Deep in the backroads of Umatilla, Florida, an old citrus-growing town, I met with Pastor Bob (Buddy) Walker Jr about his urban garden, Empower School and Farm. Can I say OMG!!?? Yes, I completely lucked out on spending the afternoon with only the coolest Theologist and Director of this glorious cultivation program. What a perfect place in the ideal State to cultivate food out of love for the community, and what an incredible story Buddy had to share!
It all stemmed from his innate passion for agriculture from an early age. His father, too, was a Pastor that had a passion for farm management and a love for ranches. Buddy spent several years in Latin America specializing in community development and disaster relief as a young man. Then he worked with an Agronomist from the University of Florida once he came back to the States. With Walker Jr’s new skill set, his father utilized his son’s skills doing consulting in the Dominican Republic. Walker Jr was thrilled, “And I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ I’ll get to do missions work and also work in agriculture, which I already love. There was a little bit of a change of plans, and I ended up staying in the United States being a youth pastor. But that interest in agriculture was still deep down in my heart.”
Buddy’s drive to nurture nature and the community and teach others to do the same flourished in such it tied everything together like mycelium. “I became a pastor; our church purchased property. And after a number of years, I realized we had property that the grass was being mowed, it wasn’t being used, and the thought of why don’t we do something that would be for the betterment of the community? So, let’s start an organic farm.” Ten years ago, they started a small garden, and it has evolved into an internship program for people from all around the world.
Buddy recognized that once kids grew up in the church after graduating from high school, went off to college, and stopped attending. Since he likes to mentor immerging leaders, creating an agriculture environment made perfect sense and worked out beautifully. After searching online for worldwide opportunities on organic farms, she discovered Empower School and became a resident intern. She enjoyed the program so much when she was there in the fall, she decided to return after the holidays. The relationships that blossomed within the community were the main reason for her return. Kelly cherished “speaking to buddy’s mom, about her life story” Her mission stories truly touched her heart. Over the past nine years, young adults from 18 to 35 have enjoyed the residential internship program at this bountiful fellowship.
The variety of fruits, vegetables, and plant medicines cultivated here astonished me! As the years passed, Buddy grew pleasantly surprised to discover just all the things they were actually able to grow in Florida’s climate. There they enjoy a long growing season and can grow a large variety of things nine months out of the year, “during the colder months, we grow our broccoli, kale, cabbages, and a lot of lettuces.” When they move into the spring peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and green beans are they farm.
The other three months, they cover the plot with a plant to prevent weeds and improve soil health. Buddy prefers to use a legume that is called Sun hemp, “it’s a beautiful plant. It grows very tall and spindly, and I plant them very close together. You get like eight feet tall and then kind of blow in the wind, and they grow well in the summer heat. The bugs don’t get into it, so it’s a great cover crop.” The Sun Hemp increases biodiversity for protection, putting nutrients back into the soil.
It takes many hands and hundreds of hours for Empower School and Farm to impact around 150 families within the Central Florida community. Typically, anywhere from eight to fifteen interns are living at the farm. Currently, a dozen of them works roughly 20 hours per week. In addition, Empower School and Farm provide “housing and meals and learning opportunities,” as well as courses for participants, making up part of the workforce.”
Empower School and Farm also work with community volunteers. So many remarkable people come from all around. They pitch in 200 hours (about 1 week 1 and a half days) per week to love up on the garden. I do have to say it was heartwarming to learn about how this property has affected so many lives over the years. If you feel called to serve the community while learning from the best, I encourage you to reach out to Buddy Walter and be a part of that difference that matters.