COLUMBUS — For Ava Johnson, farming is all about seeing things grow. She enjoys the time outside in her gardens, watching her crops go from seeds, to seedlings, to vegetables. And one of her favorite things is introducing customers to new vegetables that they haven’t tried before.
At Southeast Gardens and Urban Farm, in mid-October, Johnson was wrapping up planting some cool-season crops and removing crops that were at the end of their seasons for the year. She’s focused on building a good foundation of agricultural practices and markets that she can expand on in the future. She’s also working on building up her community by keeping her produce local and getting more involved in education.
“To me, [sustainable agriculture is] a foundation of good agricultural, organic, ecologically-friendly practices that we will build upon and use year after year,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s grandmothers on both sides of the family were farmers, growing much of their own food, so she grew up around agriculture. Johnson works in business management, which she thinks goes well with farming.
“Having a farm … it’s just like being a project manager,” she said. She’s also learned more about farming through programs like Heartland Farm Beginnings and from other local farmers.
The farm originally started out as a community garden, about six years ago, focusing on teaching people how to eat healthy foods and maintain a healthy lifestyle. After a few years, she decided to go the nonprofit route, and got nonprofit status for the farm last year, but continues to lease the same land from the church.
When she started the garden on a plot of land owned by Gethsemane United Methodist Church, it was all grass, and took a lot of work to turn into rows of raised beds and a few in-ground plots.
She chose to use mainly raised beds because they’re easier on her knees, and allow her to avoid having to work around rocky ground. But as she adds on to the farm, she’s planning to grow more directly in the ground. Both methods have their benefits, she explained, and growing in-ground might allow her to get higher yields of some crops.
This year, Johnson has been trying a couple different ways of managing aphids and white moth butterflies in her garden, with the support of a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant.
White moth butterflies, in particular, have been a common pest and enjoy eating okra, cabbage and collard greens. Those vegetables are a common staple for African American communities, Johnson said.
Johnson is testing neem oil and bacillus thuringiensis, both organic pesticides, to see if she can find a way to effectively manage the pests. She’s also found having healthier soils helps her gardens deal with pests, since that makes them more resilient. She plans to keep doing more soil testing and use practices like no till to try to keep the soil in her gardens healthy.
While the farm is no longer a community garden, Johnson is still focused on giving back to her community. That’s partly why she grows things like greens that are both healthy and popular with African American communities.
“I want to become the greens queen,” she said. “That’s my goal.”
Education is not her strong suit, Johnson said — she tends to be more introverted, especially if she’s not sure she has enough expertise to teach something — but she’s done some informal classes for children from the church, and has been invited to lead some classes for a Headstart program at a nearby charter school.
That’s something she wants to expand on. She sees a need for it in the community, and she thinks it’s something people would be interested in.
“I would love to have more education in our community,” she said. “[People will] come by and stare, but … they don’t ask questions. So I have to do some outreach, to get them involved.”
The crops Johnson grows go to direct sales through her website, to her family and friends or to farmers markets, a nearby food pantry and wholesale to other farmers who sometimes need to supplement what they have available at farmers markets.
Down the road, she’s hoping to expand her markets. There’s a market down the street from her farm that she would love to sell to eventually, once she can package her crops for other types of markets.
She’s building up more customers through a CSA, and plans to help her customers and people in the community learn more about how to cook some of the crops she grows. Even in the last year, she’s learned more ways to cook things like kale and collard greens that have helped her eat more healthy food.
She also has another 6,000-square-foot site lined up to start farming next year, in addition to the 2,000 square feet at the church.
One of her other goals is to help ensure that people in her community have access to healthy, affordable food. There are health disparities in the rates of chronic diseases for Black communities, and a lot of that is tied to food, Johnson said. It’s important to her to make sure that local policies and ordinances support food production and access.
“Food justice is access,” she said. “Because if I don’t have the proper food, I don’t have the quality of life.”
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