Each Friday, meet those farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.
This Friday, we visit Ju’Coby Pitman at the Clara White Mission, a community center and urban farm in Jacksonville, Florida, that not only provides fresh produce to a community, but helps feed and train the homeless.
At dawn, a line of homeless start gathering around the Old Globe Theater building on West Ashely Street in downtown Jacksonville waiting for a meal at the Clara White Mission.
It’s just like they have done every day since Dr. Eartha M. M. White established the Mission at the turn of the 20th century and named it after her mother, Clara, who had invited the hungry to her dinner table.
Now Ju’Coby, CEO and president, carries on Eartha’s tradition, expanding the Mission into to a community development center with job training and housing for the homeless and veterans while feeding more than 500 people every day.
And now Ju’Coby has started an urban farm that connects it all.
Nourishing a Community
Below, (left to right) farm director William Byrd picks peas with culinary arts students Wanda James, Joseph Clayton, Simone Roberts and Frankin McAdory. They will prepare the peas to feed the homeless. Produce from the farm also supplies the neighborhood’s farmer’s market, Clara White Mission catering business and Friday’s lunch served at St. John’s Cathedral Church.
Five miles northwest of the Mission, tucked away off a busy street lined with strip malls and convenience stores, is the Mission’s farm. There, White Harvest Farm is cultivating peas, greens, squash, tomatoes, onions, melons and hope on 14 acres near Moncrief Creek.
Ju’Coby’s grandparents lived in the area and she saw first-hand the decline over the years. The neighborhood is designated a food desert because of the lack of fresh produce and healthy food options.
She met with the community residents and leaders to ask if they would support a farm. They embraced the idea and planting began in 2012 on the land Eartha had acquired decades ago. Ju’Coby renovated a small house on the property down the street and opened a farmer’s market.
“This land touches a lot of people,” Ju’Coby says.
Food grown at the farm helps feed the homeless at the Mission.
The crops also supply a farmer-to-faith mobile and farmer’s market in the neighborhood, providing accessible fresh healthy produce in a food desert.
Trainees in the mission’s culinary arts program prepare the produce for Ashley Street Catering and lunch at Clara’s at the Cathedral.
Plus, children from five local schools work in the garden to learn about agriculture and earth science.
Ju’Coby didn’t know anything about farming, so she went to the USDA Baldwin Service Center. Soil Conservationist Paula Allen helped her sign up the property as a farm with the Farm Service Agency and described the programs available through NRCS.
“She really listens to people, even the smallest things. She is the heart and the soul of the community and does what the voiceless can’t,” Paula says.
Last year, NRCS technical and financial assistance helped build a high tunnel to extend the growing season through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The structure is 30’ by 70’ and covered in six millimeter white plastic that rolls up on the sides. It keeps crops cool in the heat of the summer and protects them from cold temperatures in the winter.
Conventional & Progressive
Farm director William Byrd and farm manager Val Herrman are in charge of transforming the property into a sustainable, productive urban farm.
William has been farming all his life, and has been working at White Harvest for the last two years. In the afternoon, two or three high school neighborhood kids can be seen following the 73-year-old while he goes about his work. William believes teaching youth about agriculture is one of the benefits the farm offers the community besides fresh produce. “These kids have never experienced anything like this, they don’t know where their food comes from,” he says.
Val joined William last August. She became certified in permaculture design in Hawaii, studied tropical food forest systems on a small island off the coast of Panama and worked on an organic farm in Oregon. She started a permaculture meetup group that now has 3,000 members and recently earned certification in Korean Natural Farming techniques.
When Val came to the farm, the land had been continually tilled, chemically farmed and the topsoil was washing downhill with every rainfall. Her first task is to build soil health. “We began to build the biology that structures the soil by bringing in compost, using cover crops, mulch and pro-biotic “fertilizers.” All very different methodologies from what William grew up with.
“I am the rabbit,” says William, pointing at Val to his left, and adds, “She is the turtle.” Old-school and new, they complement the farm. William is learning not to plough as they transition the farm to no-till and use cover crops. “I am learning Mr. Byrd’s timing with crops,” Val says. Right now, tomatoes and peppers fill the high tunnel. Plants lining the sides of the tunnel provide integrated pest management. Yarrow harbors beneficial insects, while chives and calendula, a type of marigold, repel harmful pests.
Next, they want to get certified as organic with the help of NRCS.
Ju’Coby’s plans are ambitious. “It’s all intertwined,” she says. White Harvest Farm will become an education and agri-tourism site. Classes will teach community members how to propagate and grow their own gardens. A 1938 coquina cottage built by Eartha White will be restored as an education center.
A large open area next to the house is the site of a farmer’s market where Ju’Coby envisions community events with live music, food vendors, an outdoor cafe and cooking demonstrations.
She got the first glimpse of her dream in November when White Harvest participated in the Jacksonville Tour de Farm as one of more than 50 local farms, artisan food makers and chefs.
A local chef ladles out a sample of a dish he created with White Harvest Farmer’s Market produce during a demonstration for Jacksonville’s Tour de Farm in November.
Farm to Mission
A lot of moving parts make up Clara White Mission.
Ju’Coby, like Eartha before her, knows how to deploy a community, and is a master at marshaling resources and collaboration. She has built the non-profit organization from a $225,000 operational budget to $3.1 million, and from five employees to 29.
Clara White Mission coordinates services through the Veterans Administration that include case management, substance abuse counseling, mental health counseling, medical services, housing placement, job training and placement, budget and financial counseling, life skills training and educational services. A training center focuses on 10 weeks of vocational training in culinary arts and janitorial/construction where students earn six OSHA certifications, with most students placed in jobs before they graduate.
People who walk through the door at Clara White Mission are clients.
“Everyone is treated with dignity and respect, with an understanding that everyone has a story that has brought them to this point in their life,” says Ju’Coby.
Johnnie May Cox Smith, left, gives Ju’Coby a necklace she made for her. Johnnie May is homeless and has been coming to the Mission for several years.
Ju’Coby manages multiple initiatives to support the Mission and training: Clara White Mission and Eartha M. M. White Museum, Beaver Street Veterans Day Center, Riverside North Special Event Hall, Boulevard Woman’s Veteran Center, Ashley Street Catering, Clara’s at the Cathedral, Clara’s Canteen, White Harvest Farm and Farmer’s Market.
She coordinates two annual fundraisers, Pearls and Cufflinks Gala in November and Miracle on Ashley Street in May. For Thanksgiving she hosts a city-wide event to feed homeless veterans and low-income residents.
She is awhirl in action — arriving 7 a.m. at the Mission she peeks into the training center classroom, greets the cooks in the cafeteria, welcomes clients eating breakfast, stops to say hello at the veterans center adjoining the mission before stopping in her office on the second floor to work until she drives off to meetings and check other Clara White facilities.
Volunteers (left to right) Shawn Sloan, Roslyn Burrough, Veronica Tutt, Christina Stallings and Jamila Pope dish out Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Clara White Mission during Jacksonville’s “Feed the City” in November.
Fridays are especially busy, when she attends the weekly lunch at St. John’s Cathedral, where she welcomes individuals seated throughout the banquet room before taking to the stage to thank the crowd for coming and promoting the Mission.
Photo: Beverly Chapman plays classical violin at St. John’s Cathedral during Friday’s Clara’s at the Cathedral. The formal luncheon raises money for the Mission and gives the culinary students real-world experience. Beverly is a local musician who has volunteered for the Mission since 2007.
Clara White Mission Chef Keith Smith teaches culinary student Simone Roberts how to make a custard for the Friday lunch at St. John’s Cathedral.
Angel of Ashley Street
Eartha White’s spirit lives on in Jacksonville, as seen in city and corporate support and the advocacy of Ju’Coby Pittman and her staff. Visit any of the Mission facilities and you will hear Eartha’s mantra repeated by heart and see it posted on walls.
“Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, for all the people you can, while you can.” –Eartha White, 1896-1971
Eartha was a pioneer. In the 1900s, she turned her mother’s soup kitchen into a social agency. Her accomplishments include a senior citizen center, orphanage, Boys Club, programs for delinquent youth, employment training, an alcohol recovery program and housing for veterans and homeless.
She was Jacksonville’s first professional social worker and female realtor, and a soprano with the first African American opera company in the United States. And that is just part of a long list of firsts. She owned and operated a variety of business, earning more than a million dollars in her lifetime.
Eartha is Ju’Coby’s inspiration and motivation. This year was her 24th with Clara White Mission where she started working right out of college. It quickly became much more than a job.