Archive for December, 2010

Looking down at my bare toes getting splattered with fat, warm rain drops as I walked through a row of soggy banana trees and palms, I instantly felt happy to be back in my hometown.  It hadn’t been raining five minutes ago but, as is the norm in Florida, the sunny blue skies had suddenly changed and were now delivering a torrential downpour.

Ahhh, the wonders of living in a subtropical swampland.

I was standing on a “farm” in Broward County during this afternoon sprinkle; which is technically impossible since Broward County, the second most populated county in Florida and home to Ft. Lauderdale, zoned out agriculture years ago.  But there I stood on a hydroponics “farm”, run by  a Florida-raised Cuban mother who began growing food because she couldn’t trust anyone else to feed her new daughter.

While I respect this woman and her motivation for growing food, I use quotations when I speak of the site as a farm because – and I know this is going to upset some people –  it is a hydroponic operation; and I have a hard time accepting this way of growing food as farming. (Apparently Broward County feels the same way.)  Hydroponic means growing food without soil, using only water and added nutrient solutions.

Similar, in my opinion, to drinking super food smoothies all day and playing Wii instead of actually eating and exercising like a real person.

Call me old fashioned, but I like a little soil involved with my plants. Some people, those that I probably just pissed off with the above statement, support hydroponics for the obvious reasons: it’s a good way to grow when there is no soil available, it’s helpful in cities when limited space is available, you can grow vertically in hanging or tiered planting systems, and hey, it’s not dirty and you don’t ruin your knees bending over to do actual farm work.

But I am not in support as much, if you haven’t already guessed, for other reasons: it is very rare that there is NO soil available, we do live on Earth… and as an environmentalist at heart, part of what draws me to farming is the opportunity to renew the soil we have by planting in it.  Yes, much of urban soil is contaminated- but at least bringing in some soil and starting anew on that lot by building the soil up with compost made right there on the farm is still giving back.

Also, as someone interested in bringing agriculture to our under-served communities, I view hydroponic systems as way too expensive and impractical for the average food consumer.  You not only need to buy the growing containers (which were made of Styrofoam on this farm I visited -WTF? I thought that stuff was banned by now), but also the hanging or tower systems to hold them, the tubing and timer for irrigation, the nutrient solution or fertilizer (which is often made of synthetic chemicals that are not approved by the USDA Organic standards), and the medium to grow them in (like the coconut husks used at this Florida site), which helps the plant absorb the nutrient solution.  Oh, and depending on whether you grow inside or not – which many hydroponics systems are used for since their benefit is utilizing space inside city buildings – you also have to buy the artificial lighting.

That is a lot of inputs. Where as with soil-based sustainable farming, your inputs can be as simple as compost, water, and sun.

Seeing as how I was standing there in the sunshine state, in the middle of a rainstorm, I just didn’t get why this “farm” was choosing to rely on Styrofoam instead.

The issue of farming and how to farm is not a black and white issue; there are pros and cons with many agricultural technologies, and I am definitely no expert. You can look out for what I did like about this ‘farm’ in my next  post on Grist.

But for now, you can expect a break in posts from me as I enjoy the Holiday season with my family and venture to Frankfurt, Germany to spend the new year with a dear friend!!

Happy Holidays to you and yours – Peas ‘n’ Love.

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The Journey

Who knew in the process of learning how to grow healthy food, I would end up growing myself…immensely.

My journey this summer and autumn grew organically into an experience far beyond what I could have hoped for.

What started as a trip to finally get my hands in the dirt, grew into an opportunity to question the deeply woven injustices in our country’s systems, a chance to dive into the work of community empowerment, and now, it’s shaping some exciting work that lies ahead.

It has also been a ridiculous adventure – right down to the creepy Midwestern train rides, hitchhiking in cowboy boots and even a jaded love story.

With a total of 16 hours on buses, 39 hours on trains, 7 hours waiting/sleeping in train stations, and a 13-hour road trip taken straight through (not to mention the countless bus and train rides back and forth all five NYC boroughs hopping from urban farm to farm) – the journey wore me out more than the actual farm work did.

Actually I think travel is very similar to farming.  It seems like a romantic idea, and it definitely is, but it also comes with a side that is not for the faint of heart.

In farming there’s dirt, horse shit, sweat and endless manual labor.  In traveling there’s hauling luggage, getting lost, living out of your backpack for months, sleeping on couches/air mattresses/or any surface you can find while staying in strangers’ houses.

On this trip with all those things combined, I was exhausted and dirty the majority of the time. (I even unintentionally grew dreads in my hair and ditched my vegetarianism for the sake of my health – non-animal protein intake was hard to keep up on the road!)

But I absolutely love it; because for me, wandering the Earth and working the earth make me feel at home; even if they’re both looked at as a little outside the norm.

Nonetheless, this journey has helped me explore cities where I may want to finally dig my roots in one day, and it’s ignited a fire in me to be a part of creating a just and healthy food system, but one that is actually led by the communities it is designed to serve.

Keep an eye out for more blog posts as I explore the Haitian and Latino-led urban farm scene in my hometown of South Florida during my stay here through the winter, and stay tuned for the exciting projects I’m working on including helping to build a National Black Farmer’s Directory and filming a documentary on farmers of color!

Click here to recap the journey!

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After being on the train for 15 hours, not to mention the 4 hour wait in the middle of the night at the Toledo train station, I arrived back in Brooklyn.

Just in time for the very first Black Farmers Conference. I couldn’t wait to be in a room with so many inspiring leaders, wise agriculturists, historic change makers and hopefully my future employers…but first I had to get some sleep, and desperately needed a shower.

A good friend from my DC days let me crash at her and her partner’s place, and the next morning I was fresh and ready for the day.

I arrived at the conference and instantly ran into Leah Penniman, owner of Soul Fire Farm in upstate NY, who was there to speak at one of the day’s workshops “A Place for Us: Black Farmers in the Organic Movement.”

Leah and I talked about her experiences at past farmers conferences, sometimes being one of only 15 people of color out of 1000 attendees, she now felt happy to have this space. The very first Black Farmers Conference sprouted out of this shared need among black urban growers, food activists and farmers to have a discussion about issues pertinent to the community.

I looked around the room to find that it was so full of people they were lining the back and sidewalls and trickling into the overflow room.

As the discussions, presentations and empowering speeches began, the support and input from the crowd sent goosebumps down my spine. This was not just a conference on farming; it was a space to let out our frustrations with the food system and the injustices black folks face in this country to this day – it was a look into our history.

Some of my favorite quotes from the day were:

“If we’re going to have agriculture that is sustainable, we have to break down barriers.”-   Karen Washington (whom I mentioned in my piece about NYC’s food justice movement)

“The industrial ag system is starting to argue against Michael Pollan’s message, that’s a good sign, it means we are starting to have an impact.” – Will Allen of Growing Power

“The majority of the land in America is not used to grow food for you, its used to grow food for the beef that goes into McDeath and MurderKing” – “Doc” Ridgely (Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad) of Muhammad Farms

“There is no reason why people of color should not be leading this movement…it’s amazing how thinking ahead is really going back, back to our roots.” -Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx Borough President

When the session came to a close, the room was filled with one of the most powerful, binding energies I have felt in a long time.

You can read more about the Conference in my post on Grist!

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