Some operations grow by following strict rules and meticulous business plans. Others grow naturally, or organically. In the case of Opelika Grows, or O Grows, it was definitely the organic type.
“O Grows really started when I went to my son’s elementary school and started a little garden project to help make sure the children had an opportunity to get outside,” said Sean Forbes, the director and driving force behind O Grows. “I’m a big believer in learning by doing, and in using our bodies to help fortify our minds.”
That was five years ago. Today, O Grows is a thriving yet low key operation that provides community garden plots behind the old Brown School not far from downtown Opelika, along with a structure that allows students from the Opelika Learning Center to become engaged in the local community.
Getting students engaged in community
“There are several moving parts in our O Grows operation, but one of our most important projects is working with these kids from the alternative school,” Forbes explained. “Two or three days a week, we have a dozen or more of these students who have had a lot of frustrations in their lives, especially in terms of dealing with authority figures. Here, they see that all adults are not out to get them. They develop patience and acquire skills. Our long-range goal in working with these students is to get them engaged in social entrepreneurship. They have so much to offer, but just need to have a channel where they can develop what is best in them.”
Forbes, who is a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology, has a research specialization in Educational Psychology. He is also down to earth, genuinely interested in others, and just easy to be around. So it’s natural that he would lead an outreach project that seeks to encompass all facets of the community.
“Envision Opelika is our fiscal manager,” he explained. “They have a 501©3 classification, so we don’t really have any of the issues that so often go along with that. And that’s largely because of former Opelika mayor Barbara Patton, who opens a lot of doors for us. She is simply a great person who loves this town. We could not do what we do without her.”
Barnyard in the city
O Grows sits on several acres behind the old Brown School, which itself is located in a pastoral landscape beside a memory garden and a sprawling pasture with tall trees. The site itself is dominated by two things: rows and rows of community garden plots, and a rambling greenhouse made largely from recycled materials.
“This greenhouse lets us develop most of our revenue streams, and it was built almost exclusively by our students from the alternative school,” Forbes explained. “Our revenue comes from three places. We have a plant sale every spring and fall. For this fall we’re growing dianthus, snapdragons, and pansies. This spring we’ve got a nice crop of asparagus ferns coming on. We also sell produce and ornamentals at our Opelika Farmers Market. That mostly means peppers and leafy greens like lettuce and collards. We also sold a lot of zinnias as cut flowers this spring and summer.”
A third income source comes from local chef and entrepreneur Graham Hage, who sells fresh produce from O Grows at his restaurant, Zazu Gastropub, a popular establishment in the heart of downtown Opelika.
“Graham is an excellent example of how our community supports us,” Forbes observed. “He even puts our logo on his menu to let his customers know their food was grown right here at home.”
With all of the floriculture, butterflies are floating all over the lot. So are the goats, ducks, and chickens. There’s also a woodworking shop in the greenhouse where the alternative school students can make and sell their creations.
“The students are the ones who actually work the Famer’s Market, with help from my wife Susan, who works really hard here in many different areas” Forbes explained. “I’ve mentioned that these students are able to have, perhaps for the first time, good relationships with adult authority figures. But they are also getting exposed to things and meeting people. Several of them have made connections that have led to jobs. They make a good wage working here, as well.”
“We get a lot of support from the Office of University Outreach and Rick Cook. We have had grants from them for the past four years. But we’re still struggling to develop University-recognized research. We know we’re helping young people learn to connect to their community in positive, meaningful ways. We know we’re bringing in people from all parts of the community who garden here or do volunteer work. We have MBA students from the College of Business who use O Grows as a business model. But we still need to put that together in a unique way for research purposes.”
Another big move at O Grows this year was the construction and deployment of an accessible gardening table for use by people in wheelchairs. In partnership with the College of Education’s Center for Disability Research and Policy Studies and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, O Grows features an adaptive raised bed that allows wheelchair access. The bed adheres to ADA regulations, and is self-watering with a drainage system.
“We were excited to partner with David Beale, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, for his students to design and build a raised bed garden,” said Christine Fleming, Executive Director of the Center. “O Grows is a place that is open to all, and that now includes people with disabilities. This endeavor is also in line with our goal to cultivate accessible agriculture with the national AgrAbility program that we want to work with, as well. So we’re really excited about that part of O Grows. It’s a great model of collaboration and inclusion.”
As Forbes goes on about the “many layers that just keep popping up here,” he said he also wants to install a commercial kitchen in the old Brown School that he could use both to train students, and to rent out for public use. The nearest one is in Chilton County, and Forbes sees a commercial kitchen as a great way to develop job skills training.
“The bottom line is that we are a wide open community-based food system,” Forbes said. “We emphasize the link between education and community food. We work hard to keep people involved and to be open to all members of our community. There’s nothing novel here. We’re just getting back to basics.”