EnvironmentNews & Opinion

Carolina Farm Trust Receives $400K Grant for Free Spirit Farm Project

Trane Technologies encourages other local companies to support ESG programs

A child plays with his toy tractor at a 2021 groundbreaking for Free Spirit Farm in Huntersville. Carolina Farm Trust
A child plays with his toy tractor at a 2021 groundbreaking for Free Spirit Farm in Huntersville. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

Carolina Farm Trust, a nonprofit organization focused on tackling food insecurity, has received a $400,000 grant from climate sustainability company Trane Technologies to complete its Free Spirit Farm project. 

Free Spirit Farm will be a 28-acre farm located in Huntersville, North Carolina, with the goal of offering fresh, high-quality foods to underserved communities in the greater Charlotte area.

The project initially broke ground in March 2021, but it has run into some issues with funding and logistics since then, according to Carolina Farm Trust president and CEO Zach Wyatt. 

“It was basically a vacant lot so getting power through Duke and all sorts of stuff, it’s just a very cumbersome process, but we’re there now.” 

According to Deidra Parrish Williams, director at Trane Technologies, which has its North American headquarters located in Davidson, the company chose to award the grant to Carolina Farm Trust as part of its commitment to Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) programs, with hopes to inspire other corporations to do the same. 

“As a climate innovation company deeply committed to sustainability across both our HVAC and transport refrigeration businesses, we are proud and excited to support Carolina Farm Trust in providing Charlotte with an eco-friendly food source solution that will serve as a model in so many ways,” Williams stated in a release announcing the grant on Jan. 12, “introducing students to agricultural practices and careers, reducing the environmental impact of local food acquisition, and showing communities near and far what smart growth looks like.”

Three people look out on a large swath of land that's been cleared to make room for Free Spirit Farm. A bulldozer stands behind them.
Carolina Farm Trust will implement regenerative soil practices at Free Spirit Farm. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

Along with the food-growing aspect of the farm, the funding will help Carolina Farm Trust launch a couple of new partnerships at the property, including a health clinic in partnership with StarMed Healthcare, which recently shared with Queen City Nerve its intentions to get into urban farming in 2023; as well as an educational partnership with the Catawba Riverkeeper

The health clinic will be an extension of the Food as Medicine program, Carolina Farm Trust’s existing partnership with StarMed that was launched in December 2022. Through Food as Medicine, StarMed is partnering with Carolina Farm Trust to increase access to food grown on existing farms while also planting their own urban gardens at the company’s west Charlotte campus.  

According to StarMed’s website, the Food as Medicine idea was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic when StarMed established testing and vaccination locations throughout Charlotte and surrounding counties.

“As we got into these communities, we realized that there’s little or no access to healthy, nutrient-dense food,” said Mike Vander Baan, Starmount Healthcare Management’s chief strategy officer. “We firmly believe this project is another way we can serve the community.”

Along with StarMed, Carolina Farm Trust will work with Caterpillar Ministries, Angels & Sparrows Community Table, and other organizations to support their food access programs from Free Spirit Farm.

Carolina Farm Trust will also collaborate with the Catawba Riverkeeper, a local nonprofit that advocates for the upkeep of all 8,900 miles of the Catawba-Wateree River Basin. Carolina Farm Trust will work with the Catawba Riverkeeper to create an “extensive” watershed at the property, located on Kerns Road just a few miles from both Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake. 

Carolina Farm Trust hopes to educate local residents about clean watershed practices while working with North Carolina-based soil health company Soil Regen to earn a Regenerative Farming Certification, which ensures that all products produced on the farm, including those that are plant- or animal-based, must be produced according to the Certified Regenerative standards. Pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not allowed in the certification, however, organic certification is not required.

A man stands at a podium with the Carolina Farm Trust while four others stand behind him and, behind them, a forest that's been mostly cleared to bild Free Spirit Farm.
Carolina Farm Trust president and CEO Zack Wyatt speaks during the 2021 groundbreaking at Free Spirit Farm. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

Free Spirit Farm will also host educational programs run by Protectors of the Endangered, a nonprofit that aims to improve children’s literacy with a focus on personal and environmental health. The programs will be tailored to K-5 students in hopes to spark interest in reading, social-emotional learning, and planet conservation efforts. 

Along with these programs, the farm plans to offer Urban Farm Clubs and Summer Camps for K-12 students, as well as employment opportunities for college students.

Wyatt told Queen City Nerve he is currently working on hiring staff at Free Spirit Farm and it should be expected to open by summer — possibly as early as spring.

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