Volunteers and veterans receiving job training at City Seeds Urban Farm in Saint Louis, Mo. harvest perennials that will be used in community gardens across the city. (Photo by Tim Lloyd / Harvest Public Media)
Wow, local food is a broad and diverse topic.
In just a few days of reporting across the Missouri stretch of I-70, I found three distinct takes on the topic.
Here’s a sampling of vignettes from my recent reporting:
The only place I come back to
I started by sloshing around on a muddy 2 ½-acre plot sandwiched between an off ramp and a hotel in St. Louis. It’s this little place called City Seeds Urban Farm and it’s run by an organization called Gateway Greening.
The interesting thing about City Seeds isn’t the farm itself; rather, it’s the hands that are working it.
A scarecrow stands in the middle of City Seeds Urban Farm in downtown Saint Louis, Mo. (Photo by Tim Lloyd / Harvest Public Media)
Former City Seeds farmer Derrick Johnson sits at the back of the rec-room at the Saint Patrick Center in Saint Louis, Mo. (Photo by Tim Lloyd / Harvest Public Media)
That little emerald plot next to a highway in Saint Louis has become a hub of sorts for socials service agencies looking for new ways to tackle addiction, recidivism, hunger, unemployment and other issues. The farmers comprise two groups. One involves clients at the Saint Patrick Center, a local Catholic charity that works with people who are struggling with issues such as chronic homelessness and addiction. The other group consists of military veterans who are participating in a jobs training program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The food itself, which ranges from beets to salad greens, is sold at the Tower Grove Farmers Market or at a discounted rate to Food Outreach, a non-profit that feeds low income clients in St. Louis who are living with HIV or fighting cancer.
I spent some time at the Saint Patrick Center and met former City Seeds farmer Derrick Johnson next to the pool table in the back of the facility’s rec-room.
“I got a job working irrigation after this program,” Johnson told me. “I learned those skills while working at the farm.”
Previous to his time at City Seeds, Johnson told me he was homeless, sleeping at shelters or bus stops while wrangling with an alcohol problem.
I asked him if he ever went back to those places, to think about how far he’s come.
“No,” he said. “The only place I come back to from where I’ve been is here because this place brings back good memories.
“When I’m off on Saturdays I go out (to the farm) and volunteer.”
Fast forward a week and I was in the leafy college town of Columbia, Mo., home to Harvest partner KBIA and our podcast Field Notes.
On the campus of Columbia College I attended a meeting on local food and the Farm Bill.
Not according to the presenters.
Tim Gibbons, political director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, speaks during the Farm Bill Comes to the Table event in Columbia, Mo. (Photo by Tim Lloyd / Harvest Public Media)
The tone was spirited and anti-big ag. As far as I could tell, there weren’t any large-scale producers in the house to rebut any of the presenters’ comments.
Balance aside, it proved to be an interesting evening.
One of the more novel connections came from Brad Redlin, director of agriculture programs and a crop insurance expert for The Izaak Walton League, a non-profit conservation group founded in 1922.
If you don’t know much about crop insurance, you’re not alone. It’s a massively complicated federally subsidized insurance program to protect farmers against crop losses due to weather, pests and disease.
It’s also the second largest expenditure in the Farm Bill, Redlin said.
Brad Redlin of the Izaak Walton League discusses the Farm Bill in Colubmia, Mo. (Photo by Tim Lloyd / Harvest Public Media)
The challenge for farmers selling local, specialized crops is that most of the data crop insurance bases its payouts on is for mainstays of large-scale operations in the Midwest: corn, cotton, wheat and soybeans.
The program, however, is often lacking the kind of historical data needed to create policies for farmers who are growing specialty crops specifically for local markets.
“Like most insurance it’s based on the most actuarial data available to folks,” Redlin said.
“Chances are if you are in a typical Midwestern county and you are not growing corn, cotton, rice or soybeans, there’s not a whole lot of data about people who are growing say a tree nut or a vegetable,” Redlin said. “There are efforts and other ways of trying to provide insurance for that but they are in no way comparable to readily available insurance for those major crops.”
Turning vacant to abundant
Malik Yakini, chairman of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, speaks at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. about efforts in Detroit to turn vacant lots into urban farms. (Photo by Tim Lloyd / Harvest Public Media)
Dan Carmody, president of the Detroit Mich. based Eastern Market Corporation answers questions about urban agriculture's role in city development. (Photo by Tim Lloyd / Harvest Public Media)
The next morning I headed toward Kansas City, Mo., to attend a presentation on the local agriculture movement in Detroit, Mich.
Panel members represented both the city of Detroit and community activists who were equally focused on how the abundant supply of vacant lots in the city can be repurposed for food production.
The part I found most striking was an honest conversation about the challenge of actually making agriculture work in an urban setting.
Here’s an exchange:
Audience Member: “How do you deal with the issue of water?”
“Yes, that’s something many people refer to as jacking the fire hydrant,” replied Malik Yakini, chairman of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
The packed room erupted with laughter.
Yakini shrugged: “Again, I don’t know anyone who is doing this.”
More laughter, eyes turned to the panel member representing the city of Detroit.
“It’s kind of been organically grown, you know, they’re borrowing water,” said Karla Henderson, who works for the city of Detroit’s Mayor’s Office.
“Urban agriculture is an enormous undertaking,” Henderson added. “We’re kind of at the tip of that iceberg not trying to chip in too deep, too fast because then we have to deal with all these elephants in the room.”
And that was pretty much the sentiment of the whole meeting. Detroit, like a lot of cities, just isn’t equipped with infrastructure or the kind of updated zoning laws needed to facilitate rapidly expanding local agriculture efforts.
So, the city is sort of getting out of the way and letting citizens sprout local gardens and farms that could collectively give the motor city one big economic engine.
“It’s all about jobs,” said Dan Carmody, president of the Detroit based Eastern Market Corporation.
After the presentation, I sat down with Ashley Jones-Wisner, director of state policy for the Local Support Initiatives Corporation, to get a Midwest perspective on urban agriculture
She emphasized that what’s happening in Detroit can, and ought to be, replicated in Kansas City.
“Kansas City has over 12,000 vacant properties,” Jones-Wisner said. “The unfortunate thing about all those properties is that the city assumes the cost of maintaining those properties. I see urban agriculture as one of the ways Kansas City can recover from the foreclosure crisis.”
That, she said, is the real next step in the push to grow food in urban areas, widening the lens and using it as a vehicle to drive economic development and address issues beyond food security or nutrition.
It’s a lot to digest, and clearly local agriculture is about far more than quaint farmers markets and white tablecloths.
Location is a big deal, and what locally grown food means in more rural settings like Columbia versus urban settings like Kansas City and St. Louis is often different.
Money and jobs are key, both in rural and urban settings. All the people I talked with said that local agriculture is a rare part of the economy that can’t be outsourced. It has the ability to bring wealth into both rural and urban communities struggling during the lingering recession.
It’s about going back to the drawing board, too.
It’s hard to imagine urban communities ever rebounding to where they once were during the mid-part of the twentieth century.
Can urban agriculture be a part of re-thinking America’s urban landscape?
From the people I talked to there’s no doubt it will be.
That said there are numerous obstacles to taking that vision from a Nuevo-utopian ideal to a practical reality.
What’s next for Harvest is putting all of these parts together.
We have full slate of coverage planned for the summer, including a TV documentary produced by Harvest Reporter Clay Masters, a week of radio reports and big bundle of web extras.