The Urban Grange
“Active Duty” takes on a whole new meaning at the start-up homestead known as Urban Grange Farm, LLC. Farmers Alesha and Thomas Gonzales are a true, dual-military couple, both Army-proud. She’s a basic training drill sergeant at Fort Jackson; he does doctrine development at Fort Gordon. Somehow, in between these full-time commitments, they manage to grow a lot of their own food, with some left over to sell at farmers markets.
For Alesha, growing her own sustenance “is just who I am,” she said. “Growing up, my family always had a garden, so that’s what I’ve always done.” Alesha’s vision for an “Urban Grange” started during her college years, in inner-city Detroit. She and friends took vacant lots and turned them into market gardens, part of a now-thriving reclamation movement that has gone city-wide. She also did internships on two organic farms in North Michigan, where she was introduced to animal husbandry in addition to vegetable production. When she became an active duty soldier, Alesha put in a big, front-yard garden at her residence in Fort Bragg, NC. And when she moved to Augusta, she was instrumental in the installation of sizable raised bed gardens for the single-soldier barracks at Fort Gordon Army Base in 2014. “I got a lot of support from the chain of command. They see vegetable gardening as a good learning opportunity for single soldiers.”
For Thomas, the learning curve has been a bit steeper. “He’s new to this, but he’s learning and, right now, he definitely carries the bulk of the weekday chores.” She said they both rely on fellow hobby farmers and blogs to teach themselves something new every day.
Located on just four acres in Hephzibah, GA, Alesha and Thomas practice what’s known as “bio-intensive” farming. “People are surprised by how much we can grow in such a small space,” she said. “Keeping it small and keeping it simple – that’s our motto.” In order to do this well, Alesha says, they rely on their heritage livestock to “do a lot of the work for us.” For example, in areas where the soil is poor, they introduce a couple of Tennessee Fainting goats to knock down scrub trees. After, they rotate in a few American Guinea hogs to root up and loosen the area. Jersey Giant chickens then add their own manure while scratching up larvae in what the hogs leave behind. Alesha notes that these breeds are hardier in natural environs than more commercially-domesticated types. The Gonzales also employee a variety of cover crops – like rye and vetch and buckwheat – all toward the long-term goal of soil building for their future.
As they round the bend of their first year together on the farm, both the humans and the animals at Urban Grange continue to discover new treasures. Turns out that wild blackberries dot the landscape, and “the pigs are eating all the wild grapes we recently found,” said Alesha. “Happy pigs!” The busy couple also earned their Certified Naturally Grown certificate not too long ago, they’ve decided to pursue some additional niche markets, such as microgreens and edible flowers, and they’d love to start selling to chefs. You can find their products for sale through ALG’s on-line market as well as at the Saturday Market on the River. You can also invest in meat livestock – by making a deposit on a hog – direct from the farm.
More than anything, the folks at Urban Grange would like to grow their small farm into a hands-on learning center, a place where people come to see manageable homesteading in action. “Lots of people pop in to see what’s going on,” says Alesha. “They’re nervous about growing their own food. They have questions. We want to show them it’s possible. It really is.”