Food Forward: Coastal Community Garden to Market Enterprise

Everywhere you turn these days, particularly in cool cities,  including Washington DC, there is a LOT of creative energy and interest focused on the concepts of Natural, Organic, Locally Grown Food that is key to best health, better cost/benefit for buyers, plus extra benefits of community relationships!

There are fabulous examples everywhere you look of local farmers markets around the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Region, including DuPont Circle in Washington DC, Bethesda, Silver Spring, and on East Shore’s St. Michaels where both locals and tourists gather.  What may not be obvious is that the Eastern Shore is an agricultural community BUT not everyone has easy access to good nutritious locally grown produce.

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On Tilghman Island, within the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, there is a community that is very much off the beaten beltway pathways, that only has one small market.

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On the island, they say there are the “been here’s, and the come-here’s”.  The long time residents have made their livelihood for over 100 years as watermen and waterwomen, fishing, crabbing, dredging for oysters as needed to support themselves and the local seafood industry.

Meanwhile,  every resident around the Chesapeake Bay Watershed has an impact on  the total ecosystem; Land, Water, Wildlife are interdependent.  Unfortunately as development has increased over the last 50 years, we see reduction of the populations of crab, fish and oysters upon which the seafood industry AND local communities rely.  At a time when baby boomers are retiring and coming to the East Shore for a relaxing home life away from the city, there is tendency to bring sub-urban land practices to the shores. A visitor may see some truly lovely new homes, with nice neat yard grass along with basic foundation plantings that are mostly ornamental.  However, from our University of Maryland Master Gardeners and other experts,  we learn there are “better practices” needed to restore and ensure the health of the Chesapeake Bay Community.

So what’s the problem? It isn’t always farmers and fishers folks!  Homeowners often maintain yard grass which is labor and fertilizer intensive, producing a monoculture, which in turn creates a combination of problems,  from erosion and nitrogen runoff into the baywaters, to reducing native diversity and habitats for vital pollinators, to reducing land space for local food production, impacting both humans and wildlife!  Hardscapes and impervious surfaces used for driveways and even along the shoreline, create “disjoints” in the ecosystem of natural relationships.  Roads, parking lots, paved pathways tend to funnel stormwater runoff along with various toxins into neighborhood drains, bringing poisonous effect to the water quality for wildlife, etc.  stormwater-runoff

If we multiply the impact of each individual landowner across the 6 states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the cumulative damage can impact everyone… We begin to realize the interrelatedness of environment, economy, equity, or the “3E’s of Sustainability”.

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The good news is that many of the newcomers bring some investment into the businesses that remain, especially the island restaurants and markets.   But again, these may not provide accessible food for lower income homes, many of whom are the native families of the island.  At risk is now the school, as there are fewer young families and/or young children, so very gradually there may be a loss of community if there is not a “next generation” to inspire an economic renewal.

But like so many communities across the nation and the world, there are creative, visionary, entrepreneurial spirits who invest their own time, money, energy to work toward BIG visions for solutions that may bring MULTIPLE benefits to their local region and beyond….A fabulous example of this is Phillips Wharf Environmental Center located at the entrance to the island.  As a traveler may cross over the historic Knapps Narrows Bridge they will see 2 restaurants, welcoming  guests to enjoy the views, food and fun with old and new friends,  while watching the sun set on the water.  PWEC is alongside, also on the shoreline, hosting a historic oyster house which is being revitalized through collaboration between community members who raise oysters that benefit the water quality as well as the seafood trade.   Phillips Wharf’s Aquaculture, Coastal restoration and education programs demonstrate how Tradition Meets Innovation! 

The video below introduces Kelley Phillips Cox, who is both a watermen’s daughter and native of Tilghman Island, but also a marine biologist and visionary entrepreneur.

Kelley, PWEC, and her famous Fishmobile have inspired many who have invested in early efforts as volunteers.  Over the last 2 years we have begun developing the PWEC Community Garden, shifting land use from grass to native plants and edible landscapes that benefit the bay, the critters, and the people, all supporting the educational mission, but evolving to build a new enterprise as well.  The project has involved university students who are studying questions of “Sustainable Development, Social Innovation, Ecotourism and/or Entrepreneurship” as well as Environmental or Marine Sciences.

We are finding it true that “If you build a garden, you can also grow people!”

So we are starting by feeding volunteers and interns, as well as community members who may visit the environmental center to learn about the edible landscaping project. Thanks to the ingenuity of visiting scholars/ sustainability minded professionals with background working in PeaceCorps, as well as our new and emerging team on site, there are now demonstrations of both hydroponics and aquaponics. These show the full cycling of water to support growing fish and greens in one closed loop system with very little land use!For our next year, we hope to push forward from basic infrastructure to developing a year round productive food source, and ultimately hope to “cultivate” a new farmer/ artisan market to benefit the local economy.

Consider joining us for a day trip, a field experience event, or volunteerism to learn more! We have a new classroom that hosts workshops, which will soon include design-build projects, various experiential learning and leadership development programs for young and old-er!