A local personal hygiene product maker is donating a day of service in an effort that could boost Durham’s urban farming movement.
Nearly 400 locally based Burt’s Bees employees are scheduled to work today at three sites controlled by the local nonprofit NEEM. The group’s founder and director, Jeff Ensminger, called the donation of labor “one of the coolest things I’ve seen a company do.”
The activity will be taking place at NEEM’s headquarters, Rolls Garden, at 2001 Chapel Hill Road; on a 0.9-acre parcel at 1000 Hazel St.; and on an 8.3-acre parcel at 1500 Wabash St. Workers will build a greenhouse, paint a building, put in raised beds and do other work at the different sites.
All three sites will be used to grow food. The location Ensminger calls Organoponico Hazel, using a Cuban term for urban farm, will be developed to sell produce. NEEM’s head hopes proceeds from that endeavor will enable him to hire local residents to cultivate the plots.
The other new NEEM location, Organoponico Wabash, will be developed as an agricultural research station in conjunction with North Carolina Central University, which the property is near.
Beth Ritter is Burt’s Bees’ senior vice president of human resources.
“We like what it’s about, that it’s about bringing great...food to more folks in Durham,” she said. “And maybe into some neighborhoods that might not normally have access to this.”
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Burt’s Bees’ contributions will give NEEM a big lift, the nonprofit’s head said.
“When we step away from these projects, they will be on the surface, on the outside, pretty much completed projects,” Ensminger said. “Hazel Street will be an inner-city farm at that location... An otherwise abandoned building with high grass [there] is going to become a vibrant, operational, functional farm that’s going to be producing food for folks in the community.”
Both the Hazel Street and Wabash Avenue sites were unused property belonging to an Asheville dentist, William Chambers.
Ensminger noticed the Hazel Street parcel while working on a nearby garden. Thinking that the land would be ideal for cultivation, Ensminger tracked down the owner. Chambers offered him use of it and of the Wabash Avenue property as well.
The nonprofit head, who also a chef, said that there are several reasons to forge ahead with efforts like his.
“If you’ve got a piece of property that lies fallow, why?” Ensminger asked. “That’s right off the top. [This] creates jobs for people in the community. We’ve got a lot of people in the community that don’t have jobs.
“People in the process learn about sustainable concepts. So it’s also good for the environment,” he added.
Ensminger believes NEEM may be able to hire as many as three full-time employees and three part-time workers. At least at first, grant money will need to be combined with farm proceeds to cover those salaries, he said.
He became interested in making Wabash into a research station because most agricultural studies involve rural environments. Once the greenhouse is finished, the site should feature several different combinations of soils and shade.
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Burt’s Bees will pay its employees for their work today on behalf of NEEM. It’s part of what the company calls its fourth annual Culture Day, which ties into the corporation’s commitment to give back to the communities in which it operates.
Burt’s Bees and NEEM have been discussing today’s event for months. The organizations first got to know each other in 2009, but, Ritter said, Burt’s Bees didn’t feel at the time that NEEM was developed enough to be the focus of a Culture Day.
When they got back in touch more recently, Burt’s Bees thought NEEM would be able to convert its workers’ contributions into lasting gains.
“These were projects that we could see had a long duration,” Ritter said. “There was resources and a commitment behind them to stay vital for more than one year. It wasn’t going to be like a garden we created that was going to look beautiful this summer and not look beautiful three months from now.”
“His approach to operate these gardens from a sustainable agriculture perspective, and building on some of the practices of the organoponicos in Cuba, and the vision of having a vibrant urban agriculture movement happen in Durham, was something that really resonated with us and...something that we should be part of as Burt’s Bees,” added Gabrielle Prohn, the manager of public relations for the company.
A representative of one of NEEM’s other partners, North Carolina Central, also expressed enthusiasm about working with the nonprofit.
“It’s going to provide a living laboratory which will complement teaching and research here at the university as well as expand economic development opportunities for our surrounding communities and beyond,” said Clarenda Stanley, a major gifts officer in NCCU’s institutional advancement office. “In addition to that, this project will provide a vast range of service opportunities for our students, particularly those in environmental science.”
NEEM’s focus on sustainable agriculture ties into a recent initiative to reduce the university’s carbon footprint and bolster its credentials as a sound environmental steward, Stanley noted.
In-kind donations of labor and expertise, rather than financial contributions, will comprise much of the university’s support of the research station, Stanley said.