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Dreaming of a Place: Strength to Love II Farm

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“My elder used to say, ‘Son, you can’t wish for anything in a place,’” says Bryan “Ibrafall” Wright. He recalls this as we sit under a high tunnel greenhouse in Sandtown-Winchester, here in the middle of the city, surrounded by greenery, by sunflowers in full bloom, by fish peppers and purple hull peas, black-eyed peas, and trees.

The urban farming movement in Baltimore is far greater than a willed wish. It is the direct manifestation of hard work, of tough and calloused hands reaching into the soil, weeding the dry beds, and tending to the crevices of the earth. It is the direct emulsification between skin and dirt, in service of a higher mission to cultivate and groom a more tender and kinder world.

“I want to show Black folks that you don’t need your 40 acres to feed yourself,” Wright explains. “You don’t need all of this land to make money. I’m showing people that in this little space, you can grow and farm intensively and you can [yield] an overabundance of produce.”

Wright is the farm manager and program director of the Strength to Love II Farm (STL2), a community-based program in West Baltimore that offers workforce development and employment opportunities to citizens returning from incarceration. The one-and-a-half acre farm houses fourteen high tunnels that stand 25 by 120 feet long and yields produce yearlong through a community-supported agriculture model that reaches hundreds of families and restaurants throughout the city.

The five-person team employs a number of biodynamic farming practices that ensures that the land produces generously. “I grow very intensively by making sure that there’s always an overabundance of nutrients in the soil.” Wright explains. That is, if the soil is good, things will be alright. Dubbing himself a plant psychologist, Wright employs a number of tactics to remind the plants of their potentiality. He doesn’t honor spatial dimensions, which is to say a plant will grow where it can grow, and he oftentimes will skip watering altogether.

“I’d like to say plants are like people,” he explains: without stress, they won’t grow. “I’ll go a few days without water and what happens? The plants will want to find water. So what do they do now? They expand their root systems and as they expand their root systems they get more nutrients, nutrients that have just been sitting there that they haven’t tapped into.”

The farm rests on one simple notion: wherever the people are is where the food should be. It is an idea that has failed in many parts of Baltimore. A report published by Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative revealed that about a quarter of city residents live in food deserts “with limited access to healthy foods.” In Baltimore City, 34 percent of African Americans and 30 percent of school-aged children live in areas without access to grocery stores and fresh produce.

Jade Hall, assistant farm manager
“If we create an environment that is suitable and conducive for plants to grow—they’re going to grow.”
Bryan “Ibrafall” Wright

Urban farms answer a long-awaited call by city residents for better sustenance, care, and nourishment. The city has failed its residents, but the residents refuse to fail one another. The Farm Alliance of Baltimore, a membership organization of urban farms, has sixteen farms on its roster—these are farms individually producing more than $2,000 worth of produce a year.

These include the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, Park Heights Urban Garden, Baltimore Free Farm, and of course, Strength to Love II. The Alliance reports that there are more than 80 community gardens throughout the city. Located in majority Black and brown neighborhoods without access to adequate public transit and grocery stores, farms and community gardens donate to local pantries, accept EBT, and teach residents how to grow their own food.

John Kidwell, farm staff

“All situations are conducive for life, but all life isn’t conducive for life. I don’t look at this work as an act of preservation,” Wright explains. “I’m looking at it as a reintroduction.” He smiles and paraphrases Billie Holiday, “God bless a child who has his own. God has blessed a child that has had his own.”

In a time where activism is fueled by misdirected leaders seeking to reimagine or recreate the world, farms, and better yet Black farmers, are reminding communities of what once was and what lies just below the surface. In this way, the Strength to Love II Farm is a work of art—an insistence on the beauty found in the mundane. It was, after all, built atop dilapidated and destroyed row homes, denigrated land that through labor, through hands tilling the soil, nourished a full bloom.

Entering the farm, which is intentionally unfenced to ensure that anyone can access it, you are immediately immersed in fields of green. Slowly, you notice pockets of chartreuse from the flowers, slivers of red from peppers and beets, sage from collards and kale. You enter a world that is wholly not your own and yet very much home. On some days, you’ll find a group of elderly women sitting in their cars, tenderly admiring the world around them. It reminds them of South Carolina, they explain, of how they lived when they were younger and how they had forgotten how it all felt until this very moment here.

“When I first got there, things just didn’t look great at the farm,” explains Denzel Mitchell Jr., the former farm manager of STL2 and the current deputy director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore. “I wanted to turn the farm around and turn it into a place that people, especially people who lived in the neighborhood, would be proud to have in their neighborhood.”

Strength to Love II Farm

Mitchell is credited by current and past members of STL2 with creating and fostering a space that has transformed the city. “I mean, he is Baltimore,” says Steven Kenny, Chef de Cuisine at Woodberry Kitchen, which has cultivated a longstanding relationship sourcing produce from the farm. Mitchell’s service, as passed down to Wright and as carried on by the team, is cemented in the belief in, and hope for, a better way of living.

“People call it reimagining, I don’t care what you call it but we’re at a point where we’re trying to collect ourselves,” says Wright. Much of that work begins and ends with the soil, which in many ways has served as a metaphor. “I’m doing what other brothers and sisters like Denzel and those around the nation and around the world are doing, cultivating the soil. I don’t farm to grow plants, I farm to grow soil because as long as the soil is there, the genetic structure and the urge of survival and reproduction is innate in the plants. If we create and we build what we stand on—if we create an environment that is suitable and conducive for plants to grow—they’re going to grow. I already did the hard work, now it’s just time to grow.”

And grow they have. Strength to Love II bolsters an impressive roster of produce year-round. Collards, squash, and kale are amongst the produce being sent far and wide throughout the city to restaurants including Black Sauce Kitchen, Woodberry Kitchen, and Larder. As a result, an ecosystem of creatives and artists in service to their community and one another continues to bloom.

Helena del Pesco, owner of the farm-to-table restaurant Larder, is keen to point this out. “I think people who have the impulse to create can be satisfied by picking up a pencil or a paintbrush and making it an image on a piece of paper where there was nothing before,” she says. “And maybe there’s something about preparing soil and planting a seed and watering it and watching it grow, that fulfills a similar kind of desire to create, attend and nurture.”

This dedication and attentiveness to nourishment guides Strength to Love II and will continue to guide both the land and its caretakers. “Our ancestors built our nation from the soil,” says Wright. And so the work continues.

Header Image: Jade Hall, assistant farm manager

This story is from Issue 12: More is More, available here.

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