Archive for November, 2010

You can check out my impression of Detroit during my short two weeks there in the latest post of my series on Grist.org: Peeling Back the Skin of Detroit.

Otherwise, I thought I’d document my time in D-Town through photos:

I arrived in Detroit and had arranged through the WWOOF program to stay and volunteer with Greg and Olivia, an amazingly cute and sweet couple engaged to be married next year, who run an organic urban farm called Brother Nature Produce. Olivia is a horticulturist raised in Detroit but comes from a family of farmers down South in Mississippi, and Greg is a former teacher of 15 years and has lived in Detroit for decades.

They have two “kids”: Vern and Aubin (named after streets in Detroit), a brother and sister duo that are the coolest, most bad-ass dogs in the city. Protectors of the farm and house, they also love to chase the wild pheasants that have populated the neighborhood and Aubin, the girl,  plays guinea pig for Olivia’s sewing machine creations.

The farm started as a garden in Greg’s backyard, then grew as he kept making use of the abandoned lots behind his house. Now there are 3 greenhouses and about a half acre of land. With plans to expand to another two lots next season, Greg and Olivia are growing mainly salad greens but are planning for varied veggies for a CSA as well as a flower farm.

Greg was gracious enough to take me around to many other urban farm projects, and one of which was the Catherine Ferguson Academy Farm. The academy is a school for pregnant teens and teenage mothers, where they are able to learn some parenting and care-taking skills on the farm by feeding and taking care of the various animals and plants.

We worked on many things from building compost windrows for the winter, to transplanting baby greens like kale and mizuna, to harvesting and shoveling horse manure for the beds and compost piles. Mind you, this is all taking place less than 4 minutes from downtown Detroit!

I went with Greg and Olivia early Saturday morning to sell their salad mixes at Eastern Market, where they set up their Brother Nature Produce table every week. The market was huge and bustling, one of the only places in Detroit that felt really alive.

The rest of the city, however, didn’t always feel so alive. Pictured here is one of the city’s typical abandoned homes near downtown.

The possibility of radical, innovative solutions in Detroit was definitely the vibe in the air, but after seeing some of the same old politics play out between the decision makers and the activists there, I also couldn’t help but wonder with a bit of despair what the future holds…

For more pictures see the photo gallery here

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{Check out the more detailed write up on Chicago’s black urban farming scene in my series post on Grist.org}

Unfortunately my time in ChiTown was not as long as I’d hoped, but who knows maybe I’ll be back there again soon.

I’d originally applied to intern with Growing Power, a booming urban farm and education org that’s based in Milwaukee with some great projects going on in Chicago, but due to their celebrity status level of business (GP was founded by ex-NBA player Will Allen and is a very large and expanding productive farm), they had to cancel their fall intern program in Chicago and push my application back to the Spring or Summer.

I think I’d rather be in Chicago when it’s not minus 10 degrees anyway.

But when booking my train to Detroit, I decided to veer to Chicago first and just check out the Growing Power gardens, along with some other urban farm projects there.

Everyone I’d ever met from Chicago had always casually told me that it’s the greatest city in the world – they’d say it so seriously and without blinking that you’d wonder if it was a proven statistic. But as soon as I was there, riding above the Brooklyn-like neighborhoods on the “L”, looking out at the skyscrapers near Lake Michigan, I could already see what they were talking about. This place had charm.

I had only decided to stop into Chicago a day before, so I’d quickly scoured CouchSurfing.com for a place to crash and was lucky to have a sweet grad student at UIC open her home to me on short notice. She met me at the L station and hooked me up with maps of the city and tips on where to explore.

When I told her I wasn’t really there to explore much else but some farms in the Southside, her face was pure confusion. Not only at the mention of farms, but in the Southside of Chicago much less, a neighborhood that was notorious for having one murder a day.

But this is exactly why I was excited to see this farm project.  Growing Home is an organization that works with formerly incarcerated and substance abuse residents in the Southside to provide job training on their urban farm which consists mainly of three large and productive hoop houses.

And the Growing Power Chicago gardens were really impressive. The one I was able to visit was located right in the middle of Grant Park and had absolutely no weeds and looked immaculate which I couldn’t wrap my head around after coming from farms where weeds were a mainstay. GP also has a couple more sites in the Southside of Chicago and work with inner-city youth for farm-based education.

The sliver of work that I saw going on here was dope and I wished I’d had more time in ChiTown…until next time!

Next Stop D Town.

(The past few weeks have been moving faster than me, so these posts are a little backdated, I will  try to catch up to real time soon–as I am now back in Brooklyn for the Black Farmers Conference!)

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Being back in D.C. for a weekend made me want to stay and start a farm right in Southeast and never leave.  I loved seeing all my friends and community and the happy streets in autumn.

What I was not expecting, was the absolute insanity that came with the Rally to Restore Sanity.  There were giant golden samurai dragons, crazy costumes, and wayyy too many people for the city of D.C. to handle.  But my main feeling was that there was no real point to the rally…unless it was to show our power in numbers or how witty we can be in sign making.

Not to hate on my fellow liberals, but c’mon, where were the 200,000 hyped up people busing in from all over the country when Congress was trying to shut down health care reform (and were mildly successful at it) or when BP flooded our ocean with oil??

I guess I was happy to see that we even made it out though; liberals showed up for something! We turned out so much that I had to climb aboard a port-a-potty on the National Mall to see anything above all the people.  Had we had the same fervor 3 days later at the election polls, maybe we wouldn’t have lost so many damn seats to Republicans…but hey it’s not like Congress was able to pass much progressive policy when Democrats held the reigns, so what’s the difference right?

I had the pleasure of being accompanied by a French man to this rally, and it was interesting to get his perspective on the spectacle, coming from a country of active protesters. The first point he raised was about the Mall being sectioned off for the rally-goers , from VIP ticketed areas in the front, to people falling out of trees trying to see in the back. “So in the States you have to buy a ticket to protest?” he asked.  I could only chuckle, its kind of true.

The second point he raised though, caught me off guard since it is a question I have been asking myself this year about the food movement.  ‘Where are all the brown folk?”  Interesting question, since the Tea Party is what we usually refer to as being the white homogeneous group.  But as I looked around, I realized he was absolutely right.  Was it because there was no cause to this rally? Was it because brown folks don’t really identify as much with burners and old hippies marching to the rally on a giant dragon float?

I think it’s a good question for Jon Stewart and the liberal crew…it makes me think of a quote my mom sent me:

“Should the American people put their faith in a white billionaire boys’ club to lead the revolution on behalf of poor people of color?”

In other words, should we be waiting for Congress and groups like the Tea Party to run shit for us?  Among many reasons like, no ’cause they are idiots and have lost their damn minds, I’m pretty sure Jon Stewart and fans were trying to say hell no simply based on the fact that they don’t represent our diverse America and our very diverse group of liberals.

So I ask where then was our diversity in that huge display of solidarity in sanity?  Why did we look like a younger, more outrageously dressed version of the Tea Party that day?

I hope that any future revolutionary-inspiring, Tea Party-bashing rallies held in our nation’s capital have way more brown folks participating…and rally around an actual purpose.

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On the Road Again

My two months in Brooklyn flew by, and I have to admit, I was sad to leave.  I learned so so much; but this time more about community and working in a movement than the technicalities of farming.  My post on Grist pretty much sums up the highlights from my time in NYC.  But there’s no way to capture everything I learned and experienced and all of the wonderful, inspiring people I met.

Now it’s on to the next stop: Detroit…with a little pit-stop in Chicago on the way!

Over the month of November I will be on the road more than since my journey began—trying to fit in as many farms as I can before the growing season in this region comes to an end and before I have to be at my brother’s for Thanksgiving.  The rest of my journey looks something like this:

NYC —> D.C. (to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity at the Capitol)

D.C. —> Chicago (to visit Growing Power projects and Growing Home)

Chicago —> Detroit (to work with Brother Nature Produce, D-Town Farm and the Black Community Food Security Network)

Detroit –> back to Brooklyn (for the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference!)

Brooklyn –> back to D.C. (to finally remove my things from my friends’ basement and cart them away)

D.C. –> North Carolina (to visit some more black farmers)

North Carolina –> my brother’s in Florida ( to eat TURKEY!)

Just typing all that wore me out.  Lots of people ask me how I do it.  Sometimes I wonder that myself.  Mainly, I think it just takes a little creativity and resourcefulness to make survival on the road possible.  And being a lover of travel, I think I’ve just learned to adapt to whatever new situation I find myself in.

Here are some answers to questions I keep getting about my trip…thought it might be fun to share with everyone:

No, I am not getting paid. Not monetarily anyway!  🙂 I am farming and helping these organizations in exchange for training, knowledge and experience.  I’m an intern/apprentice/volunteer.  I help them; they help me.

Yes, I am eating. I work at farms…where we grow food.  It’s a given that I’m not starving. I’m a vegetarian (of sorts) and so I have plenty of veggies to choose from.  One thing I love about farming is that, even today, there is still a lot of reliance on the barter system.  So, in exchange for helping them for free, I get free food to take home.  I afforded other supplements from the grocery store thanks to my one-day-a-week gig at a juice café when I was in Brooklyn, where I got paid to make fresh fruit and veggie juices for people and drink them too.

No, I am not sleeping on the streets. I did have a paying job when I lived in DC and I worked hard to save money to make this transition possible.  So when I was in Brooklyn I was able to rent a cheap room for one month and lucky enough to crash with a generous friend in his studio for the other month. (I also met a super nice couple that let me house/cat sit for them for a weekend!) Outside of Brooklyn I have relied on WWOOF and CouchSurfing, both great networks that host you around the world.

No, I don’t have a car. Two words: Public Transportation!!  In NYC, you can get around on all systems in all five boroughs, day and night for just $80 per month.  It was a worthy investment for me, especially when single rides are $2.25 a pop. I also WALK!  Which helps me explore the city.  Between cities I’ve been relying on trains and buses ‘cause they’re cheaper, more environmentally friendly and I like the journey.

Yes, you can do it too! Just do it; quit your job, get rid of your possessions and go out and SEARCH for what makes you happy! All it takes is a little determination and research. As for how to find out about opportunities, Google works wonders and so does the trusty old phone. I just search for what I want/need and cold call or email organizations and ask if I can come work/volunteer/attend.  Easy Peasy.  Also I read relevant blogs, articles, news and talk to people involved in the movement – word of mouth is priceless and you’ll be surprised at how you will meet people along the way that help guide you on your path.

Alright, that’s all the Zen advice I have for today -brought to you from Amtrak. 🙂

From my window on the train


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