If you can’t bring the inner-city to the farm, why not bring the farm to the inner-city?
That’s the idea of EZE Farms.
EZE, or Ezekiel Ministries, began as a mentoring program for elementary-aged kids of inner-city families in Columbia in 2009, focusing on supporting children academically, behaviorally, and relationally. Most of these children are facing a daunting array of challenges that stem from generational poverty.
Citing educator and author Ruby Payne, Ezekiel director Josh Whitlock appeals to the four ways people in generational poverty typically find their way out. One is having an extraordinary talent, like football, that is difficult to ignore. But of course, that’s a fraction of the population. A second is pressure, or when it hurts too much to stay in the current situation. Desperation can often be the mother of perseverance. A third way is the sheer force of a remarkably driven will – possessing a goal one cannot live without accomplishing. The fourth is a key relationship that helps guide and support individuals out of poverty.
“If we can be that key relationship, if a kid has an extraordinary talent, then we can help them see it. We can help kids learn how to set goals and go after them,” explained Whitlock. “We can help kids understand that it is painful to live in a cycle of generational poverty and we can help them understand that enough to want to move out, and we can be there to guide them through it.” So the focus on mentoring is for key relationships with families designed to be supportive partnerships for years to come.
Children living in many of these areas don’t have a safe place to go after school. “A lot of times parents will either keep them inside,” said Whitlock, “or entrust them with another family member who isn’t watching them as closely as they should.” They discovered a lot of what the mentors invested into them seemed to get “undone” throughout the rest of the week. To address this issue, Ezekiel decided to provide an after-school program, providing a safe place for kids to go in the afternoon and bringing positive people around them who would consistently and constructively pour into them through out the week.
The after-school program goes well beyond providing a supplemental classroom space. “We also try to give kids as many ways as possible to see outside of their current situation,” Whitlock added. “So we take a lot of field trips; we do a lot of enriching activities so the kids get to have their minds stretched by activities like science projects, and fun stuff that’s out of the norm for them. We take them to a farm out in Lexington, and they get to feed and clean farm animals. This past week we had a science teacher come in, Julie Landers, and she just talked all about birds.”
But about three years ago, the ministries first mentor, who is also the farm’s mastermind, started to see some of the guys he was mentoring get into trouble in the summertime, as they lacked healthy structures and programs. Ezekiel volunteers and mentors helplessly watched many of these promising young men and women fall prey to trouble in their neighborhoods.
This concerned mentor began looking for land outside of Columbia with the idea of establishing a small farm for young men in particular to work at, profit from, and grow. “Well, we looked and looked for this land and just weren’t able to find the right piece of property outside of town,” said Whitlock. Then one day, they got a call from a woman named Elizabeth Revelise. She asked if Ezekiel could use an open lot she owns off of Two Notch Road to run some kind of gardening project. Whitlock called a volunteer immediately, and said, “Hey, that land we’ve been looking for just found us.”
Ezekiel now has access to the land free of charge for five years, while they launch the Eze Farms program, teaching boys (ages 14-18 years old) about industriousness and entrepreneurship, and the simple but profound principle: we reap what we sow. Soon after stumbling on this land, they were encouraged to apply for a grant to help fund the salary of a farm manager. In June of this year, Eze Farms announced Brett Varner as their new manager.
In addition, Raeford Farms donated a BCS tractor, a “walk-behind” tractor designed for the type of farming Ezekiel will be doing on site, namely market gardening. “It’s small-space gardening that maximizes the production of a small piece of land,” said Whitlock.
“There are a few terms that apply to the specific kind of farming we’re going to do here, and one of those terms is market. That just means that the intention is to be profitable,” said Varner. “We’re going to use sustainable practices and minimal machinery, mostly hand tools, to avoid bigger costs. Another term that applies to the kind of farming we’re doing is bio-intensive, which is focused on sustainable soil health…the biggest advantage is that you get more produce off of a smaller space. And then it’s urban. If you have an urban farm, there’s less of a distance to carry your produce to the market. There’s less of a distance for your workers, who are urban as well, to come to work. So, bio-intensive, urban market farm.”
What will this farm grow? Short season, high-valued vegetables. “Mostly greens,” said Varner, “like micro-greens, some types of lettuce, okra,… tomatoes.” In addition they’ll grow seasonal and popular vegetables like squash, zucchini, and cucumbers.
This will not only provide a good return for the labor of these young men, but also healthy food for themselves and their neighbors. “I think a big part of this is leading them to take better care of themselves, understanding that after hard work you’re more fit, and if you eat right, if you take care of your body, you won’t get many of the diseases and ailments that so many around them are struggling with,” noted Varner.
Whitlock added that this an important lesson for these young men: “You reap what you sow. What they do today affects what happens to them tomorrow, down the road, five to ten years from now.” Farming is ideal for this “because what you do today affects whether you have a harvest two months from now,” explained Whitlock. “And we’d rather kids learn that through farming than through much harder ways.”
Besides offering healthy salad greens, how will Ezekiel recruit urban youth to spend their summers toiling in the South Carolina sun? As Whitlock described, “Being a part of something like this is a total lifestyle change for these guys. It’s not just fun anymore; it’s work.”
They’re incentivizing with another kind of green. The produce the boys harvest will go to market. Each season, boys who complete the apprenticeship will receive a small stipend.
But nobody will be getting rich here. The boys will have to buy into the vision. Whitlock’s vision is undeniably compelling.
“We understand that everybody won’t want to be a farmer, but we think it’s a great place to start. We think it brings a healthier outlook to the community, and we think it teaches guys how to work for anybody if they can successfully finish what we’re going to ask them to do here,” explained Whitlock. “I see us having partnerships with businesses in town that’ll employ our boys if they finish these programs. I see our boys going from candy-bar eating little guys to healthy men who can teach others how to make good decisions for their future and for their families. The possibilities are endless, and a lot of the cycles we talked about earlier, we see those being broken because guys are coming out of this thing with the knowledge of what it takes to be a responsible man. I believe we’ll see men who’ve never even been to a wedding getting married and having families, staying with their families, and taking care of their families. I think it’s coming. I get pumped up thinking about it.”
It seems it will take a few especially driven and well-supported kids to realize this vision. “There are people here who want a way to connect with these youth, and have a way to help them, and I just think we can provide that,” observed Varner. “So I’d like to see people from the community out here investing in these youth, not just people from Ezekiel.”
If you’re interested in being a part of this, you can connect with Josh at http://ezeministries.org/get-involved/.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Paul of Tarsus.