The Oasis: A farm for the next generation of growers in West Dayton
For some, the point of an urban garden is about addressing food scarcity, for others it means connecting neighbors with other neighbors. While others might just do it as a hobby. But it can also be a major undertaking.
About eight years ago, Gregory Muhammad bought a piece of land in West Dayton for $1. He’s named it the Oasis Agricultural Learning Center. Right now, it’s mostly a blank canvas. But, Muhammad dreams of building a community garden and gathering place.
The farm is in West Dayton, on a four acre lot with a lone building on it. The building needs some repairs, the paint is fading and some of the windows are boarded up.
But it’s not abandoned, in fact there’s life all around it. There’s a garden plot for growing vegetables and fruit trees. Local children have painted lilac and purple flowers on some of the boarded up windows while others have words of encouragement written on them.
Right next to the building, there’s a trailer. That’s where Muhammad lives. He has big plans for this place.
“I'm not an expert, or a master gardener yet, but I'm learning,” Muhammad said. “This is all trial and error, you are still dealing with the elements.”
Muhammad’s tall with gray hair and glasses. He was born in Dayton and remembers always gardening as a kid. He has a degree to tutor and worked at Dayton schools as a tutor for a while. But he mostly works in construction now.
He’s on a mission, he wants this garden to be an asset for the community and bring the awareness of agriculture to youth in Dayton.
He said today's world comes with too many distractions, but gardening has a way to center someone.
“The Earth has a way of humbling you, Muhammad said. “Once you come and put your hand in the dirt, it’s a whole new reality, it’s just soothing to the mind.”
In 2010, Muhammad moved to Alabama where he joined the Nation of Islam’s Ministry of Agriculture. He learned that growing food is central to growing a healthy community — and he wanted to share that message.
When Muhammad came back to Dayton, a friend offered the lot to him practically for free, he just paid $1 as a symbolic gesture. And at first, he didn’t know what to do with it.
"When we got the land it's like somebody gives you something, but not understanding what all is going to come behind it, like the taxes and the upkeep." Muhammad said.
Since taking over the land, it’s been a steep learning curve. But Muhammad’s making progress. Now he’s growing grapes, fruit trees, cabbage and other greens. He’s installed a small chicken coop just behind the old building and at some point kept honey bees in the land.
For a while, Muhammad had been going at it alone. He said the work it takes to grow on the land can be overwhelming. He added, he sometimes feels like the Little Red Hen, from the children’s story.
“She was a worker and she asked people to help her or ask the other farm animals to help.” Muhammad said.
The story's protagonist is a hen who planted wheat seeds. She harvested the wheat, milled it and baked bread with it.
And along the way she asked her friends for help but, “Nobody had time for that, they got time to eat though, but they didn't have time to help with the process.” Muhammad said.
There’s still work to be done — and yes, he sometimes feels like the little red hen, but he’s happy to do it for his community. And he wants to get more of his neighbors involved.
He’s invited local kids and other growers to help with harvesting and weeding. Some members of the Dayton New Black Panther Party even helped him build a greenhouse this past summer.
“Brothers in the Black Panthers and brothers in the Nation came and helped me get the plastic over and just move forward with the hoop house.” Muhammad said.
The farm has also partnered with Dayton City Schools to establish Farm to School programming — a state and federally funded program aiming to educate children about farming and providing schools with fresh and nutritious produce.
He wants this land to be a gathering place, a food hub in a community that has limited access to fresh, healthy produce.
“I want to have my own little produce stand out there where we sell the fruits and vegetables from other farmer Black farmers or any farmer in the area,” Muhammad said “I mean, your work deserves some reward.”
But this property will be more than just a garden or produce stand.
He plans to fix up the old building and turn it into a daycare for the neighborhood and a learning center where the community can gather.
He says he wants this to be an oasis for the next generation of farmers.
“[This is] to pass something on or have something started and pass the baton to some young people, because without them, this is pointless.” Muhammad said.
Muhammad still has a lot of work to do. He’s managed to save up some money to pay off back taxes on the land and get the water turned on. But it’s a long road ahead to make Muhammad’s vision for this property a reality.
Food reporter Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.