Aunt Katie's Community Garden, Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson of Aunt Katie’s Community Garden outlines his vision for further expansion of his facility to an adjacent lot. The lot is currently being evaluated and could be further remediated through the help of an Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields grant.

Growing season has arrived inside Aunt Katie’s Community Garden, and executive director/co-founder Michael Jackson hopes a federal grant will soon create another blooming season for his facility.

Potential expansion of the community garden located at 602 Linden St. is the first major project the City of Dothan has addressed with an Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields grant it received in 2017. The EPA awarded Dothan $300,000 to help turn potentially environmentally unsound properties into attractive lots that could spur economic development in various areas.

In the past, Brownfields grants paved the way for the development of Cottonwood Corners and Friend Bank – located at the intersection of West Main Street and Ross Clark Circle.

“Properties that have been stagnant and had nothing going on in a while, generally the perception is that they are contaminated,” said Keith Pyron of PPM Consultants, a firm that is helping Dothan administer the grant. “The purpose of the grant is to try to remove the environmental issues so that the property can be developed.”

While Brownfields grants can be used for major retail or industrial development, Jackson’s application to develop an adjoining lot for a garden expansion presented city and EPA officials with an intriguing idea.

“The EPA likes doing things like mine,” he said. “Community gardens work to make your community better. Evidence-based research says in order to get folks to eat more healthy – if you can move the food production closer to them – they will more than likely take advantage of it.”

The garden, a “community development corporation,” also provides several economic opportunities for the city and its residents, Jackson said.

People can purchase raised beds at the garden for a small yearly fee then use the beds to grow food they can sell if they so choose, Jackson said.

“We are able to grow some of our employment opportunities and encourage people to become entrepreneurs by giving them a vehicle to sell small-scale stuff,” he said. “Because there’s such a demand for locally grown food, the margins (at farmers markets) are better. You don’t have to have large volumes to be extremely profitable.”

The program also sells its own produce and honey in order to fund its education and advocacy efforts.

Additionally, the garden provides the city an “agritourism” aspect, Jackson said. He noted several people have begun to write reviews about Aunt Katie’s on the TripAdvisor website.

“Our farmers market could be like another Peanut Festival if we had a permanent farmers market here,” Jackson said.

On the adjacent lot, Jackson wants to create two tunnel houses – like greenhouses but not made of glass – that are 20 feet by 48 feet. Jackson said he can grow enough produce in each house to match the productivity of a full acre of land in one growing cycle.

With the ability to rotate crops, he can raise enough produce to match the capability of 10 acres of land each year in each structure.

Jackson also wants to expand the garden’s “bee yard” and plant a row of fruit trees along the property line.

But the property, which the City of Dothan actually owns, has at least one “recognizable environmental concern” as defined in the initial Brownfields assessment. For decades – dating as far back as the 1940s until recent years – the area housed an electrical substation.

Jackson said nothing grows in certain patches of the lot. With the help of Brownfields money, a geologist and soil sampling crew have visited the lot to collect samples for analysis.

Officials will soon generate a report on the best approach to improving the lot. Jackson said crews could remove a certain layer of the existing soil, establish a strong clay base for his plants to grow or even pour a layer of asphalt down before adding soil on top.

“Most vegetables need only about eight inches of soil to grow,” he said.

Bob Wilkerson, who oversees the Brownfields project for the City of Dothan, said the grant could potentially pay for the remediation depending on what officials recommend. He noted crews have identified underground fuel storage tanks on another local Brownfields project, and the grant covers their removal.

Earning Brownfields grants can be extremely difficult for municipalities, Pyron said in his address to the Dothan City Commission Tuesday.

The EPA did not award Dothan’s application in 2015 but did in 2016 –with Dothan receiving the money in 2017. Dothan was one of five cities in Alabama to receive a Brownfields grant in 2017, but some years only one municipality earned one, Pyron noted.

Jackson appreciates the efforts of Dothan’s leadership to obtain the grant.

“Just the fact the city made a strong enough commitment to do a good grant and win it is a real ‘attaboy’ for the current administration,” he said.

Follow Jeremy Wise on Twitter @DEwiseTrojan.

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