How Vacant Lots in Charleston Are Transforming Into a School for Farmer-Entrepreneurs
On a sultry summer evening, three women are killing harlequin beetles in an effort to save the greens at the SAGE micro-farm on Rebecca Street that they landscaped themselves.
Last year, Kathy Moore, Jenny Totten and Meg Reishman completed 18 agriculture and business classes through SAGE, which stands for Sustainable Agricultural Entrepreneurs. Kathy says she loves getting to take home an unlimited supply of fresh vegetables each week.
“Oh my goodness, the green zebra tomatoes were absolutely my favorite. They are just absolutely luscious!” says Kathy, who works a day job, like most of the other growers, outside the SAGE micro-farm. She and the other SAGE growers also earn a few hundred dollars apiece at the end of the year based on the group’s produce sales.
The food is grown on Charleston's West Side, in a high-crime area with many vacant lots. Over the past two years, the SAGE program has transformed two of these lots into working micro-farms.
New this year is the Rebecca St. garden, with its unusual swirling starburst shape. At the center of the beds of squash, kale and tomatoes is a bright circle of sunflowers, zinnias, basil and cilantro. Kathy is surprised that the garden's design has been so successful.
“I had no idea that it would be so inviting. So, yeah. It's a really nice design, and people are excited just to come and look at it.”
The SAGE program teaches growers like Meg Reischman how to make a business plan and how to choose the most profitable types of produce.
“I was having a difficult time sitting down and figuring out what my break even price was, and whether it was worth growing it or not, making a plan," Meg says.
Many of the students struggle with these questions, says SAGE instructor Dr. Dee Sing-Knights, Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics with West Virginia University’s extension services. She teaches the SAGE growers how to manage small businesses and how to market their produce. She tells the growers to make sure the public knows that SAGE’s organic produce might cost a little more than supermarket vegetables, which often come from larger, more mechanized farms.
“I always tell them, you have to tell your customers that listen, the reason this costs more is I squashed my bugs by hand!” says Dr. Singh-Knights. The SAGE growers are also learning to educate more potential customers about the value of spending money inside the community, versus sending the money out of state by buying food at a chain store.
Even if the 18 SAGE graduates never become full time farmers, this morning for breakfast they are probably all making food using at least one ingredient they grew themselves.
This year, the group has seen an increase in the sales of produce and flowers at their local Saturday markets, as more customers are enjoying the fruits of their labor, too.