Couple continues plans for learning farm
by Laura Gaddy
Jun 26, 2013 | 3704 views |  0 comments | 200 200 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Roxanna Sims of Forever Sunrise Organic Farm passes out lettuce seeds to  children at the 'Learning Farm' event sponsored by Piedmont Public library. Photo by Anita Kilgore.
Roxanna Sims of Forever Sunrise Organic Farm passes out lettuce seeds to children at the 'Learning Farm' event sponsored by Piedmont Public library. Photo by Anita Kilgore.
PIEDMONT — About 20 children sat on the ground between a refurbished train station and an aging strip mall in Piedmont Tuesday to learn about photosynthesis.

Fittingly, they were seated on a small plot of land owned by a couple who intend to transform it into what will be known as a Learning Farm.

“It’s how plants make food,” said farmer Roxanna Sims, while standing in front of the children in the shade of a small grove. “Not only do the plants provide food for us, they help provide food for the animals.”

Sims was teaching children participating in the Piedmont Public Library’s summer reading program, Dig into Reading, but she and partner David Clark have a larger vision. They plan to transform the 1 1/2 acre lot into a farm to teach organic gardening techniques to people from across the region and to attract business to Piedmont.

“People will come here to visit this and they will spend money in the rest of the town,” Sims said. “We believe in this for the entire region.”

The Learning Farm will also host a program that allows participants to work for credits which can be exchanged for produce or donated to local charities. Sims and Clark also plan a program to teach teens how to market and sell produce, Clark said.

Sims and Clark also own Sunrise Organic Farms, a residential farm less than an eighth of an acre in size. They say they’ve hosted gardening classes and out-of-town visitors there, but the space is not big enough for a learning farm.

“If they’re going to come that far for our little old place, imagine what it’d do for the community if we had a larger place,” Clark said.

What Clark and Sims are talking about is “agri-tourism,” a term used to describe the practice of traveling to experience agriculture. They think the farm can draw people to Piedmont, the same way the Chief Ladiga Trail has drawn people to the city through ecotourism.

Business owners on North Center Avenue in Piedmont, just blocks from the Learning Farm, said they believe in the work Sims and Clark are doing even though most were only vaguely familiar with it.

“I would like to try and use their products and offer more organic items on our menu,” said Jennifer Gillette, owner of Solid Rock Cafe. “I definitely think it would be good for everybody.”

John Strickland, owner of Strickland Hardware, and Curtis Pope, owner of a barber shop that bears his name, also said they believe in the project. So did Piedmont school board member Lin Latta, but Sims and Clark said they’ve had a hard time finding support for the project.

Those who support the project aren't giving up on it.

“I believe in this project,” said Mary Fagan, who serves on a seven-member board that oversees the Learning Farm. “It’s just a slow and tedious process.”

Sims and Clark helped establish the board when the Learning Farm began in January and now serve on it.

Sims and Clark hope the 1 1/2-acre lot will eventually hold two greenhouses, a 6,000-square-foot garden and 22 raised fruit and vegetable beds.

To receive a organic classification from the federal government, Clark said he has to purchase special building materials to ensure the farm is chemical-free. That can drive the costs up, he said, adding that each of the raised beds is expected to cost about $5,000.

Without the ability to seek grants as a nonprofit and absent financial support from the community, the couple has begun seeking personal business loans to pay for the development. Clark said they have secured a loan to buy land and are now pursuing a loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help pay for the rest of the development.

“We really believe it’s a good idea and this is the perfect place to do it” Clark said. “I know in my heart that it’s going to bring all kinds of people here.”

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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