Growing Cities Blog

2011: A Year of Production on Growing Cities in Review

December 14th, 2011

The end of 2011 marks a year of production on Growing Cities for Dan and I (Andrew)!  We feel so fortunate and pleased to be working on this film and can’t wait to have a final product to show everyone.  Although there is a long road ahead to reach that point we’ve really come a long way in twelve months. From dreaming of the open road and planning the itinerary last winter, to the road trip this summer, to a three-month stay in San Francisco transcribing the film – we have experienced and learned so much and are eager to share.

The beginning of 2011 saw Dan and I reunited in our hometown of Omaha, NE for the first time since 2006. While both working part time jobs we worked non-stop in our free time to discuss the wide variety of tasks we had to complete before we hit the road. We needed to do research on the farms and farmers, learn filming and lighting techniques, raise money, start a production company and so much more. The list was seemingly endless. We needed to pinpoint what cities we should visit, how long to spend in each place, who to talk to while we’re there, and figure out how each city fit in the bigger picture of urban farming.  As two young filmmakers we also needed to learn some tricks of the trade such as the three point lighting system, how to get the best possible sound and video in various tough situations and how to overcome the many other challenges of shooting professionally on a limited budget and time. But day by day we prepared for the road trip of our lives, recruited our friend Brent Lubbert as production manager, and were ready to go by May 1st.

The days of May, June, and July were filled with countless hot hours in the van traversing 13,000 miles across the country, visiting and filming over 80 urban farms, meeting and speaking with hundreds of farmers and activists, learning about local economies, farm subsidies, organic fertilizers, healthy cooking practices, how to humanely transport bee hives, job creation strategies, how to milk goats, social justice, education, land use and development and so much more. That is to say we traveled the country with our eyes and ears wide open learning and tasting as much as we could.

We met the locals and tried the local delicacies. We can’t deny that we enjoyed a lunch of squirrel tacos in Austin, TX. We felt the rush of filming in Times Square when we probably weren’t allowed to be shooting. In New York City we also took an elevator up to a farm for the first time and sampled produce grown several stories up. We learned how amazing fresh honey can be in Los Angeles while relocating a wild hive of honey bees. We planted seeds in just about every city we stopped in. We saw farms in window sills, in the back of trucks, and floating on barges in the Hudson River.  Also in backyards, alleys, on top of  basketball courts as well as in countless vacant lots. It was fascinating to see how creative people can be when the situation called for it.

We went to the parts of town in LA, Oakland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New Orleans that most people are told to avoid and met folks in each of these places doing amazing work for their communities through farming. We saw the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Great lakes and mighty rivers, as well as the Gulf Coast. Only a trip like that helps you realize just how massive and diverse our country is. We saw people transforming the space around them and challenging the notion that city dwellers should only be consumers of their food. We saw people taking charge of changing the way they eat and it was incredibly inspiring – something we can’t wait to bring to the movie screen. It was a journey that tested us physically, mentally, and emotionally every day. It challenged our assumptions (both negative and positive) about America and dared to paint an encouraging picture of our future. As an activity or hobby urban farming is something anyone can get into. As a burgeoning nationwide grass-roots movement is it something we all need to get behind.

We can’t tell you how excited we are to bring the stories from our road trip to life in our film. With one year down we have at least another year to go before we’re finished. We thank you for all the support you’ve shown us so far and we pledge to work hard to finish the film in the upcoming year.  The efforts of the men and women farming in our cities (and in rural areas) deserve widespread recognition and praise.  These farmers should be elevated to the status of doctors, lawyers, and politicians.  It’s time we give them their due – after all, without farmers, how would we sustain ourselves?  In particular, urban farmers are creating their own realities by making cities more economically, socially, and environmentally just through their actions every single day.  It’s our mission to help foster this movement, to tell these farmers’ amazing stories, and inspire people across the country to create GROWING CITIES of their own.

Master Urban Farming Taster

December 8th, 2011

And Dan doing what he does best!

Back in Omaha

August 4th, 2011

Well dear friends it was a long and wild roadtrip around America but we made it safely back to Omaha over a week ago. While trying to gather our thoughts about the now completed adventure, catch up on sleep, and become respectable smelling human beings again we’ve been meeting urban gardeners, beekeepers, and a woman with goats in her backyard – all around Omaha!

We slaughtered a chicken and picked veggies at City Sprouts in North Midtown, Omaha’s oldest urban farming organization. We met Diodone and Jeanie there to harvest the bird and veggies in the morning and ate the chicken at a rowdy potluck later that evening. It was very humbling  to witness the process it takes to get an animal ready to eat on your plate – an experience more Americans should have. Over the years City Sprouts has quietly built a great urban food production model that creates jobs for young adults and brings the community together in a variety of ways. In a few days we’ll go around with Tyler and Matt from City Sprouts on their bike routes around Omaha as they sell organic produce. Can’t wait to see that in action!

We also got a good look at a small but productive backyard farm at the Bedford Gardens in Benson. Joy & Haley grow a variety of organic veggies and herbs that they sell to restaurants and at farmer’s markets. She said the demand for her produce is always greater than the supply – proving that even in Omaha theres a market for sustainably raised local food. The two ladies were also the wine managers for The Grey Plume, a top new restaurant in Omaha that they informed us was the greenest restaurant in the country. We’d love to learn more about green restaurants and we hope to visit the Grey Plume and speak with the chef there soon.

A few days ago we met Amy in South Omaha and helped her milk her goats she keeps in her backyard. She uses the goats for fresh milk for her family and to make an assortment of cheeses. She also had chickens in her backyard as well. The city has already made her get rid of her sheep and were giving her a hard time about her other animals but she’s confident she can keep them. The other day we hung out with Gary, Tony, and Gabe in Gary’s South Omaha backyard where he keeps three stacks of honeybees. He got really interested in bees after hearing about colony collapse from a coworker and decided he’d get some as pets and honey producers. The honey he gave us was so sweet and delicious it makes you want to acquire bees of your own as soon as possible.

Last night we paid a visit to our friend Kurt at the Benson Community Garden. Before we left on our trip Kurt and the gardeners were tilling up the grass and beginning to plant the different plots so it was great to come back and see how well everything was growing after three months. Tomatoes, peppers, corn, and herbs filled up the former vacant lot and Kurt was hosting a cook-out for community members. He’s done an amazing job transforming the space in his neighborhood and we’re thrilled with the enthusiastic community response. Its been great to see projects like these happening in Omaha. Before we left we had no idea anyone was raising goats or bees or keeping chickens for eggs and meat. Now, we can see a small but growing movement in our own city – one that is dedicated to creating a sustainable and healthy future for everyone.

End of the Tour Fiesta

July 27th, 2011

We arrived at the potluck Sunday night after experiencing the madness of Sixth St., hearing some live music, and getting a decent night’s sleep for a change. Kim and Steph welcomed us in even with our camera and sound gear in tow. Dorsey and Susan from Hausbar, Glen and Paula from Springdale, and Carol Ann and Larry from Boggy Creek were all there and the food looked magnificent. Steph had cooked up some pork to juicy perfection; there was an amazing salad with arugula, homemade pesto, a peach, couscous, and almond dish, as well as smoky homemade salsa from Hausbar. Margaritas and other libations were free flowing as were the conversations. There was a loving genuine bond between the farmers and it was awesome to be a part of their group for the night. We heard some great stories from everyone present and although ages varied throughout the group we all laughed together like kindred spirits. It was a brilliant end to the tour and we can’t thank our hosts enough (in Texas and all across the country). Hopefully see y’all soon!

Springdale & Rain Lily Farms

July 27th, 2011

Mid-Saturday morning we met Glenn and Paula at Springdale Farm and had a blast touring their land and chatting with them. We three Cornhuskers instantly bonded with the two Texas A&M football fans over our love for college football and Glenn proudly displayed a large A&M logo painted on his barn. They had been in the landscape business for over a decade before deciding to move onto their five acre property near Boggy Creek and start a sustainable farm in 2009. They have over 100 ducks and chickens and grow a variety of basil and other herbs, onions, eggplant, peppers, and much more. They sell to restaurants and at a farmstand they host twice a week. Initially not wanting to disrupt their established neighbors’ business, the two farms eventually decided to host markets on the same days to create a food hub in East Austin – to wonderful effect. Glenn and Paula talked about their great relationships with the surrounding farms and how they all share tips and information. Neither of them ever thought they’d be doing what they are today – living off the land in a beautiful house only a few miles from downtown Austin. Regardless, they’ve made a great start to their farming lives and they’re the kind of folks who make you think “Hey, maybe I could do this too someday.” Just need some land and a lot of hard work!

(Drumroll please) After hanging out with Glenn and Paula at Springdale we went around the corner to Rain Lily Farm, the last farm of our national tour. The owners Steph and Kim invited us in for some ice water and a quick respite of AC before touring the farm. The heat was sweltering at around 106 but the crops still looked good. Steph told us a few years ago temperatures wouldn’t reach the 100s for more than six days a summer but they surpassed that tally way back in May. Rain Lily had rows of basil, peppers, and eggplant, bees, a pair of shy goats way in the back, as well as a turkey in the midst of a flock of chickens. They supplement what they grow with produce from nearby farms to create excellent CSA boxes that they deliver each week. Along with two of the other East Austin farms, and many others we visited nationwide, Steph and Kim grew their produce organically, but chose not to pay the extravagant sums to gain the USDA certification. They also spoke of their admiration for the other neighborhood farms and the inspiration they drew from Carol Ann and Larry at Boggy Creek. East Austin was once considered to be the wrong side of town but the four farms played an integral role in reversing the neighborhood’s fortunes. After we finished we promptly headed back inside for more ice water but Steph surprised us with some delicious and potent margaritas to mark the occasion. As we enjoyed them they invited us to a monthly potluck dinner with the other East Austin farmers they were hosting the following evening. We were originally going to drive hOmaha on Sunday but couldn’t pass up an opportunity to spend some time with our amazing Texan friends and witness the community they’ve built up around growing food so we decided to stick around Austin.

Hausbar Farm

July 24th, 2011

We first visited the new kids on the block, Hausbar Farms, on Thursday morning. There we met Dorsey Barger, co-owner of the Eastside Cafe. When Dorsey and Elaine Martin first opened Eastside in 1988 there was an organic garden in the backyard. Dorsey eventually caught the gardening bug in 2007 and took over operations of the garden. Her passion for farming took off so much so that she and her partner Susan Hausmann bought land that formerly housed a crackhouse and was littered with rubbish, cleaned up the property and started Hausbar Farm in early 2010. Around 200 chickens now roam about with two goats and a pet donkey Julian. Rows and rows of beans, squash, okra, and other veggies occupy about half an acre which they sell to the Cafe. We harvested eggs and produce with Dorsey in the morning and then graciously sampled the local goods at Eastside Cafe in the afternoon. The food was amazingly good and the charm of the house-turned-restuarant was in abundance. We also walked around the Cafe’s small yet productive garden which was home to even more chickens.

We thanked Dorsey for the amazing lunch only for her to invite us back to Hausbar the next day for another meal. This time we were to dine on squirrels, humanely captured at the farm. So we dutifully reported to Hausbar the next day and watched Dorsey’s right-hand lady Lola grill up a few squirrels that had been terrorizing Dorsey’s squash plants. Accordingly we ate the small critters with roasted squash and fresh salsa made from the garden. Either the squirrel tacos were actually quite good or we were simply vulturous road travelers willing to eat anything in sight (probably a mix of both). Dorsey’s philosophy of resourceful recycling was as infectious as her energy for farming. After witnessing her enthusiasm for her work it’s no wonder the farm is bursting with life after only a year and a half of production. She also has plans to build an aquaponics setup, bakery, and butcher shop, and hopes to be supplying at least half the produce for the Cafe sooner than later. After two locally prepared meals we really felt connected to our food, a bond Dorsey is committed to bringing to a greater Austin audience.

Farming in Austin/Boggy Creek Farm

July 24th, 2011

We drove through the Louisiana Bayou on I-10 towards Central Texas and made it to Austin early Wednesday evening. The live music capitol of the world lived up to its billing as we drove past several venues blasting out the jams on our way in. We had heard about four urban farms in East Austin, all within a few blocks from each other and just two miles away from the capitol building. This was to be our final stop on our nationwide tour, before heading back north to Omaha.

The original East Austin farm is Boggy Creek Farm. Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler bought a historic farmhouse on Lyons Rd. in 1991 and started growing organic squash, salad mixes, heirloom tomatoes, okra and more. At the beginning they were explaining what “organic” meant to their customers and sold outside a liquor store but now host hundreds of customers at their farm for markets twice a week. We toured the farm early Friday morning as Carol Ann and her staff were harvesting and taking care of other chores. Carol Ann tore up some weeds and roots on a tractor – the first time we’d seen an urban tractor on the tour – and later harvested radiant sunflowers. She was super-friendly, full of stories collected over the years, and much more energetic than us on a hot and early morning. She had a small team but was out working the whole time, stressing that a good leader always works as hard as those they employ. We showed up before the Saturday morning farm-stand started to watch them pick okra, beans, and peppers to sell as fresh as possible. The established practice of supply fresh veggies was spot on as the amount of people that came to the market was amazing and we watched the produce disappear. Carol Ann and Larry have really found and built up their own niche market in Austin and instead of shutting off lines of communication, share their knowledge and experiences with their neighbors. A testament to their open and loving nature, they encouraged and nurtured the neighbors that started farms around them over the past few years, rather than viewing them as competition.

New Orleans

July 24th, 2011

We wanted to get a feel for the other grassroots farming projects happening in New Orleans so we also visited some small-scale farmers around the city. On Sunday afternoon we met up with Jim Bremer at the Eiffel Society, a chic club on St. Charles Ave., to talk about efforts to revitalize New Orleans after two rounds of devastating hurricanes. Heavy rain had already disrupted filming prior in the day and a steady drizzle was still lingering when we met up – and we couldn’t go inside because a wedding reception was still in swing. Since it was so wet and noisy outside, we needed to find some clever positioning for the interview. After finally finding a good spot, the interview was delayed even further when a group of lovable and ummm….intoxicated bridesmaids happened upon us and mistook Jim for an international rockstar, posing with him for pictures and so on. To say the least, he didn’t object. Jim is a gardener for the club, using the tiny amount of green space around the building to grow herbs and produce for the club’s kitchen and has beautiful vertical garden welcoming guests around the front doors.

Later he introduced us to Jeanette Bell, (arguably the sweetest woman on earth) at her beautiful garden in Central City. She bought a blighted lot filled with trash and amazingly turned it into an organic garden filled with brilliant roses, fruit, and vegetables that she tends all by herself. She has been selling organic flowers for years but after Katrina decided to start growing food as well. It was remarkable to see how productive just one person can be in a small space. As we were speaking with her she assembled a beautiful bouquet from around the lot and glowingly presented it to Jim.

We also had the great pleasure to meet with Jenga Mwendo, the founder of the Backyard Gardener’s Network in the Lower Ninth Ward. She moved back to New Orleans after Katrina from New York City to help revitalize the neighborhood. She told us about the rich agricultural history in the Lower Ninth and how she has worked to reinvigorate community gardens around the neighborhood, as well as start new ones. For her, community gardening is first and foremost about strengthening the community. It was a real treat to meet with her and hear her story.

Our last stop in New Orleans was at the Sun Harvest Kitchen Garden with Pam Broom, former director of the New Orleans Food and Farm Network. She is a long-time food activist in New Orleans and had a beautiful garden where she grows peppers, herbs, and other veggies to sell to local restaurants. One of her main goals is exploring how to make urban agriculture an economically viable as well as socially just enterprise. To pursue this she created WANDA, an organization that works to involve and support women and other underrepresented groups in the urban agriculture movement.

She and the others had a glow of satisfaction to them from knowing they’re taking small but important steps to revitalize the spirit of their city. We’re excited to see how their work evolves and affects the city in the coming years. After meeting with Pam we kept the train a rollin’ and set off West for Texas.

Our School at Blair Grocery

July 21st, 2011

On our way to New Orleans we were engulfed by a trio of intense thunderstorms. Each lasted about ten to twenty minutes before reverting to a calm blue sky. This kind of behavior from Mother Nature was to be typical in the Big Easy, but we worked around the challenge. Our main focus in New Orleans was an alternative high school and food security academy in the Lower Ninth Ward called Our School at Blair Grocery. Many decades ago the site was originally home to the Ninth Ward’s first black-owned business: a grocery store run by the Blair family. After Hurricane Katrina hit six years ago the Blair Grocery was nearly completely submerged in water and since then only 25% of the Lower Ninth’s population has returned.

Volunteers have cleaned up the trash and rebuilt many houses but the Lower Ninth still suffers from major problems in terms of access to healthy food and education. Prior to the storm the neighborhood had around nine schools, but afterwards just one remained. Limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, a problem before the storm, was only exacerbated by Katrina. Couple that with a lack of jobs and high crime rates and you find a community in serious trouble with a bleak future. In 2008, Nat Turner, an educator from New York, moved to New Orleans, founded Our School and began rebuilding the Blair Grocery, determined to take on all of these issues.

Now, after two years of hard work and sweat, the school has a few dozen students and a small staff of interns from around the country. The kids that attend the school – from the neighborhood as well as from across the city – are employees as well as students because Turner sees payment as a surefire way to entice neighborhood participation. The students spend half their time in the classroom learning about marketing, social justice, and food while the other half is spent outside planting, composting, and harvesting. They employ a hands-on method of learning – math, science, and business are taught through getting the students’ hands dirty on the farm and selling sprouts to local restaurants. We spoke with many of the students about their experiences at the farm, growing up in the Ninth Ward, and their plans for the future. Most were seriously grossed out by compost but understood the value of growing healthy soil. One student, DeShawn, said he won’t become a farmer per se but will surely have a backyard garden with herbs and veggies when he’s older. He and the others were extremely thankful to Turner and the efforts he and his staff have made to provide them with worthwhile opportunities in education and employment.

Turner and the interns not only oversee the class-work and the farming but also live at the school. Their jobs basically last day and night – which is exactly the kind of commitment needed to turn around the fortunes of an area like the Lower Ninth Ward. The floods have receded and a new wave of optimism can be felt around the school. The commitment to improving the lives of the kids around the neighborhood is a long-term investment but unspeakably important. Turner told us after witnessing the dreadful conditions of the neighborhood after Katrina he realized the government was in no mind to seriously change the situation. He thought, “If not me, then who?” Now that’s a mentality we can all aspire to.

Jones Valley Urban Farm

July 14th, 2011

We made it to Jones Valley Urban Farm in downtown Birmingham, Alabama early Wednesday morning. Our hopes that the humidity would be less persistent than Atlanta were dashed the second we stepped out of the car. Jones Valley is a ten year old farm with a lot going on. They have a 50+ member CSA, community garden plots, they conduct educational programs for youths and adults, and also sell to restaurants and at farmer’s markets. Just after we arrived a group of middle schoolers came over from the Y.M.C.A. down the street. We followed them and Farmer Bree, the Seed to Plate program director, around the farm as they harvested squash, peppers, figs, and others. Then we went over to a kitchen at the Y and the kids chopped up the fresh veggies and made salsa, a black bean dip, and guacamole. The salsa was widely accepted, but none of the kids had tried guacamole before, and some were quite reluctant to taste it. One of the boys, James, was wily pretending not to like the guacamole while hungrily downing half the bowl. It came time for the youngsters to go on to the next activity at the Y and we said goodbye, promising them all they’d be movie stars. We loved hanging out with the kids and were glad to be a part of their learning process.

We headed back to the farm after that to talk with Rachel, the programming director, about the history of the farm, the neighborhood, and the city of Birmingham. She told us one of their great success stories – about a local 14 year-old who used to come by and vandalize the equipment and produce. They sat him down one day and explained why the farm was in his neighborhood and what they were about and he understood they were there for his benefit. Since then he has learned how to grow food, cook, and volunteers a few times per week. Rachel said his plot in the community gardens is one of the most vibrant and well kept. She also told us about their connections to local restaurants and the food-loving atmosphere in Birmingham. So today (Thursday) we got to visit one of the restaurants they supply to, Highlands Bar & Grill, and met Chef Frank Stitt, one of the top chefs in the country. As with any chef, he professed his love for fresh veggies and attested that the organic produce he gets from Jones Valley five minutes away is far better than what is available through wholesalers or grocery stores. He said restaurants can play a big role in the future of the good food movement by providing a huge market for local farmers. As he left to get ready for the night’s dinner he invited us to try his creations at one of his other restaurants, Bottega, an offer we couldn’t decline. We gratefully enjoyed an appetizer made with local eggs, pizza with fresh arugula and peppers, and pasta with the most delicious tomatoes.

Overwhelmed with Southern hospitality and stuffed full of Chef Frank’s delicacies, we retired to our couch-surfing host Crystal’s house and readied ourselves for the journey to New Orleans tomorrow.