Dan Weidenbenner ’11 doesn’t exactly fit the typical farmer profile. He’s a psychology major who wears narrow, dark-rimmed glasses and plays tennis in his spare time. The plaid shirts for which he has a penchant might be the only hint of his chosen profession as director of Mill Village Farms, a 501c3 organization aimed at growing food and jobs in rural and abandoned urban spaces in the Greenville, S.C. area.
What started as mission work with local Grace Church and Long Branch Baptist Church, MVF now manages more than 120 acres of farmland, and last year launched a mobile food market, “Good to Go,” which delivers food to areas where fresh, local food isn’t available, or “food deserts.” And this year, MVF planted South Carolina’s first ever rooftop garden, a.k.a. the Rooftop Farm Initiative. About a half-acre atop the former Windstream building in downtown Greenville is home to 12 (with dozens more to come) space-saving aeroponic towers that can grow fresh and healthy vegetables in just 24 days.
The Florida native will be the first to tell you that it’s not all about the food. The farm model serves as a platform for mentoring youth by teaching basic job skills, sustainable agriculture, and entrepreneurship. “I’m more concerned about growing a successful teen than I am about growing food. But we obviously have to do both to make it happen,” says Weidenbenner.
The nonprofit provides at-risk youth first-time jobs and the opportunity to harvest the requisite skills—working under authority, establishing a strong work ethic, managing money, and working as a team. And through MVF’s 10-week Youth Entrepreneurship Program, kids tour businesses and learn the fundamentals of starting a venture, then create a proposal for launching their own enterprise.
Since 2012 when MVF was created, the nonprofit has employed 25 at-risk young men and women, also known as “youth partners.” At least four of those teens are or have been successfully employed at restaurants like local Tupelo Honey Café (headquartered in Asheville, N.C.), which buys produce from MVF and other regional sources. Sixteen youth have been involved in the process of crafting business plans, and courtesy of the mobile market, all have delivered and sold fresh-off-the-vine produce like melons, beans, cukes, tomatoes, and squash to nearly 3,000 customers.
Weidenbenner’s foray into the world of produce actually started at Furman University during research he and others conducted with psychology professor Michelle Horhota, Ph.D. “We brought older adults in from The Woodlands and Scott Towers communities to the Shi Center farm and studied the cognitive benefits of gardening and farming, including attentional capacity and other variables,” says Weidenbenner.
The experience was a sort of epiphany for the then 21-year-old psych student. With the help of Long Branch Baptist Church and Grace Church, Weidenbenner planted that same idea in lower income areas and applied it to a much younger set that works gardens at the Mills Mill Farm and Sullivan Street Farm—acreage left behind in the wake of the textile industry collapse. “To be able to move into an under-resourced area here in Greenville that is culturally very different from my background, and to learn from that culture and work alongside that community through something as simple as farming has been very challenging and enriching,” says Weidenbenner. MVF youth partners are also employed in gardens on the rooftop downtown, Serenity Farm in Easley, and the Farm at Rabon Creek in Fountain Inn.
In the space before MVF was formed, Grace Church had been doing outreach work with Long Branch Baptist, a dynamic, mostly African American congregation with 1,200 members near downtown Greenville. Pastor Sean Dogan of Long Branch provided much of the impetus for the project which would become Mill Village Farms. Says Weidenbenner, “Long Branch was already in the community and owned five acres of vacant land that could be used for farming . . . and the idea really fit in well with their culture of healthy living.”
Weidenbenner says, “Long Branch is a vibrant church—Pastor Sean Dogan is dedicated to healthy lifestyles. We have fitness and cooking classes, experts who come into our worship services to talk about eating and living well. He’s been a huge catalyst for our project, for his enthusiasm and because he’s so well connected in the community.”
Besides the support from local churches, Weidenbenner is struck by the generosity of businesses and individuals in Greenville. The support has enabled him to hire a full-time farm director, Noah Tassie, and a part-time market director, Tisha Barnes who manages the Good to Go Mobile Farmers Market. And through MVF’s partnership with Swamp Rabbit Café, Good to Go brings not only fresh veggies and fruits, but also baked specialty items to food desert locations and to suburban communities.
Weidenbenner says Greenville is ripe for a venture such as his. “People in Greenville are passionate about local food and supporting youth—it’s been a nice mesh because people here are very generous.”
You could say the roots of MVF are firmly planted in the Greenville community—so much that teens who’ve worked with MVF are circling back. Twins Marcellus and Morrell Stokes, who worked at MVF in their late teens, are now servers at Tupelo Honey Café and both are looking to go to college. Weidenbenner, who’s proud of the fact that the young men make more money than he does some days, says, “They’ve been active in giving back to the community, which has been amazing for me to see—that was an unexpected thing—to see them volunteering with us, the youth program and at our church. That’s what we want—we want people to stay here and invest.”
Weidenbenner won’t take all the credit for the positive changes in the lives of young men and women. Inspired by witnessing youth giving back to their communities, neighbors and friends come alongside and invest in the teens. Perhaps neighbors and friends lend support because they are motivated by what they don’t see growing in the urban spaces—a tangle of weeds like crime, homelessness, and drug activity. Whatever their motivation, the neighborhood outpouring has boosted support for MVF, says Weidenbenner, who also recognizes Long Branch Baptist and other mentors for having a “huge” impact in the lives of young people in general, and Marcellus and Morrell, in particular.
As for the future of the enterprise, Weidenbenner’s goals are lofty. Years from now, he says, “I would hope that we have teenagers who come back and help lead the organization. I would love for us to impact even more youth across our community, and to grow even more food—not only for our community, but the city and restaurants. I’d like people to look back at this and see it as a community-based initiative and not me starting all this—it was our neighborhood, our city coming together to see teens thrive and people eating healthier.”
For his part, Weidenbenner has a lot to be happy about. After all, there’s a lot more growing at MVF than kale, collards, mustard and other greens. There are future business owners, community leaders, executives, and mentors.