July 20, 2020|By Chiara D'Amore| Community Development

One Farm’s Vision for a Healthier Community

One year ago, our small nonprofit, the Community Ecology Institute (CEI), was able to purchase the last working farm in our town with the promise that we would permanently protect it from becoming developed. This was achieved with help and a bridge loan from The Conservation Fund. Much like the Fund, CEI’s mission is to foster communities in which people and nature thrive together. Our vision for this property, which we have named Freetown Farm (learn more about the important history that informed this name here), is to make it a place where people can learn through hands-on experiences how to live happier, healthier, more connected and sustainable lives. In return, we’ve found this also helps create a healthier and more resilient community at large.

thumbnail IMG 6953 longOne of ten distinct gardens CEI has planted on their farm. Freetown Farm’s climate victory garden was only the second one registered in the state of Maryland. Photo by Chiara D’Amore.

Our 6.4-acre organic farm is located in Columbia, Maryland, a suburban town of 100,000 people between Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC. Unlike most farms, the centralized location of Freetown Farm makes it highly accessible to the community which is ideal for fostering beneficial partnerships. Our neighbors include a high school, a forthcoming African American cultural center, a crisis intervention center, several faith communities and a diverse residential community. The farm is adjacent to county-owned protected land, making it part of a substantial wildlife corridor along the Middle Patuxent River. In other words, a little farm can do a lot of good. Specific conservation values and outcomes that CEI is achieving at Freetown Farm include:

  • Protection and recovery of the natural habitat for fish, wildlife, plants or ecosystems.
    On four acres of agricultural and educational space, we are demonstrating many conservation landscapes, including the installation of rain gardens, a bioretention area, and a large pollinator meadow. We are enhancing the back two acres, comprised of wetlands, woods and two small streams, by planting native and/or edible trees—over 250 in just this first year!
  • Provision of opportunities for outdoor recreation and educational use. Our existing programs have taken root on the farm, with classes and events running five to six days a week (before COVID). Once the property is fully restored, we will be collaborating with the local school system to bring students to the farm to learn how food is grown and how they can take action on behalf of the environment in their home, neighborhood, and school. We will also offer adult educational programming related to green jobs, climate action, conservation landscapes, regenerative agriculture, and more once the COVID crisis eases. Well over 200 volunteers have been a part of our growth this past year.

A few TCF employees traveled to the Community Ecology Institute in Columbia, MD for a tour of the facility and some gardening community service. CEI received a loan for TCF in August 2019 for the purchase of the 6.3-acre farmland.
Freetown Farm has seen over 200 volunteers, including students and local community members. Photo by Val Keefer.

  • Supporting government policy. Howard County, Maryland is the first county to accept the U.S. Climate Alliance’s Natural and Working Lands Challenge. County leadership recognizes that our vision for this property provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how this challenge can be applied at a scale applicable to most community residents and businesses. We are actively stewarding Freetown Farm so it can be used to sequester carbon. We have planted a large climate victory garden, the second one registered in the state of Maryland, and have won a county innovation grant that, in part, focuses on installing these gardens throughout our community. As we develop plans to renovate a “barn” into an educational area we are focused on demonstrating best practices with regards to water and energy efficient and green design, the use of renewable energy, and waste reduction.

A few TCF employees traveled to the Community Ecology Institute in Columbia, MD for a tour of the facility and some gardening community service. CEI received a loan for TCF in August 2019 for the purchase of the 6.3-acre farmland.

In 1845, after more than 150 years of slavery in Howard County, local landowner Nicolas Worthington freed seventeen people he had enslaved and gave them 150 acres of land—an area that became known as Freetown. To honor this land’s important history as well as the ways in which their urban arm is supporting a "carbon-free" future, CEI chose the name Freetown Farm. Photo by Val Keefer.

  • Improving water quality. Freetown Farm is a living classroom for how to address stormwater management issues. It is in a dense, mixed-use suburban neighborhood and directly across the street from an older high school that does not have sufficient stormwater infrastructure on site. During rain events, water flows down from the school and on to the farm from two directions, creating opportunities to show the stormwater management concept of “slow it down, spread it out, soak it in” in action. We have received a Chesapeake Bay Trust grant to design a system of best management practices such as rain gardens, dry stream beds, berms, and a wet pond. These features will address the stormwater issues that cross the property, enhancing the water quality as it crosses the farm on its way downslope to the streams at the back of the property that flow into the Middle Patuxent River, which is less than a quarter of a mile away.

A few TCF employees traveled to the Community Ecology Institute in Columbia, MD for a tour of the facility and some gardening community service. CEI received a loan for TCF in August 2019 for the purchase of the 6.3-acre farmland.

Volunteers from The Conservation Fund get a tour of CEI’s back two acres, comprised of wetlands, woodlands and two small streams. CEI has enhanced these ecosystems with tree planting for wildlife and storm management. Photo by Val Keefer.

  • Food production. The farm was dormant when we purchased it last summer—all the former fields were filled with eye-high weeds and rusty fencing. We have reclaimed the optimal growing areas to create a variety of diversified gardens that are being stewarded by numerous community partners. Our children’s garden is primarily tended by the kids participating in our programs. Our climate victory garden is primarily tended by local high school volunteers. The Howard County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is growing incredible food in their garden area. The Indian Origin Network is growing Holy Basil and a variety of veggies in their gardens and HopeWorks, which supports survivors of domestic violence, is creating a healing garden. The University of Maryland’s Grow It, Eat It program has a learning garden in the works and our large market garden has started weekend farm stand sales in the last month. We are donating hundreds of pounds of food to mutual aid organizations getting food to people in critical need due to the COVID crisis.

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Freetown Farm has grown and donated over 550 pounds of food to the local community. Photo by Chiara D’Amore.

In addition to the small-scale, yet significant conservation values of this property, the value of our work at Freetown Farm is amplified by the Community Ecology Center that we are creating on the premises. One community's experiment can inspire thousands of other experiments, providing valuable insights and best practices and ultimately building support for larger-scale changes.  Small, local, community-based ecology centers have the power to transform communities, help to restore the environment and bring people together with a sense of hope and purpose for the future. In the first year as stewards of Freetown Farm and creators of the Community Ecology Center, we have been able to achieve several substantial outcomes, some of which include:

  • 650+ people provided financial support
  • 550+ pounds of food donated - we are just getting started!
  • 250+ trees planted - most native and/or edible
  • 9 people employed

A few TCF employees traveled to the Community Ecology Institute in Columbia, MD for a tour of the facility and some gardening community service. CEI received a loan for TCF in August 2019 for the purchase of the 6.3-acre farmland.
Volunteers from The Conservation Fund helping prepare soil for newly planted trees at Freetown Farm. CEI has planted over 250 native and/or edible trees on the property. Photo by Val Keefer.

Even as COVID has rocked every community in the world, we are still finding a way to not only grow but thrive on our small farm and help the people who share time and space with CEI to grow and thrive as well. Our resilience and ability to adapt and respond to external impacts, is by design. We are using key concepts from the study of ecological systems to develop an agri-ecological-social system. By building relationships, encouraging genuine participation, facilitating inclusiveness, mobilizing our resources and creating a space for knowledge sharing, we are fostering a more sustainable and resilient community. We are paying careful attention to how we can be a model for community resilience in these challenging times. As we develop a Community Ecology Center at Freetown Farm, we will be developing videos, articles, tools, and other resources about how communities far and wide can strengthen their local resilience. In the interim, we invite you to learn more at www.communityecologyinstitute.org

barn and sunflower long
Freetown Farm’s barn will be renovated into an educational area focused on demonstrating best practices for water and energy efficiency, green design, renewable energy, and water reduction. Photo by Chiara D’Amore.


Written By

Chiara D'Amore

Chiara D'Amore is the Executive Director of the Community Ecology Institute in Columbia, Maryland.