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Thanks Dad…

Today would have been my dad’s 96th birthday. I found my biological father earlier this year and learned from his obituary that he died on January 16th, 2021. Hmm. One man was the most loving, selfless man I’ve ever known. The other didn’t even know I existed. I haven’t even tried to contact the half-sister I apparently have in southeast Texas. I think it’s better that way. Besides, I have a whole new family to get to know up in Kentucky.

I miss Dad this morning (my real or “adopted” father for clarification). When he retired from the railroad (early retirement at 57 and 40 years of service!) he stayed home for a couple of months and found retirement lacking many of the things he loved (Plus Mom couldn’t stand having him around the house all day). People for one, work another. So, he went to work for another ten years for a local developer and construction company.

He agreed to go back to work with the understanding that he would take a month off every January into February to work the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo (FWSSR). He and one of his oldest friends, Jesse, worked security at the vendor’s and exhibitor’s gate. They’d go to work the week before the show started and work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and for minimum wage, until the stock show was over. For one month he was no longer a Human Resources professional for a big firm in East Fort Worth – he was the guy in the Stetson hat that greeted you at the entrance.

Dad loved the Stock Show. It was a constant stream of people in and out and he knew them all. He used to bring huge amounts of food from the bakers, caterers, and food vendors for the show. I don’t think Mom had to go to the grocery store for a month! We never celebrated his birthday until the show was over, but he never minded. He was always the happiest working the FWSSR.

The FWSSR or “the Stock Show” as it’s more commonly called, began in 1896. The Southwest Exposition and Livestock Show (formal name) is longest running stock show in the country. It’s always been a big deal here in Fort Worth. I know few Fort Worth natives that haven’t been to the FWSSR. If attendance records are any indicator, even the new transplants to Fort Worth come in droves. I’m not sure if Dad would’ve liked that. He was the man who had one bumper sticker his entire life and it read: “If you love New York take I-30 East”. He was a bit “Texophobic”…

When I was young, the Stock Show was the highlight of the year. The Fort Worth schools even gave a day off for students to attend. We went every year to tour the livestock barns (especially the horses), the exhibit halls, and the show arenas. Dad would get us tickets to the Saturday matinee rodeo. Paradise was three weeks long on an annual basis. Attending the Stock Show was one of my first (and happiest) memories.

 My Grandmother was a seamstress for “The Army Store” downtown (they sold army surplus and work clothes – I could wander the store for hours!). Her boss, Mr. Wimberly, owned champion Appaloosa Horses he both would show and race. His top show horse, Rustler Bill, pulled in awards from the stock show (and nationally I might add) every year. He was a beautiful horse and I wanted more than anything to ride him.

My father and I walked to the horse barns to look for Mr. Wimberly. I stared at this incredible stallion ignoring the conversation between Dad and Mr. Wimberly. My trance was broken by Mr. Wimberly. “Do you want to ride him son?” If I had died that moment, I would have died the happiest kid on Earth. I almost yelled “of course” and he helped me up onto the horse’s back. Handing me the reins, he said to walk him around the barn. I walked him slow so I could stay on him longer.

from the Rustler Bill website

It’s been fifty-plus years since that day. I continued to make the FWSSR every year until the boys grew bigger. They weren’t interested in the cows, horse, and other livestock anymore. They’d grown out of it they said (My oldest son worked training cutting horses for a few years though). I took the grandkids several times, but they too, have lost interest as they’ve grown.

As for me, Opal’s Farm and family keep me busy. I never seem to have the time. I don’t do large crowds well anymore, especially during the pandemic. I thought about going this afternoon It’s tradition after all, but I’d rather have my memories than current experience. It’s just not the same if Dad’s not there…

A bit of Irony…

I mentioned learning of my biological father this past summer. According to the information and the obituary I found, he was quite the cowboy. He coached a local high school rodeo team in steer wrestling and team roping. He was a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Gold Card member, Original Team Roping Association, and the Texas Rodeo Association. The irony of his passing on January 16th isn’t lost on me. Could it be genetics…

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Happy Early Thanksgiving!

Margaret and I will be leaving in the morning for Kentucky to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Wow! I never dreamed I’d be writing that one. (If you’ve followed my family journey at www.gregoryjoel.com you know why I say that…) Momma told me last night that she hoped Margaret won’t be overwhelmed by the crowd descending on Momma’s house for the holiday (I have a BIG family – never thought I’d say that one either!). Rest assured Momma – Margaret’s ready! I can’t even begin to put into words the joy I’m feeling.

We’ve spent the last couple of weeks getting Opal’s Farm ready for Thanksgiving and my vacation – and I mean “vacation” – haven’t said that one in ten years…). I’ll be unplugging from phones and computers for the next nine days. Stacey Harwood, our Volunteer Coordinator, will be handling everything at the farm. She may be in desperate need of volunteers if we get a freeze warning next week. We have a ton of tomatoes on the vine that we’ll need to pick quickly. Stacey can be reached at opalsvolunteers@gmail.com. Also, please remember that #GivingTuesday, a day of global giving, coming up after the holiday!

We’ll also be taking a break from Cowtown Farmers Market for the next two Saturdays. We’ll be back in force throughout the remainder of the holiday season so come get your fresh, local produce for Christmas!

I won’t be able to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving next week, so I’ll say it today. I hope our friends and family have a great Thanksgiving. I hope this holiday season brings joy and gratitude for the blessings we have received. Sometimes those blessings are disguised by the obstacles that we find along the way. The pandemic and the losses that have accompanied it have been brutal, but like Opal’s Farm, we’re getting past those to find the joy and peace that come from God’s awesome creation.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Love each other a little better and be thankful. Take care!

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
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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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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
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The Trifecta

I celebrate fifteen years clean today, it’s World AIDS Day, and it falls on Giving Tuesday this year. The stars aligned to grant a day of lightness at the end of a onerous year. I hit the Trifecta! My Advent meditation yesterday was about the intersections in life – those places we encounter strangers, friends, family, and most importantly, God. I am deeply grateful for the intersections in life that brought me to this day.

Today’s meditation was about choices; especially how we choose to see the world. Fifteen years ago, I had a moment of clarity in the darkness around me. I had a choice – stay in the darkness or venture out into the light. The world (or at least my perception of it) has changed dramatically since then.

I’m not foolish enough to say, “Look what I did!”. I didn’t do squat. My previous intersections with people should have left me where I was. Yet, it was those same people who surrounded me with love until I could fully realize the gift of grace – theirs and God’s…

People familiar with the disease of addiction know what I’m talking about. Those that aren’t can’t appreciate the value of “a new set of glasses”. There are times I share my recovery epiphanies only to have people look at me and silently say, “Duh”. It took me a long time to become aware, to grow up. I just hope and pray that everyone appreciates the depth of God’s grace. I hope that your “grace moment” was gentler than mine.

Addiction has consequences. Mine was AIDS. The bad choices I made became physically evident on April 17, 2006. I was devasted and extremely fearful. Today is different. I’ve chosen to be public about my status despite the stigma that still exists. Secrets die in the light. I always find it ironic that my clean date fell on World AIDS Day.

It’s become more of a chronic disease rather than the death sentence I believed to be initially. My wife tells me we are a “magnet couple” – she’s negative and I’m positive. However, UNAIDS reports that globally, almost a million people died from AIDS-related illness in 2019. Moreover, there were as many as 220 million new AIDS infections in 2019. Those number get lost with the current coronavirus pandemic and lowered fear of the disease culturally. It hasn’t gone away folks!

I get to celebrate Giving Tuesday today as well. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have even heard of “Giving” Tuesday. I knew about “taking” and that certainly wasn’t limited to one day a week. Today I understand the importance and true value of giving. That doesn’t simply mean money (although I’m going to ask you to donate to Unity Unlimited. Inc. and Opal’s Farm in a bit!). It means being present and serving our community and one another.

I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by people who believe in service to their community. They’ve shown me the joy that comes from being a servant and helped me experience it myself. I am incredibly fortunate to work at Opal’s Farm and practice servanthood each day. What we do – the produce we grow, the food we provide – is serving our local community and helping end food insecurity one vegetable at a time.

We can’t do it alone. We depend on the help of our community to expand and grow and serve even more folks. That’s where “the ask” comes in! Please celebrate Giving Tuesday and this Holiday season by giving a gift to Unity Unlimited, Inc. Cash donations are not the only way to give and to serve. Maybe it’s your time and energy (we LOVE our volunteers!) at the farm our with Unity’s other programs (Secret Santa is upon us y’all!) and Juneteenth. Maybe it’s just coming by the farm to say hello or purchase our tasty, healthy produce. Whatever you can do is truly appreciated – on this Giving Tuesday!

Please go to www.unityunlimited.org.

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