Meet Elvin Birth & Journey Back to RCF’s Early Days

elvin-birth-nc-farmer-raleigh-city-farm
On a cold, bright morning in early January, I sat across from Elvin Birth in the library of the Murphey School Apartments, where he lives. The restored red brick schoolhouse—a historic landmark that’s now a senior living residence—is old but the facade is clean and well-cared for. Despite its stately beauty, you might walk or drive past it a hundred times and never notice it, which I hadn’t. Like Elvin, once it caught your attention, you wondered what its story was.

 

Although he’s 92 years old and uses a walker to get around, there’s something about Elvin that feels youthful. His hair is white and a little bit gray, but it’s still thick, and his frame is big and sturdy. On the day of our meeting, he had on a plaid flannel button-down that was kind of…cool. He hasn’t been in good health, he told me, but it was clear that, intellectually, not a marble’s out of place.

 

In a little courtyard just outside the building, a raised bed grew herbs, to which anyone living at Murphey School Apartments could help themselves. It had been Elvin’s project—for which the building had won a prestigious Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Community Appearance, he tells me with pride—but now it was another resident’s job to tend. Elvin hasn’t lost any of his passion for seeing things grow, but these days his body can’t quite keep up with his spirit. I got the impression, though, that he wasn’t too bothered by the need to step back, that he was happy to let someone else experience the same joys he’d had of helping this little plot thrive.

 

A little further back in Elvin’s story, he’d also had a hand in helping a bigger plot thrive—the one acre site of Raleigh City Farm. Elvin was one of RCF’s earliest and most stalwart volunteers, and though a newer crop of farm friends are now “digging in” on behalf of the farm, everyone’s heard of Elvin.

 

I asked him how he first got involved with Raleigh City Farm, and he told me that he’d first heard of it around 2011. It was then that the founders were hard at work getting the word out to the neighboring community that an urban farm was coming to the formerly vacant plot of land adjacent to Person Street Plaza, an aging, run-down strip mall.

 

Humble Beginnings of Raleigh City Farm (2012)

“I read about the farm in the newspaper, and I went to an informational meeting and planning session at Hope Elementary [in Mordecai]. I was impressed with what they proposed to do.” Sometime in the summer of 2012, he went for a walk past the farm just “to see what was going on.”

 

“What was going on was that they had planted a bunch of stuff. But there were also piles of crop waste everywhere. Someone had built three compost bins out of old pallets. One of the bins had some waste in it, but the others weren’t getting used. I decided someone needed to do something about that. And it was probably me that was going to do it.” Elvin looked around for tools to move the compost with and didn’t see anything that was suitable, so he went up the road to ACE Hardware and bought what he needed. Then he came back and got to work filling the compost bins.

 

Elvin had become RCF’s first dedicated compost volunteer. And he was the kind of volunteer every organization dreams of: one who spots a need—or an empty compost bin—and just gets to work filling it.

Elvin grew up on an apple farm in Pennsylvania coal country, “the anthracite capital of the world.” At that time, the coal business was booming and the Birth family’s apples sold like hot cakes. Elvin helped his father peddling the produce. “It was community supported agriculture,” he says. People always bought their fruit from the Births and their vegetables from the Furmans. Elvin laughs telling me about a time when the two families tried to team up, with each selling both fruit and vegetables. “The idea seemed great, but it failed. People were only comfortable buying their fruit from Old Man Birth and their vegetables from Old Man Furman.”

 

Elvin later became a forester in Appalachia, and eventually retired to North Carolina; he moved in with his son in Raleigh around 2003. His son worked in building maintenance when the Person Street Plaza strip mall was still in its decrepit state and had yet to be revitalized. “There was a pizza place, a hair salon, and a laundromat there.” But the whole strip was really struggling and “when news spread that [there would be a redevelopment], the neighbors were ecstatic.”

 

Raleigh City Farm was born during that period of revitalization of North Person Street, signing its lease from developer John Holmes (Hobby Properties) in 2012. In the years since, volunteers like Elvin have been along for the ride, participating in a transformation that never could have occurred without their unique skills, input, manpower, and sheer enthusiasm. Indeed, the first seeds were planted in community members’ homes, including chive seedlings that got their start in the Murphey School Apartments’ herb bed (which before long was being top dressed with, of course, RCF compost). Gradually, Raleigh City Farm began to take shape: poor soil was amended, infrastructure was built out, a hydroponic greenhouse popped up, then a farm stage with a kitchen, wash station, and entertainment area.

 

Elvin remembers discussion early on about how the farm needed a fence around its perimeter, but they couldn’t figure out how to get it approved with all of the rules about fences in city code. “Then someone said, ‘You know, maybe we don’t need a fence…maybe what we need is a trellis.’ Well, Chris [Rumbley] came back from that next meeting with the city with a massive grin on his face.”

 

Elvin bought some of the materials they’d need for the structure, and Chris got some wooden posts from Saxapahaw, and the farm got its trellis.

 

Sometimes it’s been a bumpy journey as the farm has grown up, and in Elvin’s words, there have been “some false starts.” But he believes in the farm’s ability to do many things: to grow fresh food hyper-locally. To do good in a community through education and engagement. (Lesson #1: “Farming happens in soil. If you want to see dirt, look under your fingernails.”) To revitalize a neighborhood. And perhaps most importantly, he believes it succeeds in providing a major leg up to farmers in its support of their ventures.

Ryan Finch; Elvin Birth; Lisa Grele Barrie (2015)

“I grew up on a farm and it has to be treated like a small business, not a hobby,” says Elvin. “Raleigh City Farm enables farmers to run small businesses. It takes the burden off of the farmer to [navigate all of the ancillary tasks of a business] like interacting with the city, getting permits, [designing marketing,] etc.” This leaves the farmer free to focus on doing what he does best—farming.

 

And Elvin feels strongly that Raleigh City Farm is ready for new growth, with expansion into new unused plots. He’s even done the research, scouring maps and Google Earth for vacant urban land that could be converted to farmland. “There are at least 300 acres in Raleigh,” he says, “that might be available for farming.”  

 

Failing health in the last couple of years has forced Elvin to give up composting at the farm, but RCF is still often on his mind. In an email to RCF staff a few months ago, he shared a series of aerial images of the farm captured by Google Earth, year by year. He proposed that they might provide an illustrated history of RCF, with each picture showing changes and developments to the site over time.

 

The idea was a very good one. But Elvin wasn’t quite finished—he also had some thoughts about signage. “There is a glaring lack of a sign [that would make you aware you were driving past the farm] in the triangle of land bounded by Delway and Blount [streets]. The sign should feature the farm (the biggest enterprise) but include the other tenants [in Person Street Plaza].”

 

Another good idea. I told him we’d look into it. But this time, we’ll foot the bill for materials.