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The co-op’s farm is cultivating community along with food in its “neighborhood" at the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology business park.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
He’s started planting the back 40 — well the back 3 1⁄2 anyway — and Roanoke Natural Food Co-op farm manager Sean Jordan’s eggs and greens are already making their way to the co-op’s store in Grandin Village.
At the far end of Blue Hills Drive in the Roanoke Centre for Industry and Technology business park, up the hill from an old log house, Jordan is busy reversing the usual march of economic history, setting up the co-op’s new urban farm called Heritage Point.
At the park, the progression this spring isn’t the historical one of farm-to-factory. Instead, it is growing from bustling commerce to glossy feathered chickens, picking happily away at seeds and bugs as they range freely, the old-fashioned way, in the grass of a storm water retention basin.
As Jordan scrambles to get his spring planting done and a farm stand set up for a formal opening June 8, the business park may be moving to something else, too.
It is becoming a kind of neighborhood, says Mike Rigney, vice president of operations at Orvis, which employs some 500 people in the park.
“You’ve got 2,500 people, their Tier 1 companies, this beautiful park in Southwest Virginia … it’s a community,” he said.
He gets a kick out of the idea that progress at the booming industrial park looks rather like one of the earliest farms in the Roanoke Valley.
Having a farm stand place at the end of the street where neighbors can pick up some fresh food, or maybe a gallon of milk, is going to make it seem that much more neighborly, he said.
Like many a Roanoke neighborhood, people in the park get together for an annual trash pickup — it has grown from 80 people last year to 138 from eight or nine different companies this year, Rigney said. People still talk about the spread of food laid on afterward at this year’s effort.
At tenants’ meetings, there’s lot of talk about the need for sidewalks, just as there is in many other neighborhoods.
The neighbors in the park talk about ways to bring bus service in, or at least reduce the long hike many workers make to the end of the bus line, at King Avenue. They’re bringing in the Red Cross for their next meeting, to talk about how they can work together for emergencies like last summer’s derecho.
They’ve been telling Jordan they can’t wait for the farm stand or to walk over to the picnic tables he plans to set up near the old horse barn for the former police mounted squad.
“A neighborhood can be a group of people living next to each other, but a community can also be a lot of people working next to each other,” Jordan said.
Food, especially when you can see where it comes from and can talk to the neighbor who raised it, is a great way of building community connections, he added.
That’s one of the main reasons the co-op decided to take the plunge and go into farming in the city, he said.
“Take Elizabeth Arden,” he said, referring to a neighbor just up the road, the giant 400,000-square-foot shipping and warehousing operation that the $1.3 billion a year cosmetics and perfume company uses to ship its products all over the United States.
“They are worldwide … but they get nothing done unless a couple hundred people here in Roanoke show up and do their jobs. They are part of this community, they live here, in this place,” he said. “Food becomes a reminder of where you are.”
Making a farm is a long-term project, Jordan said. He’s got his beehives in, up at the top of the hillside where he’s preparing beds for pick-your-own berries. It will be a couple of years before they’ll be producing fruit. The orchard back beyond the pre-1850 log house will also take a while to yield.
But for several weeks now Jordan has been harvesting lettuce and other greens from the hoop house — the greenhouse like structure he uses to get an early start on spring crops, like lettuce and radishes, because it can keep them warm, and that he’ll be able to use for plants that are vulnerable to rain-borne fungus and blight during the summer.
He’s also starting to pull greens from a demonstration plot next to the hoop house. It’s near the area where he thinks a small parking lot and maybe some picnic tables will go.
His aim is to have a place where people can bring the kids on a weekend to see where their vegetables actually come from.
About half of the 31⁄2-acre upper field is planted now. Jordan and the rest of the farm crew will be regularly harvesting and reseeding crops, following the dictates of the season, well into the cold months.
Jordan says it’s been a bit slower than he’d like getting started, because of the cold, rainy spring, but he hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs.
“There’s always something to do on a farm,” he said.
The co-op bought nearly 18 acres at the city-owned industrial park last year, and the city agreed to lease another 7 acres for $100 a year, and gave an option to buy it for $30,000. The 7 acres is a mesa-like plot, with steep sides and about 3 1⁄2 acres that is flat enough for crops.
That will be the production part of the farm, providing vegetables to help stock the co-op’s bins as well as a farm stand in the business park. It’s been a tough site for the city to sell, since the dirt track up is far too steep for trailer trucks, Brandon said.
The co-op had first looked at a site near the former Countryside Golf Course in northwest Roanoke, but withdrew its proposal after residents in the nearby Miller Court neighborhood began to organize an opposition campaign.
Its new neighbors, though, are happy it’s there — they think they may be the only industrial park denizens to share a facility with a farm.
It feels kind of homey.
“Businesses out here are thinking sustainability. We’re thinking about wellness for our associates,” said Orvis’s Rigney. “The co-op fits right in.”
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