MEET A LOCAL FARMER
Finding a perfect way to combine his teaching skills and his love for food and farming, Denzel Mitchell manages to be a public school cooking teacher/chef, urban farmer in Baltimore City, keeper of bees and chickens, and father of five. The “food and greening coordinator” at Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School (BMPCS), Mitchell oversees an elaborate school garden and teaches cooking as he guides children in preparing a mid-day meal for all the students and adults at the elementary school each day. When not at school, he’s busy working at Five Seeds Farm and Apiary.
Growing produce on abandoned lots in Baltimore City since 2008, Mitchell’s farm includes a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program. “We feed the neighborhood and people in our circle,” he notes, adding he also grows herbs, lettuce, scallions and radishes for restaurants. “I also have a pretty good market for peppers,” he says. As a beekeeper, Mitchell sells honey at markets in Baltimore. He also keeps chickens in the backyard, and sells produce at farmers markets, last year sharing a booth with Real Food Farm.
At Five Seeds, Mitchell doesn’t work all alone. He is quick to credit his wife Tiombe, who he says is very supportive and who also works on public health and food security issues in Baltimore. His older three children also help out. Starting this year, he’s also joining forces with friends Michael Singleton and Bryant Tyler as business/farming partners to allow the farm to flourish even more.
Formerly a librarian and high school teacher, Mitchell got into urban gardening in Baltimore after his wife’s family led them to the area, but Mitchell has always been interested in food and farming. “My mother's family owned and operated a huge farm in Henryetta, Oklahoma for commercial and homesteading production during my childhood,” he notes. “We visited there a lot! And I found it fun and fascinating.” During college, Mitchell gained experience in aquaculture, at a retail garden center, and with goats at the E. Kika de la Garza Institute for Goat Research at Langston University.
“With all that knowledge that I have had and garnered over the years, I’m able to educate children in those crafts,” he says.
At BMPCS, Mitchell works with groups of 12 children in week-long rotation of three hours a day to teach them food preparation and healthy eating, while getting local food on the table for 275 kids and more than 50 adults, even guests. “The children actually do all the cooking, I just orchestrate,” he says. “We’re trying to create a seed-to-table program in which the kids get the full cycle of what happens to the food, where the food comes from, how do you prepare it, how do you compost it,” he notes.
“We also run a … large school-yard garden with 35 fruit trees, a berry grove, 5 chickens, 3 bee hives, and a large vegetable garden. It’s pretty awesome,” Mitchell says.
Despite the challenges of growing food in the city, including access to water, soil contamination and compaction, Mitchell definitely sees urban agriculture as the way of the future. “I think as things progress,… the most important aspect of local food is that your food is close enough for you to walk to it. I really see society moving in that direction.”
Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen -- February 2010
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