The back-to-basics approach is one of the biggest cultural shifts in the food world over the last 15 years, leading to a boom in small farming and an increased focus on eating local. In that sense, it was no surprise to see an urban farm like EZE Farms pop up in Columbia. Unlike most farms, though, successful farming is a distant secondary goal to EZE's desire for community change.
EZE Farms is part of a larger entity called Ezekiel Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that focuses on working with under-resourced youth through afterschool and mentoring programs. For the past 10 years Ezekiel Ministries has focused particularly on at-risk children in grade school.
Started in 2017, the farm is the first of Ezekiel’s programs to work specifically with middle and high school-aged children. Most of the children either live with a caregiver or in a single parent home — a common household composition in the neighborhood the farm is in.
The 1.5-acre farm sits at the edge of the Pinehurst community, a site bordering both a low income area and an affluent neighborhood. The area's median income, according to city-data.com, ranges from as low as under $10,000 in the Pinehurst area compared to nearly $140,000 in the next neighborhood over.
"The farm is here because the Two Notch corridor is one of the places in Columbia where children are more at risk,” says farm manager Brett Varner. "This is one of the more at-risk areas in the community. They're at risk because they are living in poverty. They don't have access to healthy food a lot of the time.”
Young people work as “apprentices” on the farm. There are currently four full-time apprentices with hopes to grow in the future with the addition of another mentor.
The mentoring at the farm focuses on three main principles: faith, farming and entrepreneurship, Varner says.
“We first want them to connect to God and understand how to lean in on him for their needs and just to have that relationship with them and enjoy it,” he says. “We also want to show the boys a small-business model anyone can do. The reality is that a lot of them will have difficulty getting the jobs they want and maybe won't be able to access the education they want."
The apprenticeship touches on many elements, from weekly hands-on work at the farm to helping sell goods at markets and learning basic business skills. Community members occasionally also come out to volunteer with the children and help build relationships and different skill sets.
“We just want them to pick up whatever they can about the decision-making process," Varner says. "We don't go too in-depth, but they will be at least aware that there is something called forecasting, something called budgeting, something called planning. These are important things in a small business and later on in life they'll have an opportunity to understand what those really are and connect the dots.”
Not all has been perfect. With mentorship being a large focus of the farm, there has been less time allowed to do things such as find ways to develop the soil for long-term sustainability or spend time building connections with the restaurant community — all of which Varner recognizes as essential in the long-term sustainability of the farm and the program. EZE’s growth has been slow but measured, with its biggest presence at Richland Library, where they sell weekly at both the Assembly and North Main street locations.
For Varner, a long-time Columbia native, EZE Farms was a perfect fit. Previously, Varner worked at Agape English Language Institute, helping international students develop their English skills in order to succeed at college in the United States. While service has long been part of Varner’s career, so has a passion for the outdoors, thanks to his father.
“My dad was a hobby farmer longer than I've been alive," he says. "I've always enjoyed some of the work he's had me involved in, more so as I grew older. So there was already kind of a restlessness in me to be outside to be working outside and making things grow.”
Though he grew up farming with his family, EZE has been learning on-the-go for the first time farm manager, along with the challenges of developing the mentorship program and making new connections. He’s the first to admit he’s never been alone, however; the support of local churches and community members have helped the farm come a long way towards developing a sustainable ecosystem to help mentor children in the Pinehurst area for years to come.
“We never want this to be about me and another guy,” says Varner while reflecting on the farm’s original goals. “We want our team to be the people that are working here full time and also the community that has some margin and wants to use that margin to give back. That will be our team.”
2323 Harrison Road, Columbia
Richland Library — Assembly: Wednesdays 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Richland Library — North Main: First Tuesday of the month, 3-6 p.m. [online copy corrected]