The St. Joseph Center of Arkansas, which includes the imposing Charles Thompson-designed stone and brick building on a hill high off Camp Robinson Road, served as an orphanage from 1910 until 1978. But after the orphanage and the daycare that succeeded it closed, St. Joseph became a kind of orphan itself, and the Catholic Diocese of Arkansas decided in 2008 to sell the property. It left the door open, however, to divine intervention, saying that if an interested party came forward with a business plan to use the 80,000-square-foot building and its 70 acres, the Diocese would consider holding on to the property.
Thus was the non-profit St. Joseph Center created, by a group of people who hoped to find a way to use the property in keeping with its mission of education. The group now leases the building, which is used as a retreat space, but has a deadline of Sept. 1 to present the diocese a viable plan for the old orphanage. So when Jody Hardin showed up recently with an idea to return the property to the working farm it once was and teach organic farming there, he must have seemed heaven-sent.
The idea was well matched to the Center's board's desires, chair Sandra DeCoursey said, to create something "sustainable" and to be "serving God and community."
Hardin, who comes from a multi-generational farm family in Grady, was the founder of Argenta Market in North Little Rock and was instrumental in getting the certified farmer's market open across the street from the market. He has left his own business, Hardin's Market in Scott, to devote his attention to the St. Joseph plan.
The St. Joseph's farm/school would be developed along the model of the Intervale Center in Vermont, with a 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 Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas included St. Joseph's, built in 1910, on its Most Endangered Places list this year. Hardin, in consultation with Polk Stanley Wilcox architects, believes restoration of St. Joseph's building for classroom space (and to house other non-profits) will cost $5 million to $7 million. He said he will get the farm operation off the ground first. The budget for the farm should be about $125,000 a year, he estimates.
Hardin's operation would be for-profit, and the educational component non-profit. The board would have to grant him a sublease to operate.
Cattle roam St. Joseph's pastures — within the city limits of North Little Rock — now, but Hardin does not plan to get into ranching. He may, however, use the cow pies in a demonstration in how to fertilize fields. Hardin wants to raise goats in St. Joseph's dairy and sell goat cheese as one of the farm's "cash cows," he said, but for now North Little Rock doesn't allow swine or goats in the city limits. Hardin found out last week however that another farming interest has asked the Planning Commission to create a special permit to raise the animals on farms of two acres or more. "How lucky can I be? This is a miracle," Hardin said.
Lynette Cox, a well-known artist with a background in advertising and experience in farming who said "putting my butt on a tractor makes me the happiest girl in the world," is working with Hardin as event-and-social-media coordinator and press handler. She intends eventually to use some of the space in the former orphanage to do art projects, just one way the center could involve kids in the St. Joseph farm.
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.