Community garden coming to Cabarrus

The Cabarrus County commissioners are expected in April to approve a proposal that will allow residents to farm community garden plots at the county's Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm.

About two dozen people attended a Feb. 22 planning meeting at the farm hosted by David Goforth, horticulture and forestry agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension's Cabarrus County Center, and Aaron Newton, coordinator of the county's Local Food Systems Program.

They discussed potential rules, gauged public interest and toured the 2,000-square-foot garden site. The county-owned property was donated by Lomax for use as a public park. Entering its fourth growing season, the 30-plus-acre farm is one of only three incubator farms in the state.

The community garden site, just off N.C. 49 on Atando Road in Concord, will be divided into 100-square-foot plots. Residents must apply and be approved to lease plots. The cost is $32 for the eight-month growing season.

Experience with gardening isn't mandatory; both beginners and seasoned gardeners are welcome. Participants will have to provide some basic tools, seeds, NOP-approved (National Organic Program) pesticides and fertilizer and labor. Besides irrigation, gardeners get prepared land, deer fencing and some larger equipment, such as wheelbarrows, will remain on site.

"We're just looking at it on a case-by-case basis," Newton said. "There will be a certain amount of first-come, first-served, but we also want people out here who appropriately understand what it really takes to grow a successful garden."

Local food leader

Newton, 37, is a Concord native. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in landscape architecture and worked throughout the Southeast before moving back here. He said people simply call him the "food dude."

"If you had asked me 10 years ago, when I moved back here, could Cabarrus County get to where we are today, I would have said, 'Doubtful.' But here it has happened, and it's happened because of a wisdom in leadership at the top and the grassroots folk who were already chomping at the bit."

Newton said details surrounding the fee, as well as the possibility of background checks on plot gardeners and other security issues, still need to be finalized. But he is confident people will start planting in April.

Newton said the local food movement is about a decade behind other areas in the state, but Cabarrus County is a pioneer for the Charlotte region.

"We're absolutely leading the way," said Newton. "I get calls and emails from all over the state, and, frankly, all over the country.

"They call and say, 'We hear about what you're doing. How are you getting it done? Help us. We want an incubator farm; we want a harvest facility for our beef cattle; we want a food policy council.'

"On one hand, we're a good decade behind," said Newton. "The Triangle area, the Asheville area, these are folks who have been investing in their local food economy a lot longer than we have. But the leadership in Cabarrus County saw this coming ... and the idea was, 'Hey, this is coming to Charlotte, so Cabarrus County should be a leader.' So we jumped in from a policy standpoint."

The farmers

Jaláeh Singer, 31, has lived in Concord more than four years. She recently took a master gardener course but also has a degree in landscape architecture from N.C. State. She said this community garden will allow her to help others while brushing up on her own skills.

"I think it's a really good thing how local food is becoming more popular," said Singer. "It's a lot healthier. It supports our local community.... And I think it's bringing people back to their roots and teaching them basic skills that are important.

"Besides, buying organic produce is extremely expensive, but for $32 for a plot, you can just buy seeds, grow them, and it's organic and wholesome and good for your family. You can't beat that."

Newton said more and more people are committed to investing in the local food system. The community garden project will raise capital and help create more community ownership of the farm.

"It's public property, it's county-owned, so taxpayers own this property. But we we're looking for more people to buy in from the community and more people to utilize this county resource."

The typical growing season is from mid-April to late October, depending on frosts, but officials are not ruling out farmers starting a little earlier and later.

"We took stock after three years and looked at what was working well and what could work better," said Newton. "As part of that process, we identified the possible need for community garden space."

Dawn Sheppard, 53, from the UNC Charlotte area, said she's hoping to use this opportunity as a baby step into farming. She's even considering renting two plots.

"I don't want to get to do more than I can," she said. "I think I'm just going to play with tomatoes. I haven't tasted a good tomato since I was a young girl at my grandmother's in Salisbury.

"I was so surprised, because I didn't think there was going to be an option for someone like me who just couldn't quite afford the time and the money of a full-scale farm. This is something I can do."

Georgia Reichard, 12, was the youngest person at the meeting. She's homeschooled by her mother, Shannon. The two are committed to joining this effort. Shannon said they've gardened for years.

"I like watching the stuff grow, 'cause it's cool to see how much it changes, and it tastes different than stuff you get at local grocers," said Georgia, who wasn't a fan of vegetables until she tried farm-fresh varieties.

"Now I like anything," she said. "I like meeting new people, and it's a community garden, so there will be people to meet. I'll be able to see new things, taste new things and try new things.

"I like to cook, and I'm just getting tall enough so I can actually use the stove, so I'll probably grow some things I can add to a dish."

The next planning meeting will be 1:30 p.m. March 7 at the farm. Details: 704-920-3320.