Despite the cold snap on campus, Carmen Ketron tenderly cares for the carrots, lettuce and broccoli in the Urban Farm at the Medical University of South Carolina. She’s used to caring for these type of plants during spring. What’s unusual is she’s also tending baby mango trees, papaya and cocao.
Those plants are in a sister farm thousands of miles away in Ghana.
Ketron, an educator at MUSC’s Urban Farm, pulls out her phone. She uses social media apps such as Skype and Whatsapp to stay in the loop about the happenings in Okurase and the continued maintenance of the sister farm. Technology plays a big part in the continued direction of the garden and helps her provide support for the village residents.
“There are a couple of language barriers, but it’s all working out really well. And it’s funny, a lot of terms in agriculture and horticulture have different names for things, so what I would call 'seeding' they would call 'nesting,'” says Ketron. “So just knowing the lingo is the coolest part. We send real-time photos, and we just talk about different ideas.”
Ketron checks in regularly with the garden managers to see the progress of the Nkabom Centre Organic Garden, the official name of MUSC’s sister farm. The garden was planted during an eight-day trip in January to Okurase, a village of 3,500 people. It’s part of MUSC’s partnership with the village and an expansion of Project Okurase.
Leading that project was researcher Cynthia Swenson, Ph.D., who had proposed the idea of a sister farm for the MUSC Urban Farm in Okurase as part of the project’s mission to advance the access to food and nutrition for the village residents. Ketron, who has a phone full of pictures of the project, points to a picture of Isaac Owu, called just Owu by Ketron and the Okurase village residents. He’s the patriarch of the sister farm.
“The back story of Owu, who is running the garden in Ghana, is that he came over here for four months last year. He volunteered every day. He showed up, and we ran the garden. He was instrumental in the four months during which nobody else would show up because it’s so hot, but he was like ‘whatever.’”
Ketron continues scanning through dozens of photos and videos of the new sister garden. Her love for the people of Okurase had a big impact on her and the other people involved in the trip.
"Being able to repay Owu and come back and share that, and seeing someone that I taught doubling that effort just made my heart soar because I got to help him set up something meaningful, and he’s going to move it forward and impact people.”
While Ketron was instrumental in in helping build the sister farm, she says she was able to learn from local farmers in Okurase as well. Ketron says research is aimed at finding ways to help people in the village harvest and maintain their new crops for better preservation and nutrition. Nutrition is a concern in Okurase. MUSC researcher Eve Spratt, M.D., who has traveled to Ghana several times, was part of a nine-month study there that found 28 percent of children have stunted growth and malnutrition around Okurase.
Ketron says it's gratifying to help address that need through the garden and to add to the knowledge base.
“I got to go to different farms and learn their farmers’ techniques so that was really fascinating. Refrigeration isn’t a thing there, so we had to figure out how to get around post-harvest handling. We troubleshot a couple of different things — figuring out how we’re going to get food to people like leafy greens that are huge for calcium and iron without cooking it down. That was a big thing for us.”
The other big draw were the children, she says. Her favorite moments on the trip were spending time with the village children. Anywhere from five to 47 children would help the volunteers daily to complete the sister farm. Ketron recalls how they commemorated its completion.
“Towards the end, I was so excited that they had finished that Owu and I went over and got 30 ice cream bars and brought them back. They were ecstatic and said, ‘This is all we wanted’ and they were so grateful for it, and I think they appreciated it more than any other ice cream they had had before.”
According to Swenson, Ketron made an impact on more than the Ghanaian children through this work. A group of high school students and teachers from The Miami Valley School of Dayton, Ohio, travelled to Okurase to help develop the garden and the beginnings of a playground for the village children who had never had one before. Without this group of students working hand-in-hand with the community, developing the quarter-acre organic garden in six days would not have been possible. In turn, the students learned many skills from Ketron such as soil testing, organic methods and crop placement that they took back to Dayton with them. They held a showcase for their community to highlight everything they had learned.
This May will mark Ketron’s second year at MUSC’s Urban Farm. Her presence at the farm has become increasingly noticed through her dedication in helping it grow. Under her leadership, the Urban Farm has become a hub for faculty and student involvement.
The Urban Farm is home to educational workshops, focusing on the bridge between health and food. Along with gardening, Ketron takes care of bees and places birdhouses around the farm, which helps with the ecosystem. “Birds eat a lot of the caterpillars that eat my crops, so I don’t have to use a lot of pesticides if I have a lot of birds. Someone once told me if you have a bug problem, it’s not a bug problem, it’s a bird deficiency.”
Other programs Ketron is involved with: team building for MUSC departments and Coupons for Crops, a program for managers at MUSC. They get coupons to hand out to employees as rewards for good work, and the employees can trade them in for produce from the Urban Farm. The farm also donates some of its crops to the Lowcountry Food Bank.
The Home Garden
However, Ketron says, until recently, faculty and students were scared by the fence around the farm, thinking that it was research based and off limits. Ketron fixed that with a cart and chalkboard. Ketron is the mastermind of the Urban Farm “pun board,” which has made her a campus celebrity.
“It’s all me. We had this cart that used to go up and around the hospital when we had a lot of interns. A lot of people that are walking through that area on the way to work or that are walking home don't have time to stop in and enjoy the farm. I wanted to have a passive engagement deal, where you get to enjoy something from the farm even if you don’t have time to stop and chat with me. And I love puns. There is a new one daily.”
Ketron’s puns usually play off popular culture and song lyrics. The puns are viewable daily on the Urban Farm’s Facebook, Instagram and Yammer pages. Ketron says she’s been surprised how popular they’ve become.
“In the beginning I had gone to one every other day and people rioted and complained. My Snapchat friends require it, so I needed to go back to one a day. Somehow people got my phone number, and they start sending them to me. I usually keep a store of two months’ worth where I can just go out and write them down.”
Ketron also has special yearly installments for all the Star Wars fans around campus. When a new Star Wars film comes out, the puns go into hyperdrive.
“Luke I am your fava.”
Ketron laughs as she reads her collection of veggie puns off her phone. “I’m always taking suggestions.”
There's no pun board yet at the Urban Farm's sister farm in Okurase, but it's just as close to Ketron's heart.
“The whole trip was perfect, and we got it all done in the nick of time. Being able to go back and help so many good people, you come back with a new appreciation of what you have.”
Anyone in the MUSC or Charleston community and beyond is welcome to be a part of the African sister farm. Walk by the MUSC Urban Farm and talk to Ketron or contact Swenson at 843-876-1802 if interested.
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