There’s an Urban Farm Behind Leahy House
And it’s delivering more fresh produce to the community, greater Newark and the food pantry.
Not many Newark area teenagers spend the summer figuring out how to grow and harvest more cherry tomatoes to meet consumer demand. But that’s exactly what a group of rising UDIIs Donson Akhibi ’24, Kevin Anderson ’24, Kwashawn Gilchrist ’24 and Mitchell Ojo ’24 is doing, along with many other responsibilities that come with tending to the Gray Bee Garden. The foursome work part-time, five days a week during the summer break, applying knowledge gleaned from Spring Phase courses on organic gardening and entrepreneurship, as well as the Gardening Club, to a growing venture that brings locally grown produce to the greater Newark community.
Last year, the project generated $1,000 in sales. The goal this year is to triple revenue, and as Akhibi explains, the harvesting and sale of produce grown on the Property, “It’s more than a job. We genuinely care about what we do. It’s a priority.”
‘I knew there was a garden back there…’
Like many successful Gray Bee programs, the garden’s origin story is a modest one. In 2009, Noreen Connolly H’11 and then-College Guidance Counselor Tony Carnahan introduced a Spring Phase class on organic gardening. And in the summer, they and students tended to the vegetable garden which consisted of 36 Earth Boxes donated by Lorraine Gibbons of Brick City Urban Farms.
Fr. Maximillian Buonocore, O.S.B. H’15, who comes from a family farming tradition, joined the class in 2011 after Carnahan left St. Benedict’s. The duo team-taught the class for more than a decade, gradually improving the plot behind Leahy House, adding more Earth Boxes and eventually raised beds. The students sold produce directly to the St. Benedict’s Prep community.
In 2021, History Teacher Susanne Mueller, a former business owner, was looking for a way to marry her Spring Phase course on entrepreneurship to an existing enterprise. “I knew there was a garden back there, but I didn’t grasp the scope of what was back there,” she recalled. The idea was born to use the garden as a model for the entrepreneurship class and expand it as a nonprofit business.
The gardeners and entrepreneurs joined forces in 2021. The classes were separate but highly collaborative. Gilchrist and Ojo took the entrepreneurship course that spring and helped to establish a name and logo, Gray Bee Garden: Soil to Plate, and business plan. “The idea the first year was, ‘Plant what you have, and we’ll figure out what to do with it,’” said Ms. Mueller. They found a solution through the Cooperative Market, an online Farmers Market by the Urban Agricultural Cooperative in partnership with RWJ Barnabas Health. Consumers can pre-order products from Gray Bee Garden and another dozen or so organic food sellers and pick-up from several Newark locations.
A robust Gardening Club made the project sustainable. Ojo serves as president, Akhibi and Gilchrist are current members and Anderson, who took the entrepreneurship class, Gray Bee Garden 2.0 in 2022, plans to join when Summer Phase begins. Members analyzed sales and identified customer demand for certain products, like cherry tomatoes and okra. They also started plants from seed in an indoor growing operation on the top floor of the HAB, which helped cut costs (reducing the number of seedlings that had to be purchased) and extended the growing period to three seasons.
Take a walk behind Leahy House and the fruit of all this collaborative effort between adults and kids is hard to miss. Gray Bee Garden is now a year-round enterprise that occupies 1,800-square feet of raised beds and a variety of organic cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini, green peppers, spinach and more. “We are an urban farm,” said Fr. Max. The description is an apt one since the garden cultivates and distributes organic produce to the metropolitan area. A portion of produce raised is also donated to the Pierre Toussaint Food Pantry at St. Benedict’s.
“Synergy plays a vital role,” Fr. Max continued. “You need the entrepreneurial part. We wouldn’t have expanded the garden to this much if Susanne hadn’t put plans in place to expand it as a business.” Ms. Mueller says the project also strives for balance. “We are teaching students about business, but also want to have that part of providing for the community,” she stated. “What’s the sweet spot that you can hit where it actually works?”
Gray Bee Garden is currently funded by St. Benedict’s Prep and the project received a grant from the Alumni Association, a generous gift from former CFO Paul Barnas and $10,000 from an anonymous foundation. Meeting the $3,000 sales goal set by the students will help the project begin to pay for itself. In July, The Hive recently qualified for USDA funding through the National Resources Conservation Service. Once finalized, the grant would support infrastructure improvements — a composting system, height tunnels to protect plants and an underground irrigation system — to strengthen the Gray Bee Garden mission to earn more, reinvest, and grow more food for the community.