It's 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and the cutworms are on the attack. Fortunately, six middle schoolers armed with paper cups are fighting back, delicately protecting fragile three-week-old beet seedlings from their otherwise inevitable demise.
"Cutworms are a great big caterpillar that lives in the dirt, and this time of year they come out of the ground when you're not looking and eat your seedlings. They will chomp them right off," explains garden educator Jane Madden, part of the extensive team that's been maintaining the MUSC Urban Farm since its first seeds were planted in March.
The worm-fighting students are not your average 12-year-olds. They're participating in the outpatient STAR therapy program, which works to stabilize, treat, and rehabilitate children with severe behavior disturbances. Their setting, however, is also far from typical.
Once a week, this small group visits the farm, learning discipline, teamwork, and patience through the care and cultivation of crops. But reaching the farm doesn't require a lengthy commute out to Wadmalaw or Johns Island.
Tucked into a new (and perhaps temporary) open space outside MUSC's dental college, Children's Research Institute, and bioengineering buildings at Bee and President Streets, the half-acre farm provides a welcoming, natural contrast to the heavy concrete of MUSC's expansive footprint on the peninsula. Mulched walkways weave through raised beds, thriving with organic sweet potato vines, pepper and tomato plants, and sunflowers towering 10 feet into the air.
What's most striking about the Urban Farm may be what existed here before. The farm itself was a parking lot just a year ago, while the grassy lawn around it served as a staging area for debris piles during the construction of new buildings. When those projects were completed, the question arose of how to best utilize the newly available space.
Originally proposed by landscape architect Bill Eubanks of design firm Urban Edge Studios, the garden was just one of five possible options he presented.
"It caught a lot of peoples' eyes and gained some traction, taking on a life of its own," recalls Eubanks. "During our first meeting, I stood up and told the folks at MUSC that I basically had the easiest job in the room, because all I had to do was design it and get it built, but it was up to them to decide how to use it and incorporate it into the programs on campus and integrate it into the community. That's where the real work was done."
During the decision-making phase, Susan Johnson, Ph.D., the director of MUSC's Office of Health Promotion, pushed hard for the idea of an urban farm. With parking at a premium around the university and medical complex, plenty of people pushed back at the idea of tearing out asphalt and putting down tomatoes.
Ultimately, the farm concept prevailed, to the delight of volunteers and staff members who now enjoy lunch under the plot's central live oak tree or stay after work for an hour of planting, weeding, and harvesting.
"There are so many opportunities for groups that can benefit from this, from patients to family members of patients who are here for a long time," explains Johnson. "Our big thing is helping people understand the connection between food and health, and giving them a chance to get their hands dirty."
In addition to twice-weekly "Work and Learns" and a Thursday "Lunch and Learn" that's open to the public, the Urban Farm regularly hosts patient workshops, including bariatric surgery, oncology, and heart health groups. Relationships with the Ronald McDonald House and Hope Lodge have blossomed, bringing families to the farm as a stress reliever during long days spent caring for sick loved ones. Furthermore, a new crop of medical students arrived in August, and interest in volunteering has ballooned.
"We're really trying to connect the dots when people are at the farm about why it's important to eat fruits and vegetables, including how to eat them, because a lot of people don't know that," says Johnson.
Events at the Farm typically include a demonstration at the cooking station, which lets MUSC's chefs prepare fresh produce on the spot and teach attendees in the process. Plans for expansion in the next few months include a permanent cooking and produce-washing station.
"If you go back 50 years, most people knew how to grow something. Today, it's something we have to re-teach, especially in this urban setting where a generation has never had the opportunity to see their food grow," says Johnson.
While she speaks, two men from MUSC's facilities team wander up to the garden. Johnson offers them a few pamphlets and explains the purpose of the farm. "I got out of the field years ago!" one exclaims. Within a few minutes, however, they're making notes of the volunteer opportunities and the upcoming plantings. After all, the MUSC staffers that help out at the farm also reap the benefits, not to mention the stress relief that comes from an hour or two of gardening. From volunteers to groups like the STAR kids, everyone who helps can take home a handful of fresh veggies. The Urban Farm isn't stingy with its harvest.
Even more than a working farm, Johnson sees the plot as an academic tool. When it came time to name the project, she emphasized the word "farm" over "garden," seeking to really drive home the connection between food and health. In traditional health care settings, prevention and diet often (by necessity) take a backseat to the immediacy of reactionary treatment. At MUSC's Urban Farm, the college/hospital has not only embraced the importance of holistic health, but chosen to demonstrate it.
Just six months into operations, Johnson regularly receives calls from churches, schools, and nonprofits that want to begin their own farm plots. At the STAR program's new facility in North Charleston, a farm plot is already underway, thanks to the legitimate results of the downtown programs this summer.
Although the Urban Farm still has a long list of improvements for itself, including storage sheds for farm equipment, Johnson sees the concept's future in its ability to serve as a resource to similar initiatives around the Lowcountry. By mid-fall, she hopes to expand their website, musc.edu/urbanfarm, to include a full array of how-to information that anybody can use to get started planting at their homes. Fully organic, the Urban Farm utilizes integrated pest management techniques (paper cups to stop cutworms, for example) that easily translate into backyard plots.
It's underlying impact, however, lies both in the human lives it enriches and the proof that it is possible to un-pave paradise.
"The asphalt that was here was this pretty ugly surface parking lot," says architect Eubanks, who even got to come full circle and get his hands dirty when the first seedlings went into the ground. "When you see it now, it's not only a place of beauty, but it's become an important focal point for the community and the MUSC campus."
On Oct. 24, the Urban Farm celebrates Food Day with events and cooking demonstrations hosted by dieticians from the university, before the farm's official dedication and grand opening party on Nov. 8. They've partnered with Trident Technical College's horticulture program to provide seedlings as needed, and plans include the addition of an active, pollinating honeybee hive this fall, just in time for the late season harvests of brussels sprouts, collard greens, and then broccoli and cauliflower over the winter.
At this point, Johnson, who works with a team of more than a dozen MUSC staffers at the farm, has been told that it has a five-to-10-year lifespan before the space will be utilized for a new building. If and when that happens, Johnson says they'll continue with whatever space they can find.
Considering that the mid-city oasis has grown from parking lot to seedling to maturity in just six months, the Urban Farm's prospects look bright for continuing their harvests long into the future.