Announcing a new tenant! Anwar Ahmad and his "Farmer's Greenhouse" is here at Swift!
This is the story of a gardener, his garden and of a community that set him on his own journey to leadership and continues to serve as the target of his labor of love. This story carries with it a history of a people’s skill with and connection to land and for the specific purpose of creating prosperity. It is a story of a revival of a great skill to be practiced right here in North Hartford on the Swift Factory Campus.
On April 21st, former Hartford Public Library Branch Manager, Anwar Ahmad launched the “Gardeners to Farmers Greenhouse” in Swift Factory’s White House Garage. The Farmer’s Greenhouse will select, collect, grow, and distribute safe vegetable seeds and seedlings to gardeners and households in the Northeast, Clay Arsenal, and Upper Albany Neighborhoods surrounding the Swift Campus. “Our main purpose here is to reconnect the people in our community to the land,” Ahmad said. He believes if a community can grow food together, they can grow capacity in other areas of life together.
Before coming to Swift, Ahmad was well known as a critical community resource as Head Librarian of the Hartford Public Library’s Upper Albany Branch. His tenure at the branch brought him into a community that was in crisis when he arrived. It was 1996 in North Hartford with the nation’s War on Drugs in full swing.
The resulting incarceration, addiction and violence rates proved a destructive force to neighborhood families. Searching for community-based solutions, the neighborhood’s business leaders, educators, and activists appealed to Ahmad in utilizing the branch’s community spaces for vital programming. Soon after, Ahmad hosted the “Always on Saturday Club”, leveraging a who’s who of North Hartford mentors in providing a Homework Club, character development mentorship, and an African Initiation Rites program for neighborhood youth. Mentors included Dr. Blake, “Brother Carl” Hardrick, former State Representative Ken Green for the young men and Lucinda Canty for young ladies.
Eventually, Ahmad opened the branch up as the home of Explorers Post 790 which brought youth into providing regular community clean-ups and voter registration and community petitioning efforts to support library renovations back in 1996. “We stretched that scouting mission into serving our community’s unique needs. Those explorers helped get the 2,000 signatures we needed to get the changes we needed for our community branches,” Ahmad recounted. The community was able to secure a state-of-the-art Upper Albany Branch to replace the storied old branch he arrived to. It was an intentional effort to get back to his roots.
Ahmad’s efforts here at Swift are not a result of some novel hobby he picked up after retiring from the Hartford Public Library after 27 years. In his retirement, Ahmad enrolled in Knox’s Urban Farming Program and securing plots in three of their approximately 20 community gardens and soon after was right back in the role of community mentor, sharing space with interested residents and groups to encourage residents to grow their own food. He’s launched the Farmer’s Greenhouse with just one year in to Knox’s 3 year program.
Where you live determines what foods you have access to. It basically boils down to; if you’re living in economically distressed neighborhoods like the ones in Hartford’s Promise Zone, you are eating empty calories packed with sugar, sodium and starches. If you live in prosperous neighborhoods, you have access to foods with the highest nutritional value. Hartford was recently ranked 8th worst city of its size in the nation in providing low income residents access to healthy foods. An average of one out of every four residents in Hartford lives in a food desert. According to a recent CDC report, living in a food desert has more to do with your health than DNA. Heart disease, diabetes and obesity are more prevalent in food deserts. And North Hartford has the highest incidences of those chronic illnesses in the city.
Ahmad sees growing your own food as an organic solution to community problems. But, it is not just about health. Ahmad sees an economic benefit for residents in the most economically challenged neighborhoods in the city. Most of all, he sees an opportunity to increase self reliance. “We need to develop our own industries. I see the urban farming movement and food businesses as a serious driver of economic development here in North Hartford. I am using the opportunities here at Swift to provide neighborhood farmers what they need for success,” he said, adding that he would like to see growers eventually aggregate and distribute their surplus harvest commercially.
Ahmad has spent much of the Coronavirus Pandemic and this past Spring drilling down deep into his business plan; acquiring space in the White House Garage, working with electricians and Swift’s Management to put his plans for a growing operation/community farmer incubator space into action and was mentored along by local growers nearly half his age. “Herb Virgo from the Keney Park Sustainability Project helped me understand what my utilities costs would be versus going solar. Emmanuel Marte of ‘Micro2Life’ helped me understand scale and the realities of increasing the scale of my operations. Going too big, too early can be a recipe for failure,” he said.
It’s what Ahmad calls keeping it real. “These guys urged me to start small and not to invest in a whole bunch of expensive equipment. I’m getting basic electrical, lighting and hydroponic systems in place.I’m in no hurry,” he said. Ahmad said he is giving his operation until February 2022 for a hard launch. In the meantime, he plans to organize and expand a network of neighborhood growers. When fully scaled up, Ahmad said this can be an opportunity for urban growers to make $25,000 on less than an acre. “This is entirely possible. Our people have innovated from the beginning in farming. I’m getting back to my roots.”
And, those roots run deep. From the ancestors who came here in bondage carrying the seeds and farming expertise from Africa, to the emergence of African markets in America’s southern urban centers where slaves sold fruits and vegetables grown in small, personal garden patches, to Booker T. Washington and the Tuskeegee Institute which produced generations of Black Farmers and pioneering agricultural scientists like George Washington Carver; Ahmad’s effort reflects the continuation of a rich history of Black Farming expertise in America and the role it played in preserving communities. His family was very much a part of it. Ahmad remembers the how well they wielded those skills, and the discipline that was passed on to him to insure his success in a rural existence in Coalwood, WV where he was born. “My dad would line me and my 4 older brothers line up to check our chores. We would have to dig coal and cut wood to stay warm. “On special Sunday’s, Ahmad’s grandfather would have us slaughter a hog which he would break down in little paper packets and distribute amongst the community. My grandfather was a solid farmer,” Ahmad reminisced.
Ahmad added that his family was deeply patriotic (his grandfather’s name was George Washington Warner) and worked the land for generations. “We didn’t have much, a few hogs, chickens and our gardens, but we had a lot of love and everyone played their part,” he said.
But, another Tuskeegee notable named Booker T. seems to have influenced him greatly in his current efforts. Tuskeegee Professor, Booker T. Whatley was a pioneering figure in the development of sustainable agriculture and Whatley’s mission was to create a Black Middle Class through farming. Though not on the same scale, Ahmad is on track to deepen the unity in community with his Farmer’s Greenhouse.
Ahmad’s father worked primarily as a coal miner upon returning home from World War II with 13 children to feed. “Having gardens allowed us to make ends meet when there were layoffs at the mines,” he said. Coal mining provided cash to families in the region. But, the growing season and shared effort framed community survival. “In the beginning of gardening season, we would visit our neighbors, share seedlings and commit to sharing in the harvest. We knew there might not be work sometimes, so our gardens provided something to fall back on. This is what the Farmer’s Greenhouse will do,” Ahmad said.
“We were not just our parent’s children. We were the community’s children,” Ahmad said. He reminisced on the great impact a social worker played in encouraging community youth to ignore racist expectations and how his teacher, Ms. Virginia Thompson, steered their futures at the Jean Street School, a one-room schoolhouse. Most of all, life centered around the church and its leadership. “These people had authority and they pointed us to upward mobility. We had a real sense of community,” he said.
So, when the family packed up and migrated North with the rest of the Second Great Southern Migration, Ahmad had a solid foundation which was recognized by other southern and immigrant transplants to Roosevelt, Long Island where the family settled
Because the family migrated to another solid community, Ahmad found numerous mentors and emerged as a leader early on. He played quarterback, leading was the Roosevelt Jr./Sr. High School Varsity Football team to a 19-1-1 record and served as Captain of the Varsity Basketball team under Coach Ray Wilson who also coached Julius (Dr. J) Irving. But, Earl Mosley, a Guyanese Immigrant and former Marine from Brooklyn served as his strongest mentor and influencer. “This man sent 365 of us to SUNY/Brockport in 1968 through fundraising in his social, church and professional networks. His example is what I follow in my commitment to community,” he said. Ahmad graduated with a degree in Education and taught for a while before joining the Hartford Public Library.
And, so, Ahmad sees a new opportunity to build community through his operation on the Swift Factory Campus. He has shadowed every phase of the development, becoming an early advocate in bringing another state-of-the-art library to North Hartford, this time at Swift.
Ahmad saw the Swift Development as a catalyst for change and he wanted to be part of it. “I saw being part of this project was another opportunity for me to make a difference. The synergy with my hopes for the community was there. I knew that bringing those spaces online for economic development was going to be a game changer in North Hartford. We have a school here… businesses…a new library is coming! I had to be here,” he said.”
Before even establishing the greenhouse, Ahmad joined int the Swift Campus’ approach to mutual effort. He introduced Community First School children to his gardening operation by offering Principal Tim Goodwin books that have cycled out of the library’s circulation and then offering the students 3 of his 6 4’ by 8’ raised beds and seeds and tools to work the plots in the Mt. Moriah Community Garden two blocks away from Swift. He has also established an herb garden for Chef Walt’s kitchen on campus. Here at Swift, we are excited to welcome Ahmad, his growing operation and the local growers network to our campus. Ahmad is sharing the fruits of a lifetime of experience. Now, let’s get growing North Hartford!