WESTPORT — The Rev. Miniard Culpepper knelt into the freshly tilled earth, packets of sweet pepper seeds in hand. He joked about his last name, a Culpepper planting peppers, and started sprinkling the seeds into the rich soil, envisioning the day they’ll be ready to be picked and driven back to his church in Dorchester.
A month ago, this plot was a field of grass and rocks. Now, seedlings are beginning to sprout through the ground. If nature cooperates, they’ll soon turn into tomatoes and watermelons, greens and squash, hot peppers and sweet ones, and bundles of fresh herbs. By the end of summer, Culpepper and members of the church plan to set up a farm stand in Dorchester and Roxbury for anyone who wants to pick up fresh produce for free.
“Unless you’re a dreamer, it’s very difficult to envision something like planting crops in Westport,” Culpepper said. “The biggest piece of this is faith. Faith is evidence of things not yet seen.”
Culpepper, a longtime minister at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church on Humboldt Avenue and a former attorney for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the idea for the farm grew out of a $10 ministry he ran when pandemic lockdowns began last March, handing out $10 bills to people in Roxbury and Dorchester to help them make ends meet.
As he thought about what people in the neighborhood needed, he realized fresh, healthy produce was sometimes out of reach. Large sections of Boston are considered food deserts, areas where supermarkets are not easily accessible, often because of systemic neglect of the communities who live there.
But what if the church could grow its own food, then hand it out for free to anyone who needed it at a farmstand near the church.
Serendipitously, two friends from Culpepper’s undergraduate days at Brandeis University stepped in to help: Juan Marcelino and his wife, Fatima, who allowed him to use some land on their 28-acre plot in Westport, near the Rhode Island border; and Kwabena Akufo, who with his wife, Peggy, contributed $5,000 toward seeds, plants, and an 8-foot fence to keep area deer from eating the harvest.
“You can pretty much call us lifelong friends,” Juan Marcelino said. “We’ve been there for family tragedies, family celebrations, you name it.”
When Culpepper asked if the church could use some of the Marcelinos’ land, Juan Marcelino said he was glad to help.
“I think it’s such a great cause,” he said.
The Akufos initially donated to the church for the $10 ministry, but made it clear to Culpepper that the church’s leadership could use the money for whatever project they needed. Culpepper called Kwabena Akufo to tell him about the farm — and insisted on eventually putting the Akufos’ name on the farmstand, despite some reticence from them about highlighting their contribution to the group effort.
“We thought it was a great idea, because you know, if you give money to people, $10 is $10. But if you put $10 in a farm like this, you generate, possibly $500 worth of food,” Kwabena Akufo said. “It’s not a one-time thing. Next year we’ll give some more grants so that this thing can keep going.”
Friends and church members came to Westport, about an hour’s drive from Dorchester, on a recent Saturday to help church deacons till the land, remove rocks, and plant seeds, adding a bit of sweat equity to their contribution. Peggy Akufo grows some vegetables and herbs in her home garden in Andover: tomatoes, cauliflower, parsley, just enough to use in the kitchen. She likened the Westport plot to seeing a baby grow, from a tiny idea to a full-fledged reality.
In the field, church deacons with varying levels of farming experience were at work, repairing the deer fence and tucking small squash plants into the ground.
“I’ve always been handy; I can work with a screwdriver, a nail, a saw,” Deacon Kevin Weekes said. “But I’ve never planted anything before, like even in my yard. I swear, if I tried to grow weeds, I’d probably have a perfectly green lawn. But because I’m trying to grow a perfectly green lawn, of course I get the weeds.”
For expertise, Weekes said, he relied on Ottis Kimbrough and Moses Borders, church members who had much more experience. Kimbrough called out instructions about planting lettuce while looking for photos of his mother’s garden in Selma, Ala., where she plants greens and lets people around the neighborhood share in her harvest around Thanksgiving.
Borders said he comes to develop a garden that his 8-year-old grandson, who lives in Dorchester, can see and learn from. The boy hasn’t been able to visit the Westport plot yet — he has soccer on Saturdays — but Borders planted tomatoes for him on his back porch last year, just so he can see how they grow.
“At the back of his condo there now, I’ve got some tomatoes, peppers, and he has some plants already growing. He’s got flowers blooming, thanks to his mother,” Borders said. “So, he can see some of the same things here. I’m trying to teach him how it really works.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.