November 16, 2015|By Jesalyn Keziah and Julius Tillery

Increasing access to the great outdoors doesn’t refer only to large projects, such as setting aside parks and preserving working land and waterways. It can also be accomplished at a local level to ensure that people have access to the outdoors in their own communities. 

We are proud to play this role within the conservation movement. We work specifically within The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities (RC) program to create opportunities that preserve the rural landscape, lift people out of poverty and celebrate our partner communities’ unique cultures. RC focuses on capacity building for grassroots organizations, increasing community-level conservation opportunities. We work with a network of 700 grassroots and community organizations, and we take a balanced “triple bottom-line” approach that generates environmental stewardship, economic development, and social justice benefits.

In Henderson, NC, we’ve had the privilege to partner with Green Rural Redevelopment Organization (GRRO), a nonprofit organization that is revitalizing the landscape by converting empty lots in the middle of the city into micro-market farms. Complete with walk-up farmstands, these micro-farms are creating profitable entrepreneurship opportunities and increasing access to fresh, healthy local produce in an economically-depressed food desert area.

GRRO is headed by Henry Crews, who started a community garden in the empty lot beside his house after retiring and moving back to his hometown of Henderson, NC. People were very interested in this community garden and wanted to join him in raising produce. He turned the community garden into a demonstration farm.

JJ-blog2Ardis Crews leading a tour group through their micro-farm on a formerly empty lot. Photo courtesy of Julius Tillery.

After seeing the demand for his products, Crews knew he needed to reach out and make connections to increase production of his garden. GRRO has formed partnerships and promoted collaborations among agencies across the city, including local government agencies, police, and schools. With these relationships, they have been able to secure contracts to transform vacant lots in the city of Henderson into micro-farms.  

JJ-blog3Walk-up stands sell fresh produce directly in neighborhoods, accepting cash, credit and EBT. Photo courtesy of Julius Tillery.The program works like this: local recruits start by learning both entrepreneurship skills and sustainable farming practices during training sessions in the GRRO's demonstration farm. While going through trainings, these newly minted farmers will build their micro-farms on previously empty lots throughout town, and sell their fresh produce through local co-op contracts and directly to local residents who walk up to the on-site produce stands. These on-site stands are called Farm Own Garden Stands, and they provide limited-resource customers unique access to fresh food that is both available within walking distance and can be purchased using SNAP/EBT cards and WIC vouchers (formerly known as foodstamps). 

Julius-Tillery blogJulius Tillery. Photo by Natali Abbassi.As Farm Resources Coordinator, Julius has been working to help connect Henry Crews’ new farmers and farm lots to as many local, state, and regional resources as possible. We have hosted meetings with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) representatives along with city and county government officials to find out ways to work better and get more resources to these communities.

Without connecting these gardeners to the world of farming by USDA standards, these communities in Henderson would be missing out on resources, and the city of Henderson wouldn’t reap the benefits of the beauty gardening work can add to these communities.

As the Community Food Coordinator for Resourceful Communities, Jesalyn supports GRRO and other community organizations that are increasing access to local foods in low-income areas. RC provided a grant to help them purchase the materials necessary for getting their project into action. Her role has been to provide training and technical assistance in Jesalyn-Keziah blogJesalyn Keziah. Photo by Natalie Abbassi.the form of workshops and one-on-one consultations, with a focus on building their capacity to plan and administer their project. By connecting GRRO with helpful resources and providing specific skills-building assistance in areas such as community engagement, project planning, marketing and communications we are helping to ensure that GRRO has all the skills and tools they need for a successful project.

GRRO continues to make a significant impact on their community. Their model promotes environmental stewardship through their commitment to growing organic produce through sustainable farming methods. Their demonstration garden is often used as a community space to do environmental education, and residents are spending more and more time outdoors and eating more healthy local foods. Their project also promotes sustainable economic development by increasing local small-business entrepreneurship opportunities. Individuals are starting their own small businesses as farmers while meeting a local need: the demand for fresh produce in a food-desert area.

GRRO's model also promotes social justice on a number of levels. Their work supports farmer-entrepreneurs of color who are selling accessible healthy local food in a low-income food desert area. Moreover, through their work, they are turning former empty lots into community assets, increasing access to both healthy food and safe, accessible outdoor opportunities. 

JJ-blog4Marion Brodie Williams surveys the produce that will be sold in the local Henderson community. Photo courtesy of Robin Murphy.

The Conservation Fund is redefining conservation to make it relevant to the lives of everyday people in all communities. Our partnership with GRRO is a great example of how community-scale conservation work emphasizing small landscapes is just as important and effective as projects focused on large acreage, and can make significant, positive differences in communities.