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Thank You Shoutout DFW!

We had the good fortune of connecting with Gregory Joel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Gregory, how does your business help the community?
When we began our Creative Strategy session for 2020 one of the very first questions was “What is food insecurity?” What does that look like and how does it affect the neighborhood, the city, the state, and ultimately, world? The consequences of food insecurity – not having enough to eat, not knowing if one will, and not having access to healthy food – touch virtually every aspect of society. Crime, education, economic opportunity, poverty, health and health care – the list goes on. Lack of healthy food is the root of almost all social problems. Food – healthy food -is a basic human right. Opal’s Farm can’t feed everyone, but we can grow nutritious food for our community and our neighbors. Moreover, we can do it in such a way that leaves the soil and environment in a better place than we found it through regenerative agriculture practices. We imagine a world where diversity is evident, opportunities are plentiful, and divisions are crossed, all in pursuit of lasting unity. We provide a replicable model for other communities to utilize vacant urban land for their own farm and address the same issues of food justice. “If you can’t feed a hundred people then just feed one” – Mother Teresa
 
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I never intended to be a farmer. I majored in Political Science and Radical Political Economy and hoped to teach. Life had other plans. Long story short – I found out about Ms. Opal’s dream of an urban farm in Spring 2018 by accident (although I’m not convinced it was accidental). I had seen several other urban farming ideas come and go, but when I met Ms. Opal I knew that this was something I wanted to be a part of. The rest of 2018 was spent doing research, developing a business model, working on the lease agreement with Tarrant Regional Water District, and trying to find funding. The rest is history, as they say… We held our ribbon cutting ceremony on February 15, 2019. We didn’t find funding right away. We had in kind donations – a shipping container (our “barn”), some tools, and some seed – but no money. Ms. Opal is fond of reminding me, “We’ve done so much with so little for so long that we can do anything with nothing.’ By April, the planting beds were finished (we started with one acre), we planted our donated seed, and harvested our first produce in May. One of our fellow farmers market growers overheard me tell someone we were a non-profit urban farm and said “all farms are non-profit”. I guess we’re not that unique… Our business model is: ten percent of our produce goes to area food banks. The remainder is split – ideally 50/50 – between retail (farmers market) sales and subsidized (neighborhood) sales. The retail end helps the farm become financially stable. The subsidized portion is to dedicated to local communities without access to fresh produce. The retail sector was closer to 90% in our first year. We had to have money to keep the farm going. Paychecks were usually few and far between and much smaller than hoped for. We weren’t close to following our business model and our mission felt out of reach. October was a bleak month. My savings were gone, the house payment was due, and our mission was far from being achieved. I told my wife that maybe it was time to do something else. I felt like a failure. She looked at me and said, “Give it one more month. This is where God wants you to be.” I don’t wish to preach but I have to tell you what happened the next day. A grant came in from the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Dee Kelley Foundation that paid our bills through the end of the year. I quit worrying about the finances ever since that day. There always seem to be “enough”. In December 2019 we were able to receive grant monies since we were able to show production records from our first year. That allowed us to make some significant investments going forward as well as increase to variety of produce we sell. In our first year, 2019, we produced a little over 4000 pounds of produce. In 2020 we increased our yield more than twofold to 8200 pounds. Through our work with the Tarrant Area Food Bank and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program for WIC, we were able to bring our subsidized sales percentage to 49%. Covid was a challenge for everyone in 2020. However, it had several positive impacts for Opal’s Farm. Our volunteer hours increased as folks found out the farm was a great place for safe, outdoor activity. People also began to pay more attention to where there food comes from and how it’s produced. We’ve developed new relationships on both the retail and subsidized sides of the business model. Donations to area food banks have increased to almost 15%. More people are aware of Opal’s Farm. We have tremendous opportunities for “teaching moments” that we might not have had without the pandemic. The greatest lesson I’ve learned in the last two-plus years is that we have an amazing food justice community in DFW – growers, activists, organizations, and advocates – who work hard to end food insecurity and help all of us live better, healthier lives. Opal’s Farm is proud and honored to be a part of that community. This past year was incredibly difficult for me personally. My youngest son, Jeremy – a local visual artist and curator – passed in May. The farm has been my therapy for the last few months. I’ve always told people about our little oasis in the middle of the city. It means even more to me now. Ultimately, Opal’s isn’t just about the food. It’s about community and people. There’s something special that takes place at the farm. I call it community.
 
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I don’t often get a whole week off at one time! Wow! That’s a difficult question. I’m not really into all the “touristy” stuff. Life is pretty simple these days. One of my biggest joys is simply sharing dinner with friends. Something happens when people break bread together. I’m an introvert but I’m most comfortable with others, especially new people, while eating together. I thought I’d make the rounds of my favorite eating places. Then I realized it would take longer than a week. The food doesn’t have to be tops on my list for favorite places. The memory associated with the place is what I love. When it comes to great food I’d have to stop by Spiral Diner and Bakery on Magnolia and Melt Ice Cream for dessert. Much of Jeremy’s artwork can be seen at several of the places on Magnolia. Jay Wilkinson painted a huge mural of Jeremy on the outside of the Hop Fusion Brewery. Jay is a incredible artist and friend. Jeremy did the murals inside Hop Fusion. I’d take them to Ol’ South Pancake House for a late night breakfast so we could watch the slightly inebriated coming in after the bars close. It’s cheap entertainment! I”d have to take them by Mariachi’s at 4th and Sylvania (right up the street from the farm) for some of the best Mexican food in Fort Worth. I’d have to take them by Opal’s Farm of course. The Cowtown Farmers Market is a must stop for the best local produce in North Texas. Then I would have to introduce them to Fort Worth culture – the idea I can go to the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo and walk over to the Kimball and Amon Carter museums is one of the things I love most about Fort Worth. I can drive five minutes away from my house in the city and suddenly be in the country. You have to love it…
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
We definitely have a lot of shout outs to give! We have been blessed with a dedicated cadre of volunteers, mentors, and sponsors who have helped make Opal’s Farm a reality. First, Opal’s Farm wouldn’t even exist were it not for the vision of Opal Lee – our namesake – and Unity Unlimited, Inc. At 94, Ms. Opal’s activism is still providing hope and inspiration for for us all. It was her work in the city and the Community Food Bank that led to the donation of a free lease from the Tarrant Regional Water District for the farm. Then there’s our mentor and friend, Charlie Blaylock, with Shines Farmstand, He has been with the farm every step of the way – from the initial planning, our first sales at the Cowtown Farmers Market (our retail outlet), and our expansion in the coming year. We could not ask for a better mentor and friend. I don’t have enough space to list each of our friends of the farm who have helped us along the way – Grow SE, Healthy Tarrant County Collaboration, Blue Zones Project Fort Worth, Container King, Zimmerer Kubota, Home Depot Store #8521 are just a few.
Website: www.unityunlimited.org/opalsfarm
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/opalsfarm/
Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/showcase/opals-farm
Twitter: @opalsfarm
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/unityunlimited
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“An individual has not begun to live until [they] can rise above the narrow horizons of [their] particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash
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Waste Not, Want Not: Composting at Opal’s Farm

One of the Core Values of Opal’s Farm is the practice of regenerative urban farming. We take the role of stewards of the land and resources we’ve been granted very seriously. From the outset we were determined to farm organically and recycle as much as possible to build our soil health and limit waste. One of the ways we practice that is composting.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food waste is between thirty and forty percent of the nation’s food supply. Research shows that the average American ends up throwing away $53.81 worth of spoiled food a week from their fridge, or $2,798 every year (Could you use almost $3,00 extra?) – and that doesn’t include commercial and restaurant waste (the restaurant industry estimates food waste related costs to be $162 billion a year).

What happens to all that waste? Not only is it a major contributor to food insecurity – it ends up in local landfills where it generates 1.3 pounds of methane emissions for every pound of wasted produce. Landfills are responsible for almost 15 percent of the country’s methane emissions and organic matter makes up the largest percentage of total landfill mass (22 percent).

Landfill space isn’t an abstract “someone else’s” problem. The City of Fort Worth’s landfill is filling to quickly. Although designed to last another fifty years, increased population and throwing out recyclable items has shortened landfill life to less than half of that. A new landfill is a major infrastructure investment that will surely affect every citizen’s pocketbook.

Opal’s Farm applauds the efforts like the City’s Residential Food Scrap Composting Pilot Program. It addresses individual residences. Efforts are also being made through the Code Compliance Department and the Blue Zones Project Fort Worth to gain commercial participation.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 5 percent of food waste gets composted, which means 95 percent doesn’t…

Opal’s Farm uses 100% of organic waste created on the Farm. We started a compost program last year at the farm. Unsalable produce, hay donated by the Tarrant Regional Water District, and goat manure from Latte-Da-Dairies got us started. Grass, weeds, and plant refuse from the previous growing season was added. In Fall of last year, J. Davis Tree Company began bringing their wood chips by the truckload – much of already composted. The original compost pile has yielded approximately 20 yards (2 dump trucks) of rich composted soil for bed/soil development.

This year we added food scraps from the Culinary School of Fort Worth (thanks to Lauren at the Tarrant Area Food Bank Learning Garden for the hook-up!). A couple of months later, Blue Zones Fort Worth introduced us to Elrod’s Cost Plus Supermarket at 1524 NW 25th Street. Each Monday, the Produce Manager, Angelica, provides us with the unsaleable produce from the weekend. We’re averaging about 200 pounds per week from there.

We began picking up the culled produce from Foodland on 1212 Ayers Avenue a couple of weeks later. We consistently add 200-400 pounds of food waste that would have gone to the landfill. Moreover, all the produce boxes are broken down and recycled to lay beneath the woodchips we spread on our walkways. It’s an excellent form of natural weed control.

A Monday Pick up (approximately 400 lbs. that will not go to the landfill

The result is a dark, rich compost that is added to the soil to build soil health and increase the yields from our tasty, locally grown produce. It’s a win-win for us, for the stores, and for our community.

We Can Do More

We give a huge shout out to Elrod’s and to Foodland for their excellent corporate citizenship. Other grocery chains have chosen to waste their produce rather than recycle it to local urban farms. We understand the lability concerns they have expressed but cannot understand to unwillingness to compost: a way of improving soil health and local crop yields.

Cardboard boxes from the Monday pick-up – plastic produce containers take our donations to food banks and cardboard is recycled at the farm

Composting is not only beneficial for local urban farms and the municipal landfill. Composting can also provide jobs in our local economy. Someone must pick up the compost and take it to where it will be recycled. The more stores and restaurants that join the recycling effort would expand the pick-up route.

The end result – less than 25 lbs goes the landfill (remaining plastic packaging)

Currently, we can only do our pick-ups one day a week. We’re constrained by time and lack of staff at the farm to pick up all that available. Imagine if part of the training and hiring at Opal’s Farm was composting, pick-up, and delivery to Opal’s, other farms, or to Silver Creek Materials (the local composting firm and one of our vendors). It’d sure be cheaper than new landfill infrastructure (Did that get your attention Mayor Price?). You can urge your local Councilmembers to take a hard look at this. Innovation makes Fort Worth…

It takes money to implement such a program. ReFed, “a multi-stakeholder nonprofit, powered by an influential network of the nation’s leading business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders committed to reducing U.S. food waste” ( https://www.refed.com/about ), has laid out an excellent  Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste. It can be done. Something to think about…

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Fall Makes an Appearance

Good Morning Everyone! I’ve been seriously lacking in updating everyone on Opal’s Farm over the last month. Fall is particularly busy this year with planting and expansion into the next 1/3 acre of the farm. We’ve made some amazing progress with the help of some dedicated, hard working volunteers and our amazing friend Charlie Blaylock with Shines Farmstand.

All the furrows are mulched!

Fall is a special time of year at the farm. The days are a bit cooler, which makes work all the much easier (and fun!) and the changing season brings new life to dormant summer plants (the tomato pepper plants are loaded). The purple hull peas apparently produce more in the Fall than in the Spring!

Clearing the new section!

The late summer plantings of cantaloupes are going to be ready this week. Jamison the Farm Dog is doing his best and working hard to keep the field mice and river rats from getting to them first.

 The Fall plantings are growing and going. We took the first radishes of the season to market this Saturday. The Japanese turnips and beets should be close behind.

We may be unbelievably busy, but we always have time to enjoy the peace and wildlife Fall brings to the farm. Monarch butterflies are more frequent, the turtles sun themselves more frequently on the banks of the Trinity (unfortunately so do snakes! Don’t worry though: they stay by the river!), and the egrets are everywhere these days.

The okra’s going great!

We’ve also had a beautiful pair of visitors over the last couple of weeks. Two Great Blue Herons have been frequenting the farm. They are truly majestic. They’re the largest herons in North America (and tend to make Jamison a bit curious and bark a lot…) and we feel blessed they’ve chosen to hang out at Opal’s Farm.

We’d like to take a moment to thank the Tributary Café on Race Street. We began selling okra to the café a couple of weeks ago. Last night, they asked us to set up for the Race Street night out hosted by the Riverside Business Alliance. We met some great neighbors and shared the bounty of the farm with many. We now deliver on Wednesday’s to the adjoining riverside neighborhoods for a $2 delivery fee. You can always call the farm to see what’s available and place your order. We’ll have that set up online soon.

As always – we’d love to have you come out to the farm to volunteer or just visit and say hi. You can always donate directly to Opal’s Farm by visiting our website at www.unityunlimited.org or our Facebook page.

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An Important Day for All of Us

Today is a very important day — the first ever International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste!  “Globally, around 14 percent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail” … “When food is lost or wasted, all the resources that were used to produce this food – including water, land, energy, labour and capital – go to waste.” In the United States, 30-40% of the food supply goes to waste, while millions of people remain food insecure. (from our friends at http://www.thefarmlinkproject.org)

We combat food waste every day at Opal’s Farm. Nothing leaves our farm unless it’s the man-made trash we collect from the Trinity River (and what the wind blows in!). Everything is either sold, donated, or composted. We collect food that would normally be thrown away from outside sources to build our compost, increase crop yields, and feed more community members.

What we do to combat waste may seem insignificant, but when it’s combined with what you do and what you do and what you do, it begins to affect overall food waste. On this first ever International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, we ask you to join the fight. We can all make a difference!

Will it be this?

Photo by Emmet on Pexels.com

Or this?

Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com