Madisonville gives urban farm project a tentative trial run

Steve Rock spoke to the Madisonville Community Council in mid-June about an update and a request. He and a team of volunteers plan to convert a derelict industrial building on Whetsel Avenue into an urban farm and education center, employing the latest technology to grow fresh meat and produce in the neighborhood.  

But the response of the more than 50 people in attendance showed that innovation is not just about ideas and experiments; it's also about connecting with people and building community support.

"I think education is huge in this project," says Rock, an environmental engineer by trade who has taken on the urban farm project in his spare time, partly to see if some of its more unusual ideas will work. He spent part of the meeting - and much of the time afterward - explaining various aspects of the project: a system of vertical integration would grow both hydroponic vegetables and tilapia in the building (a former laundry) using waste from the fish to fertilize the plants. A classroom and community gardens would help area residents learn about agriculture and grow their own food. And a program to train at-risk youth would help staff the facility while improving the employment prospects for its participants.

But questions also revolved around the building itself. Madisonville Community Council president Bob Igoe explained that the building, which has been vacant for years, is slated for demolition. "We've got to be confident Steve can make this thing work, or we're going to be stuck with [the building] for another year," Igoe says.

Several Madisonville residents asked pointed questions about timelines and the likelihood of the project getting grant funding; Igoe pointed this out as an indication - the project's merits aside - that city residents wanted to see progress in their community.

"You have a room full of people who have had a handful of promises for decades," he says.

At the end of the meeting, the community voted to place a three-month stay on the demolition. This gives Rock time to try to secure grant funding, showing the community the project can raise the $500,000 to $1 million he estimates it will take to launch. Volunteers have launched a website and have drafted handouts to help spread the word about the project, and Rock said he hopes to hear about grant funding prior to the community council's next meeting on the project, planned for September.

By Matt Cunningham

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.