Sam Fleming’s passion is clear when you meet him. Everything from sporting his non-profit’s T-shirt to the animated arm gestures when he speaks about the aquaponics process shows that teaching and building is what he truly loves. Aquaponics is a closed-loop cycle where fish in tanks produce all the necessary chemicals that plants need. The plants use the chemicals in the water and in return send clean water back to the fish. The two are connected, making water loss low and waste almost nonexistent. Thanks to Fleming’s work over the past eight years, his ambitions are finally coming to fruition with community events like the 2nd Annual Homegrown Tomato Festival.
Fleming is one of the co-founders of 100 Gardens, a non-profit organization created with the intention to send 100 aquaponic farms overseas to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Working side by side with founder and mentor, Ron Morgan, Fleming set out to install gardens in schools to provide a more hands-on learning experience for kids in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) system. The two built a prototype in Morgan’s backyard and the neighborhood kids loved it; they wanted to learn more about how this kind of growing works.
“Most kids graduate with pre-calc or calculus but have no idea how to change a tire, and there’s something fundamentally wrong about that,” said Fleming. He’s a product of the CMS school system and recounts not knowing how to write a check until he was 23. He strongly believes that kids need to learn real-life skills before graduation, and Fleming thinks aquaponics is a way to do that.
100 Gardens planted eight of their 12 aquaponics farms into schools around Charlotte and have worked with teachers to integrate the learning of aquaponics into science lesson plans. They’re now beginning to incorporate this into the classroom for engineering, marketing, and entrepreneurship classes. Fleming says they hope the students will even create brands for the vegetables and sell their crops by the Fall of 2019. At Myers Park High School, kindergarten through fifth grade classes and high school Earth and Environmental Science classes are currently utilizing this newly adapted vocational system. Building interdisciplinary experiences that has kids walking away with knowledge that’s applicable to real life is very important to Fleming. “It’s not about just the test, it’s about understanding what they’re learning,” he said.
The goal is now to have 100 aquaponic gardens in Charlotte. If 200 students per school participate that means 20,000 kids a year, and that’s 20,000 kids who better understand our future environmental issues. These will be students who know how to handle technology and practices that don’t damage the Earth, while providing necessary food and produce. In ten years, that’ll be an estimated 200,000 students impacting the future of sustainable gardening. Fleming firmly believes that this could transform a whole generation and Charlotte could become one of the most innovative agricultural education cities. He expresses how important this initiative is not only to him, but for our future, “this project isn’t a feel good project; this project is literally a strategy for the people of tomorrow.”
On July 28 at NoDa Brewing Company, the second annual Homegrown Tomato Festival is taking place thanks to these CMS students and their gardens. Last year at Midwood Country Club, attendance was expected to be 300, but it was nearly tripled. Support is growing for the cause, and plus, who doesn’t like a fresh tomato? Going in with higher expectations, Fleming is hoping 2,000 people will join them for their annual fundraiser. This year you can expect tough competition for the best tomato, delicious sandwiches, local bands, including the Hashbrown Belly Boys and School of Rock Charlotte, along with plenty of food vendors. Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett will tell the “History of the Tomato,” and different generations’ usage of it. You can also expect Dalton Espaillat from Sabor and Dan “The Pig Man” to be serving up collaborative tomato-themed dishes to compliment Tom’s talk. The festival’s proceeds help 100 Gardens and their agricultural aquaponics teaching in local schools and in Haiti. As you walk around the festival, you’re encouraged to try each local tomato growers’ produce and, if they win your vote, support them by leaving a donation in their jar. At the end of the day, the person with the most money is named “The 2018 #1 Backyard Tomato Grower” and gets a trophy, while the cash donations go back to 100 Gardens.
Fleming and Morgan have worked hard to help create a better curriculum and future for the students at local high schools through the science of aquaponics farming. All of their combined efforts and devotion for almost a decade are beginning to pay off, and thanks to the Homegrown Tomato Fest, you get to see a glimpse of the dedication and love they have committed to this project.
The second annual Homegrown Tomato Festival happens on July 28 at NoDa Brewing Company, tickets are $10 and all proceeds will benefit 100 Gardens.