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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
Nominate Someone: ShoutoutDFW is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.
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Winter Doesn’t Slow Us Down

The intended “I’m going to post every other day in 2021” hasn’t gone as planned. I purposefully avoided calling it a resolution thinking that would help. Resolutions are a set up for failure in my book. major life changes – stopping bad habits and starting new ones – rarely come to fruition no matter how strong my resolve. Besides, the little committee between my ears loves it a resolution falls by the wayside – they love to remind me I’ve failed again. I’ve learned not to give them ammunition to use against me. My brain is often not my friend…

I don’t want to make excuses, but it has been a hectic start to the New Year at Opal’s Farm. We’ve increased the production area by 66%. Planting for early Spring crops is almost completed. Evenings are filled with virtual conferences, classes, and the office “To Do” list. Winter hasn’t slowed us down. Rain is predicted for the next three days. Maybe we can take a breather…

Late last year, we plowed, tilled, and planted an Elbon Rye cover crop on a new 1/3 acre. We’ve been able to take care of a bigger area thanks to the Kubota tractor provided to us by Zimmerer Kubota and a 48” tiller implement purchased for Grow SE growers by Blue Zones Project Fort Worth. WE realized that the tractor would free us up to do an additional section. We added another 1/3 acre and have completed most of the beds. Spring is looking good.

Winter is the time to plant cold friendly spring vegetables. We already had several winter crops in that will produce through early Spring. Now we have our cilantro, snow peas, kale, and onions in. I’d still be planting onions if the Paschal High School Key Club hadn’t been there Saturday morning. The young people were a planting machine! They got in over half (approximately 1500 to 2000 onions) in less than two hours!

The Paschal HS Key Club – These 11 young people gave up another Saturday morning to help Opal’s Farm grow!

We intend to be at Cowtown Farmers Market this Saturday. Come on down shop local!

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6:00 AM on Christmas Morning

6:00 AM on Christmas morning…

The sun hasn’t yet begun to rise. The darkness is silent and still – “not a mouse was stirring”. Even the freeway sounds are absent this morning. The temperature dropped below freezing last night in honor of Christmas I’m sure. It was seventy degrees here in North Texas last Monday and the weekend promises more of the same: but that’s tomorrow and this is today. I’ll pull my coat a little tighter, have another sip of steaming coffee, and relish the quiet.

I think back to Christmas 1982. At 4:00 AM my ex (she wasn’t my ex then just so you know…) shook me awake. “I think I’m in labor”.

I turned over and asked, “how far apart are the contractions?”

“I haven’t timed them yet”.

“Oh okay. Let me know when the next one comes”, I said sleepily.

I had awakened enough to know I needed to head upstairs to the bathroom. As I walked past the picture window along the stairs, I saw the snow coming down hard. Only about half of the chain link fence was visible. “This is not good”, I mumbled. When I returned to bed, she told me she thought it was a false labor. I crawled back in bed and fell back asleep.

I awoke a couple of hours later and once again slid out of bed and headed upstairs to make coffee. As I passed the window once again, I noticed that only the pointed tops of the four-foot fence were visible. I opened the back door to check on my car. All I could see was its blue roof poking through the snow. The driveway and the alley were covered in three feet of snow and even larger drifts. This really wasn’t good…

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Adrian, our oldest, woke up and he and his Mom came in the kitchen. She put down and he promptly ran to the living room to see what Santa had brought. I poured the coffee and went into the living room. My Christmas morning excitement was tempered by the realization that my ex might really be in labor.

The snow continued to fall – and fall and fall and… You get the idea. Denver was in the middle of a “hundred year” blizzard.

About 9:00 in the evening my ex looked at me and said, “I really am in labor now”. The contractions were now seven minutes apart. I knew there was no way we could get my car out of the drive. I called 911 and explained our situation. Apparently, labor is not an emergency. It would be a four to five hour wait for an ambulance and we were told to go the nearest hospital labor and delivery rooms. I figured I’d been through one birth already. I mentally prepared to deliver a baby at home. I prayed – a lot!

There was a knock at the door about thirty minutes later. A gentleman had responded to the pleas for citizens with four-wheel drive to ferry paramedics around. Three paramedics greeted me as I opened the door.

We gathered go-bags and our son together and filed out through the path the paramedics had made to the door. They assisted my poor wife who, at 5’3”, was trying to make her way through the four feet of snow. Once to the care, the 6 of us (and all the paramedic kits) piled into an old Jeep Waggoneer. The driver informed my very pregnant wife that between contractions she would have to reach outside and keep the snow of the windshield as the wipers didn’t work. Of course, they didn’t…

We found ourselves in a strange hospital with a strange doctor who had obviously been there long past hi original shift (he was a bit cranky). We were just getting settled into the labor room when the nurse said, “it’s time”. My wife was wheeled down to the delivery room and I changed into scrubs. Less than an hour later I was holding a brand-new bundle of joy – Jeremy Alan Joel.

I slept in a nurse’s lounge that night. When I returned to my wife’s room, I was greeted with a Christmas gift that I’ll never forget – Jeremy in a red stocking with a Santa hat on.

When Adrian, my oldest son, was born, parenting didn’t seem as difficult as we thought. Then we had Jeremy. We’ve often joked (kind of…) that Jeremy made his appearance in the world with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other demanding to be fed NOW. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

Sitting here on Christmas morning I’m reminded how blessed I am. For thirty-seven years I was given the gift of a son I miss dearly today. I was also given a Savior – God With Us – to walk me through the grief I have today. I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life who know what losing a child is like. I have a God that knows my grief even more so – “This is how much God loved the world: He gave His Son, His one and Only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to the trouble of sending His Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help and put the world right again” John 33.16-17 (The Message).

My son was a brilliant artist (our first home had the marker and crayon marks to foretell this), but his greatest achievement was threefold – Baillie, Izabella, and Lucas. Today I will think of the wonderful gifts he left us. The gift I offer him is honoring his gift to me.

Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday Jeremy

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It’s Almost over

Monday marked the official beginning of winter – the winter solstice. The first day of winter was sunny and seventy degrees. It doesn’t look like a White Christmas is in the plan. The winter solstice is also the longest night of the year. That sums up the whole year – one long, dark winter night.

In January there were reports of a new virus spreading in China. On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic that’s taken almost two million lives since then. The economy shut down in March. Even when states began reopening economic recovery remained questionable at best. To top it all off, people lost all sense of sanity and decency over simple masks. Apparently, the right to go without one and violate common sense precautions trumps (yes, folks – pun intended…) everyone else’s right to health and safety. Don’t get me started. I have friends who have lost fathers, mothers, aunts, and uncles – many times in rapid succession. Please folks – this is serious so please be kind enough to respect your neighbors…

In February, the primary election season started. By August, candidates had been nominated and the real dogfight began. We were constantly bombarded with negative ads, blatant lies, bitter division, and juvenile behavior. We prayed for November 3rd to finally shut it all down, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. Donald Trump threw a hissy fit over his loss like a petulant child. His insanity and inability to deal with reality continue to stoke divisiveness and hate. Sometimes it feels as if we’re on a downward spiral that never ends.

In May, George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis Police officer, who stood on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds setting off a summer of mass protests. Black people, especially Black men, are killed all too frequently by white police officers. The growing list of people of color who died at the hands of white officers has often faded in public awareness as the news cycle changes to something shiny and new. Although there have been many media reports in the past about police killings and people of color, this one was different. The video showing Floyd’s murder was particularly heinous. It got everyone’s attention. Summer of 2020 came to be known as the summer of “racial reckoning. We can only hope…

Opal’s Farm lost one of its best friends on September 7th. Chuck Briant, or “Food Truck Chuck” as many called him passed away suddenly and left a void in the hearts of all of us at Opal’s Farm. His passion for feeding people and healthy eating was contagious. He brought more people to the farm than anyone could have hoped. He was one of our biggest fans and a friend of mine. I miss him and can’t help but get a little teary-eyed when I’m watering the farm. That was Chuck’s job. It’s hard to picture Chuck without a water hose in his hand.

Personal tragedy hit on May 29th, 2020. My son Jeremy was found dead in his apartment. This has been the darkest five months of my life. Jeremy’s was born on Christmas Day in 1982. My holiday spirit is understandably lacking. There are days when the grief seems too much to bear. I get to spend a lot more alone time at the farm during the winter. Most days are sans volunteers. That’s both good and bad emotionally. The winter solstice reminds me of the “long, dark night of the soul” St. John of the Cross wrote about.

Today is a new day. The winter solstice has passed. The light will stick around a little longer with each passing day; at least for the next six months. Then the cycle will begin all over after the summer solstice in June. That’s the way it is with the seasons and it’s that way it is with life – up and down, round and round…

I don’t know what 2021 has in store, but I have faith that, like the day after the winter solstice, the light will last longer with each passing day. COVID vaccines recently became available and perhaps they will help end, or at least diminish the destruction of the pandemic. Maybe we learned a few things over the last few months. We might even discover a better “normal” when all is said and done. We can certainly hope…

On January 20th, a new Administration will begin and maybe some civility will return to our socio-political discourse. I’m not overly optimistic but anything is an improvement over the last four years, even Washington as usual. The faces change but the song remains the same…

The racial protests of this summer start real conversations that lead to real changes. The Juneteenth caravan this summer was a diverse group of people celebrating Juneteenth. Onlookers – white people – held signs “We are listening”. Listening, not simply hearing, real listening and building new diverse relationships is the beginning of change. My friend Jim always told me that “once you’re aware you can’t become unaware”. I pray the solstice has come and the light will get longer and brighter on our struggle to build a just society.

I know I’m not the only parent to lose a child (and yes, Jeremy may have been 37 but he’ll always be my kid). I’ve joined “a club that no one wants to be a part of”, as my friend Edgar says. Grief doesn’t have an expiration date. 2021 will not be “better”. It will be “different”. I’m blessed and tremendously grateful for the friends I have today – friends who have allowed me the space to grieve and are still there to offer love and support. Some people are left to grieve in isolation. No one should have to do that.

Christmas and New Year’s will be emotionally onerous this year, but it doesn’t take away what Christmas represents – the birth of Immanuel, “God with us”. Each time I think of the gift God gave us I find hope. Despite all the hardships this year I know God is with us. He hasn’t given up on His kids. After all, the winter solstice reminds us of the light – the light that’s always there.

To each of you I wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Photo by Marissa Daeger on Unsplash