Livingstone plans to restore urban garden off Brenner Avenue

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it wasn’t uncommon for historically black colleges and universities to operate farms, and Livingstone College was no exception.
Yet as the years passed and the agriculture industry began dwindling, the farm at Livingstone eventually stopped being maintained.
But that’s about to change.
In a historic endeavor that includes the SEED Foundation, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the city of Salisbury, the N.C. Agriculture Commission and other businesses and organizations, Livingstone College is bringing back its farm. Or, as Livingstone President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins Sr. said Monday morning, “The college is going back to the future.”
In near-freezing temperatures on Monday, Jenkins and others gathered at the corner of Brenner Avenue and Standish Street to announce plans to revitalize the farm that has been dormant for decades. It’s all part of the urban agriculture movement sweeping the nation and is designed to help invigorate the city’s West End neighborhood.
What’s more, the farm will complement the college’s new Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts Program and, with its organic vegetables and fruits, tie in with the health and wellness component of the holistic college Jenkins implemented at Livingstone when he assumed the top administrative post in February 2006.
“I’m so excited, as the twelfth president of Livingstone College, to share with you what I think will be historic,” Jenkins said. “This is a transformation, a paradigm shift in the way we do business at Livingstone.
“In the contracts our students sign we discuss health and wellness, and we’ve decided to focus on obesity because it’s a genetic problem that’s felt disproportionately in the African-American community, just like diabetes, hypertension and other illnesses.
“Livingstone used to have a farm and the students used to work on the farm and they ate food in the cafeteria that was from the farm,” Jenkins continued, dressed in overalls. “Today we’re going to be joined with the SEED Foundation and others to bring this farm back to life. We’re going to clear this land, and you’re going to see a farm spring up. … You’re witnessing history.”
The collaboration announced Monday was initially explored by Jenkins, his executive assistant and the college’s director of public relations, State W. Alexander, and Vivian Ray, a hospitality industry veteran and director of Livingstone’s Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts program.
Once school officials conceptualized what they wanted the project to entail and how it should be managed, they began having conversations with other area organizations and people they thought might have a vested interest in the project and want to be a part of it.
Jon Barber, founder and chairman of the SEED Foundation, and the Rev. Candis Burgess of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church joined the discussion and agreed to partner with Livingstone and others soon followed.
On Monday, several groups and organizations were on hand to support Livingstone’s farm.
“You’ve done such a great job here with this college and transforming it,” Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson told Jenkins while addressing the crowd. “Two years ago we started trying to work on the West End transformation project, and we hope this whole area is going to be so much nicer in the next few years. I think this farm is wonderful for our city and for our state.”
Dr. Richard C. Reich, assistant commissioner of agriculture, said the SEED Foundation and the state agriculture department have a “shared interest in farm stewardship, food security, access to locally grown produce and support of our communities.”
Reich cited several statistics about the state’s largest industry, saying agriculture contributes about $77 billion to the economy, provides 642,000 jobs and accounts for 17.5 percent of the state’s income.
“Even though North Carolina is a strong agricultural state, loss of farmland is an issue as our state’s population continues to grow and people need more places to live and shop,” Reich said. “Urbanization has placed great development pressure on farms. It used to be that a farm fed a family, with little extra to sell, but today the average farm feeds 155 people.”
Reich commended everyone involved, cautioned that the project will require hard work and pledged “technical and other support that might be of assistance.”
Barber, who helped organize Monday’s press conference, began by thanking Jenkins, Alexander and Ray “for their wonderful support in giving us direction on how to work with Livingstone.”
A Rowan County commissioner, Barber said when discussions began he was surprised when Jenkins told him the college owned 40 acres that could be farmed.
“Urban agriculture is probably one of the most important movements of our time,” Barber said. “The city of Shanghai, China’s largest city, produces 90 percent of all of the eggs produced in that city and 60 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables. This farm is going to be a big contribution to the West End Transformation Plan, a rock-solid plan, and I’m very proud to help Livingstone College restart the farm.”
Barber thanked many individuals and organizations for their support, including Novant Health, Tractor Supply, James River Equipment, Distinctive Nature Scapes, Cloninger Ford, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, Community Care Clinic, Salisbury Rowan Economic Development Commission and Rowan County Extension.
“Dr. Jenkins, I congratulate you, and you will have our support,” Barber said in closing before giving commemorative plates from the SEED Foundation to Jenkins, Woodson and Reich.
Rowan County Extension Director Darrell Blackwelder attended the press conference and said in an interview the possibilities are endless for the farm and what it could mean to Rowan County.
“At Extension, we have the ability to do demonstration plots, meaning we put out different types of planting that aren’t for consumption as much as they are for study,” Blackwelder said. “That would be one thing that we’d want to do, and maybe we’d even partner with the school system and put them out at different places and have the students at Livingstone study those.
“The great thing about Rowan County is we’re classified as an urban county, yet we have a $50 million-plus agriculture income and a long history of being an agricultural county, so what I envision is that we take the best of both worlds and marry them together.”