The city of Petersburg regularly ranks at the bottom in the state for health and crime, but one educator hopes 5-acres of farmland in the heart of the city can help change those statistics.
Tyrone Cherry III spent decades in the classroom as a teacher, substitute teacher and principal. He left the traditional classroom and turned his focus on a 5-acre plot of land in Petersburg that he hopes can be a space for the community to come together.
“We believe that urban agriculture, farms like this community farm, are part of the solution,” Cherry said as he sat on a log in an outdoor classroom he built in a small portion of the farm he calls the Petersburg Oasis CommUNITY Farm. “It’s a green space here in Petersburg that’s dedicated to the youth.”
Cherry said he hopes children who visit the space can be exposed to gardening, farming and urban agriculture. And he hopes those lessons can help children and teens improve their lifestyle and better understand the role agriculture plays in their food system.
A 2020 Virginia Commonwealth University study found that Petersburg has “long suffered with issues of limited access to food and food insecurity.” It categorized much of the city as a “food desert.”
The idea for the urban youth community garden began after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in 2014. Cherry said the phrase “hands up, don’t shoot,” which many protestors chanted after Brown’s death, didn’t resonate with him. So, he came up with a project called, “Raise Grades for Mike Brown.” He gathered students from the Petersburg community that, “looked like Mike Brown, who [had] similar lifestyles and family backgrounds to Mike Brown. And we’re going to focus on our grades.”
The group of students decided they wanted to address the city’s lack of fresh, healthy food options. Cherry and the students built two dozen raised beds in his front yard and the educator began to teach the students about urban agriculture.
Cherry learned about food deserts and urban farming from Ron Finley, an urban farmer and activist who started a movement to address the lack of fresh food in Los Angeles. Then in 2016 he came across the 5-acre plot in Petersburg. After years of working the urban farm as an assistant, he decided to purchase the land and turn it into a community farm.
“I have it embedded in my mind that this space was going to grow the community,” he said.
During a few months in 2022, Cherry raised funds to purchase the land. He also partnered with Agrarian Trust and Happily Natural to put the land in a trust, which means it’ll belong to the Petersburg community for the next 99 years.
“As an educator, you are affecting eternity. Let’s just say you plant a seed, that seed can grow fruit for you that’s beyond your imagination,” Cherry said as he envisioned the farm’s future. “So, if a seed can grow into something that can feed me or feed my family, then that means a garden, or a farm, can feed the entire community.”