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Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District, Virginia

Henricopolis SWCD Conservation Technician trains VCU Service Learning student in microinvertebrate sampling of Stoney Run creek.

The Henricopolis SWCD partnered with the nonprofit Community Food Collaborative (CFC) to launch the Cornerstone Community Farm.

The CFC had already spent years promoting food access and nutrition literacy in the Richmond region, including maintaining a half-acre garden at Fairfield Middle School. Located just over the Henrico County line, in the midst of the city’s many food deserts, this facility provided students and members of the broader community with the opportunity to experience planting, harvesting, and selling produce at the CFC’s mobile market.

Beside the garden sat four vacant acres, an overgrown powerline easement. Working together with support from Henrico County Public Schools and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Service Learning program, the Henricopolis SWCD and CFC converted that long-neglected land into fertile fields and turned a schoolyard garden into a full-fledged urban farm.

From the onset, Cornerstone’s success has been rooted in cultivating alliances and the resources they bring. A VCU Service Learning grant helped Cornerstone purchase a greenhouse that was installed with help from undergraduate students. A neighbor provided machinery and labor to help mow the land and prepare it for planting. The Shenandoah Permiculture Institute drafted a map of Cornerstone’s planned build-out, an invaluable tool for guiding and inspiring the farm’s development. Other allies include the USDA, Henrico County School Nutrition Services and Enrichmond Foundation.

All work on the farm was guided by conservation best practices with specific attention to the health of Stoney Run Creek, which runs below the property, feeding into Almond Creek, the James River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. Over decades, Stoney Run had suffered the indignities common to urban waterways, ranging from a poured-concrete bed to pollution and pervasive litter. Still, the water hosts aquatic life; it flows through a canopy of native species; and the shade, bird song and light on the water are charming. Envisioning a day when Fairfield teachers can lead their students to their creek for lessons in science and more, Henricopolis SWCD adopted Stoney Run as the pilot site for the new Creek Restoration and Environmental Education program. VCU service learning students conducted baseline water testing. Clean Virginia Waterways joined to collect and tally trash, and volunteers conduct ongoing cleanups and monthly testing.

With help from a growing collection of allies, this beautifully rendered vision is becoming a reality. Earth Day 2018 marks the planting of phase one of the food forest.

Sustainability

The Cornerstone Community Farm has continued to identify allies and resources, both financial and in-kind. Henrico County has donated generously. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has partnered to lead on-site conservation education. When the Western Henrico Rotary reached out to Henricopolis SWCD for technical assistance on an all-member tree planting project, the event – with $10,000 in donated trees – became phase I of Cornerstone’s planned food forest.

The Cornerstone Community Farm project, and the opportunities it represents – for the school, the region, and as a model for future ventures – has proven a catalyst for developing creative community-based urban agriculture in the Richmond region.

In hopes that Cornerstone Community Farm will inspire imitations and innovation, the Henricopolis SWCD has presented the project at numerous conferences, including both the 2017 and 2018 NACD Annual Meetings, The Chesapeake Watershed Forum 2017 and Environment Virginia 2018. Press coverage has included stories in the Richmond Times Dispatch and Henrico Citizen.

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