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Justin Ocheltree is the agriculture expert for the North End Community Improvement Collaborative.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in the October newsletter of the North End Community Collaborative.

Justin Ocheltree oversees the NECIC Urban Farm on Bowman Street. In addition to NECIC’s four tunnels and 20 outdoor beds there are two other micro farms at the site.

“We more or less incubate the other two farms so if there’s an issue with anything that has to do with infrastructure of their farm, that kind of falls under my responsibility,” Justin said. “I’ve repaired their hydrants, stuff with their electrical, just anything that comes down to maintenance.

"I mow the property. Basically I’m kind of responsible for the everyday goings on.”

Justin Ocheltree mug

Justin Ocheltree

During summer 2021, NECIC grew a plethora of crops including: cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, peppers, carrots, herbs, scallions, onions, squash, different types of greens and pole beans.

“This doesn’t feel like a job to me,” Justin said. “I left the engineering world, to go from sitting behind a computer being stressed out all day ...  to being able to work outside and get back to my farming roots. I grew up doing this, so working with a company like NECIC has been an overwhelming blessing.”

The most challenging part of the job is turning off his brain after he leaves the farm each day, Justin said.

“Going home and not thinking about it and trying to enjoy my kids and my whole family and not thinking about tomorrow, I’m going to do this,” he said. “And pacing out the potential because there’s so much potential that we could be doing but you have to pace it out.

"You have to take your time and figure out what the best thing is. The whole thing is just one big project so it's communicating the next steps and what’s the greatest good for the project as a whole.”

Justin’s roots are just south of Mansfield having grown up in Bellville. He is a Clear Fork High School  graduate and received his college education at North Central State College.

“My grandpa did beef, sheep, chickens and grain,” he said. “So I spent my summers with him (on the farm). He taught me what I know about large scale farming.”

Justin said while growing up his parents were slightly self-sustaining by growing and maintaining a large summer garden in which there was a lot of canning and freezing of vegetables and produce.

“The gardening aspect I learned from my dad,” he said. “His whole family is from West Virginia and that’s all they did. They were fully self-sustained.”

Gardening and farming has always been in Justin’s heart so he said he is happy that he made the transition from corporate America to urban farming. He said since the move, his family has grown by adopting two children and moving to a bigger home outside of the city limits.

“The family loves coming here and loves the fact that I’m doing this,” he said smiling. “It’s just amazing taking that leap of faith ... and then just trusting. It’s amazing how things have just worked.”

The possibilities are endless in regards to the future of the NECIC Urban Farm, Justin promised.

“I’m so open,” he admitted. “I definitely see expansion. Not only in the growing of produce but I see it expanding more into the schools. I see it catching on as a new self-sustainable way of life and getting out from underneath the thumb of the system.”

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