Frost Illustrated Staff Report
FORT WAYNE—Bishop George McCowan knows there is hope for a better community and a better world. He says the Bible points out that God has granted us two of the greatest resources possible for building the future: land and children. He said, unfortunately, those resources too often have gone underutilized, largely because a lack of knowledge about programs and projects that are available to help cultivate those two valuable resources. Now he and a number of like-minded individuals, collectively known as the Fort Wayne Urban Farmers, are on a mission to change that by bringing a venerable program to the central city—4H Clubs.
For the past five years, McCowan and his partners Melvin Cannon and Ephraim Smiley have been putting out a message of healthy physical and spiritual living by encouraging people to return to the biblical principle of eating natural, organic food. But, all three of the men developed an appreciation for wholesome, natural food long before their partnership developed.
For three decades, Smiley has been working and developing his skills as an organic farmer. He long has been recognized as one of the area’s leading experts in the field. He, and at times his youthful elementary school students known as the Garden Angels, have been featured on Indiana News Center broadcasts giving tips about organic gardening.
Cannon grew up in the city’s old Westfield neighborhood, which had a number of urban gardens, including large plots developed by the late Leo Underwood Sr. Underwood, who gardened well into his late 80s, was well known not only in Westfield, but throughout Fort Wayne as one of the best gardeners around, growing fresh produce not only for his family but giving it others. Cannon grew up under “Mr. Leo’s” tutelage and for years has been continuing that tradition.
A while back, the trio of gardeners decided to work together.
“We were all doing things independently and we reached common ground about five years ago,” explained Bishop McCowan. “I think our community awareness for health, both physically and also quality of life, wise use of the land, all these fed into it.”
Interestingly, Mr. Leo’s legacy proved an inspiration for their cooperative.
“Leo Underwood supplied lots of people with fresh produce and other large scale black gardeners so we’re trying to continue that,” said Smiley.
For example, Smiley has a produce outlet at Lafayette Bait & Tackle, 3511 Lafayette St. Bishop McCowan and his wife make produce available at South Side Farmers Market, 3300 Warsaw St., while Cannon distributes produce at various spots in the community. But, the cooperative also donates produce to the city’s senior citizens and others in need through various organizations, particularly Community Harvest Food Bank. It all makes sense they say, given the resources God freely has granted the project.
“God has been blessing this thing, everything we wanted to do, the land, the machinery,” said Bishop McCowan.
Fellowship Missionary Church gave the Fort Wayne Urban Farmers collective use of 14 acres to farm near the church on Tillman Road. Others donated seeds, tools and machinery, including a vintage tractor for use. The biggest asset—and most important one—they have, said McCowan, is a devoted group of young people ranging from elementary school age children to young adults. He said ultimately that’s what the project is all about.
“Our main focus on the youth that they can grow up with the knowledge of self-sustaining, that they can be better prepared for the adulthood by learning to interact with others because gardening is a community activity as we do it,” McCowan explained.
Travel by the garden on select days and one can see a group of devoted youngsters tilling, planting, weeding or watering the large urban plot on Tillman alongside Fort Wayne Urban Farmers members and other adult volunteers. Although young, McCowan said the youth not only are good workers, but often have experience many adults don’t, thanks largely to Smiley’s dedication as an educator. A number of the children started gardening in Smiley’s elementary school Garden Angels project and have continued on into their high school years.
“It’s about helping your fellow man and that’s what those kids have done,” said Smiley. “Their efforts are helping the community.”
While the project has been successful and growing the past few years, Smiley and McCowan said they are ready to take the project and the children to the next level. And, they said, they’ve found the perfect resource to facilitate that move.
“We’re trying to start a permanent year-round 4H chapter in the innercity,” said Smiley.
According to the two men, 4H provides opportunities and resources that could prove invaluable to children in the central city.
“Our youth in the innercity are perishing for lack of things to do, yet the youth in rural communities have 4H and 4H has more than 100 programs under them,” said McCowan.
He said many people have a very limited perception of what 4H does, thinking it’s only about raising calves or vegetables for county fairs. He said the program offers training and experience in fields as diverse as photography, mechanics, leadership, genealogy and space exploration as well as traditional farming oriented skills. Those are opportunities innercity as well as rural children need said McCowan and Smiley.
“4H is an excellent tool to prepare kids for university education in various fields. It’s an excellent training union for children,” said McCowan. “We believe that having an organization in the innercity like 4H, goes right in line with our vision for agriculture. The children will have something to hold on to. That’s why we see it as a total community effort.”
The effort to make 4H a familiar presence in the central city already is underway. Smiley said a chapter already is meeting four hours a week, twice a week at the Euell Wilson Center at 1512 Oxford St. Both Smiley and McCowan said the work toward the goal of making 4H a permanent central city presence is progressing rapidly.
“A pastor is donating a house to house the 4H building and is offering most of the volunteers that are needed. We have the field, we have a 4H educator on staff at the Allen County Extension who’s good at grant writing and robotics,” said McCowan. “And, we have the greatest resources you can have—we’ve got the children and we’ve got the land around this area that can be utilized.”
He and Smiley emphasized that the garden is a community project, pointing out in addition to volunteers in the field, they’ve received valuable assistance and support from Allen County Councilman Kevin Howell, R.W. Van Camp, Pastor David Deselm and Fellowship Missionary Church, Community Harvest Food Bank, Melissa Long of Indiana News Center and David Hartman. They also want see greater involvement from area churches. And, said Bishop McCowan, they’re offering some tasty incentives to garner that involvement.
“Any church that likes greens, peas and okra needs to contact us and provide for us some youth that will help us harvest their share and at the same time learn organic farming with the assistance of the Urban Farmers and 4H Club Cooperative,” said Bishop McCowan.
He said with increased participation, the project can be a blessing to even more people.
“Last year we provided 2,000-plus pounds of organically grown produce to the community. This year, we hope to double that,” said McCowan. “What we want to do is be a primary source for organically grown fresh produce for our community and we’re rapidly working toward that goal.”
For more information about the Fort Wayne Urban Farmers or the central city 4H initiative, call Bishop George McCowan at (260) 220-0680.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 14 print edition.