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Two St. Petersburg congregations unite to grow fresh produce for neighbors in need

The Benison Farm brings together two Episcopal churches offering different assets.

ST. PETERSBURG — One had the acreage that the other didn’t, and so it was that a Snell Isle church in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods teamed up with another settled on a modest street.

Their joint mission was to plant and harvest fruit and vegetables to share in an area that most consider a food desert and to sell enough to sustain the project. In the almost 12 months since they launched their urban farm, St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church on Snell Isle and St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in the Highland Oaks neighborhood have sold their harvest at a successful farmer’s market and given it away to individuals and an organization that helps the poor.

St. Augustine’s, a historically Black, multicultural congregation, was founded in 1927. Its congregation is small, with an average Sunday attendance of about 40 to 45 worshipers.

St. Thomas, which has a larger, mostly white congregation, was founded in 1952. The preschool it started in the 1960s grew into the Canterbury School of Florida, whose lower school continues to meet on its campus.

The idea for the garden — now established on 1.5 acres behind St. Augustine’s sanctuary at 2920 26th Ave. S — was the Rev. Martha Goodwill’s, a deacon at St. Thomas'.

“I have always had a passion for gardening, and I was always keenly aware of the food desert,” she said, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition for a low-income area where access to fresh, affordable, nutritious food is limited.

Related: There’s a food desert in St. Petersburg. It’s not imaginary.

She wanted to combine her passion for gardening, Goodwill said, with “the driving force of trying to help correct some of the social problems around food.”

“You have the land, and I have the desire to do this,“ is what the Rev. Josie Rose, St. Augustine’s priest-in-charge, recalled Goodwill saying. It was through Goodwill’s leadership that a grant was secured for the project. Rose said.

Hazel Hudson-Allen, St. Petersburg, harvests bananas at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, St. Petersburg on Thursday. St. Augustine's Episcopal Church and St. Thomas' Episcopal Church began working on farming project — the Benison Farm — at St. Augustine's last year. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The two congregations, which already held joint Bible studies and participated in other programs together, agreed to team up on an urban farm.

“It’s just proved to be a good partnership,” said Goodwill, who works full-time as an accountant for the Diocese of Southwest Florida.

The project got start-up money from the Episcopal Church’s United Thank Offering ministry, which gave it a $63,600 grant. The Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, based in Parrish, contributed $3,000. The funds helped clear and level the overgrown St. Augustine’s property, buy a new pump for a deep water well that was already in place, and add irrigation and solar power.

The first farmer’s market was held in February.

“We pretty much sold everything we had — collard greens, mustard greens, onions,” said Hazel Hudson-Allen, who grew up in Jamaica and has been a member at St. Augustine’s since 1992. “It really gave us an insight as to how this market could grow, and the reach.”

But the coronavirus forced them to make adjustments.

A summer farmer’s market was called off. Operation Attack, a multi-congregational ministry based at Lakeview Presbyterian Church, to which they gave part of their harvest, had to close because of the virus. Hudson-Allen said the farm has since been giving away its produce to individuals and selling a portion to Kenwood Organic Produce, which offers free delivery and accepts SNAP benefits.

“Every Thursday, we harvest first thing in the morning and deliver to Kenwood Organic Produce. It’s been a good partnership with them,” she said, adding that the arrangement raises “seed money to replenish things on the farm.”

Goodwill, who said she follows the Florida Farmers’ Market COVID-19 guidelines for holding a safe market, hopes the congregations can offer another market in October.

Martha Goodwill, St. Petersburg, harvests Japanese egg plants and regular egg plants at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, St. Petersburg, on July 30. St. Augustine's Episcopal Church and St. Thomas' Episcopal Church began working on the farming project — the Benison Farm — at St. Augustine's last year. Goodwill is an organizer of the garden. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Okra and eggplant are currently thriving. Sweet potatoes are in the ground in preparation for a fall harvest. Tomatoes, chard, cauliflower and other produce will be planted as the weather cools. And the church volunteers have planted mango, avocado and guava trees. Pigeon peas and sorrel, Caribbean favorites, are going in.

It’s hard work, Rose said, but worth it.

“It’s exciting. We are commanded in our Christian values that we are always to help others,” she said. “We are on the right track. We are trying to help our brothers and sisters in need. In this case, it is to provide fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The property was previously cultivated by the late Lawrence Pope, a St. Augustine’s parishioner who was a retired educator and master gardener, Hudson-Allen said. He was affiliated with the Pinellas County Extension Service, and demonstrations sometimes were conducted at the site.

“So the property at St. Augustine’s was ordained as special for the wider community,” she said.

The congregations call their endeavor Benison Farm.

“Our goal is to have people feel welcome and comfortable at the farm, regardless of their faith or their background or ethnic origin, so we wanted a name that didn’t necessarily stand out as a certain faith,” Goodwill said. “We all kept saying how blessed we are.”

That sent Goodwill on an internet search, leading her to find the Old English word for blessing: benison.

“It’s a wonderful way to remind us that the garden is a blessing, not a chore,” Rose said.