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Grants sustain urban farming at St. Joseph Center

Former orphanage launches program to teach urban farmers

Published: September 21, 2023   
Katie Zakrzewski
Guests peruse goods for sale at St. Joseph Center in North Little Rock during the eighth annual Lettuce Grow fundraiser, an outdoor festival held Sept. 15 supporting the preservation and restoration of the center’s historic property.

St. Joseph Center of Arkansas in North Little Rock has worn many hats over the years. But its most recent programming push is designed to educate urban farmers to become self-sufficient. 

The program, called SJ Growing Urban Farmers, has already helped three aspiring farmers start an agriculture-based business, despite not even officially launching yet. 

St. Joseph Center executive director Sandy DeCoursey said St. Joseph Center received two grants from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service to lay the groundwork for the program. 

The first six-figure grant in 2017 was used over a three-year period to construct urban high tunnels, or low-cost urban greenhouses. The second six-figure grant in 2020 was used over a three-year period to build infrastructure for the project. Additionally, St. Joseph Center has also received a five-figure local food access grant from the Arkansas Community Foundation to be used over a two year period. 

“You learn really quickly in grant businesses that you have to cobble things together, because you can’t get it all in one place usually,” DeCoursey said. 

Currently, St. Joseph Center is using leftover grant money to hire a program manager, an urban farm manager and an education coordinator. The program is designed to help people interested in agriculture who aren’t certain where to begin. Growing Urban Farmers will target small, urban agricultural producers and further develop NRCS relationships with historically underserved communities by addressing program participation barriers.

“We’re going to be hiring some people to do programming and recruitment for people interested in doing agriculture, whether it be starting a backyard garden, starting a hydroponic business or a business where they do composting or growing fruits or vegetables for restaurants,” said St. Joseph Center board vice chairman Scott Shellabarger. “One of the participants in the Growing Urban Farmers program will be taking over the production farm so they’ll run part of the farm as a business to generate revenue for their families.”

Shellabarger said the Growing Urban Farmers Program is structured like an accelerator for startup programs and businesses, meaning if program participants are successful, they will in turn give back to the program by selling part of their business to the program in thanks. 

“In our case, we just request that they donate to the St. Joseph’s Center and to that program specifically,” Shellabarger said. “So that when our grant runs out, we can continue that program.”

Shellabarger said he hopes the program will provide a launch point for expanding into hydroponics, expanding animal operations and training farmers on non-traditional animal caretaking tactics, such as rotational grazing. For Shellabarger, this fits into the St. Joseph Center’s programming strategy of being an “agri-site and education center.” 

Other programs offered by the St. Joseph Center highlight the importance of agriculture and self sustainability. The St Joseph Center teaches home preservation classes, in addition to offering spring break camp and six weeks of summer camps for kids, revolving around the outdoors and growing food. 

St. Joseph Center has begun establishing strategic partnerships in the community to solidify this agri-education mission. 

“We currently have a partnership with the Innovation Hub in North Little Rock,” Shellabarger said, referring to one of the summer camps offered. “They provide curriculum and teachers and we provide the space.”

The various camps offered for kids emphasize the importance of art, nature and exploring the great outdoors. 

“The animals are a huge hit here, and they provide great entertainment for our school field trips,” DeCoursey said. “For kids, it’s holding a warm egg that you just pulled out from under a chicken, or having a goat butt up against you, or a cow with a long sticky tongue licking food from your hand, or petting a sheep’s soft wool.”

DeCoursey said devoted volunteers have played a pivotal role in the success of the St. Joseph Center. 

“We have a broad range of animals here that are all cared for by volunteers,” DeCoursey said. “I can’t say enough about the volunteer piece. This is the most incredible enterprise I’ve ever been involved with that relies so heavily on volunteers and continues to grow and thrive.”

St. Joseph Center has also expanded its fundraisers by widening their Farm Store hours, which are now year round Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Farm Stand is also open from mid-March through October on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.. Another fundraiser was the Lettuce Grow fundraiser, an outdoor festival held Sept. 15 supporting the preservation and restoration of the center’s historic property, leased from the Diocese of Little Rock to the nonprofit since 2008. 

Some of these fundraisers follow major renovations and repairs following a series of storms this year.

“We had some substantial damage to the property,” Shellabarger said of the storms this spring. “We had some highline winds that came through … and knocked down about eight trees … and took out three stained glass windows in the chapel. We’ve got about five really bad parts on the roof that need to be fixed, and the old pump house roof got blown off. So we’re in the process of trying to get all of that taken care of.”

The St. Joseph Center still has three designated AirBnb rooms that can be rented for short periods, as well as a lot where recreational vehicle owners can park without hookups, known as “boondocking.” DeCoursey hopes these rooms, RV lots and the acreage of the St. Joseph Center will be used during the total solar eclipse April 8.

“(This is an) opportunity for people to come and stay here with us, to be able to experience the eclipse without having to deal with crowds that are going to be inevitable in the rest of the middle part of the state where the path of the eclipse goes,” DeCoursey said.

Additionally, the center recently finished renovating the kitchen with a certified commercial kitchen, thanks to a six-figure grant from the Healthy Foods and Financing Initiative. St. Joseph Center also finished renovating the back section of the building, installing new central heating and air, using donor funds that are gathered year round for maintenance and upkeep.

For Shellabarger, these repairs and renovations don’t distract the center from their ultimate goal: education and community engagement. 

“Our first mission is to preserve and restore the building and the farm … but how do we do that? By becoming a center for agriculture and education,” Shellabarger said. “Everything we do out here is going to keep this place continuing as a center for the community to come back, and not just on Saturdays, but to make a difference in their own communities.” 

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