South Side Family Farms explores food justice through agriculture


Aaron Hopkins of South Side Family Farms stands outside of an elevated tunnel at the farm’s rural site in Johnstown, Ohio on August 18. (Photo by Sarah Donaldson)

JOHNSTOWN, Ohio — Aaron Hopkins, of Columbus, Ohio, dreams of opening his own nursery. He grew up with a garden, worked in landscaping for years, and always enjoyed growing flowers and ornamental trees.

In his community in the South Side neighborhood of Columbus, he noticed that few people had these things in their yards. It’s a matter of economics – not everyone has the resources to buy ornamental plants. He hoped that by starting his own nursery, he could also work in his community to help more of his neighbors start growing and planting their own gardens.

But as he worked in his community, initially through a community garden at the Family Missionary Baptist Church, Hopkins realized the problem went far beyond ornamental plants. Much of the South Side area is a food desert, he said, and many people in his community don’t have access to fresh, affordable vegetables or fruit.

He still dreams of this nursery and wants to help his community plant more flowers and ornamental plants. But he focused on growing and teaching young people how to grow fresh vegetables and fruits to help support their community.

“My eyes have been opened to the injustices that exist,” Hopkins said. “I want people to break through barriers and see they have the potential… you can have your hands in the ground, or you can be a scientist, or you can understand marketing. You can be the one to help transport the produce to market. You could haul grain.

Cultivate

Hopkins started with a gardening project in 2015 at the Family Missionary Baptist Church, which he attends and serves as a minister, intended to teach young people gardening and fence-building skills, and to help young people to connect with the elderly.

“There have been a lot of economic challenges and social dysfunctions in our community. And so we started teaching young people how to build these gardens,” he said.

After seeing the need for better access to food in his community, Hopkins shifted his focus and began farming on City Land Bank properties on Wilson Avenue in Columbus in 2016.

“These gardens don’t just produce food. They produce a better quality of life for the communities around them,” said Laura Quiceno, master’s student in environmental and natural resources at Ohio State University and director of the Columbus Gardens Farm.

Community response was positive and it was clear people wanted access to fresh vegetables, Hopkins said. But on the properties of the land reserve, they did not have the capacity to meet the need. So they started looking for a place to cultivate more.

In 2019, Hopkins and his wife, Antoinette, met Ted Stutz at an Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association conference session on access to land.

Stutz, of Ohio Earth Food, a company that sells organic farming supplies, had an open space on a property in Johnstown, Ohio, for a micro-farm project. The land had not been cultivated for a few years, but was once certified organic and has a barn for storage, a building with a cold room and space for washing and packing produce.

It was “a dream come true,” Hopkins said. So they made a contract with Stutz to use an acre of that property as well. Now they have two high tunnels and several outdoor vegetable plots on this farm.

two high tunnels
High tunnels and gardens cultivated by South Side Family Farms in Johnstown, Ohio. (photo Sarah Donaldson)

Youth

This year, Hopkins taught young people in the Columbus South Side area about black heritage farming, with the support of a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant.

“We wanted them to understand this sustainable farming thing,” Hopkins said. “We don’t really have good access to 4-H in our community, so we’re at a disadvantage that way.”

Most young people in the Hopkins community don’t know much about career opportunities in agriculture. Hopkins teaches them gardening and growing food, as well as farming, agronomy, and other agriculture-related careers. He also teaches them about black farmers and agronomists like George Washington Carver, and the practices they used.

One of the original goals was for the youths to grow an acre of corn on the Johnstown property this summer. But after getting the results of the soil tests, they realized the land needed some work before they could grow maize on it. So instead, the youngsters will grow pumpkins and squash, and they’ll plant a cover crop on that acre of land this fall to help build up more organic matter.

“We will continue to grow this maize and market it; it just won’t be this year,” Hopkins said.

In the meantime, youth in the program learned about building raised beds, soil amendment, the logistics of getting vegetables from farm site to customers, and sustainable farming practices.

“I think it’s a really good project for them to get a little exposure to the reality of food production,” Quiceno said.

Tomatoes growing in a high tunnel
Tomatoes growing in a high tunnel at South Side Family Farms in Johnstown, Ohio on August 18. (Photo by Sarah Donaldson)

Community

The food produced on the farm is destined for a few different markets. A portion goes to the FarmsSHARE program, which pays South Side Family Farms to distribute free boxes of vegetables to community members.

“It’s a very nice project and it helps a lot of people,” Quiceno said.

The farm also sells its products in CSA boxes, at farmers’ markets and at its own stand in Columbus. Anything he doesn’t sell is donated to local food pantries.

Sustainable agriculture, for Hopkins, is not just about specific practices, but also “understanding how these things can support your community.”

A man stands next to a washing station for products
Tomatoes growing in a high tunnel at South Side Family Farms in Johnstown, Ohio on August 18. (Photo by Sarah Donaldson)

Justice

Many areas like the South Side community in Columbus are struggling to access food and access to land to even be able to grow their own food, he said.

“I don’t know how to say it…in a nice way.” When we talk about food deserts, sometimes those food deserts are intentional,” Hopkins said.

Discriminatory practices like redlining have contributed to injustice in food systems, he added. Redlining involved denying mortgages and loans to black Americans and other people of color in certain neighborhoods, which contributed to racial segregation.

Neighborhoods with large minority populations were treated as riskier investments, and although the practice is now illegal, many of these neighborhoods still face disadvantages decades later. Often, Hopkins said, grocery stores are “on the other side of the red line.”

That’s why he wants to not only help communities overcome these barriers to have better access to food, but also help young black people in particular to know about all the opportunities available to them in agriculture, whether it’s either in agriculture, marketing, transport or other sectors. who work with agriculture. He wants them to know that farming can be a career, or even just a way for people to help support and feed their families.

“It’s the legacy of African-American sustainable agriculture,” he said.

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