|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
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,”
“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
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
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
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."
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
“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.
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
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 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
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
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.
“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.”
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
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