Fort Worth Movement Brings Farms to the City

The PolyWes Garden

Fort Worth farmers are starting a movement

The sun didn’t bear down too heavily over the community garden just outside William James Middle School – perfect weather for a stroll through the garden grounds.

Founder and garden manager Kimberly McLean, clad in denim overalls with her curly brown hair tied up in a headband reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter, stepped between each bed, pointing out bright green vegetables like sweet and lemon basil, Swiss chard and bok choy. There are 13 beds total, spread out over a 6,250-square-foot plot at 2900 Avenue C.

While McLean visits the garden every day, she has two volunteers who come to check on the garden a few times a week – her 25-year-old son, Chris, and another volunteer, 27-year-old Juan Ontiveros.

“I try not to bother them too much, even though they’d probably say I bother them all the time,” Kimberly McLean said, laughing.

Chris McLean says he doesn’t mind, though.

“It doesn’t sound like something you hop out of bed on the weekend in the morning to do,” he said. “But when you’re actually out here, it’s really calming. It’s peaceful.” 

Kimberly McLean has big dreams for the space. For one thing, she wants to use the large blue shipping container on the property for aquaponics, a technique that grows plants and fish in water together. Fish produce waste that helps the plants grow, and plants filter the water to help the fish grow.

She also wants to build other gardens near Texas Wesleyan University, as well as renovate a trolley to become a mobile food market that will drive around the city selling fresh fruits and vegetables.

What she didn’t know when she started the garden, however, was that she would be a part of something bigger. With the City of Fort Worth teaming up with groups like the Blue Zones Project to encourage healthier living in the city, one of the initiatives is to increase urban agriculture – things like community gardens, aquaponics and urban farms (that is, using land for planting and harvesting crops, raising fowl and, if desired, beekeeping).

“The urban farm movement is really catching on over here in the community,” McLean said. “We’re really excited about the growth.” 

It’s all part of the city’s plan to combat food deserts, or areas of Fort Worth where people don’t live in close proximity to grocery stores. Instead, areas classified as “food deserts” have many fast-food restaurants and convenience stores where healthy food is not always sold.

In February 2015, the Blue Zones Project came to help, launching citywide exercise and healthy eating initiatives, as well as working with the city government to make changes regarding food policy.

Those changes came last year. The first change involved mobile food markets, amending the city’s zoning ordinance to allow produce carts and motor vehicles to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in residential areas the same way ice cream trucks and carts do.

The next step was to create a new ordinance that dealt with urban agriculture. The city hadn’t addressed urban farming in the past, and if someone did want to use land primarily for urban agriculture, the land would need to be rezoned if it wasn’t already zoned as “agricultural.” The city did allow home gardens and community gardens, as well as the raising of some small animals like guinea pigs and certain birds, but there wasn’t much that gave prospective urban farmers much guidance.

To draft the urban agriculture ordinance, the city met with groups like Blue Zones, the Tarrant County Food Policy Council, gardeners around the city and other stakeholders to put together a “wish list” of guidelines the ordinance should have, said Brandy O’Quinn, public affairs manager at Blue Zones. The groups also did research on urban farms and gardens around the U.S. The Fort Worth City Council passed the ordinance last August.

“This use is something we want to encourage,” city planning manager Jocelyn Murphy said. “[The city doesn’t] want to be in the way, but if we’re going to allow it, let’s set some parameters. Let’s set some expectations for both the people who are doing the garden and also the people who are going to live near it. That’s the reason for the ordinance – to say we want the use, we welcome the use, but here’s the boundary of what works and what doesn’t.”

The ordinance allows urban agriculture in all zoning districts, whether it be residential, commercial or industrial. Gardeners can also sell their produce, but the amount they sell depends on the zoning district. Residential areas, for example, can have limited sales. Permanent sales, such as farmers markets and self-pick farms, are allowed in commercial districts, while larger-scale uses like warehousing and distribution are allowed in industrial districts.

It all fell in perfect timing with Kimberly McLean’s plan to start several gardens around the Texas Wesleyan area. Her first project was to re-establish the garden at Polytechnic High School. That garden opened in July. She then helped launch another garden on Avenue C called “PolyWes,” (its name is a fusion of the names of two groups that helped start the garden, “Polytechnic” High School and Texas “Wesleyan”). The PolyWes garden opened in September, and McLean continues to maintain it with volunteers.

Some of the volunteers are students from James Middle School, who come to tend the garden a few hours a week. Some students have even skipped class to spend time in the garden, McLean says.

The fruits and vegetables in the garden aren’t the typical ones students are used to eating. Crops range from collards and Siberian kale, to more familiar plants like broccoli and strawberries.
“It’s exciting because we’ll break off the basil, and most of them haven’t even had basil either,” McLean said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, it smells so good.’ Then they’ll try it, and some of them like it and some of them don’t. But it’s an opportunity to get them to experiment with new foods.” 

McLean hopes the PolyWes garden will expand to become more like an urban farm, using the shipping container on the site for aquaponics. After expanding PolyWes, McLean’s next venture is to build another garden on about 3.5 acres across from the John Peter Smith Health Center along Beach Street. Along with the garden, she also wants to turn a shipping container into a distribution center for the produce grown on the site. Additionally, Texas Wesleyan is also considering donating 5 acres to start another garden, McLean said. 

Then there’s the trolley, which McLean purchased at an auction for $8,000. Keeping in line with the city’s mobile produce market ordinance, McLean is looking to renovate the trolley, preserving its nostalgic look, but removing the seats and putting shelves where fresh produce can be sold. She calls it “The Trolley Pride.”

Blue Zones is working with McLean to help launch the trolley food market.

“She took it and has run with it,” O’Quinn said.

But it’s not just produce and aquaponics that the city’s ordinance covers. It also covers beekeeping – something local beekeeper Stephanie Weatherford says she’s excited about.

“I’m always looking for a spot to put bees,” she said. Under the ordinance, honeybees are allowed in all zoning districts.

Photo by Daniel Weatherford

Weatherford learned about personal beekeeping through a group known as the East Texas Beekeepers Association (Tarrant County has its own similar group known as the Metro Beekeepers Association). The group helped educate her on beekeeping, and she currently keeps bees in East Texas, along with two bee boxes in her backyard in Fort Worth.

Getting started isn’t difficult, and while attending a beekeeping class through a beekeepers association is helpful, it’s not a requirement, Weatherford said.

Bees can be ordered locally through the Metro Beekeepers Association or online through companies like Mann Lake. Weatherford orders a “nuc,” or an established colony of bees and their queen. Bees can also be purchased without a queen, and the queen can be introduced later. Some companies also sell basic beekeeping kits for beginners, which come with a bee box, protective gear and other essential tools.

Weatherford said assembling a bee box is easy as well. Bee boxes are typically made of wood, starting with a base at the bottom. On top of the base is a brood box, which serves as the queen’s home, where she lays her eggs. Super boxes are then set on top of the brood box – the supers are where honey is stored in frames that resemble files in a filing cabinet. Once the supers are set, they are topped off with a lid and roof.

Photo by Daniel Weatherford

Once the bees are in the box, it’s time to wait for honey. But even after bees produce their first batch, it’s important to wait for the right time before taking anything, Weatherford said.

“There’s this thing with beekeepers, and I did the same thing, I just wanted honey,” she said. “All I could think of was how much honey I could get.”

The time it takes for bees to produce honey varies, but she recommends waiting two years before taking honey from a hive. If honey is taken too early, the hive could starve, she said.

Weatherford said she learned it the hard way. Some of her hives starved after she took honey prematurely.

“If you over-rob in the summer or in the fall, all the honey they have left in that box that they’ve stored up is all they have to live on, literally from October all the way until at least April, when plants really begin generating again,” she said. “If you take too much from them, they’re not going to make it through the winter.”

If bees are slow in producing, one option for the beekeeper is to supplement the bees with sugar water. Still, Weatherford says bees work best without much help.  

“Just leave them alone,” she said. “Let them do their thing.”

Of course, Weatherford says she understands beginning beekeepers’ concerns about safety. She wears a suit and gloves when handling the bees and says she hasn’t had major issues. She said the key is to be gentle with the bees – they won’t attack “unless you really go in and mess with them.”

“If you work the bees at the right time of the day, the right time of the year, it’s not an unsafe hobby,” she said.

She says she hopes the city’s ordinance will help spread the word not just about beekeeping, but healthy eating as well.

In the end, O’Quinn says, it’s all about making sure everyone in Fort Worth has quick access to fresh food.

“The key to everything that we do – it’s about choices,” O’Quinn said. “We’re never taking away the unhealthy choice. We’re just offering and wanting to make sure that the healthy choice is available.”

O’Quinn and Blue Zones hope to see urban farming spread throughout the city. It’s a movement that’s just beginning, and McLean says she’s grateful for how the community has already started coming together.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “I don’t think I could’ve done it without them.”