Saturday, July 16, 2011

From one gesture, a larger harvest comes

Bill Crowder lives on 20 acres near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He’s farmed some of that land, but he’s thought recently that he’d like to use it better. Earlier this month, his sister called with an idea that she got from reading the Sunday newspaper.

Gaye Dimmick read the same thing – a column I wrote about Chris Yost, who earlier this year invited Bhutanese refugees to turn her half-acre east Charlotte backyard into a farm. The refugees, who were farmers long ago, once again had land to tend and find worth in.

Dimmick, who has more than a dozen raised beds at her home off Central Avenue, decided she wanted to do the same for refugees. Crowder says he could plow a patch in his land if refugee families wanted to plant and harvest. There are others, too, more than a half dozen people from Mooresville to Mint Hill, making the extraordinary offer to let strangers use what’s theirs.

One of the satisfactions of writing for a newspaper is the benevolence we often see. Write about someone who’s trying to overcome hardship, and readers will hold out their hands, with kindness that can swell your heart.

But this story, and the response to it, might be about more than kindness.

For Gaye Dimmick, it is. She and her partner, Jean Wesselman, started their urban garden a few years back when Jean lost her job. They sold their harvest at farmers markets for extra income, but Jean got a job last year, and the garden became less of a priority. When Gaye read about Chris Yost, she saw an opportunity to keep her land purposeful.

There’s also this: Gaye just turned 50. “I thought, ‘Let me live my next 50 years a lot better than I lived my first.’ ”

Bill Crowder grows corn and beans and peas on his land in northeast Charlotte. Last year, his sister told him about her church starting a community garden to give food to Charlotte shelters, and he considered helping out this year. When he heard about Chris Yost, he thought of the refugees and his land. “They would get more good out of it than I will,” Bill says.

Patrice Ognodo nods at this. He’s the founder of the Neighborhood Good Samaritan Center, which for six years has helped refugees assimilate to their new home in Charlotte. Patrice is from Togo in west Africa, and he spent three years in a refugee camp before coming to the United States. Once an attorney in Togo, he drove a cab in Charlotte before one of his fares helped him start a career – and a new life – selling insurance.

Now he is seeing a different and profound kind of generosity. “We have been waiting for something like this,” he says.

Patrice has spent the last two weeks joyfully visiting backyards and other patches of land, then arranging for refugee families to come. He knows what will happen next, because it’s happening now in Chris Yost’s backyard. In that land, the refugees reclaim a small part of their lives, a part he’s heard them talking about, while they farm. He calls them their “Once upon a time” stories.

Here’s another: Once upon a time, many of us saw our land and possessions differently. We accumulated what we needed, but not necessarily all that we wanted. Now, in these hard years that follow prosperity, more of us are re-evaluating what we use and what we waste. “People are rethinking their values,” says Gaye Dimmick. Maybe these backyard farms, these unusual loans, are a product of that.

Or maybe it’s simply the generosity of some good people. That’s OK, too.

At Chris Yost’s house, by the way, the farm is flourishing. “Holy cow,” she says. “Everything’s coming up.” This past week, her refugee friends picked three bulging bags of eggplant and okra, snap peas and peppers. As usual, they knocked on her front door to share some of the bounty.


Carla Vitez said...

I applaud Chris Yost and Gaye Dimmick for reaching out to our growing refugee population. Not only does sharing the land provide fresh food, it also connects newcomers to the community. In turn, they are able to use their gardening skills and give to others. Please let Patrice Ogndod and other community helpers know that there are plots available at Park and Recreation's Winterfield Community Garden near Eastland Mall. Come grow with us. Contact

Boolady said...

My father grew up on an Indiana farm and we spent childhood summers picking corn. Our yard is too shady for vegetable gardening but this year a found a small spot and planted kohlrabi in his honor. It is so cool to go to the back yard and pluck food from the ground. Strangely sacred and almost a sin not to share. Anyway, a good book is Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman (Newberry winner). 13 stories about a community garden that transforms a neighborhood.