As the last operating farm in Columbia, the Community Ecology Institute’s Freetown Farm is anything but an oasis. The development and reach of its programs extend well beyond the farm’s physical boundaries, and continue to grow.
CEI launched as a community-based nature center in 2016 and acquired the 6.4-acre farm on Harriett Tubman Lane in 2019. Since then Executive Director Chiara D’Amore has concentrated on funding programs through grants, bringing the farm back to life, and renovating the barn that will house staff and provide space for community workshops and other educational experiences.
“Until 2018 we ran our two original programs on Columbia Association property, state parks and other peoples’ farms,” D’Amore said. “It was hard to envision continuously growing if we weren’t anchored in any particular place as a nature-based organization.”
CEI’s Columbia Families in Nature program grew out of D’Amore’s doctoral research and now charges a nominal seasonal membership, providing naturalist activities, creative fun and land stewardship experience for more than 75 enrolled families.
Roots & Wings, an outdoor, farm-based supplemental education program, operates four days a week to serve a current enrollment of 86 elementary and middle school students.
Those initial programs have now been joined by CEI’s Green Seeds Internship Program that engages high school and college students in experiential education and workforce development opportunities, and its Nourishing Gardens initiative which transforms lawns in and around Howard County into ecologically beneficial growing spaces.
“Our programs specifically have a younger, middle, and older life span of opportunity to connect through nature and community,” D’Amore said. “It’s important, because it’s no longer the default due to a lot of social changes.”
David Shaw, the farm’s previous owner, built the property’s barn in 2009 with sustainability in mind.
Recognizing its potential, D’Amore hired Carri Beer, whose Catonsville-based Common Ecology Radical Architecture+Design firm redesigned the building to be 66% more energy efficient and use 33% less water than renovation to code.
“Last year we estimate that 2,400 individuals engaged with us as volunteer and program participants with no access to a bathroom, running water or shelter,” D’Amore said. “I’m excited for them to now have access to more comfort and basic amenities.”
The renovated building will allow CEI to serve a broader swath of the population and address mobility and accessibility issues.
“We’ll start using the space in March and plan to have a soft opening with donors in April,” she said.
In the second phase of renovations, CEI is targeting a Maryland Energy Administration grant to install solar panels that will help meet its zero net energy goal by offsetting the electricity used throughout the farm and in organizational operations with renewable energy.
CEI seized its latest opportunity to expand in December when it acquired Jim Duke’s Green Farmacy Garden in Skaggsville from the Maryland University of Integrative Health.
“The property is well tended by three people who know the garden and plants who will be joining our team,” D’Amore said, adding that she wants to honor the legacy of the garden and ensure it integrates into CEI’s work in a way that feels expansive and natural. An advisory council of people who knew the Duke family and its land will help with that transition.
“As stewards of the garden, we are pleased that it will continue to serve as a place of learning for the community and herbalists,” said MUIH’s President & CEO Marc Levin.
The Green Farmacy Garden remains part of the United Plant Savers network of sanctuaries, which educate the public and maintain at-risk or endangered native plant species.
Freetown Farm’s market garden helps bring in revenue with a farm stand and through produce sales to Howard County’s Roving Radish program and Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services.
CEI also provides space for community partners like Hope Works, whose flower and culinary herb garden provides a safe healing space for survivors of domestic violence, and The 3rd, whose women of color entrepreneurs grow herbs used in the nonprofit incubator’s cafe.
Nearly 100 members of the Howard County branch of the NAACP have been tending that organization’s large, sunny garden at CEI for the past three years.
CEI also partners with the Howard County Public School System’s Project Search program for neurodiverse juniors and seniors, as well as Towson University master’s and doctoral students in occupational therapy who work with these students to gain research and field experience.
“The farm has become a really unique place of common ground in Howard County, I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the county,” D’Amore said.
Now that barn renovations are complete, it’s time for CEI to take stock of what it has accomplished, and plan for the future.
“I don’t want to dramatically grow our programming this year after growing so much in the last three years during such difficult conditions,” D’Amore said. “We haven’t had the chance to circle back to doing some of the research we’d like to do or put out the resources to help other organizations do what we’ve done. That’s what I see us growing into.”