Urban Harvest
The concept and a plucky, grassroots citizens' group by the same name are turning brownfields into greenfields deep in the heart of Texas.

By George DeVault

Still doing the dirty work at dusk: Even as the sun sets, the corn needs weeding. Urban Harvest Horticultural Instructor Diana Liga, left, and gardening volunteer Jodi, get an assist from Gary Edmondson, UH's school and youth coordinator.
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!

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 of worship.

“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.

An Urban Harvest haven: Former restauranteur Camille Waters farms the vacant corner lot as new houses spring up around the neighborhood.

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 (www.foodandsocietyfellows.org), a program administered by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute
(www.jeffersoninstitute.org) 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, OH."

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 community.

“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 food system.”

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."
--Bob Rodale

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 sun.

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 gardens.

Outdoor classrooms

Making friends with Black-Eyed Susan: Travis Elementary pupils explore their outdoor classroom. Parents consider the learning gardens at Travis and Harvard Elementary schools impressive educational tools.

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 and personal.

“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:

Done!: After supplying some of Houston's finer restaurants with farm-fresh salads through the winter, the season comes to a close at Camille's Market Gardens.

“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 arrangement.

“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 Outpost (www.lastorganicoutpost.com). 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 dumpster diver.

Stones, salvaged lumber and logs hold raised beds in place at Houston's Last Organic Outpost.

“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.”

Sharing an urban oasis: Partners Dr. Flloyd L. Atkins Jr., wife Pamela and grower Joe Icet share their ubran oasis with Gary Edmondson of Urban Harvest.

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.

Urban Harvest
The website of Houston's Urban Harvest initiative.

Urban Agriculture Notes
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