Yogi and the Farmer grows crops, feeds Covington neighborhood's spirit

Combines CSA, yoga instruction in city's Westside
Posted at 12:01 PM, Aug 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-14 12:01:18-04

COVINGTON, Ky. -- At noon on a broiling hot Friday, Alexa Abner and Jessica Starr had finished the day’s harvest and were angling for some shade. A neat line of about 25 paper bags filled with the products of their farm, Yogi and the Farmer, had been packed with cherry tomatoes, okra, greens, even garden huckleberries.

“What we’ve tried to do here,” said Starr, as she escaped the sun beneath a tall mulberry tree, “is maximum yield for small spaces. We have a small lot here, but we’re going to grow over 70 varietals, so where are we going to put them?”

The answer grows all around us: Potato plants vine their way out of neatly stacked tires, watermelons nestle in a thicket of green, and raised garden beds are everywhere. Occupying 1,200-some square feet off of 12th Street in Covington’s Westside neighborhood, this urban farm is verdant riot.

Like many small, sustainable farms, Abner and Starr depend for financial stability on a community supported agriculture program through which customers pay up front, usually at the beginning of the season, for weekly shares of produce. Similar to other farms, what isn’t packaged for CSA members (or served at Abner and Starr’s tables) is sold at a farmers market.

Unlike other farm-to-table operations, Yogi and the Farmer offers yoga classes amid the organically grown cabbages and kale.

It’s not a gimmick. As Starr, the “yogi” of the duo, explains, Yogi and the Farmer was started in November 2015 not just as a farm that would support its founders and feed people but as a way to improve the Covington neighborhood where she and Abner lived. The yoga classes Starr leads are held every Thursday at 7 p.m., weather permitting. They are free, and anyone is welcome to wander in to check them out. A community potluck follows the class.

Amid the farm’s raised beds, there’s a rectangular open area near the gate, visible from the street, that is a dedicated space for yoga.

Starr, 39, said people come to the class from all over.

“They pedal in on bikes,” she said. “They walk up from other Covington communities or they drive in.… We have extra mats if someone walks in from off the street and says, ‘Hey, I want to try this out.’”

Shannon Ratterman, program director at Covington’s Center for Great Neighborhoods, said, “There have been some intermittent other free yoga initiatives in the city, but nothing that has been this sustained and this regular and something that people can count on and they know it’s there. (Abner and Starr are) building a community out of it. Their vision is to be long-term and to not go (away), and I think that is a big difference.

“There’s always a need in communities for more information awareness and access to local food and also access to health and wellness,” Ratterman said. “They started with the existing garden on 12th Street and have made it into a really beautiful space, and they have been really intentional about inviting the community into the space to enjoy the garden.”

Farming may be the world’s fifth (or 10th) oldest profession, but Yogi and the Farmer is a classic new-millennium endeavor: It erases divisions between work, play, friendship and home life put in place by previous generations. The idea is unity, particularly for the two women who have founded this for-profit social enterprise, a limited liability corporation that seeks to improve the lives of people with limited funds, limited transportation or limited access to yoga.

Jessica Starr’s husband, Aaron, and their daughter, Natalie, drop by to work at Yogi and Farmer in Covington’s Westside. (Jenny Burman | WCPO contributor)

The food grown here is what they eat at home. The business partners and close friends laugh easily, finishing each other’s sentences. Their children -- Abner’s son, Xavier, is 4, and Starr’s daughter, Natalie, is 7 -- often play together as the women work. While we are hugging the shade, as Abner and Starr take a break after harvest, Starr’s husband, Aaron, arrives to help out with farm chores.

Abner and Starr met in the neighborhood as volunteers building chicken coops for a Grow the Cov initiative. Raised in Fort Thomas, Abner, now 25, studied chemistry at Northern Kentucky University and biology at the University of Cincinnati. At UC, she was required to do an internship. She found one at Greensleeves, an organic farm in Alexandria.

“Gardening was fairly new to me,” Abner said. “I didn’t grow up with a garden. I obviously had the science background. I had taken botany classes before and was very interested in the biochemistry of the plants, but, as far as the physical work and the planning out of the farm season, I had no idea. So I learned truly from immersion into farm life. After one semester of interning at the farm I moved there. I moved to the farm, and my son (who is now 4) lived there with me.

“I was at Greensleeves for two years studying all of the ins and outs, the business side of the farm, the everyday tasks of the farm, learning (about) the CSA and market production. So when that farm owner decided to move on from farming and sold the farm, it was the perfect opportunity to start a project of my own. And that how Jessica and I came to be the best partners.

“I am taking on farming as a first career,” Abner said, “which (seemed) kind of crazy to my parents and my friends and a lot of people who thought that my studies in chemistry and biology would lead me to be a doctor or a pharmacist. But," she laughs, “I’m just calling myself a ‘farmacist’ with an ‘f,’ instead of a ‘ph.’”

Starr, meanwhile, has a business background, an MBA from Thomas More College and experience working for nonprofits.

“I spent time in international logistics and then made my way over to refugee resettlement with Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio,” she said.

At about the time Abner was ready to start a farming project, Starr found herself suffering, as she put it, from “compassion fatigue.”

In addition to office jobs, she had practiced yoga for about 15 years and had experience teaching.

Starr and Abner met for coffee in November 2015 to hash out a program. They drew up a three-year plan, incorporated and found a plot. The 12th Street location is owned by a friend, who donated its use.

They found support through the extension program at Northern Kentucky University, where a professor and students test soil at the lot as part of their own research. Business students at the school did preliminary market research. A local horse farm donates composted manure. Because of these symbiotic relationships, start-up costs were made more manageable.

Now, just nine months later, they are in the latter stretch of their first 26-week season, and Abner said their CSA is sold out. They have a waiting list for next season and have secured the use of two vacant lots on Watkins Street nearby.

Abner said the new lots are part of the Community Development Block Grant project Covington took on. “There are over 260 vacant lots throughout Covington that the city maintains and manages. So we approached them with this business plan and went through a very extensive vetting process in front of their loan committee and zoning committee.”

Ratterman of Great Neighborhoods, which has advised Abner and Starr, said the city’s vacant lots “were underutilized and not paid attention to, and now ... I think that’s going to be really great for the neighborhood.”

New millennium or not, there’s one modern concept that won’t get a toehold in the foot rows of Yogi and the Farmer.

“There are no Pokemon in the garden,” Starr jokes, “This is a Pokemon-free zone.”