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Bittersweet Moments

Down on the Farm: August is a busy month at Opal’s Farm. The Texas summer reaches its apex in August and the Spring garden crops are beginning to peter out. The summer squashes have about run their course and the purple-hulled and black-eye peas are slowing in the heat. We’ve been extremely blessed this year to have only had seven one hundred-degree days. The average number by this time of year is eighteen. We’re very careful in the heat: slow down, drink lots of water, and take more frequent breaks in the shade of our only tree. When the “feels like” temperature is in the triple digits it’s better to be safe than sorry. Heat stroke is no joke!

The high temperatures haven’t deterred our volunteers. A huge shout out to Harrison, Chuck, Becca, and of course, Brendan for helping with harvesting and helping plant the new Fall crops. As we transition to our fall planting there are beds to be cleaned out, prepared, and seeded with all the great veggies that come in the Fall. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love and appreciate our volunteers and fellow “farmers”.

That’s why it’s difficult to write today’s blog post. Many of you know one of our volunteers (and my trusted assistant), Brendan O’Connell. Brendan has been with Opal’s Farm since we began building the first beds and planting the first seeds. Not only has he put countless hours of physical labor into the farm, he’s also shared ideas and opened doors that have made our first growing season a success.

When Brendan contacted me about volunteering back in March, I had no idea how important he would become to Opal’s Farm or how much I would come to value his input, appreciate his hard work, and depend on him. For the first four months, it was Brendan who was right in the thick of things whether it was plowing, planting, or marketing.

Our First Cowtown Farmer’s Market

One day he mentioned one day that his school needed a title or job description for his volunteer work at the farm. He wasn’t sure what to put down on the paperwork, and quite honestly, neither was I. “Farmhand” was an understatement. He was far more than another hand. I wasn’t sure what to tell him. Until it dawned on me: he was the farm co-manager! It would be unfair to call him anything else. His sense of commitment and dedication to the mission of Opal’s Farm is indescribable.

Couldn’t have done it without Brendan – getting ready for our first crop!

Unfortunately, I knew his time would come to an end. You see, Brendan leaves next week for the next step in his life at Cornell University. He’ll be stopping by Cowtown Farmer’s Market briefly on Saturday and leaving Tuesday. It’s a bittersweet moment for those of us who’ve come to know Brendan over the last few months. We are extremely happy (and a bit proud) for him and his new adventure, but it’s hard to see him leave (even if we do get to see him at winter break).

Part of me is jealous, Brendan. For those of you who don’t know, Cornell is in Ithaca, New York. Although Brendan will be studying hard, he’ll be enjoying much cooler weather than those of us here at the farm! Moreover, Ithaca has an actual Fall season and with it, the accompanying explosion of color that will awe any good old Fort Worth native.

Winter will be a bit different from Fort Worth (what’s that white stuff called again?), but I’m happy to hear you bought your winter coat online rather than here. There’s not much of a market here for the kind of coats one you’ll need in New York…

Brendan, thank you for everything you’ve done for Opal’s Farm and thank you Mr. and Mrs. O’Connell for sharing your son with us. God’s blessings upon you all. We wish you adventure, happiness, and success in the coming school year. We look forward to seeing you this winter but please know you will be missed and thought of often.

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Thistles and Wheat…

Thoughts From the Porch: I was just looking back over the last three or four weeks and noted that I haven’t posted much this month. I’ve tried to keep everyone updated on Opal’s Farm, but I spend far more time at the farm and less time at the desk (or on the porch). June is an incredibly busy month for everyone at Unity Unlimited, Inc. and Opal’s Farm. The Juneteenth celebrations and programs, harvesting our Spring crops, and preparing for Fall planting keep us hopping. It has been a fantastic, yet tiring, month.

We’ve been blessed here in North Texas with below average temperatures and abnormally late rainfall. The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting rainfall into July, which is extremely rare on the southern plains. We haven’t even had a one hundred plus degree day yet (I’m knocking on my old oak desk as you read this). It’s still hot (this is Texas), but the farm is doing well. We had our first public sale to the neighborhood last Sunday. We hope to be at the Cowtown Farmer’s Market tomorrow (we’ll keep you posted!).

I was weeding the watermelon and cantaloupe rows yesterday and had to be somewhat gentle in my approach to some tall weeds. Tall weeds, especially the Johnson grass, are the inevitable consequence or good rainfall. Still, I’ll gladly trade tall weeds for abundant amounts of rain.

If you’re familiar with melon vines you know they put out small tendrils that grab onto anything in their path. The vines were tangled among many of the weeds making it impossible to remove one without damaging the other. I decided to let vines go crazy through the weeds rather than damage the growing melons.

It reminded me of a story Jesus told of a farmer who planted good seed in his field only to discover someone snuck in during the night and planted thistles among his wheat. The farmhands wondered how to resolve this dilemma. The head farmer told them to leave it alone. If they tried to remove the thistles, they’d pull up the wheat as well. “Let them grow together until harvest time. Then I’ll instruct the harvester to pull up the thistles and tie them in bundles for the fire, then gather the wheat and put it in the barn” (Matthew 13. 29-30, The Message).

Jesus said God’s kingdom is like that. The good (wheat, or in my case, melons) are often intertwined with the bad (the thistles and Johnson grass). Sometimes I simply accept that my field, and my life, are filled with both good and bad things, but the end always results in a harvest. If I don’t try to have my way (I don’t like weeds, nor do I wish the discomfort of the negative things in life) it seems the harvest is always bountiful. Opal’s Farm is a reminder that watermelons and cantaloupes always win out over thistles and Johnson grass. I just have to take gentle care of the field…

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Listen More, Talk Less…

Thoughts From the Porch: I’m posting this on my business website as well as the Opal’s Farm Facebook Page. Please bear with me as it has a bit more to do with Opal’s Farm than just produce. It’s a personal note on what the farm and working for Unity Unlimited, Inc. has meant to me for the last year.

 It’s been two weeks of running! Harvest is coming in at Opal’s Farm. Saturday was the big celebration at TCC South campus with the parade, the entertainment, and seminars and activities all day long. One of our partners and sponsors, the Tarrant Area Food Bank, gave away a semi-trailer full of food to the community.

Fort Worth Juneteenth Parade 2019

The Juneteenth events over the last ten days will culminate with “Juneteenth: The Play” at Will rogers Auditorium tomorrow evening. Tickets are still available, and proceeds benefit Opal’s Farm. Go to Opal’s Farm Facebook page or to www.juneteenthftw.com for details and tickets. It will be a delightful, entertaining, and educational evening. Most of you know that the Fort Worth Juneteenth celebrations are a huge part of what our parent non-profit organization, Unity Unlimited, Inc. does each year.

For those of you who have no idea what Juneteenth is…

“Juneteeth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.   Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.” www.juneteenthftw.com

Just a part of the Tarrant Area Food Bank’s Juneteenth contribution
A semi-load of free food for the community

Some Back Story…

One of my favorite authors is Donald Miller. My minister friend, Rusty, had mentioned him in passing one time. I was browsing through the bookstore and came upon Miller’s book, “Blue Like Jazz”. After reading the author’s note at the beginning I bought a copy. I read it through in a couple of sittings the first time. I read it much slower a couple of times after that. I found someone who vocalized much of my spiritual walk; things I always wanted to say and simply could not find a way to do so. I think I own the whole Donald Miller catalogue these days…

In “Blue Like Jazz”, Miller tells the story of a “confession booth” he and his friends built at Reed College. A Google search of Reed College will say three main things about the school. First, is its academic reputation as one of the best liberal arts schools in the nation. Second, its liberal political reputation. Third, its permissive policy toward open drug use and parties. Long story short – it doesn’t harbor a large “Christian” student population. Intellectual pursuits (and a bit of drug-induced fun) are often at odds with religious belief.

Miller and a few of his like-minded followers of Jesus had an idea: set up a “confession booth”, not to take confessions but offer them as evidence of Christianity’s failings and crimes against humanity – things like the Crusades, slavery, and Native American genocide. I won’t bore you with the details (you really should read the book!), but I’ve always loved the idea. Maybe if much of Christianity was honest enough to admit they’ve screwed up horribly, genuinely attempt to make amends, then they might have some real good news to share.  (Disclaimer: The Christian “right” doesn’t speak for many followers of the Rabbi) Just saying…

I mention it because I’ve thought a lot about confession this morning. In the Twelve Step tradition, introspection, ownership of one’s actions (good or bad), and admission (confession if you will) to God and another human being are essential to grow spiritually. Spiritual growth and building a solid relationship with a Higher Power are essential to recovery. Moreover, confession allows us to make amends, or make things right, so forgiveness and recovery (and in this instance, community) can take place. It’s essential to recovery, our spirit, and the humility that’s as critical as food and water are to the body.

My work with Unity Unlimited, Inc, Opal’s Farm, and Ms. Opal herself has led to deep introspection over the last year. I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen. I’m acutely aware of how old tapes play in my head. I’ve also learned the value of listening. My Dad used to tell me that I was given one mouth and two ears so I could listen twice as much as I speak. I must confess I don’t do that well.

Please forgive my unwillingness to truly listen. Today I will listen and be a friend and an ally. I’ll seek to learn from other’s struggles so that I too can walk the path toward freedom. Fannie Lou Hamer once said that none of us are free until all of us are free. I guess that’s why the last week of Juneteenth celebrations have affected so deeply. When I fail to listen, I rob myself of the chance for emancipation from old ideas and blind myself to new possibilities.

I believe in the old saying that “confession is good for the soul”. I look forward to taking our walk together.

Thanks to our partner for Opal’s Far – the Tarrant Regional Water District!
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Easter People…

Thoughts From the Porch: Another beautiful Spring Day here in Fort Worth so it’s off to the farm. No time to write this morning. Before I go, I just wanted to say I hope you all had a wonderful Easter. We did here at the Joel household! Any time you spend you get to spend a whole weekend with close friends it’s a great weekend!

Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

“Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask but when we are challenged to be what we can be.”   — Morris Alder

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Easter says to us that despite everything to the contrary, his will for us will prevail, love will prevail over hate, justice over injustice and oppression, peace over exploitation and bitterness.”   — Desmond Tutu

Easter symbolizes resurrection and rebirth. May we all live as Easter people today.

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Finding Your “Why”: Part Three

I must apologize for the delay in posting the third reason to become an Opal’s Farm volunteer or sponsor. It’s been quite a week at the farm. Over an acre of beds are finished and several hundred feet of landscape fabric were laid around the perimeter to help deter the infamous weeds from encroaching on the finished product. Unfortunately, the weekend storms ripped the fabric from the landscape staples requiring repair just in time for more severe weather. Such is the farm life…

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a young man named Brendan O’Connell regarding Opal’s Farm He had seen a news story about the farm on KERA 90.1 and reached out to me for a farm tour. He has become a volunteer for Opal’s Farm and exemplifies a big “why” for anyone. So, without further ado I turn the spotlight on Brendan.

Brendan graduated from Fort Worth Country Day School last year. He decided to take a “gap year’ after high school and will start at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in August. However, he isn’t using the gap year to take it easy. He’s volunteered at a local low-income clinic as a Nurse’s Assistant and started at the farm this past week.

His interest in urban farming began six years when he started his own garden and raising food for his family. He told me he developed an interest in “the relationships between agriculture, public health and medicine, and the economic dynamics” that affect marginalized communities and food deserts. He’s thrilled that an urban farm has come to Fort Worth wants to learn as much as he can while he’s here.

He has been invaluable since he started. I can’t begin to tell you how much we’ve been able to accomplish in short order. He goes well beyond interest in the farm. I asked him about his “why”. I mean no offense, but he’s not your typical nineteen-year-old.

His original email offered some insight as to his motivation, but it goes beyond mere intellectual curiosity. He’s genuinely concerned about the common good; about our community. He sees Opal’s Farm as a solution to the issues of access to fresh, nutritious food and the health and well-being of neglected neighborhoods. An urban farm enables all our community to thrive and become a better place to live.

One Acre Down…

His interest will help in his future studies. Beyond that, it fills a desire to be part of the solution for food justice and the health of each of us.

I often tell Brendan how grateful I am for his service. What I’ve failed to communicate though, is the gratitude I feel for everyone who looks beyond themselves to the community and the common good. I’m hopeful for the future of my hometown, and by extension, my world, when I see young people like Brendan committed to the solutions.

If you’re still searching for your “why” I have some more ideas coming. In the meantime, if you can’t volunteer at this time please go to www.unityunlimited.org today and make your secure donation to the future of Fort Worth’s neighborhoods.

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Finding Your “Why”: Part Two

I spent last Friday morning at the farm with a prospective donor. We talked about the mission and purpose of Opal’s Farm for over an hour. The farm is about more than simply providing access for fresh produce to a largely forgotten neighborhood. It’s about building a better Fort Worth and serving our community. While that’s a worthy mission, the means by which we accomplish that mission is the tangible “goods” that the local community receives. What makes Opal’s Farm so special and why should you be a part of it? This is the second reason “why”.

Last Friday, we talked about “dirt therapy” and the physical and emotional well-being that comes from working the soil. The sense of community, of connection, and the increased physical activity shared with others of like mind is amazing. Even though that’s reason enough for anyone to come out and work or support the farm, your “why” might be as simple as providing food for your neighbors.

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

When I was talking to our prospective donor the other day, I mentioned that Ms. Opal had been late for a dinner meeting the evening before because she had to drive a long way to get lettuce for the salad. He looked at me with a bit of confusion, “Why couldn’t she go to a store around here?”, he asked.

I told him that there was no store around here. The closest one was several miles south of the neighborhood. I explained to him that United Riverside, our neighborhood, is a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as anyplace were access to fresh, healthy food is more than one mile away. He was a bit shocked that there were over forty food deserts listed in Tarrant County alone.

Honestly, I’m not surprised. Everyone touts the great economy and growth Fort Worth has experienced over the last few years. Politicians and business leaders point to the success Fort Worth and the growing economy has had. We often don’t hear the grim statistics and the reality for many of our neighbors. I’ve thrown them out there many times before, but statistics are often abstract and overwhelming.

In Tarrant County, one in four children go to bed hungry each night. One in four, 25%! For blacks and Latinos, the number is even more staggering – one in three children face hunger. That’s 33% of kids right here in Tarrant County!

What can you do about it? Now that you know the numbers it’s overwhelming. When a problem is of a scale that’s overwhelming it can foster inaction. It’s easy to say, “I can’t help everybody” and so no one gets help.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Mother Teresa. It’s at the bottom of every email I send out. It says, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” We do what we can, and Opal’s Farm provides the “why”. Through a simple farm we begin tackling the issues of food success and food scarcity. We can’t feed all of Fort Worth, but we can bring health and vitality to a neighborhood through each season’s harvest. You have to start somewhere…

Maybe you’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Maybe you feel like you don’t make a difference. Maybe, just maybe, you do. Helping at Opal’s Farm, whether by donating or volunteering is the first step. It’s something tangible.

Mother Teresa said something else that always comes to mind, too. She said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” I’m no math genius but I’m pretty sure a whole bunch of small acts with great love constitutes a big thing.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

If you’re wanting to make a real, tangible difference in the lives of others please consider your donation or volunteer at Opal’s Farm. If you’re still not sure, I’ll give you another reason “why” tomorrow…

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Finding Your Why Down on the Farm: Part One

“Simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones.” – Occam’s Razor

Do you ever get so busy with a project that you overlook the bedrock of its success? Things have been moving quickly at Opal’s Farm: over 30,00 square feet of beds have been prepared and compost is coming. We are busy! We’ve been blessed with good Spring weather and we hope to take advantage of every moment to prepare the acreage for a bountiful harvest.

Jameson the Farm Dog takes a much needed break!

However, one of the TCU students working with us this semester sent me an email that brought me to a grinding halt (by the way, thank you Paris!) She asked a simple question, “Why?”. Why would someone want to volunteer at the Farm? Why would someone want to be a sponsor, a partner, or a “farmer” at Opal’s Farm?

Even as passionate as I am about Opal’s Farm, I had to stop and think hard about the question. In my work as a writer, it’s my job to write a clear concise message and show how a product or service will benefit others. If I’m honest, I’ve done a poor job of communicating that to you. I ask for your forgiveness. Sometimes the simplest question is the simplest solution…

There’s a plethora of reasons one should join us in the task at hand. When Paris asked me the “why” question was specifically regarding “why volunteer?”, so we’ll start there.

Reason #1:

Why volunteer at Opal’s Farm? The simple answer: it’s “Dirt Therapy”. What do I mean by that? If you love to tend your own garden, you know exactly what I mean. Something happens to us when we work with the soil. Study after study has shown improved mental health and relaxation are some of the immediate benefits. The increased physical activity and its benefits are obvious, but “dirt therapy” is something, something deeper.

According to The Immune Advantage (Ellen Mazo and the Editors of Prevention Health Books with Keith Berndtson, M.D.), “a simple gardening project at the University of Texas in Galveston produced uplifting findings among 24 volunteers ranging in age from 63 to 90” that included not only an overall feeling of well-being” but a far deeper spiritual component; one of community.

The book goes on to share the story of Dr. William Thomas, M.D. and founder of the Eden Alternative. He “has proof that people live healthier and longer with daily access to plants, animals, and children”. In the 300-plus nursing homes across the country that follow his program allowing residents their own pets, till their own gardens, and participate in programs with children… residents have fewer infections, fewer falls, and fewer skin wounds”. Moreover, the amount of medication each resident required dropped.

Something happens when people work the earth together, sharing stories and childhood memories. A feeling of well-being and contentment feeling of well-being, of a spiritual connection, takes place. Moreover, the UT-Galveston study showed that “there was no physical decline among the volunteers after 4 months”. Working the soil may not be the proverbial “Fountain of Youth”, but it sure helps.

“Dirt Therapy” is an amazing reason to come down to the farm and join us. We’ll be posting “work days” and someone is usually at Opal’s Farm daily except for Wednesday. We love our volunteers and want to be as flexible as possible to meet varied schedules. It’s always best to call ahead so we’ll be looking for you. The south end of the farm offered the best soil available so we’re often away from the front office/storage container at the north end. If you’d like to schedule a group or simply show up on your own, please know you’re welcome and appreciated!

As I mentioned before, there’s a myriad of reasons “why” you should be a part of Opal’s Farm – far too many to write about here so I’ll be following up with reason number two on Monday. I bet your “why” is on the list…