Sola Gratia Farm
From the moment you step foot onto Sola Gratia Farm, you become immersed in their farm and mission. A group of Common Ground staff were fortunate enough to spend a day at Sola, exploring the grounds and learning about their food! Before we could even begin our tour, we got a glimpse of their community impact. Rigt at their entrance, a woman and her daughter stopped by to drop off some locally grown vegetables. Sola accepts produce that then gets donated through Solidarity Gardens to various organizations including soup kitchens, food pantries, and The Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant's Bucket Brigade program. Because we were there on a Wednesday, we were also able to witness the weekly donation pickup for Eastern Illinois Foodbank. Sola donates at least 10% of their produce to Eastern Illinos Foodbank and other hunger assistance programs in Central Illinois. Sola Gratia Farm has donated over 100,000 pounds of produce since 2012!
Sola Gratia is a small-scale urban farm right here in Urbana. Their central location right off a major road definitely sets them apart from other farms in the area. "We are an urban farm, it’s a weird strange thing, the center of our farm is a big parking lot, we have a lot of foot traffic going to the grocery store over there, we have neighborhoods of varying income levels all around us, there’s a head start facility here - it provides an interesting context for who we are, what we’re doing, and still even though we’re in our tenth year a lot of people still have no idea that we exist" explains Farm Director Traci.
Sola Gratia Farm began as a ministry of St. Matthews Lutheran church. The original 4-acre plot of land was previously used to grow corn and beans, and proceeds went to supporting world hunger reilef overseas. Under collaboration with Faith in Place, they focused their efforts inwards on alleviating food insecurity in our own community and educating others on local food growing. Their mission creates an "opportunity to build community" and encourage and support other farmers. This plot of land is still being used year-round to grow food. Far off in the distance, a variety of carrots, turnips and beets were being prepped for the fall growing season. Farm Manager John explained that they are always looking forward and constantly planning for a steady supply. Sola Gratia has over 200 members in their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and they have an "obligation to their CSA" to always have a supply of products to include. The farm has since expanded with an additional 5-acre plot that allows them to enhance production, move cover crops, and increase visibility from the street, as well as a 6-acre plot that contains their greenhouses, wash and packing station, and main building facility.
The location, size, and mission of their farm presents a unique set of obstacles that they have to workaround. While they are not a certified organic farm, they employ organic farming methods throughout and are highly transparent about their growing practices. When asked if they ever have a problem with rabbits, John assured us that "Oh - we have a terrible problem with them". As an urban farm, they have constraints with pest control. They mostly accept their losses when it comes to animals eating their produce, and sometimes rely on a resident fox and owl to let nature run its course. Another unique consideration involves the many different places their food goes to. When growing and harvesting, it is imperative that they consider the donation aspect. They want to be able to grow unique foods, but when food insecure people are spending their dollars on food, it's important that they aren't presenting them with varieties they are unfamiliar with, do not enjoy, or won't be eaten by their children, and their "crop plan has to cater to that". For their CSA, they need to stretch their crops among multiple shares so they grow larger quantities of smaller crops. When they sell to retailers such as the Co-op, they try and refrain from competing too much with for-profit growers and provide us with unique produce that we aren't getting elswhere.
Because of its size and desire to support as many community members as possible, the farmers at Sola Gratia do whatever they can to yield maximum harvest. During the summer months, they utilize plastic sheeting to cover the soil under their crops. The benefits of doing this include weed and moisture control, warming the soil which leads to faster crop growth, water retention, and labor cost control. They don't need the plastic during fall planting because there are better windows for weed control, and the soil temperature is at its peak. Illustrating the constant battle between maximizing efficiency and maintaining sustainable farming practices, they only use the plastic when necessary as unfortunately there are not any nearby agricultural plastic recycling programs.
We came upon a sweet potato patch, and were able to better understand how community members impact the mission of Sola Gratia. A farm volunteer from the Congo asked Traci if he could harvest the leafy greens from the sweet potatoes. Farm staff were previously unaware that this part of the vegetable was used as an ingredient, but sweet potato greens are highly edible and can be used in a number of dishes. Traci explains, "We’re always trying to make the most from our investments and now this is considered a two-for crop because, right we can take the greens, put it through our CSA, send it to market, teach people another recipe and a little bit about another culture, and also serve our Congolese neighbors that are in our community".
As the tour continued and we headed over to their set of greenhouses, it became increasingly clear how creative Sola farmers are in terms of utilizing space. In one greenhouse currently being used to start seedlings and cure vegetables, a narrow row of celery had been planted right in the ground in the middle of the greenhouse. Innovative ideas such as these allow them to maximize their growing space and continue providing food to the community year-round. They also have a set of high-tunnel greenhouses where they are currently growing tomatoes and peppers. Stepping into one of these and being surrounded by rows and rows of vegetables was a truly remarkable experience.