Gregory Megginson, an intern with YouthWorks, looks on as Lisa Franklin surveys the lettuce crop.

On a formerly vacant lot in the Sandtown-Winchester area of Baltimore City, a series of greenhouses have sprung up, growing over 10 types of lettuce and providing jobs to residents of an area more notable for its vacant housing stock than its green spaces.

Part of a series of neighborhood revitalization projects developed by Newborn Holistic Ministries, the farm, known as Strength to Love, is helping to transform both the appearance of Sandtown-Winchester, and its residents.

Strength to Love is located on a formerly overgrown lot on Lorman St., between N. Monroe St. and N. Fulton Ave.  The site currently consists of six hoop farms, 150 foot long greenhouses where the lettuce is grown and harvested.  An additional 10 hoop farms are in the process of being built, four on the north side of Lorman and six on the south.

According to Lisa Franklin, Strength to Love’s site supervisor, each house goes through a germination cycle of four weeks, and harvesting is done weekly.

“We rotate the houses so that we’re constantly getting produce, constantly being able to harvest,” explained Franklin.

Of course, producing a crop is ultimately a means to an end.

“This is a rehabilitation to reintegrate people who have been incarcerated back into society,” said Franklin of the farm that employs formerly incarcerated men and women, teaching them a skill and offering a second chance they seldom receive elsewhere.  “That is Strength to Love’s mission.”

Lettuce growing in one of Strength to Love’s six hoop farms in West Baltimore.

Douglas Wheeler was living next door on N. Fulton Ave. when he noticed the greenhouses start going up two years ago. Wheeler, who at 18 served a one year prison sentence, was overcome by curiosity and began showing up to the farm, asking questions and learning about the process of growing lettuce, year round, in an urban environment.

Wheeler is now employed on the farm, and says that growing lettuce and understanding what counts as an acceptable harvest has taught him to take pride in the product of his labor.

“If I won’t eat it, I’m not letting nobody else eat it,” said Wheeler. “So if I take good care of it, I know it’s good and it makes me feel good to know that I’m helping people.”

Maurice Owens is a deacon with Newborn Holistic Ministries and oversees the farm’s operations.  Owens spoke to the various ways the farm is serving the local community.

“It’s a very good project,” said Owens.  “It enables to have some work in the neighborhood, some fresh food, vegetables, for our community, as well as bringing some money into the church to maybe help some of those who might have misfortunes: gas and electric, rent, children are injured—the whole gamut of life.”

Strength to Love’s harvest yields are mostly sold to Big City Farms, an urban farming company that sells produce to area vendors and also serves as a consultant to Strength to Love.

The farm has become a point of civic pride, a place where local residents help out by volunteering to clean trash and debris from the site.

The Strengh to Love hoop farms from Lorman St.

“I love it because the kids in the neighborhood—they’ll mess up everything, you know how kids are in a neighborhood like this—they don’t mess it up at all,” said Damon Leighton, one of the employees on the farm.  “They respect me because I’ve been here so long and they respect my job.  They come through and if they can help they will.”

Strength to Love has not only supplied Leighton with a job, it has also made him healthier, introducing him to better food options which, combined with the hard work of farming, have enabled him to lose approximately 75 pounds.

For Owens, Strength to Love’s greatest contribution, however, is hope.

“This is what we do.  Just a community thing, trying to help all the people in our community, give people jobs, give them some hope,” said Owens.  “When you have some hope you can wake up and get started in the morning.  When you ain’t got no hope, you just lay there and think of something crazy to do, which usually winds up being something bad.”

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO