To grow a garden, you start with the soil. It must be nutrient-rich and, ideally, chemical-free. Create that strong foundation, give it proper attention, place it in the right environment and something beautiful, something nourishing, something real can spring forth.
Solidarity Urban Farms owner Jim Goforth can tell you all about what it takes to nurture crops. But Goforth, in his 40s, can also tell you what it takes to nurture a life. How to pull yourself out of the despair and shame of drug addiction and back above the ground, where you can feel the sun on your face.
In learning how to care for crops in Lorain County Community College’s sustainable agriculture program and applying that knowledge to the launch of his own business, the farmer has learned to care for himself.
“Gardening is what’s kept me clean,” he says. “It gives me a purpose and something to be proud of.”
Any farmer can tell you that what you put into the soil dictates what you get out. But for 14 years, what Goforth put into his body nearly ruined him.
It began in 1999, when he was prescribed pain pills for chronic back problems.
“I had two back surgeries,” he says. “And my original doctor is in prison for overprescribing.”
The pills gave Goforth a welcomed but impermanent respite from the pain, but he wanted more. He progressed to oxycontin and then to heroin, finding sellers on the streets. His spiral happened out of view from friends and family.
He considered himself a functioning addict. But he was an addict, all the same.
“It’s just complete and utter sadness and hopelessness,” he says. “You feel like the only way you’re ever going to get clean is to die.”
And he says no one knew.
“I hid it,” he says. “But it was just despair. You’re constantly sick and always living in fear.”
Goforth says he was addicted to drugs for about four years before he first began trying to get clean, a process that ultimately took him another 10 years.
“I hate to use this word, but honestly, it happened organically,” he says.
A passion sprouts
While research has described marijuana as a gateway drug to other illicit substances, for Goforth it was the gateway toward a cleaner, healthier lifestyle. When he began to smoke cannabis as an alternative to the harder drugs that had taken over his life, his mind slowed down.
“I didn’t want to run out to the projects and score dope anymore,” he says.
If a plant could help him in that way, maybe it could help him in others. Although this wasn’t a traditional entry point toward his eventual profession, he felt himself drawn toward gardening, and in his backyard, he planted tomatoes, cucumbers, swiss chard and carrots.
When a friend visited and told Goforth about the sustainable agriculture class he was taking at LCCC — the farms the class had visited and the lessons he had learned — Goforth decided to pursue a specialty crop growers certificate at the college in January 2017.
“I wanted to be part of it,” he says. “I was 40 when I enrolled and hadn’t been in school in more than 20 years.”
On the first day of his first class, Goforth stepped into the campus greenhouse and had an awakening.
“I saw this lettuce, in the middle of January, on a row in all these different colors, and it looked like slot machines,” he says. “I said, ‘This is it. This is what I want, and this is what I’ve got to do.’”
Go forth and conquer
Goforth completed his technical certificate in about a year, then enrolled for another semester for his permaculture design certification. And in spring 2018, he tore up his backyard, putting in drainage and three 40-foot-long beds. He built a small greenhouse and turned landscape beds into gardening beds.
For 26 straight weeks, he sold his produce at farmers markets under the name Gateway Pharms.
“It was confirmation of all the hard work I had been putting in,” he says.
Then Goforth collaborated with Father Alex Barton at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Lorain, transforming Gateway Pharms into Solidarity Urban Farms. The community-focused urban farm, which turns vacant lots in downtown Lorain into flower and vegetable gardens, is committed to using agriculture to drive social change. Every week, volunteers help provide free meals to members of the community, along with a place they can feel welcomed, respected and able to be themselves.
“It’s about building community and food provides one of the vessels that allows to happen,” Father Alex says.
And, just like Goforth’s original farm was, Solidarity Urban Farms is one of the scheduled farm tour stops for students in LCCC’s Introduction to Agriculture class.
“It’s like I’m closing the loop,” he says. “But that says something about LCCC’s sustainable agriculture program, where you can gain the experience and knowledge to start your own farm.”
With so much focus on what it takes to raise his crops right, Goforth says he can’t even imagine reverting to the life he once led.
“When you don’t feel like you’re worth anything, you don’t mind sticking a needle in your arm,” he says. “I started to get my self-esteem back. I started to love myself and feel like I was worth something again.”