A former school in Bush Hills in Birmingham is now an urban farm. Residents think bigger.
At the former Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in West Birmingham, on nearly 4 acres that used to be school grounds, local residents tend to their own little garden plots with all kinds of fruit and vegetables. Potatoes, green vegetables, squash and other produce grown here – up to 50,000 pounds a year – are distributed free within the community.
What started as a way to keep the old school from becoming a blight on the neighborhood is now the Bush Hills Community Garden and Urban Farm. Located about a mile from Legion Field, plans are underway for more than just farming. Some residents believe it is a model for other projects that adapt existing structures to the needs of surrounding communities.
The roots of the garden and the farm date back to 2017.
“That’s when we asked the schools in the city of Birmingham for permission to do something with the old elementary school property,” said Walladean Streeter, president of the Bush Hills Neighborhood Association.
The school closed in 2008, after serving the community for eight decades. After that it was broken into numerous times and materials from the site were stolen.
Some area residents feared the vacant building would become a hazard to the neighborhood. They also saw an opportunity. BCS gave the group and its new nonprofit, Bush Hills Connections, a 50-year lease on the property.
In addition, the group applied for and received certification from the United States Department of Agriculture, as well as rezoning from the City of Birmingham, which allowed the property to be designated an official urban farm. With some small grants and borrowed farm equipment, Bush Hills Connections planted its first crops in 2018.
While only employees and a few select volunteers work on the urban farm, area residents who wish to tend their own small gardens can do so on the community garden side of the property. There they grow fruits, vegetables and flowers, as well as work on other projects like a goldfish pond.
Streeter says one of the first ideas for how to adapt the old school grounds was to use it to grow fresh produce for the neighborhood.
“We have to make sure we get all the vegetables we need because we’re in a food desert,” she said. “So now we know we can eat healthy.”
Streeter pointed out that there was no grocery store in the neighborhood. Additionally, fresh produce can be more expensive than many area residents can afford on a regular basis.
“A source for this fresh, healthy food here is so important,” she said. “And now, with our greenhouse, we can grow food all year round.”
The hoop is a large enclosure where plants are grown indoors and protected from the elements, especially in the colder months. Since opening, the operation has also hired a farm manager to oversee the near-constant work required to grow crops year-round.
Share the harvest
Every time produce is harvested, neighborhood residents are contacted via social media, phone, and even person-to-person. Community members are allowed to get what they need for personal use and sometimes a little more.
During the last vacation, Yvette Jones grabbed a little something extra. She was helping cook a Thanksgiving meal for all the comers, including those who couldn’t afford to cook for themselves.
The fact that Bush Hills products are always free is a big plus, Jones said.
“They are from us. So that’s the best benefit of getting them from a garden,” Jones said.
She added that the farm and the free food both represent Bush Hills.
“Our neighborhood likes to help each other… and take care of each other,” Jones said.
Jones also said the farm and garden are great ways to educate people about where food comes from.
“I brought my grandchildren here to show them how food is grown. It was really interesting for the kids to see it too.
Jennifer Duckworth homeschools her three children and uses the farm and garden as an outdoor classroom to learn about farming and gardening. Alexander is her senior and is in sixth grade; Carleigh is fourth; and Phoenix is second.
On a recent visit, April Williams, a master gardener and brain trust member who came up with the idea for the garden and farm, helped the Duckworths transplant their Brussels sprouts which they grew from seedlings. at home. She also told them about what had just been harvested and what needed to be planted next.
“There’s always something to do in the garden, isn’t there?” said Williams. “Even if you don’t harvest, you prepare the ground for the next season.”
For the Duckworths, getting involved in the garden offered benefits beyond simply providing an outdoor classroom.
“We’ve been doing this for two years,” Jennifer Duckworth said. “It’s completely changed our family’s lives and the way we think about our bodies and what we put in them, instead of just running to the grocery store and grabbing something off the shelves.”
“And I like vegetables now,” Carleigh said. “Before, I didn’t. These are fresh and more nutritious…and delicious.
A model project
After about four years of operation, the project is entering a new phase. With the help of business partners – architecture and engineering firm Goodwyn Mills Cawood and construction company BL Harbert – Bush Hills Connections is renovating the old school building itself, turning the former cafeteria into a teaching kitchen and the sports hall in the community center.
“Having this precinct kitchen will allow us to invite people from Bush Hills and the surrounding community and show them how to prepare food,” said Joanice Thompson, president of Bush Hills Connections and a longtime neighborhood resident. “So many people today don’t know how to cook…because they live hectic lives.”
Thompson said the gymnasium will provide children with a place to play and learn.
“At the same time, it won’t just focus on them coming in, playing basketball. We plan to have programs (focusing on) character building, violence prevention, safety, health.
There are also talks of converting old classrooms into lofts or condos, though those plans are still in the works.
“I would love to have a corner loft as I get older and live in this building,” Thompson said. “And (the building) is big enough to create all of that.”
Thompson said the Bush Hills community garden and urban farm can serve as an example for similar projects.
“The model we’re building is a healthy, competitive Bush Hills,” Thompson said. “And we want this model to be a scalable model that can be used in any neighborhood.”
“The garden gave us that synergy,” Thompson said. “It’s a place that creates a sense of community.”
It’s an ingredient, Thompson said, that nearly every neighborhood needs.