In 2020 we were able make tremendous progress in transforming Freetown Farm into a unique place of common ground where diverse people could learn from hands-on experience about how they can lead happier, healthier, more connected and sustainable lives!
2020 was CEI's first full year as the stewards of our farm! We invited the community to help us name the property and received ~100 ideas this spring. To honor the important history of this land we chose the name Freetown Farm. Here is an overview of the history as we are coming to learn it. We are on the traditional land of multiple Native American tribes, especially the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, who lived and traveled in the Patuxent River watershed for millennia. In the 1600s European colonizers continued to encroach on tribal lands and a Piscataway reservation was established via treaty in 1666. This was followed by subsequent treaties, all of which would be broken in the coming years, resulting in the loss of native homelands. By the 1690s plantations were established here that used slave labor for growing and harvesting crops such as tobacco. Slave labor was used in mining to support railroads and in the building of much of the original infrastructure of Howard County. After more than 150 years of slavery, in 1845 a local landowner freed seventeen people he had enslaved and gave them 150 acres of land to use—an area that became known as Freetown. In 1860 more than one in five county residents was an enslaved person; another 10% were free black people—double the proportion of the rest of the state. Local historians believe that Freetown and the surrounding area was as an important part of the Underground Railroad, especially as people used the Patuxent and Patapsco rivers in their journey towards freedom. Come forward another hundred years and in 1948 a segregated high school was built for African American students - the Harriet Tubman School is just across the street from the farm. The county didn’t desegregate until 1965, 11 years after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling mandating racial integration of schools. It was also during the 1960s that much of the agricultural land in the area was quietly bought up by James Rouse for the purpose of building a unique planned community, Columbia, which opened in 1967. Rouse designed Columbia to be a “garden for growing people” and he championed integration across race, class, faith, with the city’s iconic People Tree statue embodying this vision of our inter-connectedness. For several generations, pre and post the creation of Columbia, the land that includes the farm was owned by the Kelly family, an African American family with deep roots in the county. In the early 1980s Mr. Shaw purchased a 6.4 acre parcel from the Kelly family and proceeded to farm it organically until 2019 when CEI purchased it and deed restricted it from housing development. CEI is committed to understanding and honoring the full history of the land we now steward and we are working to develop programming that tells this story.
CEI celebrates collaborations with three local organizations that had gardens for the communities that they serve at Freetown Farm. The Howard County Branch of the NAACP has been a part of stewarding Freetown Farm since the beginning of the 2020 growing season. Members of the NAACP community created their large vegetable garden from scratch, from building the beds, to planting the seeds, watering and weeding and harvesting. Crops grown include, kale, chard, okra, basil, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and so much more! HopeWorks of Howard County and CEI formed a partnership called “Our Earth” that provides an opportunity for the people they serve to learn about safe space, civic ecology, community health and environmental injustices that disproportionally affect those who are marginalized. HopeWorks Director Vanita Leatherwood says “Justice work at its core is about trying to unravel complex systems that support inequities. So, while violence prevention and environmental justice may on the surface seem unrelated; the work is actually similar – we have to change behaviors.” Thus far, their healing garden at Freetown Farm includes about 120 native, pollinator supporting plants. The Indian Origin Network for Howard County began gardening two crescent moon shaped plots at Freetown Farm this summer. Their focus was on growing Tulsi, or Holy Basil, an herb that is originally from India and used for both cooking and in Ayurvedic medicine. They grew over 700 plants, 500 were given to local families and temples and another 200 were harvested for their leaves and seeds.
CEI celebrates fruitful collaborations with four universities in 2020. We are working with several University of Maryland Extension programs, Georgetown environmental studies students helped us with programmatic research, Johns Hopkins students are helping us with our marketing and outreach, and Townson occupational therapy graduate students have been involved in a year-long partnership with CEI and the Project Search program that supports students with significant disabilities in developing the skills they need to find non-traditional, rewarding jobs. This semester the Towson-Project Search team worked together to create an arts infused arboretum at Freetown Farm. They have identified 26 tree species that will be highlighted in the "artboretum" and created a self-guided walking tour so people can learn about each species in the "voice of the tree". The artboretum will be installed at the farm in the spring of 2021 with the next Towson-Project Search team of students. How cool is that!
CEI celebrates having completed six classes at Freetown Farm as part of our Climate of Hope program supported by a Howard County Innovation grant. The class topics included: an overview of climate victory gardening, sheet mulching, seed saving, pond building, composting, and garden season extension. Learn more about this project, which will continue into 2021, at www.communityecologyinstitute.org/climate-of-hope.html