Richard “Farmer Chippy” Francis, Director of The Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm. (Courtesy photo)

By Nicole Batey
Special to the AFRO

If you drive by too quickly, you might just miss it. In an area slightly hidden from street view, amongst dilapidated buildings along Park Heights Avenue, there sitting atop a hill is an oasis. Oasis is defined as something serving as a refuge, relief or pleasant change from what is usual, annoying or difficult is a perfect description of the Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm run by Director Richard “Farmer Chippy” Francis and his team of young farmers.

Here you will find beds of arugula, eggplant, peppers, kale, chard cauliflower, various herbs and more growing vibrantly, better than any produce you can buy in the supermarket. Shaiah McLain, a Baltimore City school educator, who frequents the farm said that this farm produces the best vegetables. “It’s so fresh and tastes so good!”

This urban farm is situated in the midst of an area that’s also one of Baltimore City’s food deserts. Most of the convenience “markets” in this section of Park Heights advertise cigarettes, snacks, sodas and lottery but offer little to no fresh produce. But every Thursday, Ms. Pat Butler, or one of the other farm volunteers, is at the farm giving away free boxes of fresh produce. Ms. Pat, as she likes to be called, has been assisting with the farm since September 2020, after picking up a box for herself one day. What keeps her coming is seeing how people in the community, young and old, come together to listen and learn from one another. This intergenerational gathering is an intentional by-product of the farm. At a table and chair area set up by Farmer Chippy, located directly across from farm, youth and adults sit across from each other sharing stories about their lives. “I want the young people to hear the life stories of these adults, what they’ve been through and learn from their mistakes.” 

Farmer Chippy, originally from the Caribbean with a background in engineering, moved to Baltimore as an adult and decided to make Park Heights his home. “Park Heights is a special place,” said Farmer Chippy. “There are a lot of good people here who are raising their children to do good things that will make a difference. But a lot of that’s been overshadowed by negative reports in the news about crime and the drug and opioid epidemic.”

Farmer Ayodele La Veau, left, Farmer Taylor Dooley, back left, Farmer Takaiya Gaither, back center, and Farmer Bree Bree Morton. (Courtesy Photo)

Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott grew up in Park Heights, and attributes his family structure to being the difference between him and those who were lost to the streets. “…They provided a life us that showed us that even though we were living in those conditions, we did not have to settle for that,” Mayor Scott said in a video interview on his campaign website. 

Farmer Chippy is using his farm to create a safe space and provide structure to young people throughout the neighborhood and the city. One such young person, Farmer Taylor Dooley, a senior at Frederick Douglass High School said, “This is a great place to be, better peace of mind up here and a safe space for me and my friends.”

Other young farmers include: Farmer Bree Bree Morton-Lane, who has been with the farm since 2016, is a biology major at Howard University (Washington, D.C.) and serves as the farm’s manager and treasurer. Morton-Lane also trains city students in the art of farming. Farmer Takaiya Gaither, a psychology major at Old Dominion University (Norfolk, Va.), serves as their agricultural scientist; Farmer Ayodele La Veau, a psychology and theatre major, is graduating from UMBC in two weeks; and Farmer Cameron Washington, who emphatically demands that everyone should “get out and do the work! Don’t just talk about it be about it…purrrrrr!”

Together, along with Farmer Chippy and students from other area schools, they have made The Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm into an award-winning oasis, that has been recognized nationally by the American Farmers Bureau Federation, as one of the top ten AG innovative farms in the country and locally.

At the urban farm you will find arugula, eggplant, peppers, kale, chard cauliflower, various herbs and more growing vibrantly, better than any produce you can buy in the supermarket.

Just recently, Park Heights Renaissance, the non-profit organization that is shaping the future of the Park Heights community, named Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm’s Project Access as the recipient of its inaugural George E. Mitchell Park Heights Community Fellowship Grant, a grant named after a long-time Park Heights resident and advocate, who worked tirelessly for community residents. 

“Mr. Mitchell was a champion for Park Heights. I cannot think of a better way to honor his legacy than to invest in the youth of the community he loved,” said Mayor Scott. “Project Access is most deserving of this award and I look forward to the greatness that will come from this monumental investment.”

The $25,000 grant will support the farm’s agricultural curriculum in elementary schools. Focused on Baltimore City students in five public elementary schools in Park Heights – Arlington Elementary, Creative City, Pimlico Elementary, Park Heights Academy and Cross Country Elementary– Project Access will provide experiential teaching to young students on how to grow, harvest and package nutrient-dense foods that will then be available to families in the Park Heights community. 

Last fall, during Preakness 145, 1/ST RACING and the Maryland Jockey Club honored the legacy of George E. Mitchell with the renaming and introduction of The George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (GII). As part of its continued commitment to recognize Mr. Mitchell’s contributions each year during the Preakness weekend celebration, and as part of 1/ST RACING and the Maryland Jockey Club’s partnership with the Park Heights Renaissance, the recipient of the George E. Mitchell Fellowship Grant will be recognized before the running of The George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (GII) on Friday, May 14, 2021.

At a time when it’s hard to keep a young person’s attention, Farmer Chippy says, “The key to keeping our young students energized and engaged is through sustainable programs like ours that set the foundation for learning, for community engagement and long-term success.”

At the urban farm you will find arugula, eggplant, peppers, kale, chard cauliflower, various herbs and more growing vibrantly, better than any produce you can buy in the supermarket.

Yolanda Jiggett, executive director of Park Heights Renaissance agrees. Yolanda, who was born and raised in Baltimore in the Park Heights area, is no stranger to farming and gardening herself. She brings her knowledge and experience in community development around Baltimore City and in state government,  back to her beloved Park Heights community to help revitalize the area. 

Although efforts to bring more of the community together last year were impacted by the pandemic, Yolanda is hoping that this summer, Park Heights Renaissance and Farmer Chippy’s Project Access will help bring the community together.

“At Park Heights Renaissance, we want to implement a holistic, community development strategy.  We’re not interested in gentrifying Park Heights, we just want the same amount of attention and energy given to long-time residents, as other affluent neighborhoods in Baltimore City. This is not about any one organization or section of Park Heights. We all need to come together to do the work and bring more equity and capital into all of Park Heights.” 

Lately, Park Heights has been garnering attention, bringing in more partners who are really interested in developing Park Heights, and seeking minority contractors to do the work. City councilperson Sharon Middleton Green has been very supportive and instrumental in a lot of the good work being done in Park Heights. “She is super!”, says Farmer Chippy.

“There’s so much negative data out there about our children and our community, but this farm is about changing the narrative with positive outcomes. The Plantation Park Heights Urban Farm is not just about cultivating herbs and vegetables, it’s about positively cultivating the minds of our children. We’re training our children now so when then graduate from high school, they will have a full list of opportunities that they can choose from and decide whether they want to go to college, start their own business, or seek out other training opportunities.”