Growing the Community One Seedling at a Time

SMU professor, local agencies to launch new Seedling Farm at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center on November 21, 2017

Seeds sprouting into seedlings in the Seedling Farm hoop house at the Freedom Garden at the MLK, Jr. Community Center.

Farm to provide gardening advice and healthy, low-cost plants to community gardeners in South Dallas

On November 21, local Dallas urban farm organizations and residents of South Dallas will gather for the grand opening of the new Seedling Farm at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center’s Freedom Garden. The Seedling Farm, one of several urban farm initiatives that have sprouted in Dallas over the past five years, is the latest addition to ongoing efforts to transform South Dallas from a “food desert” to a vibrant source of fresh vegetables and fruits.

According to SMU Meadows Associate Professor Owen Lynch, one of the principal event organizers, a food desert is a community without close access to fresh, healthy foods at grocery stores or other retail outlets. In South Dallas, many residents live at least a mile away from a grocery store.

“South Dallas is one of the largest food deserts in the country,” says Lynch, president and founding board member of the nonprofit, urban farm consulting agency Get Healthy Dallas.

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Tyrone Day, farm manager for Get Healthy Dallas, harvesting okra with helper Olivia Lynch at Austin Street Center’s Hope Garden.

“While there have been positive results with the many new urban farming and gardening efforts in recent years, there is still work to be done. The Seedling Farm aims to overcome some of the barriers to successful local agricultural production and help boost garden yield in South Dallas. It helps everyone in the urban farm system, facilitating others to grow their businesses.”

A food desert is often also a job desert. With the support of Miles of Freedom, a nonprofit organization that helps previously incarcerated individuals gain employment and re-entry into society, Dr. Lynch and his partners are using the Seedling Farm to help identify and train community members to become future urban farmers. By increasing production and coordinating the capabilities of the local emerging agriculture system, the hope is the farm will not just seed gardens but will also have a multiplier effect, contributing to economic activity and well-being throughout the community.

Grand Opening Activities

Farmers from the State Fair of Texas Big Tex Urban Farms will be on hand to demonstrate how a stackable garden box works. Big Tex Urban Farms’ pallet-sized stackable boxes are created at the fairgrounds during off-season, and are transportable.

Tours of the hoop house – a simple greenhouse structure used to grow plants – will be offered, and attendees who would like to take home a seedling plant for their own garden can do so.

Local gardeners and farmers will pick up their seedling trays to transplant into their early winter gardens. More than 10 varieties of season-appropriate, hardened-off vegetables (i.e., plants ready to be moved from the greenhouse to the outdoors) will be available.

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Charles Bryant, in training to become an urban farmer at the MLK Freedom Garden Seedling Farm, gets ready to deliver an entire season of plants to a local garden.

Low-cost seedlings, plenty of guidance: “Meet, Select, Grow and Go”

Access to fresh produce translates to healthier, more vibrant communities. But studies show that community gardens have high closure rates and are often not economically viable. Lynch, a senior research fellow for SMU’s Hunt Institute of Humanity and Engineering, has been researching urban food systems with a focus on how to remove these barriers to create a viable farming system. Lynch has worked closely with the Hunt Institute in this endeavor. One of the institute’s foci is to research and pilot farming systems with the potential for aggregation to co-develop and encourage a sustainable food economy. Lynch says the Seedling Farm, which will be managed by South Dallas community member and horticulture expert Tyrone Day, will help offset those outcomes.

“Research shows that community gardens can achieve bigger gains if the community gardeners have access to local experts and seedlings to better manage their gardens,” says Lynch. “That is a big part of what the Seedling Farm is about: to encourage, support and—if needed—teach local residents how to get the most from their urban gardens. It also serves as a source of healthy, low-cost plants. The results will be more healthy, fresh food in South Dallas.”

Lynch says the new Seedling Farm offers four easy steps to participation for any individual or group who’s interested: meet, select, grow and go.

“First, the community gardener will meet with Tyrone Day at the MLK Center Seedling Farm. With his counsel, they will select the best types of plants suited for the resident’s garden. The seeds will be grown at the Seedling Farm until they have matured into young seedlings ready for planting. Then the resident gardener swings by the MLK Center, picks up the plants, and tends them in their own garden. The crop can be for the gardener’s home, or shared with friends or community centers.”

The new farm focuses on seedlings instead of seeds for good reason. “The process of going from a seed to a seedling is the most vulnerable stage in a plant’s life,” says Day. “At the farm, we raise them in controlled conditions with constant monitoring, and also prepare them for transportation to community and home gardens.” Jump-starting gardens by planting viable young seedlings, instead of seeds, means the plants are more likely to survive, mature faster and produce fruits or vegetables more quickly, says Day. “Gardeners can see more growth cycles per season, which means more fruits and vegetables. All of that translates into a healthier community.”

The goal of the of the industrial hoop house, funded by a grant from SMU Lyle School of Engineering’s Hart Center for Engineering Leadership, is to produce 20,000 seedlings each year, focusing on plants that are appropriate for each season and the local climate.

Event Details

The November 21 event is free and open to the public and will begin at 11:30 a.m.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center is located at 2922 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Dallas, Texas 75215. For more information about the seedling farm, contact Dr. Owen Lynch.

Read more about Get Healthy Dallas. Read more about the wider urban farm movement in Dallas in a recent article in The Dallas Morning News.

Urban Farms and Organizations in Dallas

Austin Street Center
Behind Every Door/Village Oaks 
Big Tex Urban Farms
Bonton Farms
Café Momentum
Connecting City to Farm
Get Healthy Dallas
Jubilee Park Community Center
Lincoln High School
MLK Jr. Center Community Center
Miles of Freedom
Mill City Gardens
SMU Hart Center
SMU Hunt Institute
St. Philip’s School Garden
Sunny South & Nella Roots
The State Fair of Texas
Texas A&M AgriLife