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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

When CDC and Schools Collaborate: Isles Community Farm, Trenton, New Jersey

by Chris Lazarus

Isles Inc. stands out among Community Development Corporations (CDC) for its vision of community gardening as a powerful vehicle for sustainable community development. Since its formation by Princeton students and faculty in 1980 this large, diversified CDC has started 63 gardening sites throughout Trenton, producing 120,000 pounds of food annually.

A little more than two years ago, the CDC’s community garden director, Ron Friedman, came up with the idea of a community farm to expand food production and provide educational, job, and entrepreneurial opportunities. The head of the horticulture department at nearby Mercer Community College offered free use of as much as 50 to 60 acres of unused land on campus (Isles finally settled on five acres of which only two are currently farmed), as well as an irrigation system, greenhouses, and office space. Friedman applied for and received a USDA Community Food Project grant for three years.

Through Isles’ solid relationships and high visibility in the local and regional community, the organic farm was able to get potting soil, plant containers, and expertise in setting up greenhouses, horticulture, and marketing from American Cyanamid, a neighboring corporation which manufactures and markets the kind of chemicals never used in organic agriculture. “You get into lots of moral dilemmas doing this work,” notes Friedman. “They offered chemicals, and we said we needed soil and containers.”

In two growing seasons, two full-time staff members and two seasonal workers grew a total of 20,000 pounds of organic vegetables on the farm, 80% of which was made available to soup kitchens and food banks. The balance was sold at farm stands throughout the city and on campus during the summer, staffed by young people on a city-administered Job Training and Placement Act program.

So far, results from the JTPA youth training program have been disappointing. Of the six students who started the program this past summer, only two finished. “The challenge is providing the basic social services these kids and their families need,” says Friedman. “We just don’t have the staff to do it. It’s really discouraging to find out that one of the students was picked up in a drug sweep and is doing time in jail, because his family didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer.”

There has been heartening progress on other fronts, however. “You start with one concept and run with it for a while,” says Friedman. “Then it metamorphoses into something more than you imagined.” This past year, the farm experimented with Community Supported Agriculture, signing up six families as CSA shareholders, who in return received a very small portion of the total harvest. Friedman believes it will be easy to expand the CSA, which sells its shares at about half the price of a much larger CSA in Princeton.

Income from the CSA would allow the farm to hire additional staff for food production and other moneymaking ventures that show promise, including an herb garden, perennials, and value-added food products. The farm already has a prolific herb garden, which would need one dedicated staff person to reap its economic potential, according to Friedman. Cut herbs are in high demand at restaurants, gourmet shops and food markets, much more than whole herb plants, which are also sold in markets. Twenty-four varieties of perennials, some 2,000 plants, grown in the unheated hoophouse, were sold to landscaping companies and homeowners this past fall. And farm staff members made herb-infused oils for the JTPA students and seasonal staff to sell this past summer at the Trenton Downtown Association Farmers Market and at Urban Word Cafe, an upscale, community-supportive restaurant.

Recently, unexpected offers of assistance and collaboration have come from educational institutions. The farm already receives quite a bit of help from colleges and high schools besides Mercer. Ryder College has a formal entrepreneurship training program, called Mind Our Business, where students can choose to practice what they learn at a variety of businesses, including Isles’ farm stands. The College of New Jersey is now talking about several of its schools (business, nursing, engineering) starting service programs involving the farm. These could also lead to joint fundraising. And there is the possibility of starting a summer camp at the farm, with counselors provided by local colleges, and campers’ tuition paid by more affluent families. The summer camp would mean additional hands to help grow food.

While Friedman admits that it would be ideal if the Community Farm could become self-sustaining, he knows this is a long way off - so far an average of 10,000 pounds of produce, valued at $1 per pound, are grown each year. Contrast this with estimated annual expenses of $100,000 for the project. Even with new revenues from value-added products, perennials, and herbs (which will require additional paid staff to generate), self-sufficiency is a distant dream as long as 80% of food raised is made available at emergency food provider prices. But growing and improving access to fresh, healthy food is, after all, the primary mission of Isles Community Farm - and in this it is succeeding abundantly.

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