The Fruitful Field: 'a walk in the woods' with food




POMPANO BEACH—Sandwiched between a ribbon of interstate and a somewhat forgotten neighborhood of Haitian and Latin immigrants, it was once a rock-strewn field on a vacant church lot. Today, it's an urban farm layered with acres of fruit trees, Tuscan kale, stalks of bananas, herbs and vegetables—even honeybees.

The Fruitful Field, a partnership between a United Methodist church and a nonprofit, grows produce for those living in food deserts: areas where poverty thrives and a meal can sometimes be little more than canned food or a candy bar.

GrowCity offers jobs to interns at The Fruitful Field. In addition to learning about agriculture, many give tours to visitors and cook meals at an outdoor kitchen. The nonprofit is currently planning cooking classes for area neighborhoods. Shown here, plants are formed from seedlings before they are planted in the fields.

At-risk teens find jobs here and learn to cook, picking fresh produce and filling simmering pots with lentils, brown rice and other foods garden grown. Lives are changed.

The first seeds were planted in 2008. That's when Wayne Boswell, a former ad agency executive and current trustee chair at Parkway United Methodist Church, and Flavio Sloat, the executive director of this unique nonprofit and self-described urban dweller, came together.

"It was a struggling church," said Boswell. "It was really facing closure. One of the things we looked at was, how do we reconnect with the community?" The idea came to form two dozen community garden plots where neighbors could plant their own vegetables. Soon they were planting 200 fruit trees.

"It was sand and rock. We actually got plants growing, which was like a miracle in itself," Boswell said. "We purchased all the plants, and we were saying, how are we going to get everybody to do this? Seventy people who had never met before," Boswell said with amazement. “They helped us plant and that just started an energy that kept growing."

By 2015, The Fruitful Field was harvesting 7,500 pounds of organic food, helping stock local food pantries.

GrowCity interns

They started the GrowCity program offering disadvantaged teens real jobs, not only learning about agriculture, but also getting paid. They pick produce, cook meals in an outdoor kitchen and learn employable skills, finding life beyond shadowed streets and poverty.

"It's hard for most people to imagine," Boswell suggested, "driving through an area and passing several grocery stores that food would be an issue. But for most, there's no transportation, and it's too far to walk. We see a lot of children that are hungry.

Describing The Fruitful Field as a place that sometimes has a "Chef's Table vibe," a popular Netflix series, Executive Director Flavio Sloat (left) is joined by Chef Piero of Pomodoro Restaurant. Piero came to the U.S. from Italy when he was 18 and is a regular buyer of fresh produce.

"When you hand someone very fresh, very tasty right out of the ground collard greens…you've reached out in a way you can't with a can of tuna. To hand an incredibly tasteful banana to a homeless person and see them smile, you develop a connection," he said.

The GrowCity interns often provide tours to those visiting the farm. Many will sample homemade Key lime pie, hear the rustle of tropical plants and see bushels of produce being hand-picked. "It's not really your typical garden,” Boswell noted.

"You're walking back into what sometimes seems to be a weedy patch with some trees and then you start to learn, under this weedy patch they just pulled out several bushels of sweet potatoes. And back in those trees, there's actually six mangoes that weren't there 10 years ago.

He describes their surprise as they discover there are honey bees and fish and aquaponics. “And then you turn around and find this whole area of tomatoes and sugarcane. It's kind of a walk in the woods with food," Boswell said. "You can't typically walk through a treed or brushy area in Florida and see eggplants growing at your feet."

The concept of this layered tropical forest of trees and plants is called permaculture. Boswell adds they don't worry about weeds because they sometimes have "beneficial aspects."

Sloat remembers his childhood on his grandparent’s farm in Indiana picking produce from the garden and watching his grandfather draw honey from bee hives in the early mornings of a Midwestern sun—experiences he says are lacking in the urban metro life of South Florida.

Because of the climate, plants grown here are similar to plantings of the salted and wind-swept islands of Jamaica or the Bahamas.

Sloat describes it as a garden oasis with a "Chef's Table vibe"—a Netflix series featuring world-renowned chefs visiting fresh markets, loading baskets with fish, peppers and local delicacies for cooking creations.

"We have a little Italian restaurant with a guy (who) came over when he was 18 from Italy," Sloat said. “He buys from us much as he can, almost exclusively, partly because he doesn't like the big system. He came recently and did a class for our youth,” he added. "How to do true Marinara sauce: It was just a remarkable experience.”

‘Getting dirty and growing vegetables’

Green Earth Community Garden got its start when Cokesbury UMC in Margate donated property. Despite an early infestation of iguanas, the garden produced 300 pounds of organic food in their inaugural season.

Cokesbury UMC in Margate loaned property several years ago to a couple looking to start a community garden. Eric Gibian, director of Green Earth Community Garden and his wife Bridgette, partnered with Fruitful Field early on to "avoid the red tape and paperwork" and learn the ropes. Then they formed their own nonprofit, "getting dirty and growing vegetables and recruiting gardeners.

"We had to enrich the soil," said Gibian, “but I think even more challenging than that was an infestation of iguanas. Our garden borders a canal behind the church and that's their perfect natural habitat.” Gibian said there were dozens of the invasive creatures, and they are “voracious vegetarians."

The garden has evolved into an operation growing more than 30 crops—300 pounds of produce in their first season—and selling shares in exchange for weekly boxes of the pickings.

Across the country, organic gardens have become a cottage industry. There’s an urban farm planted inside a closed shopping mall in Cleveland using recirculating greenhouse hydroponics. In Seattle, a place called the Magic Bean Farm was created when seven homeowners donated their yards to organic farmers.

"A lot of churches have an area that's not used," Boswell said. "Why not simply plant stuff there to glorify creation. How many people get to stick their hands in the soil anymore?"

"The Fruitful Field is a wonderful example of a partnership between a creative nonprofit that focuses on community building and a church with a heart for outreach," said Cynthia Weems, South East district superintendent. “I certainly believe this has potential to be replicated in any setting."

It takes community resources and a willingness to be creative for funding and to cultivate volunteers, said Sloat.

--Doug Long is managing editor of the Florida Conference


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