Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams: Community-supported agriculture is changing one Asheville public housing complex, row by row
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It‘s just after 10 o’clock in the morning, but already a hard summer sun is bearing down on the gardens off Granada Street in West Asheville. The last of the night’s dew is retreating from the leaves of squash and pepper plants. Butterflies are making wayward rounds. A hummingbird briefly treads the air before darting into the shade of a Spanish oak. At the far end of a long row of tomatoes, a tall, wiry man takes up a rough-sawn stake in one hand and, wielding a sledge with the other, pounds it into the ground. He reaches for a strip of discarded T-shirt and crouches to tie it around a tomato plant’s stem, bringing it snug against the stake. The bush is loaded with fruit—plum tomatoes, days away from peak ripeness—which sway gently as Bob White goes about his work. “It’s a full-time job just staying ahead of these things,” White says with a chuckle. Organic farms of this scale are hardly rare in Buncombe County; what’s different here are the farmer and the setting. White isn’t a grizzled back-to-the-lander or a starry-eyed college grad longing for a first taste of “real work.” He’s a resident of Asheville’s largest, and by some counts, most dangerous, public housing project. He’s unemployed and pushing the far edge of middle age. Two summers ago there were no gardens here, just a derelict ball field at the far side of the Pisgah View apartment complex, overgrown with wiregrass and strewn with discarded condoms, beer cans, wine bottles, and crack pipes. Where others saw an eyesore at best—at worst a way station for still-of-the-night drug exchanges—White saw potential. “I went to the Housing Authority with this vision that we needed a community garden here,” he says. “It was really horrible over here at that time. There were a lot of gun fights, a lot of drug dealing, and a lot of crime in general. And it had gotten to the point where we weren’t even comfortable letting our kids go out to play.” At the time he broached the idea to management, White’s farming experience was nil. His resources amounted to two dollars, a pair of shovels, and a lawn rake. He carried all of it down to the ball field and just stood there for a while, taking it all in. “I couldn’t figure out how I was going to make this happen,” he recalls. “I looked around and said, ‘OK, I can’t do it.’” He turned and went home. But fate, providence, “the universe”—whatever one cares to call it—wouldn’t let the idea go. About two weeks later, a stranger appeared at White’s door. “This woman, her name is Joy Harmon, shows up and tells me ‘I know some people you need to talk to,” White recalls. Harmon learned about White while she was working as a math educator with the Asheville office of I Have a Dream Foundation. She and her students, who were from Pisgah View, were looking for a place to plant flowers that had been donated to the program. She’d heard about Bob’s plans for a community garden, and went to find him. “I really didn’t know where his house was,” she says. “I just stood outside and started calling his name. His wife came out, and we just immediately connected.” Harmon helped White write a proposal about the gardens for the Pisgah View residents’ council; when the idea was approved, she says, “We just started digging.” She also had connections to nurseries, gardens and farms in the area, and that is where the supply chain began. “Robert is a powerful man,” she says. “He’s definitely an organizer. He’s really taken the place to another level.” In short order, the makings of an organic farm began to materialize at Pisgah View. Harmon put White in touch with Bonnie Frontino and Lynn Von Unweth, owners of Sisters Floribunda nursery in Swannanoa, who donated a few thousand tomato plants, several hundred pepper plants, herbs, and flowers to the cause. Soon after, Warren Wilson College lent White a shopworn, but operable, rototiller. “From that point on, the word started getting out that there was something positive going on in Pisgah View,” he says. “And people started coming over, offering assistance, advice, and supplies. We just started making connections. I mean, people were coming from everywhere.” And the donations kept coming: In subsequent months, the city of Asheville donated 10,000 pounds of leaf mulch. The natural foods supermarket Earth Fare gave its discarded fruits and vegetables as fodder for the compost pile. Earth Haven donated soil amendments and $1,000 worth of fruit trees. The Asheville Housing Authority donated water and power. Sweet potatoes starts came courtesy of Jesse Israel & Sons nursery; herb seedlings from Greenlife Grocery. The urban-gardening nonprofit Bountiful Cities donated a slew of raspberry plants. Many others contributed. The project now had a name: The Pisgah View Community Peace Garden. The biggest boost arrived in the form of a grant from the Asheville-based Center for Participatory Change. It paid for a commercial-scale greenhouse, which White and a team of volunteers erected in the gardens last winter. “We started developing a sense of community here,” White says. “And we also started to feel a connection to the outside community.” That first season, children from Pisgah View started coming down to the gardens, eschewing their usual games for a walk among the crop rows and flower beds. “They had never seen anything like this,” says White. “A lot of them were absolutely amazed to see things that they were used to eating out of cans and packages growing in the ground. One kid asked me what a tomato plant was, and when I told him, he was like, ‘Wow. I thought tomatoes grew in cans.’ And he was serious.” White’s past is eclectic. He grew up in Asbury Park, New Jersey; was trained as a carpenter; and at one point owned a store specializing in volumes on African history and culture, as well as clothing and crafts from across the continent. His mother was from Asheville, though, and beginning in the 1970s he traveled between the two cities for varying periods of time. In 1998, he came to stay, but not under the best of circumstances: He found himself homeless for nearly two years. “When I was homeless, I felt like it was a situation for some reason the universe thought I needed to go through. I was always thinking how I could make the situation as good as it could be,” he says. “Instead of having my hand out, I was always trying to figure out how I could help.” After emerging from homelessness, White, along with his wife, Lucia, and their three daughters, came to Pisgah View after the couple lost their jobs. Here, he was confronted with a dynamic that was all too familiar from his time on the streets: low income, disenfranchisement, crime, and drugs. “I started realizing that not only was I unemployed, but everybody around me was, too,” he says. But while reading the book Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan one evening, White came upon a hopeful statistic. “Pollan said that the organic industry was an $11.7 billion a year business,” White says. “Well, I had never heard much about organic agriculture, but that piqued my interest. It seemed like a way to develop an income stream in this community.” Now 56 years old, White has a head of shoulder-length, pencil-thin dreadlocks bundled neatly in a hair tie—a garden sage with a cigarette and a constantly ringing cell phone. The improbability of it all isn’t lost on him. “The first year it was so haphazard that it was obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. But the stuff grew in spite of that,” says White. “That season, everybody was saying I was crazy. This year, they’re asking me if I have corn and green tomatoes.” A loyal, all-volunteer corps of workers makes its way down to the garden each day. Some are unemployed residents seeking to complete the eight hours of community service the state mandates for residents living in public housing under total subsidy. Then there is what White calls the garden’s “core group”: his wife and garden stalwarts Jacob Harvin and Charlina Madden, both of whom are long-time Pisgah View residents. “I don’t owe any community service; nobody pays me to come down here,” says Madden, a slight woman of 38, as she weighs a customer’s order of carrots. “It’s just a place where I have peace of mind.” Several months ago, Madden lost her job as a nurse’s assistant. “I could have gone any one of three or four different ways, none of them good,” she says. “But I chose to come here. I can pick beans and just forget about everything. I never picked a bean before in my life and now I pick them just like a professional,” she says with a full-throated laugh. “It’s a blessing from God.” Part of what guides White’s vision for the garden is the hope that it will expand to provide a source of food security for the city’s low-income communities. “My dream is to create that ‘village’ you always hear about. Right now, there’s no village,” he says. “The elders are afraid of the young people; the young people are involved in all sorts of negative behavior. So we’re trying to develop that vision of a place where everyone can work together toward the goal of producing good, healthy food and a good income for themselves.” Last year, there was no income after expenses. This year, White says the gardens pay some of the volunteers to help with personal needs. The rest of the money goes to seeds and supplies. Recently, the garden applied for nonprofit status, and has sought affiliation with groups such as the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program and Heifer International. White contracts with a farmer in Leicester to raise chickens and honeybees for the garden, and plans are in the works for a mushroom-growing operation, as well as an expansion of the garden’s orchard. “I’d like to see a land trust where people would have housing and a job,” says White. “Where ex-offenders and people who have had trouble with drugs—marginalized people—can make a living, feed themselves, and become viable citizens again. Working in the soil, raising plants from seeds—this is healing work. This can open the door.” Despite a summer-long drought, on this sweltering day the Pisgah View Community Peace Garden is a riot of growth. A dozen kinds of peppers grow in lush rows, and an equal diversity of tomatoes. Spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, mustard greens, kale, and arugula grow bed on bed. There are heirloom lima beans; okra in shades of green and red, their stems tipped with either lemony blossoms or prickly pods; beans, cucumbers, kohlrabi, winter squash, gourds. There is corn: “Silver Queen,” “Peaches ‘n’ Cream,” and an ornamental type that towers a swaying 15-feet tall from root to tassel. There are melons: “Sugar Baby,” “Charleston Gray,” and “Moon and Stars,” an antique variety whose fruit bears a trail of Milky Way-like yellow dots across its blackish rind. There are occasional reminders of the larger setting, the screech of tires or the thrum of outsized bass speakers from a passing vehicle. And White admits that Pisgah View remains blighted by violence. Earlier in the month a teenage resident was arrested for breaking into a neighbor’s apartment and brutally assaulting her; a week later police discovered another teen outside his apartment with a gunshot wound to his abdomen and a bullet graze across his cheek. Still, and against dismaying odds, White and others are demonstrating the transformative power of agriculture here each day, the power of redemption embodied by a half-acre of hard-packed clay. At the far side of the garden, just a few yards back from a burgeoning compost pile, grows what could well be described as the garden’s signature plant, a pumpkin with the rough dimensions of an ottoman. “We didn’t plant this pumpkin. It just showed up,” White says. “We don’t know if it’s an alien or what.” Is it a sign, a portent, of successes to come? “It’s a sign of something,” says White, with a comic tilt of his head. “We come down here every morning and just stare at it and go ‘Whoa.’” The sun edges higher, and more and more people appear in the garden: helpers, neighbors with shopping lists, and the just plain curious. White greets each one in turn. “Great! Howdy! Walk around! If you have any questions, ask the lady wearing the scarf over there,” he says, pointing toward Madden. “I’ll be with you in a minute, I promise.” Without a second’s pause, White has turned around, knee-deep in a sea of pumpkin vines. His arms are out, palms up, in a gesture of pure satisfaction. He’s beaming. “See?” he says. “That’s what happens. That’s what I’ve been working on—trying to get people to come out here, to make the connection. And it’s working. You see it. And it’s still growing.”