Earlier this month, the USDA announced $3 million in grants for urban agriculture projects that address food access and education across the country. The news comes as a welcome opportunity to increase urban access to locally grown produce. From the Midwest to the West Coast, urban farms are taking unique approaches to this shared mission, empowering communities to turn cramped urban spaces into flourishing gardens.
MISSOURI, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
“You don’t have to have a farm to grow your own food,” said Tamara Maddox, Communication and Events Coordinator at the Columbia Center For Urban Agriculture (CCUA) in Missouri. “You just have to think differently about it.” A five-gallon bucket, for example, can make a tomato garden with just a few holes drilled on the bottom - and the tomato can actually live in that bucket for its entire life.
“You can garden in anything. It could be a shoe, it could be a little bowl,” Tamara added.
That illustrates the mission of the CCUA: to making urban agriculture accessible, sustainable, and easy by providing garden supplies to low-income residents, hosting hands-on field trips, and donating farm produce to hunger relief outlets. “We know how intimidating it can be,” Tamara said. “If you’ve never grown anything before, we want to take that intimidation factor out and make it easy.”
During a pandemic, that means virtual programming.
“We’ve been talking for a long time about doing virtual workshops. But when you’re not forced to do it, you’re like, ‘We’ll get to it later.’ This has been a really good exercise for us to say, ‘You know those things you’ve been talking about doing? We’re doing them.'” The CCUA posts videos and resources Monday through Friday, and its experienced gardeners are on-hand to troubleshoot.
The organization has been getting more calls than ever during the lockdown. Gardening has become a welcome reprieve for many in quarantine and supply chain concerns have consumers going local. Perhaps this gardening uptick is an indicator of a positive, more widespread change.
“If we could just dream up a CCUA world, we would all have front yard gardens and we would all buy locally. So often, I just don’t think that people realize that, even here, we have a farmer’s market with 80 vendors, all within a 50-mile radius.”
LOS ANGELES, Moonwater Farm
I recently spoke with Kathleen Blakistone, who, along with her husband Richard Draut, own Moonwater Farm, a micro-farm located in Compton, Los Angeles.
Kathleen considers Moonwater to be more of a social organization, structured to combat the food apartheid that is the result of historic redlining in the city. Moonwater regularly hosts a ‘u-pick’ with justice pricing: “Those of us with privilege pay more. And those with less pay less.”
She held one last week, permitting one party to pick at a time, admitting only two parties daily. “They get up on the ladder, pick the mulberries, and come around back to say hello to baby goat.” Some of her guests left saying, “Oh my God, this is the best day I’ve had since this whole thing started.”
Kathleen starts her days milking her goats, tending to the chickens, feeding the fish. “There’s a little routine that we go through every morning, making sure everybody’s got what they need.” She also consoled a friend who was grieving the loss of her dad and had sought refuge on the farm. “She’s here cause she knows this space makes her feel better,” Kathleen said.
Moonwater Farm is a refuge for many. At its inception, Moonwater was to be an aquaponic greenhouse, growing lettuce and sell it to restaurants. When Kathleen and Richard met a local cowboy in the neighborhood, plans changed. “He asked if he could lease the backyard for his horse. We said, ‘Well, for six months, because we’re going to build a greenhouse.’ So, he would have boy scout training with his cow roping friends, and we started serving grapefruit and ice water - we didn’t have a whole lot going at the time - and talking about zero waste and healthy eating.” It wasn’t long before this South LA cowboy explained that not many people were having these conversations in the neighborhood.
“We just took a real sharp left turn and realized it would be a lot more interesting growing people than lettuce,” Kathleen said. “And so we lean into our privilege and share this space with our neighbors, trying to create access to wellness and healthy food and outdoor space that many don’t have here in LA.”Kathleen Blakistone, Moonwater Farm in Compton CA
“I think that people deserve homes and food no matter who you were born to. That should not determine how well off you are. I think that it is pretty skewed in our culture today, the way that the randomness of your birth determines whether you’re going to own property.”
Five years in, Kathleen and Richard have transformed a third of an acre into a garden of Eden. “My husband is a designer-builder, so we space-planned the area very well. We have a lot packed on here.”
The permaculture design has allowed for a food forest out front (citrus, pomegranate, avocado, stone fruit, apple), room for plant medicine (lavender, sage, calendula, holy basil, fennel), and row crops to show visitors how farming works in a small field. There’s also a bioswale where they harvest rainwater and a cut driveway that allows water to penetrate the land. “You want to hold as much water on the land as possible in permaculture design,” she explained.
True to their word, everything Kathleen and Richard do aims to bring community together. And not just in Compton–Kathleen welcomes people from all over. “I had a family drive from Chino last week. I had people drive from Santa Monica. I’ve had people from five blocks away. People from all over the city come to this spot because it’s pretty unusual.”
The Covid-19 pandemic forced Kathleen and Richard to cancel events for a few months, but they now have clearance to reinstate their Moonwater Farm Camps (while adhering to protocols).
“Many youth that come in have never been to camp,” Kathleen said. “Some have never seen a farm animal or been to the beach. We’re trying to create experiences for people, and holding space for people to curate their own events. So just being a container.”
Curated events include: Chef organized pop-up dinners, trauma-informed yoga training, holiday cultural markets featuring Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) businesses, and barter and exchange. The goal for Kathleen is to “look at how do we pool resources and bring a kind of prosperity to a wider group of people.” The farm is built and maintained for this purpose: there’s a large kitchen, an outdoor gathering space, and a table that seats 20.
Kathleen also composts - hot container and vermiculture - and the process has given her a deep appreciation for “the more-than-human critters that are here on the planet with us, from the microscopic to the mega that we can see.” It lends a perfect metaphor for what she’s trying to achieve with Moonwater Farm.
“The more diverse those communities are, the healthier the system. We’re trying to demonstrate and show that diversity is a key to healing.”
It’s true on a microscopic level and also a farm level. By integrated food and animals, Kathleen has witnessed a beautiful symbiosis. “When you create spaces that are set up for more-than-human, you get to witness what goes on in the cycle,” she said. Birds nest there during their migratory patterns during the spring, fruits and herbs grow wild, and people without access to land or food find a refuge.
In her ideal world (which she’s started working on through a project with Pando), “we imagine a foodway every quarter mile.” A foodway could be, for example, an urban farm, commercial kitchen, or a farm stand.
“We’d like to see some kind of foodway every quarter mile all over the city, beginning in our neglected communities that have been, I would say, abusively developed. We’re starting to understand that an integrated city is the healthiest city.”Kathleen Blakistone, Moonwater Farm in Compton CA
In other words, Kathleen would like to see more places like Moonwater. “People call us Moonwater Farms with a plural ‘S.’ We are singular.” She recalled when, at a fundraiser held for Ron Finley, Finley said, “This shouldn’t be special.” Kathleen agreed: “This should not be special. This should be in all urban neighborhoods.”
Until cities are filled with foodways, micro-farms, or even windowsills lined with miniature herb gardens, Kathleen is doing her part.
“I know we’re not the norm, but we really do believe in more equitable ideas being discussed around [land ownership]. I would argue that we are not whole until we all are whole. If somebody’s sick, we’re all sick.”
Take a look at more of the amazing work being done at these urban farms: