Originally published in the Autumn 2023 edition of the OEFFA newsletter.
As we arrived on a steamy July afternoon, it was hard to imagine anything different for the church’s backyard. Teeming with abundance, there were overflowing vegetable beds, blooming flowers, and lots of happy bees. But seven years ago, SE Urban Farm looked a lot different. The now-thriving space was made up of layers of plastic and sod. It took a lot of work to get the barren land to where it is now, and the local community is benefitting as a result.
Meet Ava Johnson
It’s also difficult to wrap one’s head around the fact that this is mostly a one-woman show. Though she’s had some help from volunteers and paid contractors, Ava Johnson is the wonder woman behind the urban farm on Columbus’ southeast side. She’s a second-generation farmer and, although she claims farming is “not a natural tendency,” both of her grandmothers were farmers, so her childhood was spent around people who grew their own food.
In 2016, a member of the Gethsemane United Methodist Church approached Ava about creating a community garden, with the primary goal of providing activities for children in the congregation. Ava said she “jumped in headfirst.”
A crew from Local Matters and Independence High School helped with clearing the plot and establishing raised beds. The farm was supported initially by grants and all produce was given away. However, with reduced revenue, a new business model had to be incorporated. After a few years, Ava transitioned to selling through a farmers’ market. Later, SE Urban Farm became a 501(c)3.
Now, Ava is building her CSA customer base, regularly hosting educational tours, and donating excess produce to the church. Recognizing the importance of knowing her customers, she grows what the local community knows and loves. Greens, okra, and strawberries are crowd pleasers, but she also likes to introduce her CSA customers to new herbs and veggies—primarily those that come to the farm as seed donations—like sweet potatoes, sage, and purslane.
Challenges for an Urban Farmer
It isn’t all sunshine and rainbow chard for SE Urban Farm. Like many small-scale farmers, Ava has the uncertainty of a short-term lease to contend with. It isn’t easy to build lasting infrastructure when the future of the farm is up in the air. But, in Ava’s words, “Farming isn’t for chumps—you’ve gotta have resiliency.”
Ava also recommends that interested farmers take the time to do internships or volunteer before starting a farm business of their own. Even she “realizes [she’s] not superwoman,” and has taken the time to balance her get-it-done approach with resources that support her learning.
Ava was in the 2021-22 OEFFA Heartland Farm Beginnings cohort. She and other farmers met over seven weeks to hear from guest farmers and learn about whole farm planning, agroecology, land access, marketing and distribution, and much more.
Mentoring is another way Ava has learned about effective farming. She gives credit to other African Amercian farmers, like Minister Aaron Hopkins, Julialynne Walker, and Walt Bonham. She is also appreciative of her mentors, Andy Kuppp and Kendyl Meadows of Three Creeks Produce and Lauren Ketcham of Down the Road Farm. They have spent time with her and shared their invaluable wisdom.
While these connections and experiences have been influential in SE Urban Farm’s success, Ava still reports key challenges like balance and documentation. Having operational drip irrigation would reduce labor needs, and having more volunteers would introduce people to food production while cutting down Ava’s need to balance her full-time job and farm work.
On her wish list are a few big things: a truck, a long-term lease in southeast Franklin County that’s big enough for a 30×96′ hoop house and some animals, and a wash, store, and pack area. She’s hoping to expand her CSA to 20 families, too.
Sowing Seeds for the Future
Wishes aside, the future is bright for Ava and the urban oasis she’s created. She recently locked in a year-long lease at another church, in a space that seems far removed from Columbus’ burgeoning urban sprawl. The sound of birds still outcompete those from speeding cars, and the slightly larger space can accommodate fruit trees. There’s a lot of potential in this little pocket of earth. Ava has a “vision of doing something with the youth, centered around farming.”
Stay tuned for that—and a possible book—from this self-proclaimed “urban farm girl.”
Land access uncertainties aren’t uncommon among beginning and BIPOC farmers. OEFFA’s Outreach program is building capacity to improve this community’s ability to successfully acquire, own, operate, and maintain viable farms. To learn more about strategies for accessing land and utilizing USDA programs, visit outreach.oeffa.org.
Are you an OEFFA member with a food or farm story to share? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured!