Harvesting the future in Warren


Bleu Grijalva and Emily Jodka, Warren's newest entrepreneurs, believe farming has the power to cure the world's ills.

It can bring people out of poverty, raise confidence and lift spirits, usher in health, give people pride in their surroundings and bring communities together.

They hope that will be the case in Warren.

Last Tuesday night, the Warren Town Council voted unanimously to lease the founders of New Urban Farmers two acres of land at the Warren Farms and Community Gardens.

The farmers — he lives in Barrington, she in Pawtucket — will lease the land behind Paul Court for $500 per acre per year for the next decade, and have big plans for the partially shaded, wet spot.

In a prospectus to the town council, they said they plan to use the land to grow and harvest shitake and oyster mushrooms, produce several varieties of berries and establish an orchard with apple, quince and persimmon, among other crops. But that's just the beginning: Part farm, part classroom and part town hall, they hope the plot will help bring Warren together, as other plots they till in Pawtucket and Seekonk have done.

It's the first foray into the East Bay for the New Urban Farmers, which the two founded in urban Pawtucket four years ago. It's also the first time a municipality in Rhode Island has leased public land to private, commercial farmers.

"We're grateful to be so well received," said Mr. Grijalva, who next week will become a member of the Barrington Land Trust.

"Farming is hard work; it tests your spirit and your longevity. I'm just proud that we're able to do it."

The organization was founded not just as a way to sell produce, but as an empowerment tool. The Farmers' first garden, which they continue to tend, sits on former project land in the middle of a depressed urban neighborhood in Pawtucket. There's a McDonalds across the street, and many of the farm's neighbors are on food stamps and other assistance. Childhood obesity is common.

It's a perfect spot for the plot, which grows dozens of different varieties of produce. There, neighbors can use assistance money to buy fresh produce and also volunteer at the plot, learning about responsible food production, the value of composting and science. School groups from Central Falls, Woonsocket, Pawtucket and other urban areas are regular visitors, and the Urban Farmers love spreading the gospel of dirt.

"Today, there are fewer and fewer farmers responsible for more food," said Ms. Jodka. "I'd like to see that number change. The goal is too bring the farm back, that family farm, make possible career again. I think we're leaning toward it.

"It's not some Utopian pipe dream," added Mr. Grijalva, whose grandparents were migrant farmers in California.

Mr. Grijalva and Ms. Jodka met through Craigslist, and at the perfect time for a community-based farming program to take off. The country was just entering a deep recession and as a result, "people were re-prioritizing" what was important in their life, and simplifying, Mr. Grijalva said.

Though the economy is on a slight rebound, the lessons learned in the economy's darkest days are sticking with people.

"People want to be more self-sufficient," and they want to live in communities, not just towns.

Mr. Grijalva thinks the Warren plot will play right into that ideal, as those behind the town's community gardens have worked hard to foster a sense of community in town by offering plots of land and teaching Warren residents how to grow.

He and Ms. Jodka plan to bring Bristol Warren school groups to the land to teach them about organic farming, composting, growing and other skills. And they hope they open a few eyes along the way.

"Our slogan sums it up," he said. "The community that grows together, grows together."


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