Just the People in the Neighborhood, Part 1

Johnnie Mae Farm, Fort Wayne, Indiana

I realized something important on Monday. Sometimes what goes on is just the people in the neighborhood helping out one another. Colorless. Selfless. And precious. Here’s what happened.

Interviewing our local extension educator is always a mix of spontaneous fun, fascinating information about the topic at hand, and stories that reflect her love for the people she is positioned to serve. Such was my experience once again as I toured an urban farm on the southeast side of our relatively small town.

The deeper into the neighborhood I traveled, the more I felt conspicuous. A lady driving alone in a shiny bright pick-up truck is tough to miss on a hot, sunny afternoon! Well maybe not in Indiana farm country but this was south of the tracks in the roughest zip code in our town of about 300,000. Nonetheless, I was there to learn more about a non-traditional farm that serves the residents of what is called a food desert: an area where it is difficult to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

Johnny Mae Farm provides just that alongside members of the surrounding neighborhood, in addition to food and nutrition classes in the renovated former Firehouse #9. The building is adorable and the 3/4 acre farm area behind it was constructed with everything that is needed to produce hundreds of pounds of fresh produce each growing season. The hoop house employs the latest and some experimental farming techniques including raised beds, container gardening, and ground-level drip irrigation systems. Outside is where you will find dozens of mounded beds arranged in long rows to minimize contamination from the soils underneath laden with by heavy metals. Three homes in this neighborhood were purchased then demolished to create the farming area, divided from the firehouse/education center by an alley road of hard-packed gravel. Homes surround the farm in addition to a boarded up VFW hall across the street that is as old as dirt. (Well at least the sign out front was anyhow!)

I learned a lot that afternoon. I have come a long way in my knowledge of vegetable gardening since moving to Indiana and becoming a Master Gardener. But it takes actually growing things in your own space and learning from the locals to really get any production above a few salads and meals. This farm is wildly successful, even with alkaline soils recently discovered in those mounded rows (and to be amended in the fall); all of this is because of the organic farming experience and horticulture knowledge of our Extension Educator, Terri. Three Sisters plantings of corn, beans, and squash. Yes they have them. Companion planting? Well done I must say. Native flower pockets along the fence to attract pollinators. Check! And so much more. I left not only with enough information for at least 4 articles in the Master Gardener monthly newsletter (Across the Fence) but tips I could immediately put to use in our own veggie gardens. Cool beans I say, literally.

The real education came as I was leaving. And that will lend itself to Part 2 of this story. It’s going to get real personal from here . . .

3/4 Acre Johnnie Mae Farm consists of a Hoop House and dozens of mounded beds that produce hundreds of pounds of fresh produce each season.