Archive for the ‘Urban Agriculture’ Category
In 2005, a vast amount of the Vietnamese community living in New Orleans came from fishing and agricultural backgrounds. They farmed on their individual plots and had an unofficial but well-known schedule and location to sell their produce.
Then, Hurricane Katrina blasted through with insurmountable levels of damage. Most residents lived at least 6 miles away from the nearest grocery store, and 20% of them lacked a means of transportation to get there. Homes were blown away, but gardens and farms had an even worse survival rate.
From the debris of this tragedy, grew the Veggi Farmer’s Cooperative, as in VEGGI (Village de l’Est Green Growers Initiative), “food rebels” who are genuinely changing the way we eat. Not just what we put in our mouths–but creating a whole new mind-set about food and how it affects our livelihoods and communities.
The group faced “deep” challenges from the start, such as wetland mitigation restrictions on digging the 28-acre plot for which they had dearly fought. Then, a second disaster, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, displaced overnight even more of this community who made their living from fishing.
The urban farm swiftly switched to an aquaponics farm model, a revolutionary concept that mimics nature in order to grow vegetables and raise fish together by combining two different methods: aquaculture, the raising of fish, and hydroponics, growing vegetables without soil.
In November of 2010, the group pulled together and started organizing as a co-op. They are now called the Veggi Farmer’s Cooperative and implement both aquaponics and land agriculture techniques. They now grow organic produce and fish that are distributed to 16-20 restaurants, sell in two markets, as well as feed themselves and their community with everything from Bibb lettuce to Taro root and Vietnamese coriander. They are even experimenting with greenhouse production for a healthy year-round supply of greens and creating a community seed bank and two edible gardens at local schools.
When asked why they chose to grow organic, they responded that this is the way that the Vietnamese community knew how to farm, and after seeing all of the pollution and chemicals that were released into the environment after the hurricane and the oil spill, they couldn’t imagine another way.
Find them on Facebook: VeggiFarmersCooperative
In our episode on urban agriculture in America, urban ag pioneer Will Allen says, “food is the most important thing in our lives.” That’s quite a statement. I conducted the interview with Allen on a windy day in Milwaukee and that sentence has stuck with me. “Food is the most important thing in our lives.” It’s important, sure, but the most important thing?
I wasn’t sure I believed that at the time, but I do now.
Of course we need food to survive and eat three meals a day if we’re lucky. Food has a direct impact on our health and well being. It doesn’t get much more fundamental that that. And food production has a profound impact on water quality, soil health and the climate–little things that we depend on for survival. But food, or lack of it, can have global implications.
I read a column by Thomas Friedman on Easter Sunday that drove home not just the the importance of food in our lives, but its importance to global peace. The Arab spring, Friedman wrote, had its roots in the rejection of corrupt and authoritarian rule, but in at least in three countries–Tunisia, Yemen and Syria–the uprisings can also be traced to conflicts over food and water.
Friedman writes: “Isn’t it interesting that the Arab awakening began in Tunisia with a fruit vendor who was harassed by police for not having a permit to sell food — just at the moment when world food prices hit record highs? And that it began in Syria with farmers in the southern village of Dara’a, who were demanding the right to buy and sell land near the border, without having to get permission from corrupt security officials? And that it was spurred on in Yemen — the first country in the world expected to run out of water — by a list of grievances against an incompetent government, among the biggest of which was that top officials were digging water wells in their own backyards at a time when the government was supposed to be preventing such water wildcatting?”
I’d say that’s very interseting indeed. Food can be revolutionary. Literally.
If we can get this right–if we can produce food in a more socially, economically and environmentally just way, it will have an unparalleled impact on the common good. Because like Allen I believe food is the most important thing in our lives. My hope is that Food Forward can help show we might go forward as we collectively try to get it right.
After more than two months of editing the rough cut to our first episode on urban agriculture in America is finally done. This is a big milestone for Food Forward. We handed off a DVD of the pilot episode to PBS yesterday. If all goes according to plan we’re looking at an air date sometime this summer. Now it’s full speed ahead as we crank up production for our next episode which looks like it’s going to be sustainable meat. A sincere thank you to everyone who has supported us in this now nearly three-year long journey. The best is yet to come.
Check out this cool map of existing and potential urban agriculture sites in Oakland. This great resource is the work of Nathan McClintock, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley.
Greg Willers, farmer at Detroit’s Brother Nature Produce, was one of my favorite characters we met in Detroit. He has the perspective of an academic and the passion of an activist as he discusses Detroit’s meltdown and urban farming movement. Check out this great interview from ResilientCITY with Greg, one of the champions of Detroit’s urban agriculture movement.
Interviewing Dickson Despommier was one of the highlights of our trip to New York. His vision for skyscraper, vertical farms is mind bending. What if we could take ag land out of production and allow it to revert to its natural state while moving farming into cities where people live, he asks. Provocative. Impossible? Maybe. Maybe not. But as we traveled around NYC and elsewhere we encountered other urban farmers who weren’t so enamored with Dickson’s ideas. They said his plans are too-pie-in-the sky, too expensive, and all hype. Here’s a particularly pointed critique of the man’s ideas.
Dickson more than defended his position in our interviews with him. So what if he’s not a farmer or an engineer? The problems with industrial agriculture are so deep they require bold new thinking. If Dickson does nothing else than get people thinking about alternative food production on a large scale then I say that’s a good thing. The world needs new ideas, big, bold and even crazy.
My interview with Will Allen almost didn’t happen. We were in Milwaukee shooting Sweet Water Organics and scrambling to get it all done. Given that Allen is arguably the biggest name in urban ag and in high demand it was difficult to connect with him. We had traded voice mails and emails with folks at Growing Power, the nonprofit farm and education center he heads, but we couldn’t line anything up. We were set to leave Milwaukee for Detroit and figured the interview with Allen wasn’t going to happen. To be honest, I didn’t think we needed to meet him. He is already so well known that I thought our episode on urban ag would be better if we focused on new voices. But the day before we left we got a call from the big guy himself. He was in town and wanted to meet.
We rolled out to his farm in Milwaukee and shot some b-roll and then headed south of town to where he was overseeing the construction of new greenhouses right across from Lake Michigan. We we got there he was eating lunch inside his pick-up truck. The wind was blowing a bit too hard for a sitdown interview but we did it anyway and were glad we did. Allen is 6-foot 8 and moves slowly because of a recent knee operation. He uses a rake as a cane but once he starts speaking it’s hard not be moved by the power of what he says.
Allen is showing the country and, increasingly, the world, that’s it’s not only possible, but necessary to reestablish our connection with the source of our food and each other while creating jobs and rebuilding communities in the process.
“If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community,” he says. “I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.”
He is making this happen. Allen deserves his star status and Food Forward’s episode on urban agriculture is going to be stronger because of our time with him. I’m glad we were able to pull it off. Thanks, Will.
I owe a post on my interview with Will Allen but I need to say a few words about our trip to Detroit. I had heard so many things about Detroit before our trip. That it was the most fertile ground of America’s urban ag movement. That is was America’s most third world city. That the city was on its knees. That it was a post industrial urban wasteland. None of what I had heard and read could prepare me for what I’ve seen.
Detroit is a city where you can can’t drive a block in many neighborhoods without seeing burned down houses, abandoned houses and vacant lot and after vacant lot (where burned or abandoned houses once stood). It’s a grim landscape that looks like it had been through a war. But amid all the rubble there are signs of life.
I had heard so much about Detroit’s urban agricultural movement. I had interviewed several leaders of the city’s urban farming movement but it wasn’t until our crew started driving through the streets of east Detroit and met a woman named Edith that I got it. Edith’s street has more farms plots than than homes (14 to be exact). There used to be homes, but they’re gone now. They were abandoned, burned down and razed. Now it’s a street of farms. Edith’s farms. She’s eyeing a vacant, falling down house with broken glass windows as the future site of her compost piles.The street has been transformed. The country has come to city and one woman has transformed here block into a place of beauty and fresh food.
The jobs aren’t coming back to Detroit. The heydays of the Motor City will not return. But the Detroiters that stayed behind amid the ruins are creating a new beginning. They’re feeding themselves. They’re growing crops for market in a city abandoned by industrial capitalism. It’s revolutionary. It’s as if the destruction were necessary to reinvent the city.
After five frenetic days in New York City I confess I was looking forward to slowing down a bit in Milwaukee and catching our breath. Our plan was to visit Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics operation inside a former factory near downtown Milwaukee. They grow herbs and lettuces in conjunction with perch and tilapia in a closed loop system.
About two hours after touching down in Milwaukee from NYC we rolled up on Sweet Water, an unremarkable looking building with little to reveal what’s inside. But as soon as we walked in I realized this wasn’t going to be a place to chill out. The energy of the people and ideas behind Sweet Water are enough to power New York City. I was tired after five days of very little sleep but Sweet Water quickly recharged my batteries.
What’s makes Sweet Water standout in our story about urban ag is they have found a way to make it pay. Restaurants can’t get enough of their products. They’ve also created a large scale composting operation that is taking spoiled food off the hands of a local grocery store and providing new urban farms with the soil they need to get started. There are also plans to create urban village on the Sweet Water site with housing and an artists’ collective. Beyond the business side of Sweet Water, the Sweet Water Foundation works with kids and the community at large to share knowledge and inspire others to come up with solutions to broken models of industrial food production. The idea is the beneficiaries of this information feed it back to Sweet Water, a reciprocal system that mirrors the closed loop of Sweet Water’s aquaponics operation. So much for slowing down.
The way the folks at Sweet Water Organics see it, if you’re going to reinvent the food system you might as well go big. They’re not just growing vegetables and fish inside an idled factory, they’re creating a new vision for food production, jobs, education, waste reduction, and community development. The excitement they feels is contagious because the Sweet Water business model and nonprofit foundation offer solutions to so many problems: environmentally destructive agriculture, poor quality food, unemployment, and feeding a hungry world with locally grown food. Spend anytime here and you see how dynamic and fertile this place is. Today reps from Mayor Daley’s office in Chicago were here. I met the company’s director of replication who is planning to open the company’s first full scale aquaponics project in West Oakland. The foundation’s director of development says there are plans to create an urban village on site complete with a creative art space and housing. Think of the impact this kind of community based, environmentally minded agriculture could have in needy neighborhoods across America. May one thousand fish and vegetables farms bloom!
Next up: my interview with Will Allen, the guru of urban ag in America.