James Madison University

Collicello Urban Gardens

Two ISAT Seniors Micro-Farm in Downtown Harrisonburg

By: Hannah Austin
Posted: May 6, 2013

PHOTO: GardenAt 438 Collicello Street, seedlings sprout in biodegradable pots along a porch railing and unidentifiable green shoots cover the front yard. A plethora of plant life greets visitors who step onto the porch of the Victorian-style home; however, residents Sam Frere and Daniel Warren, who live in the home, are usually found in the backyard. The two James Madison University ISAT seniors have transformed their 1-acre backyard into a sustainable micro-farm, an action that inspired the city of Harrisonburg to modify zoning laws, and started a local business in the process.  In keeping with JMU’s motto ‘Be the Change’, Frere and Warren are following their dream of making the city of Harrisonburg a national catalyst point for sustainable food systems.”

Frere and Warren were randomly assigned as suite-mates freshman year, and quickly realized they shared a passion for healthy food and sustainable farming. While Frere graduates this May and Warren next December, both plan to stay in Harrisonburg and continue the work they began as students.

In December 2011, Frere approached faculty member Dr. Wayne Teel and suggested he put his concentration in Ethical Development of Sustainable Food Systems to use by planting a garden for a local restaurant. A Bowl of Good, located at 831 Mt. Clinton Pike, already had a “Good Garden” on premise, but wanted help with maintenance and further development of sustainable practices. Warren shared the vision, and the project that would provide them with over 1,000 hours of micro-farming experience began. 

“We learned that we could create a beautiful and productive garden in a small space, using minimal tools and inputs,” said Frere. “We ended up growing over 120 plants varieties in their 970 square feet plot, which were used frequently for restaurant meals and specials. Unfortunately, we produced more food than the restaurant could use, and a good deal of food went to waste. The stress that resulted from this allowed us to better understand the applicability of our methods in agriculture, and redefine our effort versus reward ideals.”

Warren added: “We used a lot of bio-intensive methods in the garden, like integrated pest management, companion planting, double digging, and hexagonal spacing to utilize space most efficiently and create a living mulch. We paid attention to the local climate in order to keep the garden in harmony with its surroundings, and we never used herbicides, pesticides, or any fertilizers other than compost in the garden. The amount of things that I learned during the experience was nearly incomprehensible.” 

Frere and Warren left the project eager to continue gardening and experimenting, and soon got permission to start planting at their Collicello Street home. What started as a one-bed garden eventually evolved to include their entire backyard and the pair realized they were once again in danger of growing more than they could use.

PHOTO: Carrots “It was at that point that we decided to start a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA),” said Warren. “We added customers as they came to us, and produced more and more food by constantly creating new garden space. Customers would pay us at the beginning of each month, we would deliver them a ‘share’ of the garden for four weeks. If they wanted to continue, the process would then repeat itself. It left things flexible for us and our customers, which peaked at 14 members.”

It was not until the end of summer 2012 that Frere and Warren realized that selling produce from their home garden was actually against the law.

“Once we found out, we wanted to use the opportunity to promote change in a social and political context,” said Frere. “We wanted to make a change to zoning laws that would allow anyone to start an urban farm. We were advised to apply for a special use permit, but it was costly, and would apply only to our situation – we wanted to make sure that future farmers who wanted to start an urban farm in Harrisonburg would be able to.”

After months of meeting with town officials Frere and Warren reached their goal. In March 2013, the Harrisonburg City Council passed an amendment allowing for the regulation of business gardens in residential neighborhoods “We want to grow a lot of food in a little space,” said Warren. “We are constantly referring to sustainable farming practices that we learned or experimented with at JMU, and applying them to our own micro-farm.”

“Every bed has a story,” added Frere. “Take this lettuce for example. It is closely planted, with radishes surrounding it. The radish leaves will attract aphids and beetles, who will eat those leaves instead of the lettuce – which is fine because all you want from a radish is the root. There are tiers and structures all over this garden. Some tall plants are shading smaller ones, others are planted according to root length. Our end goal is to create a self-sustaining landscape.”

The CSA begins delivering produce on June 1. Frere and Warren's produce will also be available at the Friendly City Food Co-op weekly, and the duo hopes to begin selling both produce and wholesale biochar at the Harrisonburg Farmer's Market in upcoming months.

“The experience has taught Dan and I that you can take your education and what you are passionate about, and you can make a living from it,” said Frere. “Don't settle – be the change you want to see.”

For more information on Collicello Gardens and how you can attain a CSA Membership, visit their Facebook page

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