Lynchburg Grows: Growing Relationships and Produce

A city farm in Virginia offers job training and harvests some veggies along the way.

by Deb Brandt-BuehlerJanuary 18, 2016
/Green pepper

Courtesy Lynchburg Grows

In 2010, Lynchburg Grows grew 12,000 green pepper plants to sell through its CSA. Lynchburg Grows also harvests Swiss chard, turnips, leaf lettuce, carrots and other crops.

In the heart of Lynchburg, Va., an urban-farming program has blossomed into learning opportunities for at-risk youth and individuals with special needs. The social-based programming at Lynchburg Grows enables participants to learn job skills, experience the routines of regular employment, and practice the responsibilities of showing up and performing their work.

Restored Property

Launched in 2003, the Lynchburg Grows farm is located on 6½ acres downtown. The property once was a rose farm operated by the Schenkel family, who closed their business in 1999 with hopes that the historic greenhouses could be maintained and used. The nonprofit organization Lynchburg Grows was formed, and the property was renamed H.R. Schenkel Urban Farm and Environmental Center.

Through enthusiastic volunteer support, the urban farm’s greenhouses have been completely cleaned out, including the replacement of existing soils with organic soil. Soil replacement came through collaboration with the community to collect school and community-college food waste to create compost. The collaboration saved the farm $96,000 while reducing landfill impact.

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Lynchburg Grows workshops

Courtesy Lynchburg Grows

Lynchburg Grows provides vocational training for special-needs farmers and at-risk youth.

Vocational Training

The social program has an enrollment of 12 to 16 special-needs farmers and an additional 12 at-risk youth that visit once a week. These students are gaining an understanding of how their food is grown.

“Depending upon their abilities, each individual is working on social development,” explains Dereck Cunningham, president of Lynchburg Grows. “These are students who are in detention centers or alternative schools because of social-behavior issues. We work toward building their self-esteem in our programs.”

The vocational training program challenges student farmers to develop a business from the ground up. Participants choose a business name and develop a mission statement, a logo and a marketing plan around a product.

Ultimately, when participants sell their items or produce, the money made is set aside for scholarship funding for individuals who perform well through the program. Those with the strongest leadership skills and the ability to demonstrate that they’ve benefitted from participation have an option to receive scholarship funding.

Trainees and volunteers earn free produce for themselves through their donated time.

Urban Community Supported Agriculture

In 2010, Lynchburg Grows tackled a major business venture: Growing 12,000 green bell pepper plants. Working with Appalachian Harvest, a cooperative of farmers in Abingdon, Va., Lynchburg Grows hoped to harvest and sell 50 to 60 20-pound boxes a week during the late-summer months.

The all-organic farming program generates a wide variety of produce year-round.

“In addition to the bell peppers this year we will be growing leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, and a number of root crops, such as turnips, radishes and carrots,” Cunningham says. “Produce is available to Lynchburg and surrounding area residents through our CSA. Every first Saturday of the month, we host an open house selling produce and giving tours of the property.”

As of March 2010, Lynchburg Grows receives 75 percent of its operating budget through grants. The CSA memberships help boost the organization’s revenue and long-term sustainability. Lynchburg Grows can’t grow all the produce they need for CSA members, so they work closely with other area farmers.

The Project Plan

“We have a plan to turn one of the greenhouses into an aquaponics facility, which will create more jobs and provide classroom space for instruction,” Cunningham says.

Lynchburg Grows has already had a big impact with programming in seven community centers, five targeted elementary schools and six local-gardening efforts. Volunteers from area universities and community colleges provide countless hours of support, as do the eight staff members.

“Only two of our staff are full-time,” Cunningham explains. “The others work part time and contribute significantly beyond their paid hours. Most like being here and know what’s involved in supporting the farming efforts.”

About the Author: Writer Deb Buehler grew up on a hobby farm in central Indiana where she gardened, made applesauce, tapped sugar maples and cared for an array of animals. Today she and her husband, Craig, live in Indianapolis, practicing a sustainable lifestyle that includes expanding an urban vegetable garden, buying locally, keeping bees and caring for dogs Abby and Tucker.