South Side Family Farms explores food justice through farming

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a man stands next to a high tunnel
Aaron Hopkins, of South Side Family Farms, stands outside a high tunnel at the farm’s rural site in Johnstown, Ohio, Aug. 18. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

JOHNSTOWN, Ohio — Aaron Hopkins, of Columbus, Ohio, dreams of opening his own nursery. He grew up with a garden, worked in landscaping for years, and has always loved growing flowers and ornamental trees.

In his community in the South Side neighborhood of Columbus, he noticed not many people had those things in their yards though. It comes down to economics — not everyone has the resources to buy ornamental plants. He hoped by starting his own nursery, he could also work in his community to help more of his neighbors start growing and planting their own gardens.

But as he worked in his community, initially through a community garden at Family Missionary Baptist Church, Hopkins realized the issue went a lot deeper than ornamental plants. Much of the South Side area is a food desert, he said, and a lot of people in his community don’t have access to fresh and affordable vegetables or fruits.

He still dreams about that nursery business, and wants to help his community plant more flowers and ornamentals. But he has shifted his focus to growing, and teaching youth to grow, fresh vegetables and fruits to help sustain their community.

“My eyes were opened to the injustices that are there,” Hopkins said. “I do want people to move past the barriers and to see that they have the potential … you can have your hands in the soil, or you can be a scientist, or you can understand marketing. You can be the one that’s going to help transport the produce to the market. You could haul grain.”

Farm

Hopkins started out with a gardening project in 2015 at Family Missionary Baptist Church, which he attends and serves as a minister, meant to teach youth some skills in gardening and fence building, and to help youth connect with seniors.

“There’s been a lot of economic challenges and social dysfunctions in our community. And so we started out teaching youth how to build these gardens,” he said.

After seeing the need for better food access in his community through that, Hopkins shifted his focus and started farming on city land bank properties on Wilson Avenue, in Columbus, in 2016.

“These gardens are not just producing food. They are producing better quality of life for the communities around them,” said Laura Quiceno, a master’s student in environmental and natural resources at Ohio State University and the farm manager for the gardens in Columbus.

The response from the community was positive, and it was clear that people wanted access to the fresh vegetables, Hopkins said. But on the land bank properties, they didn’t have the capacity to meet the need. So, they started looking for somewhere to grow more.

In 2019, Hopkins and his wife, Antoinette, connected with Ted Stutz at an Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association conference session about land access.

Stutz, of Ohio Earth Food, a company that sells organic farming supplies, had some space open at a property in Johnstown, Ohio, for a microfarm project. The land hadn’t been farmed in a few years, but was once certified organic, and has a barn for storage, a building with a walk in cooler and space for washing and packing produce.

It was “a dream come true,” Hopkins said. So they contracted with Stutz to use an acre of that property as well. Now they have two high tunnels and several outdoor plots of vegetables at that farm.

two high tunnels
High tunnels and gardens that South Side Family Farms grows in Johnstown, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Youth

This year, Hopkins has been teaching youth from the South Side area in Columbus about Black heritage farming, with support from a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant.

“We wanted them to understand this thing of sustainable agriculture,” Hopkins said. “We don’t really have good access to 4-H in our community, so we are disadvantaged in that way.”

Most of the young people in Hopkins’ community don’t know much about career opportunities in agriculture. Hopkins is teaching them about gardening and growing food, and about farming, agronomy and other agriculture related careers. He is also teaching them about Black farmers and agronomists like George Washington Carver, and the practices they used.

One of the original goals was for the youth to grow an acre of corn at the Johnstown property this summer. But after they got soil test results back, they realized that land needed some work before they would be able to grow corn there. So instead, the youth will be growing pumpkins and squash, and they will plant a cover crop on that acre of land this fall to help build up more organic matter.

“We are still going to grow that corn and market it; it just won’t be this year,” Hopkins said.

In the meantime, the youth in the program have learned about building raised beds, making soil amendments, the logistics of getting vegetables from a farm site to customers and sustainable agriculture practices.

“I think it’s a really good project for them to get a little bit exposed to the reality of food production,” Quiceno said.

Tomatoes growing in a high tunnel
Tomatoes growing in a high tunnel at South Side Family Farms in Johnstown, Ohio, Aug. 18. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Community

The food produced at the farm goes to a few different markets. Some of it goes to the FarmsSHARE program, which pays South Side Family Farms to distribute boxes of vegetables to community members for free.

“It’s a really beautiful project and just helps a lot of people,” Quiceno said.

The farm also sells its produce in CSA boxes, at farmers markets and at its own farm stand in Columbus. Anything it doesn’t sell is donated to local food pantries.

Sustainable agriculture, to Hopkins, isn’t just about specific practices, but also “understanding how these things can sustain your community.”

A man stands next to a washing station for produce
Tomatoes growing in a high tunnel at South Side Family Farms in Johnstown, Ohio, Aug. 18. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Justice

A lot of areas like the South Side community in Columbus struggle with food access, and with land access to even be able to grow their own food, he said.

“I don’t know how to say it … in a way that’s pleasant. When we talk about food deserts, sometimes those food deserts are by design,” Hopkins said.

Discriminatory practices like redlining have contributed to injustice in food systems, he added. Redlining involved denying mortgages and loans to Black Americans and other people of color in certain neighborhoods, which contributed to racial segregation.

Neighborhoods with higher populations of minorities were treated as riskier investments, and while the practice is now illegal, many of those neighborhoods still face disadvantages decades later. Often, Hopkins said, grocery stores are “on the other side of the red line.”

That’s why he wants to not only help communities get past those barriers to have better access to food, but also to help Black youth in particular learn about all of the opportunities available to them in agriculture, whether in farming, marketing, transportation or other sectors that work with agriculture. He wants them to know that agriculture can be a career, or even just a way for people to help support and feed their families.

“That is the heritage of African-American sustainable farming,” he said.

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