Kula Urban Farm aims to appeal to economically-challenged town
ASBURY PARK — Lisa Bagwell knows her organic and conventional growing practices, as well as hydroponic growing principles.
As general manager at Kula Urban Farm, Bagwell was hired in 2016, after the opening of the Kula Café in 2013, a restaurant founded and run by Interfaith Neighbors, a religious charitable organization — a coalition of area churches — on 4th Avenue.
Marilyn Schlossbach, CEO of a chain of Asbury Park-area restaurants, spearheaded the Kula Café project, which teaches a range of restaurant skills to underprivileged people and former convicts as a pathway back into society.
“We call it the farm without borders,” Bagwell said of Kula Urban Farm.
“We started cultivating a portion of this now-established farm in the spring of 2017,” she added. The whole complex, Kula Urban Farm, which has expanded several times, and the Kula Café, sits beside a new park on Springwood Avenue where free concerts are held on Monday evenings through the summer.
There are no fences here. The entire growing areas are open to the public in this economically depressed neighborhood in West Asbury Park.
Aside from running the hydroponic greenhouse year-round, Bagwell and others involved in managing Kula Urban Farm jumped at the chance to cultivate a vacant lot across the street from the café.
“I thought we should cultivate this spot with soil,” she said, “because we did have a small garden where the [hydroponic] greenhouse is, but it was a very small plot of land to be using for distributing free food.”
Bagwell and her crew sheet mulched the area behind a former music club, and the dirt lot nearby serves as a parking area for an Asbury Park police substation.
The wood chips were donated, and Interfaith Neighbors got a small grant to pay the people who work on the farm.
Asbury Park-based Interfaith Neighbors was founded by Joe Marmora in 1988, Bagwell said, and is a coalition of area churches and synagogues who’ve pooled their resources to address hunger and homelessness in the community.
The group also builds genuinely affordable housing in conjunction with Covenant House. Nearby are two separate apartment buildings for men and women.
Interestingly, Interfaith Neighbors is such an efficient non-profit operation that the County of Monmouth has contracted them to run the Meals on Wheels program. In other counties, Meals on Wheels is often run by county government.
“It was Roger Boyce’s idea to build the hydroponic greenhouse right next to the Kula Café,” Bagwell said, noting he is her supervisor and has long been involved with Interfaith Neighbors.
Bagwell’s background is in small scale organic farming. She went to Cook College at Rutgers and graduated in 2000.
Born and raised in Monmouth County, “I always cared about the environment and ecology.” She worked as a park ranger in Allaire State Park and Cheesequake State Park after graduation, did some work as a chef, and then took a job with Jeff’s Organic Produce in Cream Ridge, run by Jeff Lidzbarski.
“I did fieldwork and worked at a lot of farmers’ markets and then I got hired by the City of Long Branch to manage their community gardens,” Bagwell said. That job led her to Kula Urban Farm.
“We call this garden ‘The Turf,’ as our main farm without borders. There’s no fence here, no running water, and the Asbury Park Fire Department comes along to fill up our IBC tank. We hand water everything here and it’s a good example of how you can build a garden with plenty of vegetables with minimal resources in an urban area. People come in and pick strawberries and that’s good, that’s the point, it has been working,” Bagwell said.
“Dealing with people and giving away free vegetables, is a nice thought, but it’s easier said than done,” she said.
“It’s sometimes difficult when you’re growing produce in the public sphere and then just giving it away. I decided to do this here because it’s more visible, there’s more interaction with the neighborhood people and this plot of land of course is a hopeful, inspiring and wonderful project.”
Kula Urban Farm works well and appears poised for more growth in coming years because of the program’s inter-related missions and Bagwell’s can-do attitude.
“We have these inter-related components,” Bagwell explained in closing, “growing produce and selling it, offering jobs to people, growing free produce for people in the neighborhood and we have our educational component as well.”
Future plans may include converting the adjacent former Elks Club lot and expanding the farm even more.
“To convert this parking lot here to a working vegetable and herb farm, is beautiful,” she said.
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