This is the fourth and final installment of our series, “Sowing Soil with Soul,” featuring Black urban farmers who grow food to sustain their communities.
Despite the huge mural on the side of an adjacent house depicting a woman with green skin and hair, who looks out over the veggies, flowers, and solar array — many people driving by don’t even notice Oasis Farm & Fishery in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood.
For our series, “Sowing Soil with Soul” with Soul Pitt Media, Terina J Hicks visited its corner lot to see what’s growing there. She spoke with Tacumba Turner, the program manager at the farm.
LISTEN to the interview
Terina J. Hicks narration: When I arrive at the farm in early fall, there are still flowers blooming red, orange, and purple along the border where the property meets the street, There is no fence here by design, says the program manager.
Tacumba Turner: My full name is Ahmed Tacumba Turner Junior. I go by to Tacumba. I’ve been working here for 3 years.
The Oasis Farm & Fishery is a branch of the tree that is the Bible Center Church which has been around since 1956. So the initial pastor actually bought a lot of land that we’re now working on. In about 2010, I want to say, the Oasis Project was created, which is the nonprofit arm of the church, and shortly after that, this space began. [It was] revitalized from a vacant lot, initially like an outdoor classroom space, which you see here. And that was done through a collaboration with G-tech, now Grounded Strategies.
Then shortly after that, Pitt’s Katz Business School – We’re able to grant us a large sum of money to be able to put in a solar array and a bio shelter, which is a Chinese-style greenhouse.
And shortly after that, the decision was made to do aquaponics. So we have our catfish and a few varieties of basil. There’s some lettuce that we recently started.
Hicks narration: We step inside the bioshelter where there are waist-high growing trays and, in the corner, a 250-gallon tank where 20 albino catfish live. Turner uses a net to fish one out to show me.
Turner: I’m not promising anything. It was so much easier to catch the tilapia. I feel like catfish are smarter. Ah, here we go.
Hicks narration: The white catfish are easier to see in the tank.
Turner: Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. So we use the fish waste to fertilize the plants. And hydroponics is just like soil-less growing. So, um, we use two different non-soil mediums to hold the plants in place so that we’re able to grow things successfully.
And this is just a constantly recirculating system that is filtering as it runs, so the plants are uptaking food, and also cleaning the water as it circulates through. We are able to divert about 4000 gallons of rainwater each year, which will then purify and put into our system.
In 2020 when the pandemic hit, we built out all of these raised beds. The high tunnel is this year. The high tunnel is just an unheated greenhouse. So right now, it’s uncovered. We were kind of late getting it built out. So [we’re] excited about being able to continue to grow peppers and leafy greens throughout the winter.
Hicks narration: Parallel with the high tunnel are raised beds with well-marked rows of vegetables, so that visitors know what they’re seeing.
Turner: We got, uh, “market 76” cucumbers, and banana peppers. So that’s what we’ve got growing over here. And these beds right here, we have potatoes and carrots that were growing.
One thing I always tell people is like, you can replant. Many things [you buy] at the store, you actually replant in your garden. So potatoes are one of them – ginger, sweet potatoes.
Hicks: So let me ask you this. Why did you guys actually start the garden, and who does it benefit here?
Turner: All of our produce is earmarked to go towards outlets that are within the community, so the Homewood Farmer’s Market, which we’re a proud contributor to. We have a veggie subscription which is a CSA community-supported agriculture model, and we incorporate some of it into some of the cooking lessons we do.
Hicks: I’ve been up and down here a million times and never even noticed it. And I’m like, “Wow, this is pretty cool for the community.” So I’m assuming that the response from the community, the neighbors, and everything else has been welcoming and overwhelming for you guys.
Turner: Yeah, for the most part, I think the trees, uh, have been a point of contention a little bit. We own our land, we’re on. But yet, we make it a priority to talk to folks and get their thoughts on certain things. And there are some just natural concerns when things are changing, and people are just used to being a grass lot. So now we have 40 trees over here, 50 trees over here.
Hicks narration: He points to a spiral pathway lined with native fruit trees like paw paws and flowers. Students from nearby schools, along with a Chatham University student, helped imagine this space and another stand of trees on the property. Fifty trees were donated by the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation. But some neighbors worried about the safety of the space.
Turner: You know, and this idea of a clear space being a safe space. But at the same time, Homewood is a place where there is very low tree canopy. And it’s a problem, especially if you go 10 minutes that way, and there’s a ton of trees, the life expectancy is 15 years higher, you know.
So sometimes you’re trying to, like, situate something that other people may not feel is the most pressing priority. And then it becomes just like a relational thing and trying to get them to understand where you coming from and how this could benefit them.
Hicks narration: Turner says recently, residents and kids from the surrounding houses came out to make fresh pizzas at the farm.
Turner: [We’re] just trying to be a vessel for helping people, you know, continue along their wellness journey, whether that’s through learning how to grow or cook or just being inspired to do more stuff in the outdoors, take advantage of spaces like this, like a third space. So we try to make it as accommodating for folks to be able to come out and chill and just be.
Ahmed Tacumba Turner Junior is the program manager at the Oasis Farm & Fishery.
Soul Pitt Media has award-winning online, print and podcast platforms with a mission to uplift the Black community in Western PA and surrounding areas by telling their inspirational stories and sharing resources that educate, inform, and empower. Visit Soul Pitt Media, which is woman-owned and minority-certified, at thesoulpitt.com.
Funding for the series comes from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.