By Annette Varoli
When you drive down Harriet Tubman Lane in Columbia, Maryland and approach the entrance to Freetown Farm, set back a few yards from the road, you’ll see a cheery and bright-colored farm stand welcoming you to the property, which is home to the Community Ecology Institute (CEI).
However, just over a year ago, you would have been greeted by a dilapidated farm stand filled with garbage cans. Not exactly what Chiara D’Amore, the founder and Executive Director of CEI, had envisioned for a first impression when the farm was purchased. Determined to transform the farm into a “living classroom” to foster healthy connections between people and nature, she set out to get help for the farm stand and other projects on the farm. She planned on reaching out to local scouting groups to volunteer for the various projects but asked me if my family would consider restoring the farm stand, likely because my husband and I both have architecture degrees.
Around the same time, my daughter Elise Varoli, was looking for ideas for her Girl Scout Silver Award project. She wanted to use her creativity to help her community with one of the issues she cared about-- the environment, racial justice, hunger/poverty or mental health. CEI actually helps with all these issues so the timing couldn’t have been better and we all agreed to take on the project. Elise would restore the farm stand and create a mural design for her project, and my husband and I would provide support for the restoration part that required adult supervision and expertise.
Originally, the scope of the project was only to replace one cracked post, add a few shelves and cabinets, and paint the entire farm stand including the mural. Unfortunately, we discovered that much of the stand couldn’t be salvaged due to termite damage, aging and some parts were structurally unsound since it was cobbled together with a variety of materials. Knowing that it was going to cost more than originally anticipated, Elise decided to hone in on organizing volunteers and materials for the entire restoration (Phase 1) and then mainly focusing on designing, finding funding for and painting the mural (Phase 2).
The farm stand was to serve as a visitor/volunteer check-in space, as well as a place to sell produce. The goal was to create a mural that is eye-catching from the street, inviting and speaks to CEI’s mission. Although Elise is naturally creative and artistic, the stakes were higher than a normal art project. This time she had the added pressure of knowing that all eyes would be on her artwork. She also had a hard time wrapping her head around translating her drawings on paper to the larger scale of the farm stand. That’s where my husband and I came in for support, walking her through the design process that we had learned in college. Initially, Elise brought us several fully colored drawings of her design ideas without having worked out an overall cohesive theme that included all sides of the farm stand. We told her to quickly brainstorm various big ideas using rough pencil sketches, instead of approaching her design as a fully finished art product. This process led her to the idea that she would then further develop in detail.
Her idea incorporated sun rays, various pollinators and pollinator flowers. She also wanted to incorporate the name of the farm but it hadn’t been decided yet. Thankfully, the property was officially named Freetown Farm just in time for her to incorporate it into the design. She also made a last minute change to her pollinator flowers when she found out that Bee Balm became the official pollinator plant of Howard County.
The design represented much of what CEI is about- the growth of food, restoring the environment and being a beacon of hope in strengthening our connection to nature and our community.
Our family experienced CEI’s mission in action as the farm stand became a labor of love for us. We got to bond with each other outdoors doing something creative, which certainly helped with our mental health during the isolation of Covid. We were given free okra, kale and carrots from the farm crew. We worked alongside friends and strangers that volunteered to help. We met members of other non-profits doing good work on the farm and out in the world that we might not otherwise have met: The Indian Origin Network, NAACP, Howard Ecoworks, HopeWorks, Harvest United, Columbia Community Care, Transition HoCo and VolunTeens.
The more we painted the mural, the more it invited curiosity and people from all walks of life came to talk to us and watch as we worked. A father and his daughter, a grandmother and her grandchild, a family that just moved into the neighborhood, another girl scout planning her Silver Award project. There was a student unable to return to college due to Covid who subsequently came to buy produce at the farm stand and later signed up as a volunteer. We witnessed the community connections strengthen right before our eyes.
On our last day doing final touch-up painting, there were bees and monarch butterflies and even a hummingbird buzzing around us as if to thank us for putting them and their important purpose into the spotlight.
155 hours, 80+ sketches, blood, sweat and many bug bites later, the farm stand was transformed into a symbol of hope during a difficult time in our history. On dark days, the sun always shines at Freetown Farm where everyday people are coming together to make the world a better place!
Here’s a link to a video of our journey with the farm stand!
By Patrick Boddicker
CEI is thrilled to be partnering with Howard County’s Office of Community Sustainability, Power 52, and the Chesapeake Conservation Corps program of the Chesapeake Bay Trust on an innovative project demonstrating agrivoltaics. Agrivoltaics is the dual use of land for agricultural purposes and solar energy generation. Project partners will construct raised garden beds and install solar panels above the beds.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, wouldn’t the solar panels shade the plants making them not grow? The answer is no, and in fact installing solar panels above plants can be beneficial to the plants and the panels. When solar panels are above plants in close proximity, a microclimate is created that affects both panels and plants. Shading of the plants causes less water loss due to evaporation, which makes the plants use water more efficiently allowing them to grow in hotter, drier conditions. The evaporation that does occur helps to cool down the panels which in turn makes them more efficient at converting solar energy into electricity.
The demonstration plot at CEI's Freetown Farm will serve as an example that other community gardens and home gardens can replicate. The County hopes to also expand the practice of agrivoltaics to larger farms after CEI helps to demonstrate its viability. In an ever changing climate we need to do our best to combat the causes of climate change, preserve our natural environment, and increase resiliency in a warming world. Agrivoltaics in Howard County will produce clean renewable energy and locally grown foods with little impact on the environment.
By Taylor Logsdon, CEI's Freetown Farm Manager
I am continually amazed by the complexity and beauty I see during a walk in the woods. In every available niche some plant/animal/fungus has found a place to not only grow and live, but to thrive. Nuts, berries, mushrooms and medicinal herbs all grow on their own volition, without any assistance from the human world. There is competition and, more importantly, a whole lot of cooperation between all these living parts.
In a food forest, or forest garden, we take our inspiration and design from these systems. Where in an orchard we might plant a fruit tree, in a food forest we plant a fruit tree family or guild. We work with layers and niches. Every site asks for a different design. Sun exposure, site size, water availability and flow dictate the species chosen. Nuts, fruits, berries, vines, herbs, mushrooms and perennial vegetables create a dynamic community of useful plants while reducing inputs and increasing yields. The plant niches we fill create habitat for wildlife, food for humans and a beautiful and abundant landscape for us to steward and above all enjoy.
At Freetown Farm, since the fall we have been steadily planting our forest garden with species including persimmon, pawpaw, elderberry, currants, black cherries, raspberries, blackberries, serviceberry, chokeberry, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and more. This area is adjacent to the two acres of woods we have at the back of the farm, ultimately it will extend the woods further north on the property in a delicious way. In the existing woods we are also planting more diverse, edible and/or medicinal species such as redbud, spice bush, hazelnut, sugar maple, and black walnut. It will be wonderful to watch this part of the farm grow!
We are here to help you design and install a forest garden on your property as well.
Email email@example.com for more details!
As the new stewards of this historic, 6.4-acre farm on Harriet Tubman Lane in Howard County, Maryland, CEI reached out to those who helped us purchase and protect this land to ask for their thoughts about what to name it. The property has been known as Shaw Farm for almost 40 years, named for its prior owner. We received close to 100 different name suggestions! To honor the important history of this land as well as the ways in which our urban arm will support the journey to a "carbon-free" future, we have, through an iterative process, chosen the name FREETOWN FARM.
CEI is committed to understanding and sharing the social and ecological history of this land. Records show that the plantations of this area used slave labor as early as 1690, often for the growing and harvesting of tobacco. Once iron ore was discovered, slave labor was used in mining to support railroads. When asked what role enslaved people played in developing Howard County, Wylene Burch, the founding director of the Howard County Center of African American Culture explained: “They built it. All of these buildings built in the 1700s, they must have used the slave trade to build them. Those people really struggled and worked and developed this area.”[i]
After more than 150 years of slavery in Howard County, in 1845 local landowner Nicolas Worthington freed seventeen people he had enslaved and gave them 150 acres of land—an area that became known as Freetown. According to