“Seed of Life Nurseries was founded 9 years ago. With the help of local churches and businesses we have endeavored to care for local Title 1 elementary schools, impoverished neighborhoods, the elderly, and families who are financially and spiritually broken. We found people in our community to donate land to fuel our purpose: providing a community with food and nutritional education, to not only to feed but to teach them, through sustainable farming, that they have the tools to provide for themselves and others. Through our programs, we believe we can build up a community by all people working together to create two things: awareness and dignity. These are learned and earned through effort. These are tools we want to teach children of all walks of life to sustain in themselves.” (Michael Dickson, co-founder, Seed of Life Nurseries)
Inspired by their mission, Cowork Frederick chose Seed of Life Nurseries as our October Charity of the Month. Members of Cowork Frederick have teamed up to build a new website and help promote this worthy organization. Kimba Green of White Lion Social is designing the website and managing the overall project. Martin Brown is developing content. Glen Ferguson of IT Concierge is doing domain registration and website development. Kathleen Hickey of Bright Spring Communications is handling promotion. Each is donating their time and effort because they want to help an organization doing good in Frederick do well.
I probably met Michael Dickson, or “Farmer Mike” as many call him, at the Frederick City Market, where Seed of Life joins other local famers and vendors Sunday mornings. His positive energy (of which he has a bounty) is infectious and sticks with you. Or maybe I initially heard of him in a TV story, blog post, or newspaper story . Either way, I’ve had an equal measure of fondness and respect for him for years.
His visits are always welcome, like the one a few weeks ago when he pulled up with a truck full of produce, walked in the door, said “Hey beautiful!”, which I know is not about my appearance but about how he sees everyone. He gave me a big smiling-faced hug and handed me a melon. What a guy.
Michael got his start in the inner city of Columbus, Ohio, where he had a rough childhood. His mother abandoned him at age 5 and child-protective services stepped in. He was raised, along with seven other children, by his grandparents. His grandfather passed a love of gardening on to Michael, teaching him the science behind how and why things grow. His grandparents fed the entire family from their garden and the chickens they kept. It made an impression on Michael: you don’t have to go hungry; you can grow food.
When he graduated from high school, Michael and Michelle, his high school sweetheart and wife, started a landscaping business. Because he wanted to give back, Michael sought out kids from his old neighborhood to hire. At its peak, Dickson ATAYM (Affordable Tree And Yard Maintenance) had five crews. They transferred that success to Frederick in 2006 and work continued to be good until the market crashed, but it was a time for a change anyway.
Michael wanted success to be measured not by dollars earned but by the number of people helped. He and Michelle launched Seed of Life in 2009 using land donated at the Hargett Farm in Frederick. The farm program started with half an acre and fed 14 families that first year. Seed of Life now feeds between 75 and 100 families a year, farming 10 acres at the Hargett Farm and other locations as they are able. When able they also raise donated farm animals (pigs, steers, lambs, turkeys and chickens) to provide quality meat to families in need.
Seed of Life partners with a number of other organizations, such as the Asian-American Center of Frederick, to gain access to communities, distribute food, and for special projects. They partner with other farmers and work with the Maryland Food Bank to give out an average of 220,000 pounds of food each year. Between 40,000 and 60,000 pounds of that food comes from Seed of Life.
Distribution of fresh produce (rather than just non-perishables) is one of the things that makes Seed of Life special. It adds complexity to their operations, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. Fresh food is central to their mission. From Michael, “Seed of Life is committed to helping our community by providing farm fresh produce to families in need. It is our mission to make sure that all families in need are able to eat healthy no matter their circumstance.”
Michael is an outspoken advocate in matters concerning getting food to the people who need it. For example, when Michael learned SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps) benefits could not be used at farmer’s markets, he worked with the State of Maryland to change that. Seed of Life set the example by being the first farmer in the area to accept SNAP. Soon other farmers followed.
Seed of Life was bootstrapped by Michael and Michelle using their own funds and now gets most of its funding through purchased Community Supported Agriculture shares rather than applying for government grants. Donation of land is also key, as are donations of cash and equipment from local sponsors, and volunteer help.
“With all we do to help feed and educate our community, it takes help from our local professionals and businesses to help grow and nurture our programs. Help from sponsors, members, and volunteers is vital to advance our mission. We believe our organization needs to be even more rooted in our community with distribution of fresh vegetables, not only to families in need, but also for local soup kitchens and food pantries. Our mission also includes support for Fredrick County’s local sustainable agriculture.
“Supporting Seed of Life helps ensure people who cannot afford fresh food will have access to it and can be also educated on its benefits. Most lower income people buy heavily processed food, which is known to cause long term health problems. The results of clean, affordable eating will resonate through our healthy community. We hope our mission becomes contagious and all families in need will be able to eat healthy no matter their circumstances.”
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a mutually beneficial relationship between farmers and the community. Members buy a “share of the harvest” in advance of the growing season in exchange for produce when it is ready. This relationship guarantees small farmers a secure market for their produce and minimizes risks. Members get a box (or bag) of the freshest, locally grown produce each week. Buying directly from farmers helps ensure the viability of the farm, aids in preservation of farm ground, and strengthens the local economy.
Seed of Life goes a big step farther. For every CSA share purchased, a share is given to a local family in need. “Supporting Seed of Life enables us to support the less fortunate in our community. It is truly community supporting community.”
Seed of Life partners with local organizations, such as Goodwill, Boys and Girls Club, and Summer Serve, to run projects to educate young men and women on the values of hard work and sustainable farming. Partnering with Frederick County Public Schools, Seed of Life created a “My Plate Garden” program where children plant, tend, and harvest gardens that mirror the USDA’s My Plate nutrition symbol.
They hold cooking classes for children, who prepare and eat meals made from fresh farm produce - easy, affordable meals they could cook at home.
During summer months, Seed of Life brings kids to the farm for daily workshops where they learn about farming and food nutrition.
From Michael: “The children we teach, educate and feed now will sustain our future later. Helping those less fortunate understand the importance of fresh whole foods and providing it will ultimately result in a healthier community as a whole.”
Project MOTR (Market On The Roll) is a market on wheels program launched in 2015. Many areas in and around Frederick County do not have local grocery stores and in those areas, people without a means to get to a store. To combat these “food deserts”, Seed of Life decided they would take the food to the people. They purchased and repaired an old bus, using donations of new tires, new belts, batteries, paint, and a lot of volunteer work. The bus still needs a new water pump and alternator, but is functional.
Market On The Roll has been operational several months now. MOTR delivered their first food to the Brunswick House, an affordable senior living apartment complex. When they arrived there were 40 people waiting in line. Produce is sold at a discount to those who need it.
Seed of Life gathers volunteers to work on projects aimed at beautifying local neighborhoods and school grounds. These projects uplift an entire community and help members of that community feel a greater sense of ownership and pride, while teaching basic gardening techniques.
Seed of Life’s goal is to meet the business needs of local restaurants by cultivating specific vegetables that cater to their clientele. A symbiotic relationship of this fashion will give local business owners more economic control over their business and stimulate their community’s economy.