December 23, 2016|By Dagny Leonard| Food and Farms

Dagny Leonard (DL): What is GRRO?

Henry and Ardis:
The Green Rural Redevelopment Organization—GRRO for short—is revitalizing our community by converting empty lots in the middle of the city into micro-market farms. We are working to eliminate poverty by connecting our community with the land, job skills, fresh and healthy food, and each other.
DL: You weren’t always farmers. What inspired you to start GRRO?

Henry and Ardis:
When we retired and moved home to Henderson from Chicago in 2008, we didn’t have a plan to become farmers. Our neighbor happened to have a backyard garden, and told us that she could do a lot with just a little bit more land. We had an empty lot next door that we opened up to her, and along with our friend Marion Brodie Williams and her sister Rosetta, we starting gardening there, too.

Ardis has said that, originally, she just wanted to grow some flowers. But it quickly became much more than that. We were bitten by the farm bug. One thing led to another, and after we started growing vegetables, we decided we also wanted to have aquaponics, set up beehives and begin composting. It caught on with the community, too. People were interested in what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it. From that community garden, many things grew.”

GRRO MG 2802Marion Brodie Williams, a cofounder of the Green Rural Redevelopment Organization, with produce grown in the micro-market farm. Photo by Robin Murphy.

 DL: What happened next?

Henry and Ardis: With the help of the Resourceful Communities program and our partners, we transitioned to a micro-market farm. Resourceful Communities grants helped us purchase walk-behind tractors that allowed us to work in small spaces and we completed GAP (good agricultural practices) certification so that we can sell to school systems and restaurants. We realized that there are so many untapped opportunities for growing in small spaces.

DL: How did you build partnerships with the community and local government and gain support for your initiatives?

Henry and Ardis: There were 150 blighted lots throughout our city, and we knew we could do more with them. We brought the city and the county government together to make some of those lots available for other micro-market farms. Now we have developed our demonstration micro-market farm into a farm school. Each farmer has one or two raised beds on our micro-farms, and we have partnered with the City and County to make five of the empty lots available to the students who are most successful at the end of the growing season. They have three years to develop the business before they have to pay taxes on that lot.

GRRO Resourceful Communities Grro 2016 NC c Olivia Jackson 1GRRO aims to strengthen their community one garden at a time. Photo by Olivia Jackson.

DL: So in addition to becoming farmers, you’ve also become teachers?

Henry and Ardis: We just keep learning. And we want to share what we know with others. We partner with agencies to offer classes in GAP certification, organic growing, growing in greenhouses, marketing and business planning, identifying fertilizers and much more. We help our students with crop preparation, give them seeds, and teach them to plan ahead and save seeds from crops so they can plant next year. These are all new farmers practicing new concepts in small areas. We’re helping them see how their relationship with the land can be a source of empowerment. They’re learning important job and entrepreneur skills and helping make healthy food available to their community.

DL: How are these fresh fruits and vegetables getting to the people in your community who need them?

Henry and Ardis: Henderson, as well as the entire Vance County area, is a food desert. We started with our Farm Own Garden Stand (“FOGS”), which is our walk-up, on-site stand that sells produce directly from our micro-market farm. This has made a big difference in giving community members an accessible place to buy healthy food, where they can also use SNAP/EBT [formerly known as food stamps] benefits. We are now the only USDA Organic Certified Farm in the county, offering more than 26 organic fruits and vegetables. 

GRRO IMG 2799The garden where it all began. Photo by Robin Murphy.

And we’re thinking even bigger.

Henderson’s Downtown Development Commission came to us and asked if we would help participate in a farmers market, and in August 2016 we opened and served more than 440 customers (of whom 35% use SNAP/EBT). All our students can take their produce downtown to the farmers market to sell to the community, and local people can walk to the farmers market and use EBT and “double bucks” program to buy fresh, healthy food four days a week. It’s a win-win for everyone.

DL: What is your guiding philosophy in your work?

Henry and Ardis: We are really taking a holistic approach to supporting a vibrant Henderson. Access to healthy food, relationships with people and with the land, and tangible job skills—these are all important aspects of a happy, healthy community. We’re using land as the vehicle to create collective economic assets that allow people to have a greater say over their economic future, to empower them.

What is the most rewarding part of all of this for you?

Henry and Ardis: None of us are at the stage in life where we need to do this for ourselves. It just needs to get done. We’ve seen so many positive changes in the community, from reduction of crime to an increase in civic activity, to people finally having access to healthy food. Not all the growth is happening in the gardens, it’s happening with people, too. To see the commitment of people, to see the young men walking past and hear them say how much they love the garden and volunteer to help, that is rewarding.

We’ve built some wonderful relationships, and we all work together. That’s really what it’s all about.

GRRO IMG 2805Henry (third from left) and Ardis (fifth from left) Crews are joined by supporters from The Conservation Fund and the community. Photo provided by Robin Murphy.

For more than 25 years, our Resourceful Communities program has worked across North Carolina helping innovative grassroots groups like GRRO realize opportunities to that preserve the rural landscape, lift people out of poverty and celebrate communities’ unique cultures. Our Resourceful Communities program, in partnership with The Oak Foundation, has provided a range of capacity building for GRRO. A recent grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Community Development Initiative program will help Resourceful Communities continue that support and will help GRRO expand its micro-market farm school, which provides agricultural growing techniques, business planning support and more for emerging micro-agricultural enterprises.

Watch a video interview with GRRO’s Ardis Crews:


More about GRRO: