A tribute to the urban agrarian
There is nothing quite like a succulent, juicy peach (sweet and slightly tart) that caves at the slightest pressure of your teeth against its fuzzy, still-warm-from-the-sun flesh. But the next closest thing is the pleasure of having preserved those peaches into a luminescent jam that can be spread on a good hearty slice of toast in the middle of winter. One bite offers a heady rush of summer past.
In the height of winter, I am grateful for this taste memory, it is a reminder of the renewing cycle we are again nearing as spring approaches. I am grateful too, for my father, who had the foresight to plant this fruit-bearing tree in his yard four years ago, when it was not much more than a sprig. The harvest we experienced last year is the hope of every backyard gardener who offers up sweat equity on faith — faith that together, a place and its stewards can produce fruit.
And while you might be tempted to think this appreciation a bit pastoral, an agrarian dream for a limited few, think again. There is a new type of food powerhouse taking root in Milwaukee, the Urban Agrarian.
The eloquent and soft-spoken Sharon Adams, Program Director of Walnut Way Conservation Corp., is one such Urban Agrarian. Sharon and Larry Adams have not only shattered the perception of what one can grow in an urban neighborhood, but of what growing food can do for the wellness of a broken community.
The Adams live in Lindsay Heights, a neighborhood located northwest of downtown Milwaukee, between West Walnut, West Locust, North 12th and North 20th streets. It encompasses the poorest two zip codes in Milwaukee County.
“The second factor to hit the community,” adds Adams, “was redlining.” The term itself comes from the racially motivated practice of marking an area red on a map to delineate the line that banks would not cross when investing. Overall, the practice of redlining is the practice of either denying, or increasing the cost of services deemed a human necessity; services such as banking, affordable insurance, access to jobs, and health care. Redlining even included limiting access to supermarkets.
Limited access to supermarkets and an overabundance of cheap fast food options is a key reason lower income areas have some of the highest levels of chronic and potentially fatal diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, often coupled with obesity. These acquired diseases are often perceived as an individual’s failure to exercise willpower. In reality, the truth for many is that they are caused by a lack of access to healthy food options.
As services and resources vacated Lindsay Heights, poverty increased, and crime, prostitution and drugs ensued. The lack of available resources in Lindsay Heights encouraged a dependency on the welfare system.
Who says you can never come home again?
In 1997, after a 30-year career in social services that took her out of state, Sharon Adams returned to her homestead in the Lindsay Heights area. She was alarmed at how the neighborhood had changed. Where Adams remembered trees, there were none; the library where she spent hours as a child was closed; and the ethnically diverse businesses that once thrived were gone. Gone too, were many of the neighbors she had known.
Many people might have accepted the limitations of their neighborhood and moved on, too. But Sharon was determined to restore her parents’ home. When it needed electrical repairs, she called contractor after contractor and could not find anyone who would come to the area. A friend finally recommended Larry Adams, who, as it turned out, had many things in common with Sharon. Over time, they developed a shared vision for the neighborhood, the homes in it, and their lives together.
Sharon and Larry Adams believed in the importance of the past and the potential for regaining the richness, diversity and pride the community once held. This vision of richness that lay fallow was brought to life as Sharon and Larry Adams co-founded Walnut Way with their neighbors. In 2000, Walnut Way was incorporated as a charitable organization with a 503(c)3 designation.
Over time, financial support started to come in, enabling improvements and projects in the community to begin.
Rebuilding a community
To rebuild what the area lost through the years, they needed to address housing issues, reduce crime, provide job training, and offer children academic and recreational options. In short, they needed to restore wellness to the community.
Larry, who had been introduced to beekeeping as a child, furthered his knowledge by taking a beekeeping course at Growing Power, the urban farm on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Two years later, he was teaching the course.
Next, Larry Adams worked with Growing Power’s Will Allen to develop production gardens on five vacant lots that Walnut Way purchased from the city. Situated on these backyard lots are intensive, rotational gardens growing greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, and much, much more.
Over time, they have added pear trees, cherry trees, and — after careful research to determine the best variety of peach tree — they planted what Sharon called “Minnesota peach stems.” They planted 40 of them.
The decision was made early on not to fence these garden areas in. In a cooperative, all are equal owners. This equal ownership means, according to Larry, “You can’t steal what you own.”
Sharon adds, “We put long tables next to the sidewalk and loaded them with cucumbers, and I’ve had kids ringing the doorbell to ask if they can have one.”
Rather than trying to keep people out, they are inviting them in. Here, children learn how to install, plant and maintain gardens; it has become what some call a campus community development.
In 2004, Larry’s restoration crew transformed a former drug house into the Walnut Way Neighborhood Center. Neighbors young and old pitched in to accomplish the goal; together they succeeded. Today, the neighborhood center stands as a testament not only to the power of unity, but also to how new energy can transform even the darkest of corners.
The center is home to much activity. It is here that residents meet for potluck family and neighbor nights, community meetings, health alliance programs and more. The community also offers regular 4-H meetings, and little league sports for the children.
The sweet taste of success
Over time, the sweetness of community has returned. Last year, Walnut Way produced 900 pounds of honey along with a diverse variety of vegetables and fruits, including peaches. Cooking classes are held to teach residents how to prepare meals using the produce. The food grown here is also used for job training purposes.
Make no mistake, Lindsay Heights is not aiming to become a gentrified community for those with little connection to its history. Rather, its residents want the opportunity to come into their season of renewal. Starting with the foresight of Sharon and Larry Adams, residents have come together to preserve the concept of what it means to truly belong to a community. They have each offered up their skills and sweat equity on faith — faith that together, a place and its stewards can not only produce fruit, but enjoy the sweetness of it too.