Farmer Jody Hardin, founder of Argenta Market and who was instrumental in getting the certified farmer’s market in operation in Argenta, is working with the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas on a plan to create an organic farm and farming school in the old St. Joseph’s Orphanage on Camp Robinson Road.
The St. Joseph Center non-profit was created after the Catholic Diocese of Arkansas announced in 2008 it would sell the 70-acre property and the four-story, 80,000-square-foot Charles Thompson-designed orphanage unless someone could come up with a viable business plan. The board of directors of the non-profit had until Sept. 1 to come up with a plan for the property. Hardin’s recent appeal must have seemed heaven-sent. His idea, board chair Sandra DeCoursey said, was well matched to the Center’s board’s desires: to create something “sustainable” and to be “serving God and community.”
The St. Joseph’s farm/school would be developed along the model of the Intervale Center in Vermont, with the farm incubator, a bakery, a “food hub” where area farmers could converge to sell their product and a school offering a variety of courses, such as how to farm organically, grow certain foods, getting food to market and so forth.
The Arkansas Historic Preservation Alliance named the 1910 brick and stone orphanage to its Most Endangered Places List this year. Hardin, in consultation with architects Polk Stanley Wilcox, believes restoration of St. Joseph’s building for classroom space (and to house other non-profits) will cost $5 million to $7 million. The budget for the farm operation should be about $125,000 a year, he estimates. Hardin’s farm operation would be for-profit, and the educational component non-profit. The board would have to grant him a sublease to operate.
V.L. Cox, an artist with a background in both advertising and farming who is working with Hardin, said the idea would take St. Joseph’s back “to the way it was 100 years ago,” when the Benedictine Sisters farmed the land to provide for the children. There is a dairy on the property, and cattle roam St. Joseph’s pastures — within the city limits of North Little Rock. The kitchen, still in use for the groups who now come to St. Joseph’s on retreat, is spacious, as is a basement where the nuns once canned food, Cox said. Hardin does not plan to get into ranching. He may, however, use the cow pies in a demonstration in how to fertilize fields and hopes that a proposed zoning change goes through in North Little Rock that will allow him to raise goats and sell goat cheese. There is also pecan orchard on the property.
One of the first projects at St. Joseph’s, Hardin said, will be a demonstration by the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Oklahoma on how to eradicate Bermuda grass organically by growing annual sorghum. But first, Hardin and Cox hope to grow a crop of vigorous grants and foundation gifts. A Kickstarter crowd-funding page will go online Friday, and Hardin and Cox will hold a press conference Tuesday to go into more detail on the plans for St. Joseph’s.