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2024
Land & Environmental

From left: Agraria advisory board member Eric Bee, Interim Executive Officer Rebecca Potter and advisory board member Faith Morgan. The three spoke with the News about the future of the educational farm, which has been in transition since February this year, when its operations were halted and its staff furloughed. (Photo by Lauren "Chuck" Shows)

Agraria reopens, moves forward

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In the six months since operations were suspended at the Agraria Center for Regenerative Practice, the 138-acre educational farm has been quieter than it had been previously — but not silent.

A hum of activity has permeated the land as it’s been tilled and planted and mowed. Small gardens of herbs and patches of vegetables have been tended. Just last week, heirloom potatoes were harvested.

And beginning this month, Agraria’s hum will grow a little louder as it opens again to the public for a series of late-summer and fall education events. The first event in the series, focused on native bee species, will be Monday, Aug. 21, 6–7:30 p.m. Admission is free, though a $20 donation is requested; see sidebar on page 5 for a full schedule of events through October.

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Agraria was founded in 2017 on the former Arnovitz family farm, with the goal of researching and educating on regenerative farming — an approach that integrates land health and conservation practices with food growing. Agraria held workshops, community events, conferences, markets and a variety of agricultural and land-based activities; produced a year-long podcast; and published a bi-annual journal.

At the time Agraria suspended those operations, the nonprofit employed 30 people.

In February this year, Agraria’s board of directors announced that it would temporarily suspend operations pending legal and financial counsel after discovering that payroll and payroll taxes could not be paid that month. The farm’s employees were furloughed, and then-Executive Director Susan Jennings was placed on administrative leave. In April, the board announced that Jennings had resigned and that earnings owed to the furloughed employees had been paid via funds secured through donations.

A path forward

Last week, the News visited Agraria’s farm and spoke with Interim Executive Officer Rebecca Potter, who said that, though Agraria has not hired any staff in the months since the furlough, the farm has since stayed active — and the next several months of programming will be facilitated — through the efforts of volunteers.

“[The volunteers] have put in tremendous hours,” Potter said. “They keep a kind of diary of volunteer hours, and it’s easily been 400 to 500 hours over the summer.”

She added: “We really are tapping into the expertise of the local community, and it’s such a rich community for that — it’s very much true to Community Service.”

Potter referred to the original name of the organization that would become Agraria — Community Service — which was founded by former Antioch College president Arthur Morgan in 1940. The organization would later be known as the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, during which time Faith Morgan — Arthur Morgan’s granddaughter — was heavily involved.   

Faith Morgan now serves on Agraria’s advisory board, and she and fellow advisory board member Eric Bee joined Potter in speaking with the News. They said the advisory board was established following the furlough to help give the organization direction as it navigated the months ahead.

“[The advisory board] was something the organization really needed, especially at that moment of crisis — and it has been a fantastic asset to the organization,” Potter said.

“It’s really useful for [the board of directors] to get diverse opinions,” Bee added.

Bee and Morgan, both of whom volunteer on the advisory board and by physically working the land, have also helped oversee those from the community who donate their time to the farm.

One such volunteer is local resident Marin Wirrig, home for the summer from Bryn Mawr College, where she’s majoring in environmental studies. She told the News that she’s long had an interest in developing the skills necessary to grow food, and that working on the farm this summer has been “very impactful.”

“I think it’s a good skill for everyone to have, and Agraria’s mission of educating people on sustainable agriculture and showing people, ‘Hey, this is something you can do, too,’ is really important,” Wirrig said.

Involving more community members in that mission is a steadfast goal for Agraria as it continues to rebuild. According to Potter, volunteer efforts will remain the bedrock of Agraria’s future operations.

“We’re welcoming the community in, so we’d really like to grow that group of people who want to come out and become involved in any way that they feel called to,” she said. “And that, I think, is going to be the path moving forward.”

She added, however, that Agraria does “aspire to hire a new executive director” and, later, a few staff members, as funding becomes available. Looking ahead, she said this fall Agraria will hold a strategic visioning process, funded by the Dayton Foundation, to help bring the organization’s long-term goals into focus — a focus, she said, that Agraria lost in the months leading up to the cessation of operations earlier this year.

“We’re in the process now of rebuilding a board, a diverse board and a wiser board that will have the history to show what happens if you have what’s called ‘mission creep,’ which is what we had,” Potter said, referring to a term that describes the process of an organization moving away from, or expanding beyond, its original goals.

“[Agraria] had grown too broad too fast,” Morgan added. “It needs to be focused and developed from that focus first.”

Growing beyond, alongside Agraria

As Agraria continues to find its path, one of its initiatives is doing the same — in part by moving to establish its independence.

The BIPOC Farming Network, or BFN, was formed following the first Agraria-sponsored Black Farming Conference in 2020, when folks who took part found they wanted to stay connected. In the following years, the BFN held roundtable discussions and kept network members up-to-date on news and issues related to BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, People of Color — farmers and farming initiatives.

Previously an umbrella project of Agraria, the BFN is currently working toward its own nonprofit status.

“[Attorney] Ellis Jacobs helped us get free legal help through ABLE [Advocates For Basic Legal Equality] Law,” BFN Program Manager Patty Allen told the News this week. “They’re helping us with filing with the State of Ohio and also with the IRS to become our own independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit.”

Allen said that, because the BFN is not yet a full-fledged nonprofit, Agraria continues to administer some of its grant funding. One of those grants, which Allen wrote while she was still employed at Agraria, will fund a new initiative that begins this fall.

With funding from the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education program, or SARE, the BFN will launch a program dedicated to educating BIPOC farmers on agricultural and environmental policy. The new program, the BIPOC Farming Network Policy Fellowship, is an extension of Agraria’s previous Regenerative Farming Fellowship, which aimed to educate and provide support to up-and-coming farmers, and BIPOC farmers in particular.

“[The new fellowship] is really targeted at regenerative farmers, and it’s focused on helping farmers advocate for their growing operations in dealing with state, local and federal governments,” Allen said.

The new policy fellowship, which recently closed its application period, will host 10 total participants, including six who were previous Regenerative Farming Fellows. The six-month fellowship will run from October this year through April 2024. Participants will meet twice each month, working independently and in groups on projects and hearing presentations and lectures from local and state officials.

“We’re really excited about it,” Allen said. “We’ll be working with all types of folks from local and county governments — Montgomery, Clark, hopefully Greene — and meet some of the state legislators who impact agricultural and environmental policy.” 

Beyond the new fellowship, the BFN is now the host of the Black Farming Conference, which will return this year, Sept. 23–30, in partnership with the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and Central State University; the News will cover the annual event in more detail in a future issue.

Looking ahead, Allen said the BFN has also been approached by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to help reach and support historically underserved farmers, ranchers and landholders in incorporating native plant species into their growing operations. That potential initiative is still in the early stages of development, but Allen said the BFN hopes to share more news as it moves forward.

“The BFN is truly becoming a statewide and, in some ways, regional organization,” Allen said.

Though the BFN and its associated programming are growing beyond Agraria, Allen said Agraria’s board of directors has been “very supportive” of the BFN’s continued work.

“The Agraria board is doing everything to make sure that we’re successful as an independent entity,” she said.

Another organization that has supported the BFN has been the Hall Hunger Initiative, or HHI, a Miami Valley food advocacy organization. When Agraria suspended its operations, Allen said HHI stepped in almost immediately to support the BFN. Though Allen was no longer being paid while on furlough, she worked to keep the BFN connected via newsletter and video chat, for which HHI provided financial and administrative support.

“[HHI] were the first ones to step forward and provide us with some seeding money, so that was game-changing,” Allen said.

And as of this summer, HHI is now headquartered on the Agraria grounds. The News spoke with HHI Assistant Director Alex Klug last week; she said the organization was formed in Dayton in 2015 by Ambassador Tony Hall, who spent much of his career working on international issues of food security and poverty.

“After going all around the world and seeing all of these issues, [Hall] came home to Dayton — [then] the fourth hungriest city in the country — and realized if we can do this work abroad, we need to do it here, too,” Klug said.

Since its foundation, HHI has worked to support organizations and projects focused on establishing and maintaining food security in the Miami Valley, both by helping to secure funding and by providing logistical assistance. One of those supported projects is the Gem City Market, a cooperative grocery store that opened in 2021 in Northwest Dayton, where food access was previously scarce.

“What we often do is look for a need and see how we can be supportive,” HHI Director Mark Willis said. “[The Gem City Market] is a win-win-win-win — and you can keep going.”

Though HHI works alongside, and not as part of, Agraria, the organization has awarded a microgrant to Agraria to support its work in regenerative farming; the grant also serves as a kind of rent for the office space HHI uses. Klug said HHI was previously based at University of Dayton, but moved to Agraria in an effort to be close to ongoing work that aligns with the initiative’s own goals.

“There are productive ways to do agriculture in Ohio that are both beneficial for the producer and the environment,” Klug said. “So we want to help start to identify different groups that can shift that agricultural focus a little bit, and Agraria is certainly one of those groups.”

She added that HHI’s new physical proximity to the farm and working on it themselves — she and Willis tend a few tomato and cucumber plants and have done some maintenance and harvest work — helps cement the importance of the work of both organizations.

“There’s something really powerful about being able to actually step outside and touch a tree or grow a tomato — it’s really helpful for us as individuals, I think, to be out in this space,” Klug said.

Remeandering

As bees buzzed in a nearby Joe-Pye weed patch on the Agraria grounds, Potter, Bee and Morgan spoke to the bolstering connections the organization has made as it works to rebuild.

“There are a number of farmer gardeners who are happy to donate time to lead workshops,” Morgan said. “We want to use the property and show what it can do.”

They added that farmers from Antioch Farm have provided assistance and guidance over the last several months. On the day of the interview, Morgan was working with Antioch Farm Manager Bruce Linebaugh on soil amendments.

“There’s a strong collaboration there,” Bee said. “[Linebaugh] helped me get seeds, so we’ve got seed in the barn for the cover crop.”

With community in mind, the three said they’re aiming to hold a barn dance and fundraiser in October, and expand and improve existing nature trails on the property for use by the public.

“If people don’t see [Agraria], then I think people don’t appreciate it as much — part of community is getting people to see things that they maybe wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see,” Bee said.

One thing the public might see is a return to natural form for part of the land: This year, through a grant from The Nature Conservancy secured prior to Agraria’s suspension of operations, a stream running through the property is being remeandered — that is, encouraged to once again flow in a more natural course. Before Agraria moved onto the land, the stream had been channeled into a straighter course, which allowed for greater use of the property’s acreage as farmland, but also hindered what would otherwise have been a more natural ecosystem in and around the water.

Potter said the remeandering of the stream is not just a project, but a process — The Nature Conservancy planted 17,000 trees as part of the effort, and will continue to oversee the stream’s development as it begins to run wild again.

“[The Nature Conservancy] has a 10-year monitoring window on the stream, so they’re going to be monitoring and working with it — and it is beautiful,” Potter said.

As Agraria itself undergoes a kind of remeandering, carving a new community course through which it will flow, Potter said that anyone who loves the 138-acre farm is welcome to get involved — whether they be land experts or ones who’ve never pulled a weed.

“The only skillset we’re interested in is showing up,” she said.

Contact: chuck@ysnews.com

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One Response to “Agraria reopens, moves forward”

  1. Cheryl DeGroat Ayers says:

    Very interesting. Do you have plans for McCain Acres in Springfield? I was drafted to work with them when the grant was awarded. My family has lived in the neighborhood for over 80 years, thus, I believe that they felt I could assist. And being a minority business professional with the City of Springfield couldn’t hurt. Additionally, home gardening is “my thing”, and has been for 40 years. So I know a few things about land, gardening, and people. You know, I’m sure, that the Melrose grant didn’t go according to plan, at least not from my perspective. If you ever want to discuss selling the site, which initially belonged to an African American church, I would be interested. Have a blessed day.

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