Farm Where You Live, Even in the City: CRAFT United Piedmont at Raleigh City Farm

CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) United Piedmont is a farmer-to-farmer collaborative learning project  where farmers and apprentices can learn from each other and build a stronger farming community. This program  is supported and facilitated by Inter-Faith Food Shuttle  under a USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program grant.  A year and a half ago, a vacant lot lay at the corner of N Blount St. and Franklin in downtown Raleigh. Now, Raleigh City Farm has transformed the piece of land into what they call a “Community Supported Farm,” and the area is seeing some economic revitalization happening around it. The once vacant shopping center next door is filling up, with Yellow Dog Bakery now open, and Wine Authority, Person Neighborhood Bar, and a barber shop in the works, as well as a restaurant and grocery store space.

On Sunday, November 11th, the Collaborative Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT), United Piedmont gathered at the farm to learn about their model:  Agriculture with an urban strategy, production emphasis, community mission, and restaurant support. Many of the attendees at this last CRAFT tour of the season had interests in urban agriculture, community gardening, and even the intersection of sustainable agriculture and public health. The group included students from NC State, community members, and apprentices on area farms. Leading the tour were the farm’s CEO, Chris Rumbley, and the farm’s General Manager, Ryan Finch. Before getting involved with Raleigh City Farm, Chris went from studying psychology to doing community development work to studying permaculture. He founded Naked Fruits, a landscapes & design practice that applies permaculture principles to create beautiful and productive outdoor environments, including child-centered and nature-based playscapes. Ryan Finch went from working in the mental health field to attaining an MBA with a focus on sustainability. It’s clear that both of them care greatly about how people interact with the farm and with food production in general, and want Raleigh City Farm to be a positive space where relationships among community and with farming can develop.

Part of the farm’s mission is to make food production more visible, and they also believe that the more folks are involved with local food production, they more likely they are to buy and eat fresh, local produce. It has been one of their priorities to ensure that neighbors know what is happening at the farm and are supportive of it. Before even signing the lease on the land, they held a couple of design charettes to create the vision for the farm, and invited neighbors to attend. They now regularly utilize the Mordecai and Oak City neighborhood listserves to keep the community informed as well. With a Kickstarter campaign, Raleigh City Farm broke ground in March 2012, and in the “barn-raising” tradition, the farm has been mostly volunteer run since, hosting over 1300 volunteers in the past year. They launched with a “Dig Where You Live” initiative, an effort to get volunteers and residents to come out and help start the farm. Ryan says they can find a way for any given person to use their own skill set on the farm. Volunteer and community elder Elvin Birth was out working during the tour turns the farm’s compost, which he decided to do for his health instead of walking as a more exciting alternative form of exercise. The rotating compost bin system he designed and built will soon include not just farm waste, but waste from local restaurants as well! They currently grow on 1/3 of the one-acre lot, using urban small-plot-intensive (SPIN) farming – with very human scale, walkable beds created through a modified hugelkultur method. Instead of digging a trench and filling it with logs and other forms of carbon, they build above ground, layering materials. First, they lay down cardboard to suppress Bermuda grass and other weeds. Then, in succession, they add: woodchips, leaf mulch, a nitrogen source like feather meal, woody compost, and finally a finer, sifted compost to plant seeds in directly.

Raleigh City Farm sells upwards of $700 worth of produce a week to local restaurants, including Capitol Club 16, Busy Bee, Pie Birds, and the new Yellow Dog Bakery, located literally steps away.  They want to make it easier for restaurants to purchase locally, so they grow primarily produce that can be used in restaurants and has the advantage of freshness and locality for perishable items like greens and blossoms. They also sell through on-site farm stands in the summer and fall.  However, Raleigh City Farm doesn’t sell everything they grow. Some of it they donate to hunger-relief through Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Plant a Row for the Hungry program, and they also give some of to a nearby senior center.

A recent addition, a mini-retail prototype from  The Farmery

They are now starting a “Grow Where You Live” initiative, accepting proposals for synergistic projects from new and beginning farmers. The farm entrepreneurs will co-locate on site to share the benefits of visibility, infrastructure, co-working and co- marketing. Raleigh City Farm wants to grow a supportive entrepreneurial culture and thriving markets around these farm enterprises, and encourage a wide range of different types projects, including aquaponics, hydroponics, hoophouses, bees, vermicomposting, and mushroom production. Eventually, they plan to have 80% of the farm leased out to farm entrepreneurs, while retaining 20% of the land and growing space for the community. Then they hope to move into other neighborhoods and do the same thing. Why focus on new farm entrepreneurs? The average age of a farmer is Wake County in 72, and we’re losing farmers faster than we are gaining them. At the same time, more people are living in cities than ever before. Raleigh City Farm aims to be part of the solution as to how we feed a large urban population sustainably.  They envision a Local Food/Urban Food Innovation Corridor, stretching along Blount/Person St. from their site at the north end to Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Urban Agriculture gardens and Hoke Street Training Center at the south end, and all the market and opportunities for innovation around local food in between. The farm’s location, a spot where 15,000 people pass by each day, also lends itself to establishing partnerships for innovation.  Parkview Manor, a senior living center located within walking distance, allows the farm staff to hold meetings there and has also donated some refrigerator space for their use, since the farm lacks a building of their own. Peace University has loaned the farm tools, and even offered to mow their grass. Oak City Cycling, just up the street, donates old cardboard that the farm uses to suppress weeds beneath beds that they build, and they actually made some smaller deliveries by bike this year as well. What else is growing at Raleigh City farm?

  • A “Barley to Pumpkin Patch,” where they experimented with growing barley this summer through a partnership with Farm Boy Farms. When it was ready to harvest, they partnered with Trophy Brewing Co.  in a “Brew Where You Live” farm-to-table dinner event, and the brewery created a hyper-local “All-Downtown Beer” with the barley. The beer was then sold on tap as a fundraiser for Raleigh City Farm. The patch then transitioned to buckwheat and now is growing pumpkins!
  • An experiential learning garden that 7th-graders from Exploris Middle School manage. They walk to Raleigh City Farm every Friday, and the gardening is incorporated into their interdisciplinary curriculum
  • Community garden beds
  • A 5,000 gallon rainwater cistern that they built through the City of Raleigh’s Stormwater Quality Costshare program. They use this water, harvested from the roof of the building next door, to feed their drip irrigation and overhead watering on the farm. Overflow will soon go into rain gardens as well.
  • An inter-generational gardening project with elevated raised beds to make gardening accessible to neighbors with functional limitations, like many of the seniors who live within walking distance
  • A vertical garden with gourds, blackberries, morning glories, and grapes acting also as a buffer between the road and the farm
  • A perennial food forest
  • Plans for storage with reused pallets, and a wash area for produce.

Many thanks to all who have attended CRAFT events this season, and to all the farms who have hosted tours! We look forward to another productive season beginning next Spring, so stay tuned for news! If you’d like to be involved in the planning, we’ll have a meeting in January. Sign up for the CRAFT United Piedmont list-serve to stay in the know!