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An urban farm's quest to survive and thrive

An urban farm's quest to survive and thrive
An urban farm's quest to survive and thrive 02:59

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A typical day at Urban Roots — a non-profit farm and youth leadership organization in Austin, Texas — would best be described as bustling. In a nifty role reversal, young people lead groups of adult volunteers in planting and harvesting produce. Each day closes with discussions about nourishing the community. There's a constant din of getting-your-hands-dirty work being done. Yet there's also peacefulness and a sense of getting away from it all, even though one of Austin's main highways is just out of sight and commercial airplanes pass overhead. 

Then the coronavirus hit, and, like the rest of the world, everything changed.

"In 2019 the farm was thriving," Urban Roots Executive Director Max Elliott said. "It was one of our biggest years to date. We were growing thousands of pounds of produce. We were serving more youth and hosting more volunteers than ever. Now the farm is closed to the public."

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Youth leading a volunteer day at Urban Roots' farm in Austin, Texas, in 2019. CBS News

Urban Roots' mission is twofold: to use farming to transform the lives of young people and to inspire, engage and nourish the community. And while its roots remain firmly planted, the pandemic has forced it to pivot in drastic ways. Young people, who are the backbone of the farm, can no longer visit, leaving a handful of staff to harvest all the produce. Volunteers and visitors can't come, either.  

"Because we're not able to have people experience our programming on the farm, it's been a great challenge and opportunity for us to tell our story and essentially bring the farm home to people," Elliott said.

Urban Roots' online presence, which Elliott calls a portal to the community, has been re-imagined to update fans and deliver almost daily dispatches from the farm that can range from a look at the latest ladybug larvae to interviews with local restaurateurs. In lieu of a weekly produce stand set up at local farmer's markets, Urban Roots now offers pre-ordered produce boxes that can be picked up contact-free. 

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Urban Roots Executive Director Max Elliott planting tomatoes at the Austin, Texas, farm, now closed to the public because of the coronavirus. Urban Roots

While Elliott embraces the challenges, it hasn't been easy. Urban Roots' primary fundraising event was canceled in April. And like many others, Elliott tackled a mountain of paperwork to apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program loan for small businesses and non-profit organizations.

"We were fortunate in that we received that loan," explained Elliott. "That's going to cover several months of staff salaries to help us during these times." 

Elliott said Urban Roots wouldn't be what it is without support from farm-to-table restaurants in Austin. As those restaurants have been forced to close, Urban Roots is donating hundreds of pounds of produce to support them and their employees.

It's this spirit of generosity that makes Urban Roots such a vital part of the local community, and it's reflected in the people who who work there. Angela Flawn-Chopp, an Urban Roots staffer, even filmed some video at the farm on behalf of CBS News to complete the accompanying video to this article.

In the face of unprecedented circumstances, Elliott remains optimistic about the ways both the farm and people are adapting and learning to grow.

"I think now more than ever, people are craving healthy, safe, outdoor environments where they could be part of something bigger," Elliott said. "Once this is over, I think people are really going to be drawn to our work, so that they can get involved and give back."

To get involved, or to donate to Urban Roots, visit its website.

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