Joe Carrington’s journey to become “Farmer Joe” began with a dirt patch in a Chicago yard and some scraggly cornstalks.
When he was growing up in Chicago, Carrington chose a scrap of flat dirt behind his house to plant some seed corn. No one was thrilled with his experiment: His three brothers wanted a dirt basketball court, and his neighbor said it would attract rats.
But Carrington held out for his tiny cornfield. “I wanted to garden even as a kid,” he says.
That first year garnered a thin crop, but he didn’t give up. First came college, then a career as a chemist before becoming a teacher. Through the eyes of his students, he continued to explore the joys of growing something from the ground.
“My first year, a kid named James, he’s holding his plant – a bean sprout – and he called it a miracle of life,” Carrington says. “Every year I’d have kids fascinated by plants growing.”
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Carrington taught in Illinois for over 16 years. Each year, he’d introduce more kids to gardening, specifically aiming at fruit and vegetable gardens.
Carrington wanted to encourage families to grow their own produce. “If there’s land across the street from you, we can plant it,” he says. He focused more on container gardening and “gutter gardening,” going vertical with containers on a shelf or window boxes for those who only had a small balcony to grow anything.
In 2014, Carrington started selling “garden boxes” at the Land of Goshen Community Market in Edwardsville, Illinois. He had been building them at home for some time: Raised beds with wooden edges on the ground and boxes that were on table legs for easier gardening at waist level. It apparently got to be a little much, at least for his wife, Theresa Carrington.
“Theresa said either stop building them or start selling them, so I said I’d sell them,” Carrington says.
The garden boxes proved to be quite popular, especially with beginner gardeners. The bestseller was a simple 4-by-4-foot box with a “super soil” mix Carrington created himself by mixing vermiculite, compost, peat and black soil, sometimes adding sand for drainage.
Through the Goshen market, he began offering educational programs on food and gardening, especially for children. He tended the small garden at the farmers market every other Saturday until the pandemic hit, demonstrating gardening for the young children and their parents.
“[The kids] loved the cherry tomatoes because they could just pop them in their face,” he says. “I would give them something to play with every other week.”
Carrington and Theresa also wrote a children’s book titled “When Cows Eat Flowers” and held a story time at the market.
After retiring from teaching in 2017, Carrington built garden boxes at Lincoln Middle School and the Edwardsville Children’s Museum, where he taught gardening programs and sent more plants home with young children. The museum called it the “Little Goshen Giving Garden,” and the produce was donated to the Goshen market’s “Beet Box,” a food truck that takes produce to neighborhoods in food deserts.
Abby Schwent, then-director of the museum, says “Farmer Joe” was great to work with. Once a month they’d hold “Greenhouse Day,” and Carrington would be there to work with the kids and tend the plants.
“The kids loved it because they got to get dirty,” Schwent says. “Some of them had gardens at home, but we had a diverse crew at the museum. At our Greenhouse Days, sometimes we had kids who had never done gardening.”
The kids received a seed packet to take home, and the next month they would come back and tell Carrington and the museum staff how their plant was doing. Parents would even send Facebook pictures, and soon the gardening fever spread, Schwent says.
“It spread out to the families, and moms were starting vegetable gardens,” she says. “And there was Farmer Joe, giving advice about the raised beds, soils and compost.”
On the other end of the age spectrum, Carrington built raised boxes at the Meridian Village senior living community.
“Everyone brought out their lawn chairs to watch,” he says. The boxes were placed along the walkways so the residents could roll wheelchairs up to the beds, if necessary.
Unfortunately, the pandemic put most of these programs to bed, so to speak. “When the virus hit, everything got canceled,” Carrington says. “Happy Joe’s Farm is kind of on idle.”
But he’s hoping to get back to his mission soon: teaching young people – and their parents – how to grow food from the ground.
“Kids love to play in the dirt, and what’s fun is when a kid takes charge in the dirt,” he says. “A kid gets a responsibility that they don’t get otherwise. A lot of my little gardens (became) a child’s garden, and I tell them that it’s important that the kid is in charge. That becomes their space.”
Land of Goshen Community Market, goshenmarket.org