"All the bank saw were dead roses," says Derek Cunningham, executive director of Lynchburg Grows, a nine-year-old urban farm for people with special needs. Apparently, when Derek and his partners proposed the idea to turn an abandoned 70-year-old rose production nursery into an urban farm, the bankers couldn’t see the farm for the dead roses.
Not all the flowers were dead, though. Red and orange and pink roses poked out of broken glass panes fifteen feet off the ground in a row of abandoned greenhouses behind the Lynchburg municipal baseball stadium. They were relics from the days before rose production went overseas to the high valleys of Ecuador or the dust-covered greenhouses outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Two separate families, the Doyles then, in 1952, the Schenkels, had run the Lynchburg rose nursery since the 1920s. The nine two-hundred-foot-long greenhouses totaled over four acres, each house valued at over $500,000. They were state-of-the-art facilities for their time, with automated systems to adjust the temperature via a water-cooled “swamp cooler” and a coal-burning furnace the size of a short school bus that heated coils beneath the raised beds. And the families were not shy about fertilizers back then, which explains the prehistoric-sized roses peering out at the vacant lot when Derek and company planned their Lynchburg Grows project.
Derek and his partners shared their urban farm intentions with the property owners, relatives of the family that formerly ran the rose operation. The family didn’t want to see their rose-based legacy razed and developed. They liked the Lynchburg Grows idea of utilizing the year-round growing space for local food production in combination with the budding organization’s mission to hire and train Lynchburg residents with special needs.
That’s how Derek, who has Spina Bifida and relies on arm crutches to walk, got involved in the first place. “I got tired of just sitting at home,” he says. “I received social security, but I finally decided to get out and look for something to do.” He went to the Department of Rehabilitative Services’ Stand Up, a program that matches special needs people with job coaches who assess them, train them for, and place them in appropriate employment positions. With the help of his job coach, Derek began a stained-glass business. In 2003, Derek and Michael Van Ness, a Lynchburg attorney and a job coach with Stand Up, read a newspaper story about a man living in a group home for people with severe needs. The man, Paul Lam, had lost his beloved garden to development. So Derek and Michael organized to build a new garden for Paul, an effort that led to a more ambitious search for permanent community garden sites within the city.
So later in 2004, thanks to a generous price from the family and a bank with vision, they purchased the old rose nursery and Lynchburg Grows began. In 2006 they received a USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) grant to further their work of converting the property into a place for food production and economic development.
Derek is now the Executive Director. He oversees two other full-time staff and five part-time staff, all of whom have special needs of some sort. Derek manages Greenhouse Two where he maintains the roses for market sales. Some are new breeds, some are originals that were transplanted into different beds after a team of Lynchburg College students helped to remove the old nursery’s soil and replace it with new, organic soil.
In Greenhouses One and Six, they grow produce for a CSA, restaurants, and market sales. They keep chickens, bees, a goat and they save the city close to $100,000 a year by accepting their yard waste to the massive mulch pile on the lot. That, combined with their produce waste, has yielded over 3,000 pounds of soil, enough that Derek hasn’t had to buy new soil for his raised beds in five years. The staff help with the farm production and with the management of the CSA and packing materials in the facility’s fully licensed processing kitchen. Lynchburg Grows recently partnered with St John’s Episcopal Church. The parishioners manage vegetable growth in a Greenhouse Eight, with all production going to the area food bank.
Greenhouse Seven houses a new effort in aquaponics, based on a workshop with Milwaukee’s Growing Power organization. Derek hopes to raise catfish soon. And Greenhouse 9 is maintained for event space – weddings, farm dinners, other group gatherings. These greenhouses are antiques, with towering ceilings laced in original light fixtures and piping and with that smell of dirt and, faintly, roses. Greenhouse Five, perhaps as an homage to the past and the family legacy, remains in its wild, rose-crazy state. The old-timers fill the soft light of the interior space in a jungle of thorns and waxy leaves and delicate pedals, some of which occasionally find their way through the broken panes to get a peak at the new life in the middle of Lynchburg.