In the middle of the largest and most urban county in Arkansas sits a 63-acre plot of land dedicated to urban sustainable farming.
The St. Joseph Center started out as St. Joseph's Home, a 720-acre farm with a 56,000-square-foot, 80-room stone building. It was an orphanage operated by the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock. When it opened in 1910, 66 children moved in, and by 1914 almost 300 children lived there.
It was an orphanage until 1978. Over the years St. Joseph's also served as a nursing home, day care center, retreat and for a short while during World War I, living quarters for officers and their wives and friends from the nearby Camp Pike (now Camp Robinson).
In 2008, the Diocese of Little Rock announced that St. Joseph's was closing and the property would be sold. Talk of building apartments on the land, or other uses, caused an uproar among some local residents, and they took action. One of those people was Sandy DeCoursey, today the volunteer executive director of the St. Joseph Center.
She was one of six citizens who in 2009 created the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas, an independent 501(c) 3 nonprofit. Its mission was to preserve and restore the site at 6800 Camp Robinson Road in North Little Rock. In 2010 it signed a 50-year lease agreement with the diocese.
Fast-forward eight years and the St. Joseph Center has a community
garden, demonstration garden, Farm Stand, three high tunnels with vegetable production, a half-acre Hunger Relief Garden, a pollinator garden, 12 bee hives, and a variety of livestock, alongside the historic building -- which is available for retreats and events. It also has art studios and office space available for rent.
The goal is to educate the public about urban gardening and farming techniques using sustainable practices for food production. The center has community outreach and educational programs and a nine-member volunteer board with a vision for the future.
Feeding those who are in need is a long-standing tradition at St. Joseph's. While the orphanage existed, the Benedictine Sisters who ran it (along with volunteers and the children) maintained an extensive farm, with vegetables, a fruit orchard and rose garden. They raised cows and hogs. They not only provided food for the children but to the community as well.
Returning to those roots as a more-than-self-sustaining farm, today's center won't support an orphanage, but the property will continue to serve the community through art, farming, agritourism and agricultural education. The path to self-sufficiency hasn't been without bumps. A brief partnership with local agriculture advocate Jody Hardin dissolved in unrealized hopes with his departure in 2014. But the work continued.
St. Joseph's new tag line is "Farm life. City living."
In 2013, the St. Joseph Center received a grant from North Little Rock Fit2Live to build a fenced-in community garden. It started out with 10 beds, each 150 square feet. Now there are 32 beds with a waiting list -- thanks to the efforts of the first community garden coordinator, Ruth Landers, who served for four years.
The goal is to create more beds. The garden plots rent for $50 per year, first-come-first-served. Participating gardeners are given the raised beds, soil, compost and water, along with access to a shed full of garden tools. The requirements are that they maintain their gardens in an organic way.
In 2015 with money from the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the center built the half-acre Hunger Relief Garden. Two crops are planted each year and all the produce is donated to Arkansas Foodbank and other area food banks. More than 8,000 pounds of produce have been donated from this plot.
The first year they planted potatoes in the spring and turnips in the fall. This year they just finished planting watermelons. This project is maintained by volunteers.
A demonstration garden showcases a variety of ways people can garden in limited space. There are raised beds, containers -- including old bathtubs, vertical pallet gardens, keyhole gardens and straw bale garden demonstrations. An Arkansas Garden Corps member leads maintenance of this garden.
All produce from the demonstration garden is sold at the on-site Farm Stand.
The stand is adjacent to the demonstration and community gardens and is open from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday from May 5 through Oct. 27. In addition to produce grown on-site, it offers produce and products from a variety of local growers.
The stand has a new manager, Amanda Isbell, and is staffed by volunteers with the proceeds going toward preserving the site.
In September, the St. Joseph Center board learned that it had been awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service for urban farming. With this three-year contract it has constructed three 30-by-96-foot-tall tunnels and hired two farmers to raise produce.
The high tunnels were built by volunteers and 12 members of the AmeriCorps Corporation for National and Community Service. The 12 young people lived on-site from January through March while they worked.
A pollinator garden takes up one side of the landscape around the historic building. Built and maintained by Central Arkansas Master Naturalists, the Blessed Bee and Butterfly Garden also demonstrates to visitors plants that are beautiful and useful.
The pastures support sheep, goats and 20 head of cattle. The Feather Garden and Egg Plant boast more than 30 chickens and ducks. The longtime volunteer caretaker, 88-year-old Julius Greb, has worked on the land since 1956. He produced 1,000 bales of hay last year.
Educational and fundraising efforts are led by board president Ron Lensing and executive director DeCoursey. They have been hosts to a successful homesteading conference last fall (to be repeated in November), several high tunnel workshops and a spring and fall fundraiser -- the recent Lettuce Grow and, in the fall, Turnip and Bee Thankful.
From the small seeds sown by the six interested citizens back in 2008 has emerged a thriving place to learn and grow alongside others. Its motto -- "Preserving our past to better serve our community" -- is seen daily in the activities and enthusiasm of its board and members.
In 2008, DeCoursey says, when she decided to rally behind St. Joseph, as a person of faith she just knew this would happen, and happen it has.
The St. Joseph Center has come a long way in a short while, but there is huge potential for growth and plenty of opportunities for community involvement. While the restoration and preservation of the historic building are still priorities, the list of service and learning opportunities includes gardening, landscaping, urban farming, agritourism and more.
To learn more, visit the website stjosephcenter.org or email [email protected]. Or call DeCoursey at (501) 993-4560. Or buy some produce on Saturday morning at the Farm Stand.
DeCoursey's hope is that in 10 years, St. Joseph's will be a vital, fully staffed facility, alive with families and a hub for learning about urban agriculture, healthy living and the community.
Janet B. Carson is a horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
HomeStyle on 05/19/2018