Originally published in Issue 13, April 2016
Duron Chavis, indoor urban farm director at Virginia State University, is helping citizens of Richmond and Petersburg, Va., have access to locally-grown produce year round.
When Duron Chavis started the Happily Natural Day festival in Richmond, Va., in 2003, he never imagined how this one day event would lead to his involvement with and promotion of urban agriculture.
“The festival focuses on holistic health, cultural awareness and social change,” said Chavis, who is indoor urban farm director at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Va. “During the festival I started meeting and working with black farmers from rural parts of the state. Some of the farmers told me that during the festival I should start talking about where food comes from and how it is related to health and wellness and the African-American community. We started offering programs that were directly related to the topics of food and farming.”
Duron said since the annual festival focuses on health and wellness, farmers attend and sell their fresh fruit and vegetables.
“For one program we talked about the environment and sustainable agriculture,” he said. “During a panel discussion some of the farmers said they didn’t have the time to bring their food into urban centers. They lacked the staffing and were spending so much of their time farming that they weren’t able to drive into the city to cultivate a rapport with customers. They said they needed a liaison, someone who could serve as a middleman for their efforts in the city.
“As a result of this discussion I started working with the farmers. I did a pop-up farmers market. I worked as the farmers market manager for a project called the Richmond Noir Market, which opened in 2010. That project gave me a one-on-one opportunity to work with the farmers. We would set up a market stand every Saturday and talk to people about producing their own food and the importance of being organic and not using pesticides.”
Getting involved with urban agriculture
In 2012 Chavis decided it was time to fully commit to working on an urban agriculture project.
“The lease on my apartment in Richmond was up and I needed to move so I made a conscious effort to move into a neighborhood that had a vacant lot on the street,” he said. “This was around the time that Occupy Wall St. was going on and a lot of people wanted to be involved with their communities. I gathered together people who were interested in community organization and told them that we should start a community garden. I said let’s start an urban ag project in the middle of the city to address some of the food access issues people were facing. There were about 20 people involved with the project.”
The first garden was about 3,000 square feet in which the community volunteers built 20 4- by 6-foot raised beds.
“I was able to get funding from different sources to support the project,” Chavis said. “I was out in the garden every weekend working with community members on different production practices and how to steward the garden.”
Looking to expand his involvement with urban ag further, Chavis began working with John Lewis, who had started a program called Renew Richmond in 2009. Lewis is a certified prevention specialist/health education specialist with the Virginia Health Department, Division of Adolescent Health.
“We started working together on an urban farm,” Chavis said. “John had about an acre of land in the middle of city. We have expanded so that we now have a total of six urban ag sites, an urban farm which includes high tunnels, two school gardens and community gardens.”
The produce grown on the urban farm is sold to local grocery stores, restaurants and to people in the community.
“We have a modified version of community supported agriculture,” Chavis said. “We offer delivery of veggie boxes to those people who cannot go to the pop-up farmers markets. All of the community gardens and farm are in the Richmond city limits.”
Converting a YMCA into an indoor farm
Because of the urban ag projects Chavis was doing in Richmond, he attracted the attention of Virginia State University and extension specialist Dr. Marcus Comer, who was working on an indoor farm project in Petersburg.
“I talked to him about my philosophy on entrepreneurial urban ag and the impact it had on the economy of the low income community,” Chavis said. “We started working on this indoor farm in 2014.”
The Harding St. Urban Agriculture Center is a former YMCA recreational center located in a residential neighborhood.
“The building is around 100 years old,” Chavis said. “Prior to becoming a YMCA, it was a performance hall that featured black entertainers like James Brown, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin who weren’t able to perform at white venues.
“We removed the basketball floor and installed vertical towers, aeroponic tables, an aquaponics system and an ebb-and-flow system. We set up lighting rigs to hang lights from. We installed solar panels on the roof to power the lights inside the facility. We are installing modular climate control units for the different types of growing systems to control the light intensity, temperature and humidity. There is also a kitchen that we are renovating to turn into a culinary arts classroom.”
Chavis said some Richmond high school students are involved with a six-week program called Growing Up, which teaches students about culinary arts and urban agriculture. He said once the urban ag center’s kitchen is finished, high school students in Petersburg will have an opportunity to participate in the program. Students who graduate from the program will then become mentors for the next incoming class.
“On the second floor of the ag center are rooms where we are planning to teach health and fitness classes,” Chavis said. “We will also be teaching urban agriculture and entrepreneurship.
“Another piece of equipment we have installed is a 10- by 12-foot walk-in cooler. We are not only running an indoor farm, but we have become an aggregator of produce. Local farmers bring in their fresh produce for sale and distribution. What we grow at our urban farm in Richmond, which is about 30 miles away, is brought to Petersburg and then is shipped out to wherever it needs to go.”
Outside of the urban ag center is a micro-farm consisting of 4,000-5,000 square feet of raised beds along with an orchard with about 32 trees on another vacant lot.
“What we can’t grow in the indoor farm in the building we can grow outside,” Chavis said. “With the urban farm in Richmond and the facilities here in Petersburg we are able to grow year round.”
Crops that have been grown inside the urban ag center include kale, mustard greens, basil, lettuce, Swiss chard, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, and watercress.
“Our focus is on growing what the people actually want to buy,” Chavis said. “For the local community there is a staple group of products that we are going to grow, including tomatoes, cabbage, peppers, collards, squash and cucumbers. We have to grow accordingly for what most of our clientele is interested in buying.
“All of the food that is grown is sold. We are a research center, but part of the research is economic sustainability. Our focus is community engagement and teaching the community so that they can do these things for themselves. Our effort is a balance. Our goal is to increase the number of end users that want to purchase the produce we are producing.”
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.