Much more than vegetables grow at Sprout Urban Farms

It's a staff meeting. Let's face it: staff meetings usually inspire yawns, doodles on notepads, and texting under the conference table. But this staff meeting is led by Jeremy Andrews, CEO of Sprout Urban Farms on 245 N. Kendall Street in Battle Creek, and while there are notepads and laptops open on the table, and notes are indeed being taken, there are no yawns. Instead there is laughter, friendly jibes, general teasing, and a lot of enthusiasm, sprouting all around the table. 
That's because Andrews is no ordinary CEO. He spells it out. CEO stands for, he grins, "Chief Excitement Officer."  And Sprout Urban Farms is no ordinary farm. Sprout, as Andrews and his crew call it, is the hub of a grassroots movement born of a community gathering to discuss ways to improve, well, life. 
"The best initiatives come from a community, not at a community," Andrews says. It was 2009, he says, and he was working as a community organizer in Battle Creek. "About 100 residents showed up at our forum. People could talk about anything, propose anything."
What the people wanted was a community garden. In fact, everyone everywhere seemed to want community gardens, and so Andrews started to think--why not start one great community garden rather than scattered many gardens? And then … he did both. 
Sprout Urban Farms took shape from that grassroots initiative, built on grants, donations, and community enthusiasm. Now vegetables are grown year-round, if not in the garden, then in a large greenhouse, or inside hoop houses. From Sprout about 30 more community gardens  sprouted throughout the Battle Creek area. But that wasn't all. 
"We talked about gardening at that forum," Andrews says, "and we also talked about composting, harvesting, education, and workshops. We talked about improving food access, building a food co-op, getting youth involved."

Sprout Urban Farms grew quickly, and soon included all of these things. 
Bright Star Farm became the one community garden. Compost Happens became the community compost project with a focus on youth engagement and environmental stewardship. Fresh on Wheels is the mobile market partnership between Sprout Urban Farms and the Battle Creek Community Foundation. The GreenFist Project is a gardening youth internship made up of youth, ages 16 to 23, from many of the school districts surrounding Battle Creek. 
More initiatives keep popping up, almost like weeds. Each new project brings more nourishment to the community. 
"Community food grows relationships, I always say,"  Andrews says with a nod.
Devon Gibson, also at the staff meeting, is operations manager for Sprout.
 "I got involved after I was a witness to a homicide right outside my house," he says. "It's a low income area, and there are a lot of those here. I wanted to do something for my community. I met Jeremy Andrews, and I thought he was crazy." Gibson shrugs. "Two years later, here I am."
Gibson saw his chance to make a difference, even if it started with cleaning and sweeping. Andrews eventually put him to work watching over the interns who work in the gardens, keeping them on task, tracking hours, getting everyone's hands into the dirt. 
Rebecca Spicer, creative content director, started at Sprout as one of those interns, but now is on staff full time. 
"Only one who would stay," Andrews jokes, and they both laugh. 
"I'm working on my degree in grad school now," Spicer says. "I'd like to be a teacher and bring gardening into the classroom. My mom encouraged me to garden--she said it would toughen me up. And then I started to love the idea of being sustainable. People complain about low quality food. So have your own garden!"
Sprout Urban Farms is all organic in its practices, although not certified. Andrews insists he wouldn't bother with the paperwork and the expense of certification. Community gardens are places, he says, where people know what's growing and how, involved in the process themselves. 
"We also provide community education, help people solve their food problems without being self-righteous about it," says Andrews.
Among the workshops Sprout Urban Farms offer are pest and weed management, how to build and use a rain barrel to collect water, food preservation and cooking, and, of course, organic gardening and how to engage the community in shared gardens. Sprout workers are also on hand to help area farmers. 
"The average farmer today is 60 years old," says Spicer. "We need to open up farming as an option for kids to consider when choosing a career." 
It's a symbiotic relationship. "Farmers donate seeds and seedlings, fruit trees and tools to us," adds Andrews. "Sometimes, they donate land."
In return, Sprout extends itself to farmers. "We buy up the surplus from farmers, find those places locally where their food is needed, and sell it. Kind of like a local Sysco," Andrews says, referring to the nationwide food distributor. "We sell their produce and ours, and we sell to local restaurants."
Among those to whom Sprout Urban Farms sell are Arcadia Brewing Company, Hogzilla BBQ Pit, Food Bank of South Central Michigan, FireKeepers Casino, and a very long list of others that includes local hospitals, government facilities, schools, and nonprofits.
The dreams don't end there. They only begin there, Andrews says. "Lots of dreams that we plan to make come into reality in some shape or form." 
He talks about a kitchen, making wraps of fresh produce, putting them in foil and selling them for a few dollars out where people may not have access to anything but fast food. 
Staff meeting adjourned, all retire to the garden called Bright Star Farm, named for the church that once stood on that vacant lot of 2.1 acres. It's early in the year. Seedlings are yet to be planted in the ground, yet a neighbor leans over his fence and watches the play of shadows from a tree in the lot, streaking across the rich and waiting soil. 
"I can't wait for them to start up again," he says. "I can't wait to taste one of those garden tomatoes."

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.    
Photos by Erik Holladay.  
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