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Grassroots Cooperative works to provide good food for all

Julia Meek/WBOI
Reeder, Ridley & Simmons agree that the holistic approach to feeding the community will provide cross generational hope and self sufficiency.

Fort Wayne residents Ty Simmons and Chief Condra Ridley started the Human Agricultural Co-operative seven years ago to solve food insecurity in their community.

Presently, the nonprofit organization coordinates partners with many different stakeholders to facilitate weekly food sourcing and distribution, youth farming programs, and long-term solutions to an inequitable food system like educational programming, local investment in food infrastructure and a year-round greenhouse.

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the group’s mission, Winter Food Give-aways and on-going ”Share the Harvest Campaign with Simmons, Ridley and it’ president, Michael Reeder, as well as the impact it can have on the entire community.

To learn more, visit Human Agricultural Cooperative.

Julia Meek: Chief Condra Ridley, Ty Simmons, Michael Reeder, Welcome.

Ty Simmons: Greetings.

Julia Meek: Now Condra and Ty, you started this Human Agricultural Cooperative seven years ago. Michael, you are its president. So very briefly, what's your core mission? Why are you here?

Michael Reeder: Well, we're all here is to educate, train and mentor the youth of our communities and to help them develop become better farmers also improving on food distribution, social justice and and vocational training.

Julia Meek: A mighty noble goal. Now being seven years into this whole project you to spear headers, Condra and Ty, in general, the big picture, how is it going?

Condra Ridley: It is growing steadily, and we are gaining a wider audience to help us.

Ty Simmons: It's going well, we always need help to do more, because there's always a need.

Julia Meek: So Ty, what are you currently doing directly to help the community through this platform?

Ty Simmons: Well, we've been educating, training and mentoring young people in our community members, we've been working on the national and state level to break barriers, we've been writing grants to basically change lives here in Fort Wayne in northeast Indiana. We're currently fundraising for our two winter giveaways.

We have a giveaway in November. Our goal is to provide 300 meals, children's coats, household items, and coats and gloves, and we're going to be fundraising for the next month to achieve our goals.

Julia Meek: Winter's coming on, it's not going to be an easy time of it. Are you feeling the need in the community directly?

Ty Simmons: Unfortunately, there's been you know, less employment, more inflation, there's been less help from the city and other governmental entities, people are struggling and struggling to a time where we haven't seen in in decades.

Julia Meek: Because you have this Human Agricultural Cooperative, you're giving folks hope. And you know, now more than ever, they need it. Are you ever afraid you're not going to be able to give it to them?

Condra Ridley: I don't ever feel dismayed about this project because I believe that the more people come to understand their power in feeding themselves, they will feel more and more empowered and encouraged to keep doing it and get more people to be involved with it.

Julia Meek: That's great, Condra. What about you, Michael?

Michael Reeder: I love it. I honestly love giving back to it, I feel it's the need. I feel like I inspire other people to do as well. So I'm hoping to be an advocate and encourage more people to get involved and help solve this problem.

Julia Meek: And okay, Michael, what is this Share the Harvest Campaign for?

Michael Reeder: Share the Harvest Campaign is to fundraise enough capital to grow and secure over 1 million pounds of food, but also want to distribute to socially disadvantaged communities and purchase our own land and hopefully build that vocational training center.

So overall, the whole goal is to build a better future for our use in our community.

Julia Meek: 1 million pounds of food...

Michael Reeder: Grown and distributed.

Julia Meek: And eaten, of course, and all right here.

Michael Reeder: Of course (chuckles) we love to eat.

Julia Meek: Keeping it live and local and that's amazing. Then what are the plans to obtain the funding for this noble goal, Ty? How does that part work?

Ty Simmons: We have the expertise, we have the professionals, we have the ingenuity, we have the hard working people to actually accomplish everything that we were going to do, but the funding. So what we're going to do to obtain the funding is write grants, we're going to seek out philanthropists.

But our main thing is we're going to start a $1 pledge a day, we're looking for the first 2,800 people to pledge $1 a day, $7 a week, $365 a year. That'll provide us with a $1 million capital to purchase the land, to network with our farmers around the country, to secure the food, to grow the food and to distribute it. Not only will it do all that, but it'll also help us build a vocational training center.

With our connection with the farming program and farmers around the country the food won't cost us as much as most people think. We have farmers around the country that want to help Fort Wayne, but we have to get to the food.

Julia Meek: And $1 a day, you're breaking it down, you're making it doable.

Condra Ridley: I just want people to realize $1, there's almost nothing of value that you can purchase today for $1. But here we're giving our whole community and anyone else who sees this vision an opportunity to give $1 a day in the best way and the most productive way that you'll be able to--$1 a day for just two years.

And that'll give us enough to be able to do the Vocational Center, the farm all these great things.

Julia Meek: You have the need. You have the plan. And that's what some people don't have in place in that order. So Michael, (chuckles) a dollar a day. I know we get back to that; we think it's doable?

Michael Reeder: It's absolutely a doable deal. Everybody has something to spend it on whether it is tedious whether it's just a cup of coffee or a piece of candy. And if something really $1 that you can give to everybody. I feel like the benefit and the reward and return on investment on that is much greater than what people can realize.

Julia Meek: Oh indeed, indeed. Now generally speaking, what kind of momentum are you gaining with this pretty easy, pretty user friendly kind of plan you got going here? You know, what are you hearing directly from your population, the rest of the community about all of this?

Ty Simmons: We're getting really good feedback. Not only are we getting some individuals to come on board, we're also seeking out corporate sponsorships. We're seeking out grants with some of the foundations. And we've actually received a sizable donation towards the Share the Harvest already to help us purchase a refrigerated truck.

Julia Meek: Oh my goodness, that's fantastic. You're on the ground running. Then when you reach your goal Condra, what will it look like?

Condra Ridley: It's going to look like a lot of people putting their efforts and their money together. It's going to be a great demonstration of collective economics, cooperative economics. It's going to really give us a chance to show that it doesn't really take a whole lot of people to make a great change.

So here we will, with just under 3000 people, we'll be able to build a solid place where we can start to control our own food supply.

Julia Meek: And we hear about the revitalization of our farmland of the precious land that we have left in northeast Indiana that can be used for farming we're finding interested individuals. Does that extend to all shapes and sizes and colors of people and all sorts of buying and selling possibilities?

Ty Simmons: Of course. With the influx of farmers around the country, and Indiana, you know, Indiana is a 90% import state, we only grow 10% of the food here in Indiana. So we have to advocate for training, more farmers, more land to farm because at any given time, as we saw in the last two years, there could be food shortages.

And we have to be prepared for that. And the only way to be prepared for that is to actually plan ahead and grow more food.

Condra Ridley: I just want to add that my good friend Ty makes us aware that in this world, only 1% of the people farm and provide for 99 percent of us to eat. And that I think is mind blowing. But here we are offering to our community an inroad to increase the number of farmers that we have.

We're training young people. When you learn things as a youngster it's second nature for you, you know, it's almost not work. So we want to start to train our youth early with this vocational training and they're all going to learn how to farm first and do a vocation as well.

Julia Meek: That's fantastic. Now how quickly and smoothly as well could you jump right in and run with it once you get that pretty modest amount of money that y'all need?

Ty Simmons: Well as soon as we get the money, we're ready to go. We've been looking at land already. We've talked to politicians around the state. We've secured trainers for our vocational, we've ensured general contractors to help us build.

We have it ready, we have a really comprehensive plan, not only to grow food, distribute food, but also train hundreds of young people.

Julia Meek: And Michael, you work directly with young folks, and some of those are in trouble trying to get them back on the right track. What might this mean to them?

Michael Reeder: Well this means that it is pretty much a second chance and a new opportunity, something they can take and run with to really provide a life and existence for them.

It's a way that especially the target youth we're focused on, it's their, it's a second chance and it's, I'm going to say it's liberating for them honestly and they a lot of needed it, a lot of more focus on a trade or focus on gaining skills, because a lot of kids especially in that target area don't necessarily want to go to college. And that's okay, that's okay.

Julia Meek: And now they have all kinds of goals. And everybody's going to benefit from it.

Michael Reeder: Absolutely.

Julia Meek: Who could ask for more? Now, this motivation all stems from your individual and combined passions to help others and you've been on that pathway for quite some time, your life's work, that's fairly safe to say.

You're targeting especially the children and the youth, as Michael you just mentioned, giving them a secure and bright and healthy future. What is the learning curve on this? What kind of momentum can you help build do you think by going forward with this plan?

Condra Ridley: We know that this is the way that we can build our community. We want our youth to grow up healthy, and how better to begin then with healthy foods that we grow, we show them how to grow and then from there, we start to collectively develop our wealth.

We're talking here about creating cross generational wealth for our community. And we know that there's all kinds of opportunities that we're creating for ourselves. That's basically what this is all about.

Julia Meek: Totally grassroots, obviously.

Condra Ridley: Totally.

Julia Meek: From your heart is that the key is, is that the winning combination?

Ty Simmons: Yes ma'am, That's it. It is, especially in paying homage to our elders that have basically shown us the way. I mean, yes, I do a lot but Miss Condra and Mr. Smiley don't understand. I look for them for strength as well.

And just as the young people look for me for strength, I look for them for strength. That's going to build a better bond within our community and show that we're partnering and doing the right work.

Julia Meek: You're owning it?

Ty Simmons: Yes, ma'am.

Julia Meek: That's wonderful. And I know you individually get discouraged at times by the apathy, the "let someone else do it" mindset, even you, Condra and you're a mighty positive individual. Where do you all turn when that happens? How do you stay engaged so you can keep others engaged?

Ty Simmons: Well again, for me, I look towards my elders, I look towards some of my mentors, like Chuck Surack, and some of my mentors outside of Indiana, like Clyde Banks, and I ask them and get their advice on certain things to help us get through some of the hard times because we know doing this work, everybody's not going to be on your path, everybody's not going to understand your goal, everybody's not going to take on the responsibility for real change.

But we have to, and we've taken on that responsibility, and only thing we're saying is, come join us, come join us.

Michael Reeder: I'm here purely for because I love it. It's a passion of mine to really be positive and to motivate, especially youth mentoring is my passion. So I find the energy to stay engaged is just because it's the right thing to do. And I just I love doing everyday and getting up in the morning and doing it.

Julia Meek: Bring it on?

Michael Reeder: Absolutely.

Condra Ridley: The relationships that we're building, and strengthening really inspire me just to see us able to do it. And I feel like that's a big part of what we're providing for the youth in our community.

When I see some of the young people that Ty actually works with when he's teaching the farming principles, that inspires me. And that keeps me fed and motivated.

Julia Meek: So medium and long term wise, what is next for Human Agricultural Cooperative?

Ty Simmons: Well, our goal is, just keep doing what we're doing, trying to stay positive, gathering like-minded people that understand that the Southside doesn't want to half empty glass, we want a full glass just like the other sides of town.

We need funding that comes into our side of town to stay on our side of town. We have to start finding ways to invest in our communities. Together, we're better and stronger,

Michael Reeder: Absolutely.

Ty Simmons: You know that. And that's our motto.

Julia Meek: And you're feeding everyone.

Michael Reeder: Everyone, exactly.

Julia Meek: And employing all that want to be employed.

Ty Simmons: Everyone, we're so inclusive, we're about gathering people to help people.

Julia Meek: If you all could dream really big, I mean really big, and we know you're dreamers, or you wouldn't be where you are today. If you could add one giant lever, one wonderful advantage to your cause, the sky's the limit. What would it be right here, right now?

Condra Ridley: We are in the process of building what could be a model for all communities throughout the United States, and who knows, maybe even the world.

But what I think the biggest thing that we're doing is that we are returning everyday people to the position of power, when it comes to securing food, we're teaching them how to grow it, we're teaching the young people how to do it, that means we'll be increasing farmers and it's going to just grow into like a farming and vocational development for this community that's going to be tremendous.

Julia Meek: And we wish we could do it tomorrow...

Condra Ridley: We can do it, we can do it. Just start today,

Ty Simmons: We're taking a holistic approach, not only to feed, but train and like our mission says, it's gonna take all of it. We just can't educate you, without feeding you because you have to sustain yourself. So we want to also mentor you so you could basically change your life.

So my ultimate would be to train 10,000 young people in vocational skills so they can change 10,000 families lives.

Julia Meek: Overnight.

Michael Reeder: My ultimate goal is to have large, long fields of just farmland and in a place where young people can continue continuous learning; as humans we never stop learning. So I feel like just to provide that safe haven where they can learn, grow, sustain and be self reliant. And to really bring something positive back to the world. I guess that's what I'm really striving for.

Julia Meek: Overnight.

Michael Reeder: Overnight. Yes, ma'am.

Julia Meek: Well, thank you for those insights. And meanwhile, without each of your amazing and tireless efforts, this wouldn't be possible. Together, you're making it work, so thank you for all of it. Bottom line, though, what does this endeavor mean for the whole community, present and future?

Michael Reeder: Doing this right now helps the whole community by giving them an efficient and long lasting sustainability with feeding themselves and its giving them the training necessary for them, so they don't have to worry about robbing, stealing, looting or causing harm once they have their own necessary training education to provide for themselves as well.

Julia Meek: Condra?

Condra Ridley: Our whole program with Human Agricultural Cooperative allows our community to get the skills and the knowledge necessary to feed themselves in a healthy way that they get to control and the community building that's generated because of that will help us to live together more peacefully and productively.

Julia Meek: And Ty?

Ty Simmons: Well, it says in the name, Human Agricultural Cooperative, so we focus on all humans, we know that southeast side of town has so many detrimental effects that happen. But if we empower and champion the most effective, it helps the overall community, you know.

If we can empower individuals to be better people, if we can empower them to take care of themselves and to assist others, that takes the burden off of rest of our city as well. And if we can scale that, excuse me, when we scale that to other cities, it's going to start a healing process there as well.

Julia Meek: Michael Reeder, Chief Condra Ridley and Ty Simmons are President, Vice President and Secretary respectively, of the Human Agricultural Cooperative. Thank you so much for sharing your story, it is a very powerful one and many blessings on your journey.

Ty Simmons: Thank you.

Condra Ridley: Thank you so much.

Julia Meek: And for those interested in making that difference, giving one or more dollars, how can they get involved in the Human Agricultural Cooperative, Ty?

Ty Simmons: There's several ways. You could donate on our Facebook page. You can donate at our GoFundMe page, Share the Harvest. Or you can contact us at and sending money order or cheqk.

Julia Meek: Thank you.

Ty Simmons: Thank you

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.