CHARLESTON — South Carolina summers are notoriously hot.
Luckily for Carmen Ketron, the Palmetto State’s hot summer climate means she can grow peppers, yams, beans, tomatoes and other traditional staples of West African cuisine at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Urban Farm.
Many of these plants have been grown in the South for hundreds of years, but a small section of the farm is dedicated to trying new growing methods and seed varieties that could be implemented at a sister garden more than 5,000 miles away in the small village of Okurase, Ghana.
Ketron, an educator at MUSC’s Urban Farm, helped spearhead an initiative to build a quarter-acre community garden in Okurase three years ago.
Made possible through Project Okurase, a nonprofit organization in South Carolina and nongovernmental organization in Ghana, the Nkabom Organic Garden was designed to be a demonstration space/teaching facility to help village residents return to organic farming methods without the use of harsh agro-chemicals and pesticides.
“One thing that was really highly desired was to go back to their roots,” said Cynthia Cupit Swenson, a psychiatry professor at MUSC’s Center for Global Health.
Swenson proposed the idea of creating a sister farm in Okurase as a way of furthering Project Okurase’s mission of developing “sustainable, replicable solutions to life’s biggest challenges and share lessons learned with other disadvantaged villages” in Ghana.
Now, Ketron and other educators at the urban farm are able to raise awareness about the cultural contribution enslaved people from West Africa made to Lowcountry cuisine while exchanging vital gardening information, practices and techniques with the locals in Okurase.
Founded in 2012, the urban farm at MUSC is a half-acre “living classroom” at the corner of Bee and President streets in the middle of downtown Charleston. Its mission is to foster healthy eating habits by growing crops and social connections via educational workshops, volunteer opportunities and tours for local schools.
Since she can only visit Ghana twice a year at the most, Ketron wanted to have a “living test plot” at MUSC, where three or four raised garden beds are dedicated to experiment with new growing techniques that could be beneficial in Ghana.
Factors such as climate change, water salinity, drought resilience and soil health are all considered, Ketron said.
The plots feature major staples of Ghanian diets: ginger, garlic, carrots, Roma tomatoes, onions, eggplant, beans and peppers. Traditional herbs considered to have medicinal properties in Ghana, such as Moringa, are also grown. Ketron plans to launch a garden plot to grow rice sometime this year.
The farm also provides an opportunity for Ketron and other farm educators to teach those who wander through the garden, which is open to the public, a little bit more about where their favorite foods came from, since many Southern staples were originally brought over from Ghana 400 years ago.
“Every time people walk through, they see that we’re doing something different, and we get to go and sit and talk about our connection to Africa, our connection to history, and how food is a vitally important portion of our local community and our global community,” Ketron said.
BUILDING A MODEL
MUSC’s Urban Farm and the Nkabom Organic Garden are mutually beneficial. Technology and social media allow both sets of farmers to connect and share information or gardening tips.
Ketron checks in on Isaac Owu, the head of the Nkabom Garden, around once a week via WhatsApp, a virtual texting application.
Owu volunteered every day for almost six months at the urban farm when he visited the United States in 2016, Ketron said.
“We didn’t realize we were building a model at the time,” Swenson said.
Owu trained with Ketron every day for months at the urban farm, learned the organic method and then taught what he learned to his community when he returned home.
Many of the village residents were already practicing some of the major facets of organic farming, Swenson said.
“I think the important thing here is to keep in mind that what we’re seeing formally, is that the farmers in Ghana really didn’t have a lack of knowledge. They just had a lack of capacity to change practice,” she said.
PUT ON HOLD
The farm produced around 2,600 pounds of food last year, Ketron said. It operates year-round, and more than 40 varieties of vegetables, fruit and herbs grown in South Carolina are raised and harvested.
Most of it goes to the 300 or so volunteers that help maintain the farm, but growing concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic means that many of the farm’s outreach programs have been suspended for now.
Ketron now donates most of the harvest to the doctors, nurses and other staff at MUSC working each day to fight the coronavirus.
In the meantime, Ketron is working on launching a “Virtual Victory Garden” series on social media for people stuck at home quarantined or practicing social distancing because of the rapidly spreading virus who are interested in starting their own gardens.
A partnership between the farm and Burke High School is also on hold for now.
Earth science/world geography co-teachers Benjamin Plants and Peter Locher have spent the past few months teaching Burke’s freshman students about their heritage and connections to Ghana. In March, students learned about what items are biodegradable and began building the framework to house their own “Ghana Garden.”
Ketron loved the idea of teaching students with the concept of growing their own food, talking about food from other cultures, and focusing on “how the African diaspora is so ingrained in everything that the Lowcountry is,” she said.
The project will likely be postponed until students have the opportunity to return to school, which won’t happen until at least the start of May.
She’s looking forward to being able to open the farm for volunteers and educational programs. After all, allowing people and students to have hands-on experiences with the food they eat is one of the best educational tools, Ketron said.
“Food is history,” she said. “Food is life.”
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