The New Metrics of Farming

Several forward-thinking nonprofits are looking past their harvest to nurture the soil and train young people

The traditional measure of farming success is the quality and quantity of the harvest, and, ultimately, revenue. But that’s not the case for several forward-thinking Delaware nonprofits.

The Delaware Nature Society, the Food Bank of Delaware, the Colonial School District and West End Neighborhood House have more important reasons to farm than just growing crops, such as nurturing the soil and training and transforming young people. These are their stories.

Cows at Coverdale Farm Preserve, where regenerative agriculture is being practiced. Photo by Jim Coarse

Delaware Nature Society’s Coverdale Farm Preserve

The Delaware Nature Society (DNS) has an ambitious, five-year, $2.3 million plan to re-envision its Coverdale Farm Preserve from the ground up—starting with the ground. “Most people don’t think about the soil,” says Michele Wales, Coverdale’s manager. “Yet we cannot live without it.”

Regenerative agriculture focuses on rebuilding the complex web of life underground that’s been disturbed by heavy-handed modern practices. “We’re taking the best of the past and pairing it with the science of today,” says Wales. “It’s up to us to modify our practices to be in balance with nature.”

The concept also “aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation,” a DNS white paper says. “At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability and higher health and vitality for farming communities.”

The first phase involves six cows, 13 sheep, 100 turkeys and 200 chickens. The animals go through small pastures in succession—cows, then sheep, then poultry—grazing on different plants, depositing manure and lightly disturbing the land, which gets 40 to 60 days to recover. About 80 of Coverdale’s 377 acres near Greenville are targeted for rotational grazing, which also helps reduce issues with parasites and insects.

“Our livestock become our farm’s co-managers, as mowers and fertilizers,” Wales says.

The concept is on display in the henhouse area. A patch under a 16-by-24 foot floorless henhouse on wheels is full of active chickens, while the patch they were just in is downright bedraggled. The patch before that looks a bit better, and the one they were eating from last week is even more vibrant, and so on.

“You can taste the difference between stuff grown in good soil and not,” says Joanne McGeoch, deputy director for DNS, which is backing up changes in the soil with baseline assessments of more than 40 microclimates and testing of a dozen soil components by Cornell University. (That flavor imparted by the soil and the microclimates is known to wine lovers as terroir.)

In the forests beyond the pastures, DNS is also experimenting with oyster and shiitake mushrooms.

Coverdale’s core 20 acres—a living classroom for thousands of children each year – is also being rethought. “Education was the driver, and now we’re establishing a production farm,” says McGeoch. That includes beef and lamb production and wholesale markets, atop the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) garden and the farm’s own market.

“This is a business plan, not just a high-ideal goal,” she adds—although there is a high-minded goal to showcase environmentally friendly and economically sound practices that can be adapted by other farms.

Heavy equipment and deep tilling have been dropped from the seven-acre CSA garden in favor of intensive organic practices (nutrient management, water conservation, crop rotation) and using greenhouses and other structures to increase yields and lengthen growing seasons.

“There is no other property in the state where every significant environmental issue Delawareans collectively face—from clean water, healthy food access, carbon sequestration, to open space protection—can be addressed to result in significant, tangible, positive impacts,” the society writes. “As a model farm and ecosystem, our visitors, partners and program participants will be immersed in the opportunity to see that even the small choices they make can be part of lasting change that results in vital natural resources conservation.”

Coverdale Farm Preserve, 543 Way Road, Greenville, is open for tours and purchases 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

Food Bank of Delaware’s Corteva Farm

When the Food Bank of Delaware in 2018 moved to Glasgow, its plans included the creation of a farm. Four acres have been cleared of debris and overgrown plants, with cover crops sown to rejuvenate the soil for future plantings. Meanwhile, buildings have been installed and better soil supplied to grow tomatoes, peppers, greens, and other crops. “We’re always looking for new and innovative ways to train people,” says spokeswoman Kim Turner. A Farm and Agriculture Skills Training program starts this fall, following programs in culinary arts (2002) and warehouse operations (2018). “Not just hands-on skills, but life skills, too,” Turner says.

Corteva Farm produce is featured in the food bank’s CSA shares, in the food it supplies to area restaurants, in the food bank’s new cafe and at its farm stand. The stand, 22 Lake Dr., is open 3-7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

Colonial School District’s lease at Penn Farm

William Penn High School has what Farm to School Manager Toby Hagerott calls “a great classroom space” just beyond the school’s track: a lease on seven acres of the Historic Penn Farm in New Castle.

“It’s run like a business, as a specialized market farm,” Hagerott says, and while acknowledging that the state doesn’t collect numbers, “Penn Farm I would say with great confidence is the largest school farm in the state, and I would venture to say in the Mid-Atlantic region.”

About 300 of the school’s 2,000 students each year “see and learn right on the farm,” he says—in obvious classes like plant, animal and environmental science, plus art and history (but not business—yet).

The farm is run sustainably, with “rotating crops and trying to be as organic as possible,” Hagerott says. Two exceptions: fertilizer is used in the irrigation system, and heat-treated spent mushroom compost is delivered to add organic matter to the soil.

The 107-acre Penn Farm has been a tenant farm for centuries. “The mission of the Historic Penn Farm is to uphold the original purpose of the land and intent for its use through building sustainable farming initiatives, providing a community space, integrating agricultural best practices and inspiring people toward healthy eating,” writes Delaware Greenways, its 22nd tenant.

The district lease, which began in 2003, covers four acres for vegetables, a seasonally wet acre for native creatures and pollinators, an acre for hay, 3/4 of an acre for a new fruit orchard (apples, apricots, figs, nectarines, and plums) and 1/4 acre of raised beds to teach children as young as third grade.

Last year’s harvest was 20,000 pounds, and  Hagerott hopes the harvest hits 25,000 pounds this year. About half is sold through its CSA program, and most of the rest is served to students.

Students do most of the work, in class or in paid positions during the summer break. Such jobs are an attractive asset for the district, in which every school qualifies for the federal Community Eligibility Provision, where districts of high poverty can offer breakfast and lunch at no cost.

The farm has received $200,000 in Farm to School grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plus a $45,000 Delaware Specialty Crop block grant, $25,000 in seed donations and more than $12,000 in other corporate and government grants.

Products from the farm are sold 3-7 p.m. Wednesdays at the Route 9 Farmers Market, 3022 New Castle Ave., and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays at Wheelys Farmstand Café, 791 Frenchtown Road, New Castle.

Zeniah Holland participates in the GROW program at Bright Spot Farms. Photo by Jim Coarse

West End Neighborhood House’s Bright Spot Farms

“I’m here to better myself and overcome a bumpy past,” Joshua Wright says of the GROW program at Bright Spot Farms, an initiative of Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House. And when he’s working, he says, “I’ll donate money back to it. I’ll be a patron, for sure!”

Through GROW, participants age 16 to 24 outside the traditional school system learn about agriculture and horticulture, earning nationally recognized certifications, while also learning typical office software and job-hunting skills. After GROW, at $10 an hour, they move into paid internships. Bright Spot uses all capital letters for the name to emphasize “the spirit of personal and professional growth that is the goal of that program,” says program Director Sindhu Siva.

West End in 2014 began farming two acres on the back of the Delaware State Hospital Herman Holloway Campus near New Castle. The complex includes two greenhouses, two tunnels (with plants under plastic roofing) and a workstation with two washing machines converted into salad spinners.

Led by a staff of four full-time women, participants in GROW and the Young Farmers Crew (a paid immersive summer program for ages 14-18) get dirty-hands-on training on the land and classroom training in hard and soft skills like public speaking. “It’s opened my eyes to new stuff,” says participant Elijah Warren. “Positive things, like learning to talk to people.”

Bright Spot in 2018 was awarded almost $200,000 in grants, primarily from the Longwood and Citi foundations, says Siva. It generated another $60,000 in sales and earned $30,000 to $40,000 in landscaping contracts.

Bright Spot grows 15 to 20 vegetables and 10 to 15 herbs each year. It also nurtures and sells bedding plants in the spring and poinsettias for the holidays.

Customers who receive government food assistance get a 50 percent discount through Bright Spot’s NeighborCare program, which in 2018 represented more $3,000 worth of produce. “Our youth are all involved in sales and thus get to connect the products they grow with the customers in their own communities,” Siva says.

In the summer, Bright Spot sells produce 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mondays at the Herman Holloway Campus outside Humanity’s Kitchen Cafe, 1901 N. du Pont Highway, New Castle; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays at the Downtown Farmers Market at Rodney Square; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays at the Chase Bank lot, 2nd and North King streets; 4-7 p.m. Thursdays at the Westside Farmers Market at Cool Spring Park; and 2-6 p.m. Fridays at the Carousel Park Farmers Market on Limestone Road.

Wilmington Green Box operates a kiosk at 420 N. Market St. Photo couresty of Wilmington Green Box

Hope for Wilmington’s Food Deserts

Since its 2016 start, Wilmington Green Box has become a growing oasis in the city’s food deserts. Such deserts—where fresh produce is not easily available—cover almost two-thirds of Wilmington.

“We’re cultivating the culture of wellness,” says Jason Aviles, co-founder of the nonprofit, which is also working to provide positive influences, training and jobs for at-risk Wilmington teens.

Wilmington Green Box started with $850 from Buccini/Pollin Group, which was used to transform an icebox into a kiosk to sell wholesome products. Its first crowd-funding effort in 2018 generated $17,000, matched with $15,000 from Capital One. That funding and increasing sales allow it to pay its teen employees $9 to $10 an hour (an average of $225 a week) and to give Aviles a small, part-time salary.

What’s more, sales have led to plans for a year-round juice bar and vegan outlet, which Aviles—a vegan for seven years – expects to open this year at 400 N. Market St. The Green Box Kitchen  will sell “grab-and-go healthy goods,” such as cold-pressed juices, smoothies, grain and açaí bowls, ice pops, salads and produce. Until then, the juices can be ordered online at squareup.com/store/wilmingtongreenbox/ and can be picked up 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays at its outdoor kiosk, 420 N. Market. St. Of course, impromptu orders are taken at the kiosk as well.

The three juices (Sunrise, Sweet Beets and Incredible Hulk) feature one to two pounds of produce reduced to eight ounces of intensely flavored nutrition.

“No preservatives, concentrates, extra sugar or water,” says Aviles, who devoted a month or two to developing the recipes. “They’re approachable and taste good.” The juices cost $5 downtown and $4 from teens selling from bikes in needy neighborhoods.

Wilmington Green Box also hosts demonstrations and workshops. “Through access and education, people can connect the dots” that healthy eating is approachable and doesn’t cost a lot, Aviles says, echoing the nonprofit’s logo of a grid of 16 dots.

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