Collicello Urban Gardens: Micro-farm, Mega-ambition

On Tuesday afternoon, they started 500 new seeds. On Wednesday, they planted 200 more, all of them in flats cramming the side wing of the wrap-around porch at Sam Frere’s and Dan Warren’s house on Collicello Street. They try to put in at least that much every day, enough to provide steady replacement to their daily harvest. This fall, they’re going to concentrate on cresses, kales, chards and leeks, which they plan to keep in production straight through the winter.

Sam Frere (left) and Dan Warren: Collicello Street's microfarmers.

Between the front porch and the sidewalk, late summer crops of sunflowers, kale, basil and melons flourish where once existed a standard Collicello micro-lawn. Around the side are rows of monstrous, frighteningly large tomatoes, surrounded by pole beans, carrots, onions and peas. The back yard is a dense patchwork of beds, crisscrossed by narrow paths and basically swallowed by a vegetable jungle. It is, they say, still but a first-draft, rudimentary realization of Frere’s and Warren’s goals.

“This is hardly bio-intensive at this point,” says Frere, a senior at JMU and a full-time, professional farmer on his urban micro-farm, Collicello Urban Gardens.

In six months, he says, the porch will be filled with row upon row of trays for low-light greens, the fences will be hung with herb pots and there’s going to be a lot more use of vertical structures to maximize production on the .15-acre lot, minus the old Victorian-style house’s sizeable footprint.

Warren – also nearing the end, hopefully, of his studies at JMU – and Frere are going to have to maximize production here, because they’ve gone all in with Collicello Urban Gardens, their “community produce donation program.” (Translation: unresolved issues with the city zoning office mean they’ve been denied a business license to run this as a regular old CSA business at this point). In June, when they signed up their first customer donor, Warren and Frere both quit their restaurant jobs to farm full-time. Since then, they’ve brought on a total of 11 produce donors who receive weekly deliveries of vegetables.

With 15 regular donors, the pair figures to be paying their bills. With 17, they’ll be able to buy important things like groceries and beer. And they are 100 percent, without-a-doubt confident they’ll be producing enough next year on Collicello Street to keep 50 produce donors well-stocked with produce, which would basically put Warren and Frere on Easy Street.

And this is only just beginning, say Frere and Warren.

They call their techniques “ecologic” and “biointensive” and “intuitive” farming. They make and use a lot of compost, using restaurant scraps, garden clippings and whatever else they can get their hands on. They have a worm colony in the basement, from which they harvest nutrient-rich castings and use an aerator system to brew a brownish “worm tea” that is one of the main explanations for their freak tomatoes (seriously, they might need saws to get rid of them). They grow sunflowers and calendula to attract soldier ants and predator wasps as one pillar of their farm’s integrated pest management system. They grow chamomile just because. They try to always have every square inch of soil covered by some sort of plant, forming a living mulch that also figures into integrated pest management. They know an awful, awful lot about horticulture.

Warren and Frere met in the fall of 2009, when they were freshman roommates on Hoffman Hall at JMU. Bonding over vegetarianism and interest in agriculture, they began reading lots of books about farming. Frere taught Warren a few tricks he learned growing up on a farm along the Chesapeake Bay. They trolled the internet, sifted the good farming advice from the bad, hatched big plans and just started trying stuff out. (Trial and error are key to their approach; one of 2012’s big lessons is that squash borers are so unfazed by integrated pest management that they’ve forced Frere and Warren to declare surrender on the squash front.)

Last year for a class project, they interned as gardeners for A Bowl Of Good in Park View, where they “just really beefed up the garden” that supplies the restaurant with different herbs and veggies, according to store manager Ben Bergey. And this spring, they approached their landlord to see if he cared whether they ripped up the lawn and turned the property into a farm.

Harrisonburg developer Barry Kelley – the landlord in question here – gave the two the OK, and off they went. Kelley said he was impressed by their vision, thoroughness and determination. A JMU grad himself who grew to love the community and stayed for good, Kelley told Old South High he’s eager to encourage the same spirit of engagement among a new generation making its home and mark in the city.

When they started their farm for real this spring, Frere and Warren were both so sick of school they planned to never go back. They’d rather spend their lives doing something, not paying to sit there in a class, they say. Eventually, though, pragmatism won out in that regard, and they decided to finish what they started, each taking a few credit hours per semester toward degrees in integrated science and technology. Their farm, micro though it may be, is and will remain the main object of their attentions, along with and several other urban farming-related schemes that they’re kicking around. They’re going to be doing this kind of stuff around here for a while, they say.

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