by using old methods in a new place. She isn’t even using organic sprays in the garden because of how they affect insects, she said.
This is food grown with hard work — bending over to plant, weed and harvest. So when she offers okra for $3 a pound, I watched the neighborhood woman balk and buy a few and comment on the prices. Bauman doesn’t apologize and is working to sell what she grew with the help of friends, the sun and the rain on one of the many vacant lots in the city.
Once a month, the folks from the collective gather with friends for a community potluck. Vegans, vegetarians and omnivores gather to enjoy a meal together.
A few blocks away, Jay Little and others reclaimed a plot behind Tolson Center to restart the community garden there. It’s producing pumpkins, potatoes and tomatoes.
Some have called this Elkhart neighborhood a food desert. It’s between grocery stores and transportation is a challenge for some who live there. Finding sources for fresh, non-processed food can be challenging.
Bauman, Little and others are trying to change that. On Thursdays in September, Rechica Ledesma of Tolson is hosting “Veggies and Voices.” People bring a vegetable dish, its recipe and a willingness to share them with others. Ledesma’s long-held dream came true on Saturday, Sept. 10, when Tolson served soup made from the garden vegetables. Kids ate the soup and asked for seconds, she said. And there were no leftovers.
The South Bend/Elkhart region has a number of efforts underway to raise food locally and get it to those in need. Seed to Feed at Church Community Services, Unity Gardens in South Bend and others champion gardening and eating in ways that don’t involve anyone opening a metal can.
Bauman said she’s not great at sales and marketing and is wondering what to do with her bounty. She’s hopes that getting approved for WIC and SNAP will help. And that people will sign up for her fall CSA to get weekly collection of vegetables for $175 or $340 for seven weeks starting in October.
An effort is underway to form an Elkhart County Food Council. It could tackle 50 different issues, but a group of people recently gathered to discuss the logistics. Like any planted crop, the discussion could yield a bountiful result or very little. And like farming, those discussions are hard work.
Red Oak Farm
While the discussion happens, people keep planting, weeding and harvesting with hope. Bauman has a bounty she’s trying to sell. Ledesma is feeding neighborhood kids vegetables. The gardens are making a dent in the food desert, Ledesma said.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.