Elizabeth Beak founded Crop Up, a community garden consulting company, on Earth Day 2011 and has since partnered with dozens of agencies, nonprofits and designers on an array of projects in Charleston and across the state.
Among the projects she has worked on so far are the Medical University of South Carolina Urban Farm, the future Butcher & Bee Urban Farm, the Verge Garden in Byrnes Down, the Greenwood Uptown Farmer's Market master plan and the Charleston Area Children's Garden Project school-based farmers market and program. Expect to hear news of more projects later this fall.
Born and raised in Evanston, Ill., educated in Providence, R.I., and having worked as an apprentice in Santa Cruz, Calif., Beak says she always has been fascinated by “human nature and nature, and the connection between the two.”
She was drawn to urban agriculture because she sees it as a positive way to improve the environment and health as well as bring people together. Beak moved to Charleston in 2009 and recently turned 40.
Q. What drove you, the inspirations and experiences, to form Crop Up?
A. I love having my hand in the soil so much. I feel more at home. I didn't grow up doing that, but it feels like home.
I love working with people and the community as much as growing the food. I think urban agriculture is such a beautiful way of bringing all those positive aspects together. Because we have been so removed (from growing food), community gardening integrates it into the fabric of our life. There are hundreds of people who walk through here (MUSC Urban Farm) every day. It's more present with us.
Plus, there are so many beautiful groups and people in Charleston doing phenomenal work. Lowcountry Local First has helped keep farmers off the endangered species list. The chefs have helped put local food on their menus. GrowFood Carolina is developing the (local food) infrastructure. CCL (Coastal Conservation League) is doing incredible work on policy. The Charleston Area Children's Garden Project and Green Hearts are working to integrate gardens and healthy food into school and classes.
I wanted to work and partner with different groups and professionals and move the work forward. ... Being a consultant gives me more flexibility to explore partnerships.
Every single project that I work on I'm on a team. It's hard to talk about Crop Up without talking about my partners.
Q. Where does Charleston fit in the landscape of urban agriculture in the nation?
A. I think we're at the beginning stages, but that Charleston is so open and ready for it.
We have such a close-knit community that more can happen at a more rapid rate. We can do it based on what has been done in other areas and be more sustainable in the long run. Everyone here has been so incredible at it.
Q. What's at the heart of the urban agriculture movement in the United States right now and at what stage, compared to other industrialized countries, would you say we're at?
A. Other countries in Europe are further ahead than us because they have less land. Cuba is doing some great things.
I think we're definitely in a resurgence. In the United States, this is the first time since the Victory Garden movement in the 1940s that more people are growing their own food and there's interest in community gardens and market gardens.
There are so many phenomenal examples of urban agriculture — Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland — in the United States right now. I think there are so many factors that come into play in the resurgence, but it's complex.
Among them is a whole host of health issues that have come up in the last decade, especially the obesity crisis. It's making people who are health professionals and running universities be willing to try out-of-the-box things.
I also think that it comes down to our pockets. When gas prices rise, I know I think differently on how I drive and what I do. Urban agriculture is very efficient. For every $1 we put into a community garden, $6 of produce comes out of it. That's a great return on investment.
In the United States, we're very independent. I am, too. I think that's something that a lot of folks love about our country, but I think a lot of times we can become isolated. I think there's an equal hunger to balance that out with a sense of community. I think planting a garden means that you have to be outside and you start talking to neighbors. We gather around food.
Q. Do you have any projects on the horizon that you are particularly excited about?
A. I'm very excited about a new project in Spartanburg. I'm working on a project with Hub City Farmers Market, the Butterfly Foundation and Mary Black Foundation as part of a team with Urban Edge Studio and McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture to do a “Healthy Food Hub” for the city of Spartanburg in a northside neighborhood.
Right now, the gathering spot for the neighborhood is the Li'l Cricket, which is where most of them are getting their food. The goal on this one piece of land is to create a hub for healthy food and living.
We're designing a permanent farmers market that includes a half-acre urban farm, a retail center, a cafe and culinary training center. It's supposed to create 20 new jobs for that area. There are buses that drop off there, and it will be part of a new bike system. It's so integrated into the whole city.
I think it's a phenomenal concept. I would love to see that here, too.
Q. What do you envision for Charleston in five years?
A. I think community gardens in Charleston will be very visible everywhere. There's a such a hunger for this. We have a good climate for it. We have support at the city level for it. I think it's something that can definitely blossom here.
Q. What is a glaring need for urban and community gardening and farming in Charleston?
A. I can tell you something that I want so badly is a tool lending library. That's something that we had at Oakland (Calif.) Public Library. I used it for every community garden building project.
It was a room in a library. People could get a push mower and ladder. Access to tools can be expensive. I feel like one of my arms is chopped off because I can't run to the library and get a certain tool. You get a library. It's integrated into a system. They are awesome. A lot of people don't have the money to buy all the tools or have the space to store the equipment.