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Disaster in Haiti, homeless man inspire gardens project

Sunday, August 25, 2013
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Instructor Gregg Alford works in the greenhouse at the Stonewall Jackson Training School in Concord, N.C. The garden is part of a project to build 100 gardens — 67 in North Carolina, paired with 33 in Haiti — using a soilless growing technique called aquaponics that relies on fish to fertilize plants cultivated in water. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer)
Instructor Gregg Alford works in the greenhouse at the Stonewall Jackson Training School in Concord, N.C. The garden is part of a project to build 100 gardens — 67 in North Carolina, paired with 33 in Haiti — using a soilless growing technique called aquaponics that relies on fish to fertilize plants cultivated in water. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer)

There are many reasons Ron Morgan’s 100 Gardens project could fail, but there are more reasons he’s determined to make it work, one vegetable seedling at a time.

The idea behind the nonprofit came to Morgan after a trip to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. An architect by training, he traveled there with members of Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, expecting to design shelters for some of the 1.5 million people left homeless.

He returned with the conviction that food production was a greater need.

“I’ve never been that close to so much hurt and emotion,” Morgan said. “It changes you completely.”

Morgan hopes to build 100 gardens — 67 in the Charlotte area, paired with 33 in Haiti — using a soilless growing technique called aquaponics that relies on fish to fertilize plants cultivated in water.

The gardens here would serve mostly to educate students; the gardens in Haiti would provide dinner.

Because there’s little arable land available in Haiti, other groups are also experimenting with aquaponics.

But Morgan’s journey, as he put it, may be one of the craziest you’ll read about. “I had no idea where I was headed or what I was doing. At my age, you’ve got nothing to lose,” said Morgan, 71. “I figured I might as well follow this thing until it adds up.”

One night after returning from Haiti, Morgan was at the Comet Grill in Dilworth, N.C., talking about how much he wanted to help, but how little he knew about farming. A man at the next table said: “You’ve got to meet George.”

George Powell, it turned out, was homeless. And a genius, Morgan said, with a working knowledge of hydroponics — a water-based growing technique similar to aquaponics but without the fish.

Morgan invited Powell to live in his house. That may seem unorthodox, inviting a homeless man to move into your house.

Unorthodox ideas

But Morgan is an unorthodox guy. When he ran for mayor of Charlotte in 2001, he proposed dividing the city into eight communities, each with its own town council. He said he never expected to win — and didn’t — but he wanted a platform.

After many rambling conversations with Powell, Morgan drew a design for “George’s Garden.” The irony of a homeless man designing a garden for homeless people was not lost on them.

Then four months later, Powell died of cancer.

Morgan felt lost without his muse. But even more determined.

“I go out in my yard a few weeks later and mock up what I think we drew up in the drawings,” Morgan said. “By the next spring, it’s just a bunch of weeds ... as haunting as my commitment to George and the Haitians.”

In spring 2012, Morgan turned for advice to Sam Fleming, a musician who managed a hydroponics store in Monroe, N.C. Fleming, 25, was so enthralled with Morgan’s vision that he quit his job to help.

Fleming persuaded Morgan that aquaponics would suit Haiti better than hydroponics.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (growing plants without soil). Water containing nutrients from fish waste is circulated through pipes to fertilize plants. The plants, in turn, filter the water. The clean water is then recirculated back into the fish tank.

It requires less space, less energy and less water than conventional farming. And it can yield more food in a shorter time — and also fish.

Dose of practicality

Next to join the cause was Charles Oliphant, a former colleague of Morgan’s, who was between jobs. He stopped by “George’s Garden” one day, picked up a shovel and brought a dose of practicality.

“They would come up with some great ideas, and I would figure out how to implement them,” said Oliphant, who now works in Arkansas as CFO of Delta Plastics of the South. “I ask hard questions like, ‘How in the heck is that going to work?’ ”

And then another unexpected thing happened. Fleming got a call from Terry Thomas, career specialist at Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center in Concord, N.C. The correctional facility had federal grant money to set up vocational programs for students, and Thomas was looking for advice on how to renovate an abandoned greenhouse.

A year later, the greenhouse is renovated. A 450-gallon fish tank brims with tilapia. Nutrient-rich water from the tank flows into rows of plastic pipes fitted with holes like a flute, where lettuce seedlings and bunches of basil grow.

“It was something that was meant to be,” Thomas said. “It’s almost a miracle.”

Morgan hopes to build the first garden in Haiti in spring 2014.

It will be within a self-sustaining village called Mahanaim — meaning “God’s Camp.” The village is being built 30 miles north of Port-au-Prince by Haiti Missions Service, with guidance from Joseph’s Exchange, a nonprofit in Charlotte.

“The garden is a wonderful idea,” said Luiguy Massanga, a native of Haiti who lives in Charlotte and co-founded Joseph’s Exchange. “It’s a new approach that will improve agriculture production in the country.”

 
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