Home & Garden

From family's farm land, Jim Embry brought knowledge, passion to Lexington's community gardens

Embry Herald-Leader

A decade ago, there was hardly a community garden to be found in Lexington. Today they are a common sight in schoolyards, beside churches, next to community centers and cemeteries.

What caused the shift?

Many community gardening supporters give credit to Jim Embry, who arrived on the scene ready to build raised beds and hoop houses and came armed with a broader vision of a community garden than just a place to grow food.

Embry, raised in Richmond, lived in Detroit during the 1990s, when he worked as a community activist, using community gardening and urban farming as a tool to reach young people.

"A community garden can bring people together. It can help young people develop leadership skills, build community and connect to their elders," he said. "It's where we connect to nature, and to the Earth from which we all come."

Not that he overlooked the value of healthy food.

"We felt one thing killing African-Americans was what we ate," he said. "If young people raised nutritious vegetables, they would be more likely to eat them."

Community gardens take many forms. Sometimes volunteers raise produce that is donated to food kitchens. Other times volunteers take home what they raised.

In Detroit, Embry was director of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership and was a founder of Detroit Summer, set up to "invigorate youth activism and community building," he said.

When he returned to Lexington in 2005, where he'd lived after attending the University of Kentucky, Embry wasted no time forming the Sustainable Communities Network and garnering support for community gardens.

One of his first efforts, in early 2006, was the Mary E. Britton Community Art Garden on North Limestone, named for the first female black doctor in Lexington.

A few months later, he was approached by Leadership Lexington about a service project for a class, and Embry proposed an Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden on East Third Street. His vision was for a community garden that included art.

Embry helped organized the first Food Summit in Lexington in 2007, met with then-Fayette County Schools superintendent Stu Silberman to share his Detroit experience and encourage school gardens, and approached the city about community gardens in city parks.

"Jim was at the forefront of the community gardening movement in Lexington. We lagged behind other cities, like Chicago and New York, with long traditions of community gardens. He was important in getting community gardens started here," said Dehlia Scott, horticulture agent with the Fayette County Cooperative Extension Service.

Ryan Koch, founder and director of Seedleaf, said Embry motivated and inspired him. Incorporated in 2007, Seedleaf maintains 16 community gardens and is dedicated to improving healthy food access. Most of its gardens are on the north side of town, including its flagship London Ferrill Community Garden on East Third Street. It also has a composting program that collects food waste from local restaurants, and teaches urban chicken-keeping through a program called CLUCK.

As he built support for community gardens, Embry reached out to the faith community. Numerous churches responded, including Beaumont Presbyterian, Maxwell Presbyterian, Central Baptist, Faith Lutheran and Temple Adath Israel.

Embry met Judge Lucinda Masterton, a family court judge, in 2008, and this resulted in a drug-court garden for youth and adults. Embry also formed relationships with several nonprofit service agencies, including Chrysalis House, The Ridge, Women's Hope Center, the Hope Center and the Family Care Center, that resulted in gardens.

He wrote a manual on how to organize a community garden, with advice on what to plant, local sources for bedding plants and seeds, how to compost and how to create a rain barrel.

He went to the first Terra Madre — Slow Food International conference in Torino, Italy, in November 2008 as a United States delegate, and again in 2010, 2012 and 2014. In 2010, Embry was a finalist for the National Garden Crusader of the year. As a finalist, he was given a $1,000 gift card, which he spent on the Chrysalis House garden.

"Jim's been effective because he's so passionate about what he does," said Bruce Mundy, a longtime friend and former counselor at the Blue Grass Aspendale Teen Center. "He has devoted his life to advocacy for gardening and healthy eating."

Embry's passion comes from vivid childhood memories of his family's large backyard garden. His grandparents, aunts and uncles were all small farmers in Richmond.

"I grew up with a connection to the land that never left me," he said.

Embry went to UK as a pre-med major, with plans to go to medical school.

"What was going on in medicine was too focused on drugs and surgery. I thought the focus needed to be more on prevention and health," he said. "We don't really have a health care system; we have a disease-care system."

He took graduate courses in nutrition, began to teach yoga and was a founding member of Good Foods Co-Op. Embry was director of community education for what was then the Lexington Technical Institute. Later, he formed a computer-repair service and a home-remodeling business before heading to Detroit.

In 2008, Embry met Nicole Kelley, director of the expressive and wellness program at Employment Solutions on Whipple Court, an organization with a day program and employment opportunities for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Embry helped Kelley build a single hoop house in the parking lot behind Employment Solutions.

"Our garden literally began as a parking lot space for semi trucks in an industrial setting in downtown Lexington as a very simple hoop house garden," Kelley said. "Today, it is the largest community garden I know of in downtown Lexington."

Participants raise vegetables, flowers, herbs, gourds, chickens, and rabbits, and they have a fish pond. The garden is a source of food for participants and has developed into "one of the most amazing tools of therapy there is," Kelley said.

"You can be with a person having a complete meltdown. If you can get them to the garden, it's like magic. Two minutes, no behavior (problem)," she said. "It's nature, and you can't disregard its power. I watch it every day."

What Embry started with that single hoop house has grown into a full-scale garden at Employment Solutions, plus a handicapped-accessible kitchen and a teaching program.

Today, Embry, 67, lives on the 30-acre family farm in Richmond that dates to the 1890s. He makes about 25 presentations a year to universities, community colleges, civic and church groups.

He is writing a book about his years of work experience in Lexington, and another about his four trips to Italy for Terra Madre, an international network of small-scale farmers, fishermen and food artisans whose approach to food production is to protect the environment and communities.