HOUSTON, Texas -- “Where on earth can
we find land near a big city?” wannabe farmers often ask.
Here in Houston, the answer is as direct and honest as a south
Texas twang: Where? Why, just about any dang where you look.
Open your eyes!
doing the dirty work at dusk:
After nearly 10 years of effort by a non-profit group called
Urban Harvest (www.urbanharvest.org),
more than 100 community-oriented garden projects now flourish
throughout the seven-county Houston metropolitan area on vacant
lots, abandoned land, private property on loan free from owners,
in school yards, parks, at public housing projects and houses
“We can garden year round, except for the end of July
through August. It’s too hot,” explains Gary Edmondson,
Urban Harvest’s school and youth coordinator.
The original idea behind Urban Harvest was to ease urban
hunger and improve nutrition in impoverished neighborhoods.
Today, it provides neighborhood revitalization, environmental
education, recreation and extra income, as well as lots of
good food. “It grows every year, despite or maybe because
of the nature of the economy,” said Edmondson.
“The focus is on pesticide-free, organic and sustainable
gardening practices,” added Edmonsdon. “We want
them to be sustainable.”
That’s why Urban Harvest also maintains a seed library,
reading library, offers classes and workshops, and publishes
how-to brochures on everything from establishing outdoor classrooms
to selling produce to chefs.
Urban Harvest haven:
More about Urban Harvest in a minute. What brought me to
Houston was a much broader view of our food system. It was
the Food and Society Networking Conference (www.foodandsociety.org)
hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (www.wkkf.org)
this spring. I attended as a Food and Society Policy Fellow
a program administered by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural
and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (www.iatp.org)
and funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
“What Would It Take?” was the theme of the conference.
“What would it take to create the conditions for a widespread
shift toward a food system supportive of healthy communities,
people and ecosystems?”
Over the next three days, some 80 speakers from throughout
the United States and several foreign countries dissected
our food system. They ranged from community activists, anti-hunger
groups and big city high school students exploring teenagers’
food choices to academics, government officials and executives
of Unilever, General Mills and Horizon Organic Dairy.
||"30,000 vacant lots are lying
idle in Philadelphia, PA, half of the land in Buffalo,
NY is currently vacant, one-third of the land in Detroit,
MI is standing unused and thousands of empty lots dot
Chicago, IL. It’s the same through the nation, he
said, everywhere from San Francisco, CA, to Columbus,
What would it take?
“There isn’t any place where there aren’t
opportunities for food production of all sorts,” said
Jac Smit, president of the Urban Agriculture Network in Silver
Spring, MD (www.ruaf.org).
“Farming in the city is more organic and more sustainable
because there is access to all kinds of organic wastes.
“It is the nature of cities and the urbanization process
that some land is idle, at the decaying or renewing city center,
in the maturing suburban rings and at the urbanizing fringe,
for periods of time extending from a decade to a half century.
Agriculture as an interim land use, shifting with the growth
pattern of the city, is an underutilized opportunity for building
“There is a logic, which may be worth exploring, that
says that spatial opportunities for food production that are
in proximity to communities with high levels of food insecurity
have a priority value in the development of a locally-based
In the natural evolution of cities, he said, houses, businesses
and even whole neighborhoods come and go. The result is a
great opportunity for urban agriculture. 30,000
vacant lots are lying idle in Philadelphia, PA, half of the land in Buffalo,
NY is currently vacant, one-third of the land in
Detroit, MI is standing unused and thousands of empty lots
dot Chicago, IL. It’s the same through the nation, he said, everywhere
from San Francisco, CA, to Columbus, OH.
"I think that we will see
the size of gardens increase, so that the distinction
between a large garden and a small farm will become
blurred,” Bob predicted. “The new wave of
small farms will fill in the chinks of land made available
as some of the old-style farmers are driven out of business
by ever-bigger farming conglomerates."
I saw exactly what he was talking about in the late 1980s
when I first visited a “city farm.” It was in
the middle of downtown Berkeley, CA, population 103,328. Without
so much as a garden tiller, some enterprising farmers earned
$238,000 in one year raising baby, organic salad greens --
on half an acre!
All I could think of as he spoke was something that Bob Rodale
wrote back in 1981 in a book called “Our Next Frontier.”
“I think that we will see the size of gardens increase,
so that the distinction between a large garden and a small
farm will become blurred,” Bob predicted. “The
new wave of small farms will fill in the chinks of land made
available as some of the old-style farmers are driven out
of business by ever-bigger farming conglomerates.
“Much land that could be used to grow vegetables, beans,
specialty crops and fruits is lying idle. Those acres growing
up to weeds might be made into profitable farms. I suspect
that people displaced by the trend to consolidate farms into
ever-larger units, as well as those who don’t want to
fit into city life, will return to the land and make these
small spaces productive. Large farms today aren’t suited
to produce the fresh, natural foods that are in growing demand.
They will be even less suited for the task in the future.”
So, what would it take?
I was about to find out. As soon as the conference ended,
I hopped in a rental car and drove south into the center of
Houston to the former Dow Elementary School, an old 3-story
brick building that houses the offices of Urban Harvest. The
building has seen better days. Only community support saved
it from the wrecking ball. The staff hopes to be able to replace
its windows soon, if fund-raising allows. Behind the fence
in front of the school stands an 8-foot high statue of the
Virgin of Guadalupe. It is made entirely of aluminum beer
and soda cans, their
labels badly bleached over the years by the intense Texas
It was a bad time when I arrived. The staff was on a conference
call, receiving instructions from Executive Director Bob Randall
-- from his hospital bed. But as soon as the call was over
Gary Edmondson quickly rearranged his schedule and graciously
agreed to show me and two other visitors from the Kellogg
conference a sampling of Urban Harvest’s affiliated
friends with Black-Eyed Susan: .
Our first stop was Travis Elementary School where the theme
is “The World Is A Garden.” In raised beds and
patches of green around the schoolyard, pupils and teachers
tend mulberry trees for the benefit of silkworms and let lettuce
and broccoli go to seed at the end of the season, so they
can save seed to plant in fall. They have grown everything
from sunflowers, poppies and hollyhocks to corn, cotton, potatoes,
coconuts and dandelions. Along the way, they’ve gotten
to know snails, lady bugs, bees and butterflies, up close
“Some of the kids were so afraid. But once they realize
that they don’t have what the bees want, they were OK,”
Edmondson said. At harvest time, they jostled over freshly
picked sugar snap peas and cherry tomatoes.
At nearby Harvard Elementary, 625 pupils (pre-Kindergarden
through 5th Grade) learn about nature, math and science in
4- by 12-foot raised beds bordered with paving stones, said
Administrator Barbara Smith. And every day is Earth Day, as
pupils plant, weed, recycle, weed again and plant some more.
“Harvard is fantastic!” declared Irene Nava,
president of the school’s PTA. “This was just
barren ground. Now, it’s so beautiful. It’s inspiring,
uplifting. They learn without even knowing it.”
Parent Deanna Pruneda agrees. Harvard is a magnet school
that recruits pupils from throughout the city. Pruneda’s
daughter, Faith, commutes from the northern side of Houston
to attend the 4th Grade at Harvard. “We travel because
of the quality,” she explains.
The Chef Connection
A few miles away, older wooden houses in a residential neighborhood
are gradually being replaced by expensive new homes. On one
corner lot lies Camille’s Market Garden, which supplies
chefs at upscale restaurants with garden-fresh specialty produce.
Gardener Camille Waters described the operation this way:
“I am an artist who came to market gardening through
my passion for my medium: edible plants in all their colors
and textures. Because waste is a sin, I began selling my produce/art
to the best restaurants in Houston, a mutually beneficial
“My association with Urban Harvest allows me to teach
the classes which grow the one crop all my chefs crave: more
market gardens providing locally grown, organic produce.”
It’s getting late, quitting time on a Friday afternoon,
but Edmondson insists on one more stop, Joe’s Last Organic
It’s only five minutes east of downtown Houston. “It
would be a shame to be so close and miss it,” he said.
“They’re really working wonders.”
We fight our way into the heavy traffic on the I-10 East
Freeway and into Houston’s Fifth Ward, one of the most
crime-ridden neighborhoods in Houston. That’s not surprising.
The Fifth Ward is a dreary mix of smaller, older homes and
industry. Chain link fences are topped with razor wire. Dead-end
railroad sidings supply small factories and warehouses. This
is the north bank of Buffalo Bayou, a few miles upstream from
the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel, the Dickson
Gun Plant, oil depots, half a dozen industrial parks, a steel
plant, and a handful of oil and chemical companies.
Finally, we turn into a dead-end dirt lane, the only access
to a 2.8-acre parcel that was abandoned 10 years ago after
the owner committed suicide. The land was a neighborhood trash
dump until it was discovered last year by Joe Nelson Icet,
a refrigeration installer-turned-urban farmer and self-described
salvaged lumber and logs
“I gave up TV and my couch,” Icet explained.
He and a few friends hauled away the trash. They trucked in
countless loads of composted mushroom soil, cleared away the
underbrush and began building raised beds, bordering them
with what Icet calls “urban wastes”: planks, tree
trunks and other wood scavenged from curbside trash piles.
They laid hundreds of yards of PVC pipe, installed upright
sprinklers for irrigation and began planting the beds to lettuce,
peppers, beans and the wide array of fruits and vegetables
that will flourish nearly year-round in the Texas climate.
Icet began recruiting “members” to buy produce
from his gardens and started working with a growing network
of local chefs, including one who feeds the Houston Astros.
He also teamed up with a local physician, Dr. Floyd L. Atkins
Jr. and his wife, Pamela, and Nancy Sorenson, a yoga teacher,
to offer gardening, health and nutrition classes.
“This is not just about growing food,” Icet said.
“We’re building something where people come to
create communities. It’s community agriculture. We’re
creating a community in agriculture.”
an urban oasis: .
It’s quite a change from his earlier life, Icet said.
“I was working all week for money already spent, eating
plastic meal deals. I was always tired. I was spending hard-earned
money on vitamins, feeling good one day and then not the next.
Resting all weekend and showing up for work tired. Eating
raw out of the garden has totally shifted my understanding
of nutrition. Some people would look at it and think of all
the work. I consider this a lot of joy.”
Apparently, many other people do, too. About two months after
my visit, I received this e-mail from Icet:
“Hello George, we have a law firm working with us to
get a 501c and acquire title to the abandoned land. We had
a party and 150 people showed last Saturday [June 14]. Ten
different communities [neighborhoods] were represented at
the party and we hope to see that number grow.
“News is spreading and the garden is wonderful. Channel
8, PBS did an interview Saturday night and we had drumming
and a fire spinner. We also had a live food dinner prepared
by our resident live food chef. The idea of urban agriculture
is growing. A farmers’ market opened up several weeks
back and has been getting great press. We are building a cooperative
of designers interested in building community beginning with
urban agriculture. Lots to do, and happy to do it.!”
So, what would it take?
In Houston, as in many other places around the country, the
answer seems to begin with a few people with vision and just
a little bit of land.
The website of Houston's Urban Harvest initiative.
A project of City Farmer, Canada's office of urban
agriculture. Hundres of links to articles, resources,
job listings, discussion forums and more.
Urban and Agricultural
Communities: Opportunities for Common Ground
Council for Agricultural Sciences and Technology
(CAST) report 138, $50, plus $3 shipping
To order contact CAST, 4420 W. Lincoln Way Ames,
IA 50014-3447, 1- 800-375-CAST, www.cast-science.org