Greater Newark Conservancy providing produce

AFP Correspondent

NEWARK (July 15, 2016) — The façade of the Kroeger-Scott mansion presents a face of over-the-top elegance to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the old High Street, in Newark.
Behind the old beer-baron’s showplace, now vacant, is a sight even more incongruous for downtown in the largest city in New Jersey.
On an acre of land, sunflowers tower, raspberries flourish and chickens attempt to escape a tiny henhouse.
The property is a city-owned garden managed by Justin Allen, director of urban agriculture for the greater Newark conservancy.
The Conservancy is a non-profit with the goal of promoting environmental stewardship as a means to improving the quality of life in New Jersey’s urban areas. Newark certainly qualifies as urban, but the Conservancy provides pockets of green. Besides the Court Street Garden behind the Kroeger-Scott house, the Conservancy subleases 2 ½ acres that the city leases from the state. Originally slated for a new high school, the property remained vacant until Allen and his group got started. It is across the street from the Hawthorne Avenue Elementary School and the fourth graders named it the Hawthorne Hawks Healthy Harvest Farm.
The bigger farm features 200 4 x 8 foot raised beds which are leased by residents for $10 a year.
“We give them $20 in seeds,” Allen said. The property is irrigated from one access point.
Director of development for the Conservancy Brian Morrell is seeking a grant to bring water to the Court Street site as well.
Produce from Court Street and the portions of Hawthorne not rented as a community garden goes to a number of youth-run farm stands around the city.
High school students work in six summer programs at the Conservancy. Besides the youth farm stands and the urban farms, they can work in community greening, nutrition and environmental education, horticulture, tree farming and office/ media. In addition to summer work, the youth also receive year-round training and mentors. According to the Conservancy website, the youth programs are designed to help teens with interpersonal, leadership and communication schools with a goal of preparing them for college.
‘Kids love to garden,” Morrell said. “We offer a safe environment and a positive learning experience. Most of our kids don’t come from intact families. We take them to colleges, show them opportunities. And we have kids come back and say we changed their lives.”
Teaching youth specific skills is an important goal of urban farming, but there are many others.
These small plots in the city are one of the few chances for Newark residents to have access to fresh produce, Morrell said. There is a large, new supermarket in the city and many tiny bodegas, but not the same access to fruits and vegetables as in rural and suburban areas.
“We have gardening workshops,” Allen said, “but most of our older gardeners have an agrarian background and they share their knowledge with less experienced gardener and they share plants. This is a very social experience.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the older gardeners, are the elementary school children who come to the farm plots on field trips. “Some of these kids haven’t a clue where vegetables come from,” Morrell said.
Pupils from Hawrthorne School work in the garden as do special needs students from JFK School. “Kids will eat what they grow,” Morrell pointed out.
The Conservancy brings “lunch and learn” programs into several schools and is in the process of opening a teaching kitchen at its Prince Street headquarters.
Besides the young people who work the gardens, there are two full-time urban farmers. Darius Johnson came to the Conservancy from an “at risk” neighborhood in Irvington. He worked with 4-Hers and learned about farming and made it his profession, for now. He said whatever he does in the future, it will have to do with the environment.
Susan Horowitz is a volunteer who lives in senior housing in Newark. She is knowledgeable about crops and gardening and spends countless hours tending the plants.
Corporate volunteers also help, Allen said. Prudential sends many employees since the Conservancy is in its backyard. They also come from Horizon and PSE&G as well as other companies. PSE&G employees planted sunflowers to harvest and sell the seeds, Morrell said. Those flowers tower over a section of the Hawthorne garden. Other sunflowers on Court Street seem in danger of taking over.
Because help is not available every day, Allen stays away from crops like green beans and okra that take a great deal of time to harvest. Among the crops that are prolific are garlic, squash, many varieties of peppers, beets, greens and herbs. There are tomato plants, but Allen pointed out tomatoes can’t be harvested by amateurs. Sweet potatoes are a major crop.
One section of the Hawthorne plot is planted in fruit trees: cherry, pear, several varieties of apples and peaches, apricots.
Wildflowers decorate the fencerows, including the American passion flower which can be made into a tea. Benches made by the Clean and Green program for ex-offenders provide a respite for the gardeners. Allen said a current project is the construction of a pergola to be used for a community meeting area to formalize what the gardeners are doing already.
There are ornamental gardens at Prince Street, arranged in “rooms” with different themes. There are also bees, which aren’t allowed under the “no livestock” rule on the Hawthorne plot. Since the state still owns the land, a number of restrictions apply, Allen said. However, he will bring bees back to the Court Street site. The last hives didn’t overwinter well during the harsh winter of 2014-15.
Court Street also has a half-dozen chickens, although they tend to disappear. Where rural farmers have to worry about foxes and coyotes, Newark chickens fall victim to 2-legged predators, Allen said. They are all laying hens and the eggs are sold at the farm stands.
“We’re the best kept secret in Newark,” Morrell said, noting a greening/gardening program started in 1987 as an outgrowth of Rutgers Cooperative Extension. The Conservancy, housed in a former synagogue and office building, is constantly expanding its mission to bring a little green to the city.