by Anna MacDonald Dobbs, CFSA Intern

In densely populated North East Central Durham, front yards blend into one another creating the illusion of a vast monoculture of lawn. It is a typical inner city neighborhood and, not surprisingly, a food desert. Trying to find a grocery store in this neighborhood is like playing ‘Where’s Waldo.’

Only the quick glimpse of a wood chip pile hints that one house in the neighborhood is different. This backyard isn’t a lawn or food desert, but an urban-farm polyculture of plants, produce, and pollinators. It’s called Two Ton Farm and the community-run enterprise hopes to grow two tons of produce in one growing season on less than a tenth of an acre.

If stakeholders have their way, Two Ton Farm is just the start of an urban farm revival in the Bull City.

So, how did this all get started? Partner organizations Bountiful Backyards and Good Work crafted the original vision for Two Ton Farm. Bountiful Backyards is a community-based enterprise that installs urban, edible gardens, and Good Work is a community development organization committed to entrepreneurship and sustainable development. After initial funding fell through, Keith Shaljian, co-founder of Bountiful Backyards, began sharing their vision in local food meetings. In April, a non-profit called JRuth offered Shaljian the backyard of JRuth Manor, a transitional community house that it manages. Less than a month later, staff of Bountiful Backyards and Green Space Initiative, a small startup, broke ground with the help of Manor residents and neighbors. Talk about a rich community partnership!

So far, Two Ton has spent less than $600 in cash, and has instead depended on the “tools, resources, labor, skill, and experience” of interested community members and the partner agencies’ staff. The larger Durham community has invested in Two Ton with donations of soil, wood chips, and food waste for compost.

Just five months later, the tiny farm looks impressive. A weed-suppressing, wood chip path meanders through beds of vibrant eggplant, peppers, radishes, salad greens, sweet potatoes, and more. The herb garden sits at the highest point of the yard, which is flanked by compost on one side and a wall of okra on the other. A fence at the yard’s low point deters neighborhood dogs, “the scourge of the urban farmer,” joked farmer Kate DeMayo. To date, Two Ton has gifted or sold 275 pounds of fresh vegetables to neighbors, restaurants, and a nonprofit grocery store near the neighborhood.

Building the garden’s infrastructure required the most time and labor- intensive work. Two Ton features fifteen French intensive double dug raised beds. Shaljian estimated that the construction of each required about fifteen hours of labor. In addition, workers spent several hours in each bed raking the soil and sifting out weeds like wiregrass. Two Ton hosted community workdays to get the farm up and running quickly and have benefited from the work of two interns through the Durham Mayor’s Summer Youth Work program.

Two Ton Farm is committed to enhancing soil health to ensure an expected yield of 2-3 pounds of food per square foot. While building the infrastructure, Two Ton farmers added amendments like gypsum, lime, and bone meal to immediately boost soil structure. They’ve also incorporated cover crops like buckwheat and cowpeas into their growing rotation. According to Shaljian, ideally 20 to 30% of their beds will be planted in cover crops. In addition, Two Ton has a large compost pile on site, which a local coffee shop helps to maintain by regularly donating coffee grinds and other food waste.

To combat weeds, workers lined the sides of the beds with newspaper and the path with cardboard. The path through the garden was then covered with 45 yards of donated wood chips, which also contribute to soil health. The combination of lining paths and beds, initially raking the soil for weeds, and laying wood chips has proven extremely effective. Two Ton farmers and neighbors have only spent about 10 hours weeding the beds since May.

So what about the market? Two Ton’s farmers have had to learn about planting to meet market demands, as this is the first foray into market gardening for most. Sarah Vroom of Bountiful Backyards noted that they have had to be realistic about balancing market demands and the time demands of different produce with their own schedules. “Tomatoes require a huge amount of labor. You have to be realistic about what takes input to maintain,” she said.

Everyone who works at Two Ton Farm has another job (with the exception of several neighborhood kids who have taken to gardening). Two Ton worked around this challenge by planting low-maintenance vegetables like squash, okra, sweet potatoes, and eggplant that still offer a good yield.

As newly minted urban farmers, the group has learned several helpful lessons. When the squash didn’t pollinate at the beginning of the growing season, Shaljian and partners realized that in addition to being a food desert, Two Ton Farm had been an “ecological desert.” Birds and insects had to be enticed back into the space. Though Two Ton had planted sun-flowers and other wildflowers to attract pollinators, DeMayo suggested that they should have planted them earlier to give the pollinators time to find and frequent the garden.

Johnetta Alston of JRuth and Kifu Faruq of Green Space Initiative emphasized the need to learn how to cook or find people in the community who know how to use fresh produce in the kitchen. “I was not prepared for the abundance, and I had never eaten eggplant,” Alston said. After tasting some of Shaljian’s fried eggplant, though, she has become a Black Beauty eggplant enthusiast.

According to Shaljian, Two Ton Farm’s ultimate goal is to become “an accessible and replicable model of sustainable entrepreneurship.” They want to encourage others to grow their own food, grow food for others, and increase food security on the most local level – in their neighborhood. Two Ton is working with Alston and Good Work to develop the entrepreneurial aspects of the model.

Ishmael Dennis, alum of the Mayor’s Youth Work Program and farm apprentice, embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that Two Ton Farm hopes to inspire in the larger Durham community. In the last year that he has spent learning to garden and landscape, he’s also discovered a passion. “I want to feed people,” he said. “If the grocery store ever can’t supply us with our needs, we can at least do something for ourselves.”

Two Ton Farm plans to be in the neighborhood for a long time. They are currently negotiating a five to 10-year lease on JRuth Manor’s backyard so that they can continue to grow healthy food and contribute to North East Central Durham’s food security. Stakeholders also plan to play a roll in preserving land in the city for agricultural use with the help of Cornucopia, Durham’s urban agriculture land trust. Shaljian said that he hopes that other properties like Two Ton will ultimately be community owned, so that people can have greater local control over the availability of healthy and affordable food.

“There is always something you can do,” added Dennis. “A small garden for one or two people with okra, cabbage, and collards is enough.”

Anna MacDonald Dobbs, a Durham native, was CFSA’s intern in 2010. She was dually enrolled at the UNC School of Social Work and Duke Divinity School, and worked at the CFSA office three days per week.

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