The Basil Sisters
Making our local food system more resilient is a team effort, requiring support and motivation from many sources. Sometimes encouragement to push for local change sits across state lines, and although physical proximity is lacking, a shared vision and philosophy propels projects towards a common goal.
Such is the case with the Basil Sisters. Even though their names are not Basil, nor are they sisters by birth, they are four lifelong friends, each with an urban farm, in different cities across the country (including Los Angeles and Atlanta), who agree that working towards fresh food accessibility makes a meaningful difference in a community. They are determined to demonstrate that vertical urban farming can help educate and feed those who may not typically have the means to grow their own food.
Tracey Westbrook started the Atlantic Beach Urban Farm (ABUF) several years ago, after her childhood friend started aeroponic tower farming in Los Angeles. “I saw the potential to teach people and to have access to fresh food right where you live,” said Westbrook. Aeroponics towers grow plants without the use of soil or harmful chemicals, requiring about 90% less water and land than conventional growing. The greenhouse in Atlantic Beach has 300 vertical towers and can produce thousands of pounds of fresh greens all year round. In addition to serving as a full-service commercial grower, Westbrook has made a point of partnering with organizations in the area to further her goal of increasing access to fresh food. When the farm build-out is complete, it will be open to the public for tours and purchase of produce.
When her sister Allison Robbins passed away in 2013, Westbrook began donating tower gardens as a way of continuing her sister’s legacy through the Robbins Nest Farm charitable fund. “Losing my sister was hard,” said Westbrook. “My Basil Sisters have been so supportive throughout the past couple of years.” The Basil Sisters share a commitment to giving back to the community through charitable donations of towers. ABUF and Robbins Nest Farm have donated towers to the YMCA of Florida’s First Coast, Beaches Emergency Assistance Ministry, North Florida School for Special Education and North Country School in Lake Placid, NY.
In partnership with the YMCA, Westbrook has also been working on an initiative called SEEDifferently, which has established grow towers at YMCA locations throughout the area. A key component of the project, The Growing Academy, has educated participants on how they can successfully grow food at home and in their communities. “The teens that have participated at the YMCA have been so engaged,” Westbrook said. “It has been so gratifying to see them empowered.”
The distance between the Basil Sisters has not been a deterrent in pursuing their passion about the value of vertical farming as a way to provide access to fresh food. “We share our success stories, swap ideas and learn from each other. It has been an amazing experience doing this together, even though we live in different places,” said Westbrook. And, in fact, it seems that everyone in our region will soon be reaping the rewards of their national collaboration, right here at home.