- Associated Press - Saturday, January 4, 2020

HIGH POINT, N.C. (AP) - Paula Sieber can see long into the future and well beyond the dingy white cabins that hug the trees at the Heroes Center Veterans Support Camp.

She sees an urban farm that grows up to 100,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables and eggs a year for veterans, community customers and people who can’t afford or can’t find the finest produce.

She sees a place where veterans can learn job skills, from solar-power installation to hydroponic agriculture.

And she sees a place where people can find some of the best-tasting food in the Triad from the first-of-its-kind farm in High Point.

The work to renovate the cabins has already started and the first crop, Lion’s Mane mushrooms, could come out of the first grow house next month.

“I’m gonna serve it at the first board meeting in January,” Sieber said.

The mushrooms, Sieber said, are as expensive as filet mignon and as tasty as lobster. And they have medicinal properties, she said, from preventing dementia to warding off heart disease. And few people, even gourmet cooks, know about them.

But her goal is to see that retailers and restaurateurs, cooks and community residents find out about this and a host of other foods that the farm will produce at the former John Wesley Camp at the intersection of Bridges and Eastchester drives in High Point.

Sieber, a community volunteer and organizer throughout Guilford County, is working with W.A. Merritt, a 10-year Army veteran and chief consultant for the Heroes Center.

Model project

Merritt said nonprofits and volunteers around High Point have embraced the ambitious project and High Point University, especially, has committed student volunteers to getting the cabins and other facilities ready for what should be a busy 2020.

“We want to make this a model for other communities,” Merritt said.

Sieber said that the 8-acre camp, which was built in the 1950s, is the perfect place for a centrally-located center of activity to help everyone from school children to seniors learn about agriculture, food and alternative farming methods.

The center’s agriculture operation has two main focal points: Grow houses and a 3-acre in-ground planting garden.

The first grow house at the top of a small hill will contain shelves where the thick, frilly mushrooms will grow under automated misting machines powered by solar energy. Sieber, a former technology systems scientist, will be able to control the misting machines from her cell phone wherever she is.

A group of veterans will learn as they install the solar energy system.

“It has to be working when they leave because my mushrooms need to live,” she said.

The second grow house will contain strawberries grown hydroponically. And the third will contain another rare crop: wasabi. This isn’t the wasabi you get at your typical Japanese restaurant. That’s usually made of mustard and horseradish. The real thing is a large leafy plant and that has a thick stem.

A cook uses a grinder to shave off fresh wasabi to go onto dishes that call for it. Sieber said only 5% of Japanese restaurants worldwide use true wasabi.

The remaining two grow houses will be used to cultivate seedlings for planting in the large garden.

“From one tomato you can grow 80-100 tomato plants,” she said. Sieber wants the veterans and anybody else who helps out at the center to see the creation of a plant from seed to table.

Finally, a sixth cabin will be converted to a chicken house, where free-range hens can provide eggs that will also be for sale or donation by the group.

Body and Mind

Merritt said this enterprise will change the lives of veterans and the people they encounter.

Sieber thinks she knows why.

“The whole idea is gardening is good mentally and physically,” she said. “The food is good mentally and physically.”

High Point isn’t the first place to try urban farming. Sieber is working on a similar project in Greensboro and volunteers around the country have tried it, most notably in Detroit at the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative.

That farm in the heart of Detroit grows 100,000 pounds of produce a year.

But the work at Heroes Center isn’t only about farming, Sieber said.

Veterans who work there may be able to use fresh herbs to make salad dressings, some can learn to market the produce around the region. The idea is that the program will become self-sustaining, with veterans taking on major roles.

Merritt said the Veterans Center was originally designed to help veterans who were learning skills at GTCC, but its mission is broader now with the agricultural component.

“We feel it’s only natural to have 8 acres of land to feed not only veterans but also feed the community,” Merritt said. “That really excites me about the next phase.”

He said any kind of community support would be welcome for the project, which will likely cost $50,000 in startup expenses before it can become self- sustaining.

“This is one of many workforce development components which will be our direction for 2020,” Merritt said. …

For Sieber, winter and spring will be a sprint to accomplish a big goal.

“We have planned our grand opening,” she said. “Farm Day will be May 30 to get everything up and running and ready to eat.”

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