For many farmers in Frederick County, there is pride in sowing seeds in the same ground as their great-great-grandparents. But Mike Dickson has lived a nomadic farming life, making the best of the plots he is given to teach hundreds of kids how to grow food.
Seven years ago, the city of Frederick gave Dickson’s organization, Seeds of Life Nurseries, access to 5 acres across the street from A-1 Mart on Butterfly Lane to establish a garden and work with students and at-risk youth. The lease comes to an end this July, as the city Department of Public Works prepares to construct a four-lane divided road through what will become Westside Regional Park.
“We are losing that land, but we understood that going into this,” Dickson said.
The road project will go out to bid in July, but that hasn’t stopped Dickson from making the most of the land before it’s gone.
On Friday, he and a group of volunteers from AstraZeneca planted tomatoes, sweet peppers and hot peppers on the edge of the property. The pharmaceutical company awards its employees one day of paid volunteer leave a year to work in the community.
It was just a 2-mile drive from the office, but a whole new experience for many of them.
Michelle Michael, spokeswoman for AstraZeneca, found Dickson through the United Way of Frederick County, which connects volunteers with local organizations. Through past volunteer work, Michael was aware of the food needs in the county, but she didn’t know Dickson was working nearby to address it.
“We really hope we’re helping his goal in the community, because it is so admirable,” Michael said.
Each month, Dickson distributes 25,000 pounds of food from his gardens to food-insecure families in Frederick County who may be living in Section 8 housing as he did as a child.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1980s, Dickson was the eldest of three boys. They lived in subsidized housing with their mother, who was addicted to drugs, and often there was not enough food in the home for all of them.
At one point his mother left Dickson — who was 5 at the time — alone in the apartment with his brothers for a week. After that, the siblings were sent to live with their grandmother and stepgrandfather, who also lived on a modest salary.
“Food was tight. Money was tight,” Dickson said.
Dickson and his brothers were joined by three more cousins soon after when an aunt and uncle were also overcome by their own addictions. To put food on the table, Dickson’s stepgrandfather taught him how to garden.
In some cases, the kids Dickson works with are the third generation to grow up on welfare, he said. They often don’t have a concept of sustainability, but by working on the farm and getting to know Dickson, they learn how they can change the quality of their life through food and their own actions.
“We give them an awesome — what I call tool chest — of things to be able to do,” Dickson said.
Those tools range from conflict resolution to work ethic, all of which can be carried from the field into the classroom and workplace. On average, the program enrolls between 15 and 20 kids from Frederick County Workforce Services, 30 to 60 kids through the United Way of Frederick County, and an additional five to 10 at-risk youths from Juvenile Services.
It’s not just about teaching kids how to grow food either, Dickson said; it’s about connecting kids to opportunities that already exist but of which they’re unaware due to a lack of information.
“I call myself a conduit. Information comes to me, people come to me, and I’m able to match them up,” Dickson said.
In many ways, the gardens have become a “sanctuary” for some of the kids. It’s an outlet for them to get away from gangs and other negative influences in their neighborhoods, and provides them the opportunity to grow up away from the “chaos,” Dickson said.
Six years ago, a young man approached Dickson about volunteering and came to the garden for a number of years. He would bring friends occasionally, but eventually he stopped coming. Last fall, he stopped by to talk.
Dickson said the young man told him, “What you did for me years back made me really think about what I needed to do with my life.”
Not all the student volunteers Dickson works with are the direct beneficiaries of the food that is grown in a Seeds of Life Nurseries garden. Some, like Tia Grimes, 16, just want a way to volunteer.
For the past two summers, Grimes has volunteered with the United Way of Frederick County and spent time weeding and planting. Next year, she will be a senior at Oakdale High School, and while she has never personally dealt with food insecurity in her own home, she knows classmates who have.
“It’s something that I want to change and I wish would change in the world,” Grimes said. “And it’s something I wish everyone would help with.”
Dickson acknowledged to do what he does is a “labor of love.”
Losing the land won’t stop Dickson’s work. Other gardens — including the one at The Frederick News-Post — have opened plots to Seeds of Life Nurseries to continue working and growing.
Dickson joked the group was “nomadic” and was being flexible until a new home for the garden was assigned by the city. He was told the parks department anticipated finding a new location for him on the Westside Regional Park property in the next 18 to 24 months.
“It’s about community. A county coming together to support the common good of supporting needy families,” Dickson said.