As more Americans move to cities and abandon rural areas, the farm has become a quaint idea. The notion of growing and harvesting food is now the stuff of truck commercials and restaurant public relations, far removed from the realities of intense labor, Monsanto pesticides, and uncertain crop prices. But the dream of planting, growing, and eating food still lives on in many urban communities, and no other institution fulfills it like the community garden. A backyard planting box is a hobby; a community garden is a shared experience. In the Byrnes Downs neighborhood of West Ashley, one such community garden stands at the center of a battle between neighbors and the City of Charleston. Nestled between a private backyard and the West Ashley Greenway lie rows of tomatoes, eggplant, and okra that have colloquially become known as Sothel Farm.
Started three years ago as a small backyard garden by Mark Weatherford, the garden has grown to include sunflowers, patty pan squash, and red potatoes. Weatherford himself has been joined by neighbors Eric Main, Will Boles, and Kevin Rogers in maintaining and improving the garden. An irrigation system was added, a nearby patch of unsightly overgrowth was tamed into a flower bed, and a Tumblr was fired up to showcase various friends of the farm. The guys can often be found out in the garden after work, catching up with neighbors and greeting folks as they meander off of the Greenway to come and see what's new. Dogs are met with treats and kids are offered an unlimited romp through rows of fresh produce, free to pick what they can.
For an endeavor so dependent on the weather, it's striking how little these neighbors discuss such topical subjects. Rather, the neighbors that stop by Sothel Farm quickly pick up conversations that ended days ago, updating one another on new developments or introducing friends making their first stop by the farm. The scene is strangely idyllic, like those truck commercials about farming, causing one to reflect on the most tangible yield of a community garden — is it the community or some vegetables?
But Sothel Farm is far from a peaceful community haven. On June 11, Weatherford received a letter from the City of Charleston advising him that the garden was planted on a portion of land belonging to the city. He was given 90 days to remove the garden, or have the city remove it and send him a bill. "I don't know why they're picking on this guy who does this because he has such a big heart," says neighbor Christy Loftin, who started a petition to save Sothel Farm on grassroots activism site Change.org which has reached more than 350 signatures.
City of Charleston Deputy Director of Parks Jason Kronsberg cited complaints by other Byrnes Downs neighbors as the catalyst for city action. "Once we got the complaints we talked to our legal staff and [they advised] that we had to deal with it." Kronsberg said that the city usually recommends that local community groups wishing to start a community garden should work with the Charleston Parks Conservancy, but he conceded that the city is also working on its own program to support such fledgling projects.
Across Highway 17, another community is hard at work raising funds for its own garden. The Magnolia-Sycamore Community Vegetable Garden is halfway to its goal of $40,000 thanks to a grant from home improvement giant Lowe's. The project, which will sit at the intersection of Sycamore Avenue and Magnolia Road, is being guided by a collaboration of the Charleston Parks Conservancy, the Mt. Pleasant Land Trust, and the Clemson Architecture Center. Organizers plan to offer 48 beds for private lease and 14 beds for community use and learning. The project is still $13,000 shy of its fundraising goal, according to Charleston Parks Conservancy Assistant Director of Development Brittany Wallace.
There are no leased beds at Sothel Farm. "We call it a shared garden. Everything's free to whoever wants it," says Weatherford. After receiving the city's notice of encroachment, Weatherford and neighbors contacted the city to obtain the proper permits and zoning for their garden. "They told us that it was too late to get any sort of approval," says Loftin. The best they could achieve was an extension on the original 90-day notice, which pushed the city's desired date of removal back to November. At least by then the pumpkins that are now little more than short stalks will have been picked and enjoyed. "Even if the pumpkins don't come in," says Weatherford, "I'll just buy some and put them in there for the kids."