West Palm Beach urban farm fights for its future after lease ends on city-owned land
The mural on the wall that separates the Henrietta Bridge Farm from the nearby train tracks, features several African-American leaders like Harriet Tubman and agricultural scientist George Washington Carver.
Around the corner, a man hired to cut grass at the acre and half farm clears his way around irrigation lines and the raised-bed garden, several yards across from the Native American Chickee hut — it was placed there by people who are authorized by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The farm has been providing fresh produce to low-income, predominantly Black communities for seven years. This place, near West Palm Beach's Historic Northwest neighborhood, is not just a farm, but also a laboratory for kids learning about the environment and history; it’s a source of second chances, too, where people who’ve been incarcerated can get a job.
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But the farm is almost certainly going away soon. The city of West Palm Beach owns the land and officials recently decided not to renew the farm's lease. The mayor wants to use the space as transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness instead.
Stewart Bosley, the founder of the farm and executive director of the non-profit Urban Growers, said the city has chosen to remove the community asset right in the middle of growing season and that the decision could worsen the area's food desert situation.
Without his farm, people in the community have to travel at least two miles in any direction to get fresh produce. The farm used a “veggie van” to deliver produce to the seniors.
Bosley built the farm in an effort to change eating habits.
“We put down collard greens, mustard greens, okra, kale, cabbage, tomatoes, green bell peppers, some beans, all of the foods that are culturally relevant to the community that we serve,” Bosley said.
“A little bit of green will help you with hypertension, heart disease, obesity all of the ailments that are common within the black community," he said.
The farm's 53 tropical fruit trees, with its avocados, mangos, breadfruits, and sapodilla, will be gone. During a recent visit to the farm, Bosley stood next to a structure he built called a hoop house. It protects the plants from the scorching summer heat but it will also be going away.
“That means what I have. And growing trays, seedling trays and what's in the ground, I have to pull all that up and really just disassemble the farm, take it down,” Bosley said. “The banana patch, the trees, the flowering plants, everything.”
Bosley, 78, is a Vietnam War veteran and his Native American and Black family members ran farms across the midwest for many years.
The native New Yorker says that's why he's passionate about providing healthy food for his community. He’s put more than 10 years and thousands of dollars into the project and now feels defeated.
“There are few Black farmers in America,” Bosley said. “There used to be many, many, but that’s just not happening.”
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Black farmers make up 1.4% — or more than 45,000 Black producers of the country’s 3.4 million producers. A little more than 2,400 Black producers are in Florida.
Support But No Shift At The City Level
Members of the community spoke on behalf of the farm at recent city commission meetings.
"He has fed hundreds of people in the community, including myself,” said Caron Bowman, founder of public art company Street Art Revolution.
Karina Ramirez, a nearby resident, said she was there the day volunteers help planted trees and that people live in a community “where people don't listen too much to us."
And David Rae, who spoke on behalf of the non-profit Hospitality Helping Hands, said leaders should advocate “for an expansion on projects like this and really look at what we [can] do to not only uplift him but duplicate it."
After the public shutdowns during the beginning stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the farm suffered a few operational issues. Bosley said the farm's stand had to be closed down.
“We just really were at a standstill. And we thought that since we were getting clear of some of the COVID situations that we would be able to open and operate,” said Bosley said. “As well as we had a brownfield remediation, which means we had to take toxic soil out of the farm. We took 2,400 tons of toxic soil and that kind of abbreviated our growing season last year. But we were looking forward to this year coming to having a full growing season where we could put down our plants.”
Like his supporters, Bosley also spoke at a recent commission meeting about the farm.
"By the time you do anything, I would have two cycles of providing fresh produce to the families around the farm," Bosley said about the city's decision-making process.
It was his last attempt to convince city officials to let him hold on to the farm.
All of the commissioners, with the exception of Commissioner Shalonda Warren who was absent from the meeting, showed some level of support for Bosley.
Commissioner Christy Fox suggested extending the lease to a month-to-month agreement to meet the demands of the growing season. Fox said the farm aligns well with the health equity goals of the city’s Racial and Equity Task Force.
West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James addressed the farm situation at the same commission meeting.
“One of the key priorities of this administration has been providing housing, dealing with the homeless issue,” said James. “That property is the largest property that the city owns. It’s an ideal location for supportive and transitioning housing.”
James doubled down on his decision to not renew the lease or to allow Bosley to continue to use the property “because at whatever time we want to pivot to using this to meet another key objective and priority of this administration, he’s not going to want to leave then.”
James says his staff has identified two city-owned properties for an alternative urban farm location. He said the new plan will be brought to commissioners for a vote at the appropriate time in the near future. So far, the location or the time frame hasn’t been disclosed.