Last year, we started cooking up a video series designed to feature some of the real heroes of the ioby community – projects and leaders we wanted to set squarely in the limelight, and hold up as role models and as inspiration. Among those we featured was SWAG of Newark: a thriving urban community farm that today educates around 700 local students per year, sells wonderful fresh produce at its own market, and has become a source of great pride and pleasure in the South Ward of Newark. The farm has even served as a wonderful resource for the unemployed or underemployed who seek a creative, confidence-building, social outlet while they search for new work.
In fact, so much has happened at SWAG since the video went into production – not least of all their latest ioby campaign, to which you can still donate here – that we wanted to accompany the video’s release with a little update. Here’s where they are now:
The last year has seen SWAG delve deeper than ever into an analysis of what sustainability means for the farm, and for the South Ward community. Becoming sustainable with a capital “S” will mean closing loops on environmental impact, on financial self-reliance, and in terms of community leadership. SWAG co-founder Alexandra Payne is thrilled about the developments on all three.
“In a lot of smaller communities that are poor communities,” says Payne, “you see these big ups and downs in how well projects work based on funding or based on how well things are going in the city or based on these small pots of money that are available. What this sustainability project is partially about doing is making it possible for the farm to continue its basic operations without having to worry about that. So without having to worry about where is our seed money from every year, or can we afford to buy seedlings, or can we afford that outside fertilizer, or can we afford to pay the neighbor for water? Can we afford local interns?”
How will SWAG close those loops? Well, first, they’ll make their own soil, for free. Plans are in the works for two huge new compost bins will turn organic farm waste into fresh soil for next year. “For a quarter-acre farm,” says Payne, “you do need a decent amount of soil additives, and we prefer not to buy those, not have them all be purchased cow manure or mushroom compost. We prefer to make them because you get a better mix of components, and because it means that we can do it right on farm and have more of a closed loop.” Second, a hoop-house for germinating seedlings will go up in the fall, so that SWAG won’t have to look to expensive nurseries at the start of each growing season. Taken together, these two new initiatives will mean greater security through the unpredictable ebbs and flows of external funding.
Another hugely important part of SWAG’s vision for its sustainable future is that they be able to afford to pay local interns. Some of the interns they’ve had have come back year after year, both shaping the project and being shaped by it – even choosing college majors according to new passions they discovered on the farm. “It’s really great for us to have interns who can really run small pieces of the project,” says Payne, “and who feel comfortable leading the classes and who when they’re at the market can talk to people about ‘this is why we’re doing this and these are our goals’ and who can really start to internalize that and see the project as their own.”
But Payne doesn’t want those dedicated interns to have to choose between the farm and earning money. Starting with their current ioby campaign and moving forward, she plans to offer interns a stipend, as well as lunches and travel reimbursements. “We really want to invest in interns from the local community,” she says.
As part of that transition toward even stronger community-directed leadership, Payne would like to see volunteer numbers going up, so that each person takes on fewer hours. “Like a co-op,” she says, so that the joy of the work spreads further, but the burden for each person is lighter, reducing burnout.
Meanwhile, an exciting transition is afoot at the farm. Payne and her team are readying the farm for a passing of the baton, in terms of leadership. SWAG belongs, she says, to the South Ward community, and that is where its future leaders will be found. “We’re there to give some direction and help raise funds and help people dream about what the farm could be, and in the future I’d love to step back and have a group of residents and students who’ve been there really take the day to day reigns of the project,” Payne says.
She and her team plan to step back a bit, starting this spring – very slowly and consciously, of course – and she’s excited to start talking about where the first satellite projects might pop up. They already have small satellites in Baltimore and outside of Philly, and want to continue to expand in the model of SWAG. “I don’t think we ever see ourselves not being a part of those projects; I just think it’s important at a community level to have them be very community directed. So once it’s stable and on its feet, that’s what I see happening.”
To support SWAG during this time of innovation and transition, and to learn more about the farm’s new initiatives, click here.