Indiana farming is changing, just ask growers and youth at this South East Fort Wayne community farm

Did you know Fort Wayne may be home to one of the largest urban farms in the U.S.? 

At 2512 E. Tillman Rd. in South East Fort Wayne, next to Fellowship Missionary Church, you’ll find 17 acres of land tended by Ephraim Smiley of Smiley’s Garden Angels and Ty Simmons of the Human Agricultural Cooperative.

While urban farms in the U.S. tend to be fewer than 10 acres, often due to space constraints and the disproportionate costs of growing in cities, Smiley and Simmons have been provided the use of this church-owned urban land, which is zoned for agriculture. Alongside rural land they farm, they tend this urban land with volunteers, including about 15 youth, ages 10-17, who they mentor in the nonprofit Human Agricultural Coop, which teaches life skills and healthy eating through farming. 

Among their crops, you’ll find fresh, culturally relevant produce grown with organic practices, including collard greens, okra, tomatoes, beans, squash, lettuce, and more. The majority is donated to people in need. The farm is also open to the public for free U-pick produce—so long as you don’t take all of anything. 

“Prior to the pandemic, we had a constant flow of people coming out and picking vegetables,” Smiley says. “That flow has slowed down, so what we do now is deliver.”

The farm at 2512 E. Tillman Rd. is open for free U-pick produce.

Smiley and Simmons deliver food to nearby housing projects and apartment complexes, as well as the League for the Blind and Disabled and Martin Luther King Montessori. Now, they’re raising funds to expand their operations and modernize their techniques—with a goal to farm 40 acres of land and grow 1 million pounds of produce for the community.

“We want to help people and to pass on farming knowledge to the next generation,” Simmons says. 

We visited Ty Simmons (TS) and Ephraim Smiley (ES) on the farm to learn more about their work and how Indiana farming is changing. 

Ty Simmons, left, of the Human Agricultural Cooperative and Ephraim Smiley, right, of Smiley’s Garden Angels tend the community urban farm at 2512 E. Tillman Rd.

IFW: Tell us about yourselves and how you got into farming.
ES: I’m from Alabama, from a dusty road where the blacktop ends. Growing up, I observed my cousins, who are farmers, and I got really curious as to what they were doing. As my family grew in Fort Wayne, I found that my sons, growing boys, would eat me out of house and home. So I learned how to grow my own vegetables, using organic practices. 
Over the years, I’ve found that growing and eating fresh vegetables out of the garden is a positive addiction—a win-win situation. And when we give those vegetables away, that makes it triple plus in the community.

Ephraim Smiley of Smiley’s Garden Angels has been farming for more than 25 years.
I’ve been growing food now for 25-30 years, and about 15 years ago, I started doing large-scale hunger relief farming thanks to Sandy Payton, the First Lady at Come as You Are Community Church in Fort Wayne, and Renetta Williams, who was running HealthVisions Midwest of Fort Wayne at the time. We started with two acres at Sandy Payton’s house. 
Our goal now is to continue that work and to deliver our vegetables to people and organizations in need. (We’ve already delivered well over 500 pounds of collard greens alone.) We also want to develop sustainability by selling some of our crops and teaching local youth farming and life skills.

About 15 youth, ages 10-17, tend land on the farm through the nonprofit Human Agricultural Coop, which teaches life skills and healthy eating through farming. 
TS: Mr. Smiley is a great mentor. I went to high school with his son at South Side, which is how we met. Then he started working this land seven years ago, and we’ve been here together now for about four years.
For the past seven years, I’ve been working on hunger relief programs in Fort Wayne. I got into farming through writing. When I was in college in San Francisco, I researched (and later wrote a screenplay about) Marcus Garvey, the Founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the largest political movement in African American history. When I started digging into Garvey’s story, I learned about liberty farms and how important it is to have Black farmers in every Black community because healthy food access is a way to be liberated from social, political, and economic oppression.

Ty Simmons is Director of the Human Agricultural Cooperative.

We started the Human Agricultural Cooperative and Utopian Community Grocery in Fort Wayne to pass on that knowledge to the next generation. Farming is a trade that’s largely lost—not only in our city or the Black community, but across the country. Over the past two years, we have fed more than 300,000 people in Fort Wayne and thousands more in several other cities.
We want to leave a Black farming legacy. We want to invest in the community we’re a part of here in South East holistically. So many systems exploit the exploitable, and having food access in a food desert is beneficial, but what else comes with it? Unfortunately, there are so many opportunities to exploit our community, and it can be seen in recent projects. In reality, having food or a grocery store is only part of the challenge; there must be diversity, equity, and inclusion. We want to invest on multiple fronts and in ways that actually benefit and create ownership and generational wealth for our community.  

Along with Smiley, Simmons, and the youth, community volunteers help farm the land at 2512 E. Tillman Rd.
IFW: Tell us about your crops this fall and your farming practices.
ES: We’re not officially “organic” certified, but we are using organic farming techniques. I taught organic gardening at the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory Downtown about 30 years ago, before organic gardening was as popular as it is today. Back then, I had Smiley’s Victory Garden Service. (It’s taken on several names, but at the time, we were the only organic gardening service in town.) I did a lot of reading and studying. That’s how I came up with the variety of techniques we use, so we don’t have to resort to pesticides and fertilizer (which I call crystal blue persuasion). 

The community farm at 2512 E. Tillman Rd. in South East Fort Wayne, next to Fellowship Missionary Church, is 17 acres of land.
When you’re organic, you want to get your crop out there when the insects are not. That’s the beauty of a fall garden. Part of the plan for our fall crop this year is to plant Early Girl tomatoes late. They won't get very big, but they’ll produce a lot of tomatoes, and the bugs won’t get them.
I used to be a lettuce specialist, and most people don’t realize you can grow lettuce in the fall. I grew a variety of lettuces with Johnny’s Selected Seeds out of Maine, and I grew a lettuce that would turn purple with the frost. 
This fall, we’re teaching youth to grow lettuce because the decrease in daylight hours and increase in rain and coolness at night helps the crop. When I prepare our field for the fall garden, I’m going to mound some of the garden up, too. I learned that from watching our local Burmese farmers; they’re good teachers. Their garden is mounded up and doing quite well. 
Ty and I watch nature. We’re both good observers of plants, as well as the youth we mentor and the people we serve. 

Ephraim Smiley of Smiley’s Garden Angels has been farming for more than 25 years.
IFW: Tell us more about the work you’re doing with youth on the farm.
ES: We are working with youth on several fronts: Exercise, diet, conflict mediation, food intake, and healthy eating. We teach them to stand up and have pride in themselves. Teamwork, too. We’re pushing toward 400 tomato plants on this farm, and we put down about 100 with our youth. 

About 15 youth, ages 10-17, tend land on the farm through the nonprofit Human Agricultural Coop, which teaches life skills and healthy eating through farming. 
We’re also teaching youth to understand the personality of the plants and how organic growing methods work. I wanted to do organic farming in the first place because when you’re learning the personality of the plant, it’s like learning the personalities of people around you. You learn what they like. You learn what they dislike. 
We’re encouraging these youth to pay attention, to observe, and to focus on the task at hand. You’ve got to know when to water your plants and how to talk to your plants. They talk to you all the time. 

About 15 youth, ages 10-17, tend land on the farm through the nonprofit Human Agricultural Coop, which teaches life skills and healthy eating through farming. 
IFW: What are some of the results you’ve seen so far?
ES: Over, the years, I’ve found the best way to encourage someone to have a healthy diet is to get them in the garden. We’re growing five-star, restaurant-quality kale here. If we give these youth a recipe or ask them to cook a batch with their auntie, sister, or grandma, they’ll come back with a comment. 
I remember two elementary girls recently telling me, “Mr. Smiley, I’m not eating canned green beans anymore.” When they said that, they taught me the path to getting youth to eat healthily is to get them out here and get them involved. They’ll get curious. Now, we’ve got youth growing food for seniors in our community, as well as underserved kids, like themselves. 

The community farm at 2512 E. Tillman Rd. in South East Fort Wayne, next to Fellowship Missionary Church, is 17 acres of land.
IFW: You have a GoFundMe campaign called Share the Harvest with a goal to raise $1 million during the next two years to expand your operations. Tell us about that. 
TS: We’re thankful to have this land and partnership with Fellowship Community Church, but there’s no guarantee that this land will continue to be here for us. So we’re hosting a two-year campaign called Share the Harvest to raise $1 million. We want to grow, secure, and distribute one million pounds of fresh food to individuals in Fort Wayne's food deserts and beyond. Also, this funding will help us purchase 40 acres of land to house our farm, build a vocational training center and barn, get a tractor, and pay our personnel. 

Neighborhood and community supporters have donated most of the farm supplies to help Simmons and Smiley grow and distribute food in the South East community.
IFW: What are some of the farming advancements that will help you get there?
ES: When we expand our farm, we want to have a hoop house and greenhouse to grow produce year-round and a large raised bed area. Raised beds are almost like insurance against heavy rain, and it gives us the opportunity to have an area less affected by issues associated with growing in a field, as we are here. We’d like to also commission Ty to start a scientific development portion of the farm to study factors, like global warming, and how that will affect our growing area. 

Ty Simmons is Director of the Human Agricultural Cooperative.
Ty: I have a degree in Environmental HazMat/Science, among a few others, so I would do more soil sampling and testing. We already do some of that, but we’d like to do more. I recently toured Gotham Greens in Chicago, and they operate 500,000 square feet of hydroponic greenhouses across five U.S. states with nearly 400 team members. They have huge control panels with engineers and technicians at their farms. We would love to scale that down for Fort Wayne.
ES: We’re looking at sites in Fort Wayne and in nearby rural communities. And we know we can get there. We’re not rookies out here, talking about developing a team of new-age farmers; we’ve got tenure. We’ve plows in the ground, and that means something.

Ephraim Smiley of Smiley’s Garden Angels has been farming for more than 25 years.
There’s a generation of farmers that’s dying off, but there are many people still dedicated to the craft. We’re looking at the future of farming in Indiana, and it’s going to change. The color of farming is going to change. It’s going to be Black. It’s going to be Burmese. It’s going to be women, too. If you look at the large-scale community farms across the country, they are being run by women—some of them African American women. On this farm, we’ve recruited all types of people to work the soil—women, veterans, children, and people of all abilities.
There’s a wind of change blowing across the country, and we represent that. We’re changing things—one plant at a time.
Learn more
To network and partner, email Smiley and Simmons at [email protected] or To donate to Share the Harvest, visit
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.