When Jay Vilar looked at the path of his life in a high-stakes corporate advertising job, he didn’t find the great happiness he had hoped for.
However, when he put his hands in the soil and grew things in his garden – harkening back to memories of his grandmother’s garden – it was there he felt at home.
So it was some years ago he traded his corporate job for a job in urban agriculture, and at the end of March, he began plowing the soil in the South End as the new director of the McKinley Garden in the heart of the Ellis South End neighborhood. An off-shoot of the McKinley South End School and the Haley House, the garden is a learning experience for the students and a practical growing patch to provide some food and herbs for the soup kitchen next door at Haley House.
“I transitioned from a corporate advertising career,” he said, while sitting on one of the benches in the garden, which fronts Montgomery Street. “It goes back to how I want to live my life…I don’t make as much money as I did in advertising, but my days of happiness are far greater. You ask yourself, how do I want to talk about my day to those I love?”
For Vilar, he switched gears and immersed himself in sustainable agriculture and nutrition – practicing a type of agriculture that actually leaves the soil in better condition than before the seed was planted. That process is known as beyond organic, or regenerative agriculture.
“My grandmother was an avid backyard gardener,” he said. “I pulled a lot of inspiration from helping her. My mother was a holistic nurse practitioner. She inspired me to understand how food is made.”
Vilar took over the garden in March and he and the students had a big clean-up day last week. He has major goals when it comes to the garden is to spruce it up and make it a gem in the neighborhood, but also to make it a great learning experience for the students at the school – many of whom don’t often have access to gardening and agriculture opportunities.
“What I’ve heard from teachers and administrators is how the students love the hands-on activity,” he said. “At the same time I’m growing food for the soup kitchen at the Haley House…I think there is something therapeutic that comes out of it when someone touches the earth with their hands. If a young person is open to it, they can see the magic that comes with growing your food. When kids grow their own food, they’re more likely to try it. This is the kind of experience where they grow the foods they may not know they liked.”
In addition to that, Vilar said he would like to improve the edges and make the garden more aesthetic to those walking by. He plans to also improve the sign at the front of the garden, and incorporate QR codes on the beds to allow students to scan them to see what is growing there.
The first order of business is to rebuild the planters and clean up the space to be more presentable and organized. This year will probably feature mostly corn, beans, squash and tomatoes. He also plans to introduce straw bale gardening – a technique where vegetables are grown in straw over a period of three years. At the end of the third year, the bales are used as compost.
There is another part of Vilar’s vision as well, and that is being a person of color who is also a farmer. He said there were 47,000 farms that were Black-owned in America at the turn of the 20th Century, but that has shrunk dramatically. While 19 percent of the farmland was owned by Black farmers then, now that number is down to 2 percent. That reality has shifted a certain reality for people of color, where many kids don’t perceive a farmer to be Black or Latino or non-white. Seeing Vilar as a farmer, an instructor, and someone that makes their living growing food is a powerful image for young people in the city, he said.
“An aspect of this for me is being a person of color who is part of this kind of work,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of farmers that look like me who are also teaching young people. Being united with the land and seeing it as a part of freedom, it gives them inspiration to want to grow something. If that type of idea evolves as the garden does, it would be a great legacy for me to leave behind.”
Vilar founded a nutritional therapy company (Nourish LLC), hosted a weekly podcast, and also published a book (The One Habit Difference: How Adding One Habit Can Lead To A Lifetime of Good Health) in 2019. He brings training in organic farming, community leadership, and event management, among other things, to this role with the Haley House.