Bellwethr Magazine

Take Back the Land

It’s not just about the food. Across the country, urban farmers reclaim abandoned property and rejuvenate communities.

WORDS BY Cameron Young // ART BY Cameron Young

As Billy Vaughan sips his morning coffee and writes in the last few answers to the Saturday crossword puzzle, kids begin to assemble at the end of the block – first a pair of girls peering down the road toward Vaughan’s house, then four boys who hop out of a dusty gray sedan and sit on the sidewalk against a short, green chain-link fence. By the time Vaughan descends the stairs to his front door, carrying a clipboard in one hand and a pail filled with leafy sweet potato shoots in the other, 17 kids are milling about the corner of McAdoo Avenue and Merton Street in Memphis, Tenn.

Vaughan lifts his clipboard level with his eyes and smiles at the tangle of rowdy kids who’ve gathered to help at the McMerton Community Garden in Binghampton, a neighborhood at the geographic center of Memphis. The work will earn them $5 per hour, money made selling the food they harvest at farmers markets.

When Vaughan finally gets their attention, he calls out instructions for the day’s work. He sends a small group down Merton in one direction to prune strawberry bushes in a small lot, tucked behind an old brick fence. Then, he leads the main group of kids in the opposite direction to plant the sweet potato shoots in a lot at the edge of the neighborhood.

Unlike most urban agriculture ventures, which tend to farm on a single, central plot, McMerton Community Gardens are scattered across the neighborhood — half a dozen raised beds here and another dozen across the street; a front yard hoop garden and a backyard perennial garden down the road. McMerton doesn’t even own most of the land it farms. Lots that lay vacant and overgrown before were cleared out for the gardens.

Memphis is a city colored green with plant life. Unattended plots of land quickly turn into dense tangles of weeds and vines. And there is unattended land everywhere, around 53,000 vacant lots citywide. “On a psychological and emotional level, it speaks really of deterioration and death, and it brings down the character of a place,” says Vaughan, in whose neighborhood nearly two out of every 10 properties are left vacant.

The urban farming Vaughan and his young volunteers do in Memphis is part of a national trend. Similar projects are reclaiming vacant space in cities across the country, notably in places hardest hit by economic decline. According to a survey by the United States Department of Agriculture, as much as 30 percent of agricultural production in the U.S. now comes from metropolitan areas. But urban farms serve as more than a means to producing food. Cities across the country suffer from expanding swatches of vacant land, which often play host to abandoned buildings and chemically toxic soil.

To understand the scope of the problem, according to the Brookings Institution, the total number of vacant housing units in the U.S. grew by 4.5 million between 2000 and 2010, a 44 percent increase. And each vacant property casts a shadow over the community, a phenomenon called “broken windows.” A 2013 study published by the New York Academy of Medicine found that vacant land in a neighborhood is perceived to decrease residents control over neighborhood life, fracture ties between neighbors, raise concerns over crime and safety, and drag the community down financially.

Urban farming and community gardening stand as ways to reclaim land and renew community ties — to raise the character of a community.

“So I want us all to become revolutionaries, renegades, gangstas, gangsta gardeners. We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta,” Finley says. “Get gangsta with your shovel. And let that be your weapon of choice.”

Retired basketball player Will Allen founded and operates the nonprofit Growing Power Inc., which provides training nationwide to start and sustain urban farms. Based in Milwaukee, where Allen lives, the group has grown since its 1993 creation to include 300 small family farmers and training sites throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and South. In November, it will sponsor an international conference on urban farming, featuring a conversation with best-selling food expert and author Michael Pollan. “Everybody, regardless of their economic means should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that is grown naturally,” Allen told Time.

In South Central Los Angeles — a neighborhood dominated by liquor stores, fast food joints, and vacant lots — Ron Finley and LA Green Grounds started a movement to plant “guerrilla gardens,” which are planted on land they don’t have legal permission to farm. The first one, which Finley planted on the parkway in front of his house, earned a citation from the city (that was eventually revoked).

Finley envisions a South Central grown lush with vegetation, where people get together to grow things on every bit of the 26 square miles of vacant land in LA. He also wants to change the culture in his neighborhood. “We gotta make this sexy,” Finley said at a TED Talk last spring. “So I want us all to become revolutionaries, renegades, gangstas, gangsta gardeners. We gotta flip the script on what a gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t gangsta. Get gangsta with your shovel. And let that be your weapon of choice.”

Halfway across the country, Hantz Farms purchased 140 acres of vacant and blighted land from the City of Detroit to start Hantz Woodlands. The firm planted a tree farm with 15,000 oak, maple, and dogwood trees to be harvested on a 60-year cycle. “The city was becoming less and less livable at the neighborhood level,” Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms says. “And the biggest problem was the expanding blight on city-owned property. We wanted that land back in the private sector where it came from so somebody would be accountable for managing it.”

By taking stewardship over the land, Hantz Farms changed the look and feel of the neighborhood. Once a wasteland of vacant lots looming with overgrown vegetation, decrepit structures, and piles of garbage, the land now resembles a public park. Every day, neighbors, often lingering to help out, stop by to thank Score and his workers.

In Memphis, urban agriculture takes the form of a few dozen community gardens connected by a nonprofit called Grow Memphis, which offers its partner gardens resources and training.

Chris Peterson, the executive director of Grow Memphis, starts his days early and works long hours. On a Friday morning, not long after the sun rises, Peterson drives his black Toyota Tacoma south into DeSoto County, Miss., to pick up a truckload of horse manure. Resources like good fertilizer are essential for any gardening project. But in Memphis, manure is hard to come by, which is why Peterson is willing to make the early morning run to Mississippi. Since it got its start in 2007, Grow Memphis has helped launch between two and eight gardens a year and has 38 active gardens at its latest count. Whenever it can, Grow Memphis looks to invest in projects in low-income areas where people have little access to fresh food.

At 26, Peterson represents a core of young people at the vanguard of the urban agriculture movement. All Grow Memphis staff members are young, and Peterson says young people largely populate the urban agriculture conferences he attends.

In DeSoto County, Peterson rolls down a long dirt driveway toward a small white stable with green trim. He loops around to the side and puts his truck in park next to a trailer mounded over with horse manure. When he hops onto the manure mound, pitchfork in hand, a puff of debris rises off it.

“There’s no hangover cure like shoveling horse shit,” Peterson says as he shovels the pile from trailer to truck bed.“If the smell doesn’t make you throw up right away, you know you’re good.”

By the time he’s finished, the truck bed sags over its shocks. He drives the manure to the Orange Mound Garden in southeast Memphis, where he unloads it and replaces it with a bed full of wood chips. Then he drops those wood chips at the Soulsville Knowledge Garden closer to the center of town before his 11 a.m. staff meeting. Peterson’s work mostly involves chasing funding, but there are always resources that need shuffling about between gardens — especially valuable stuff like horse dung.

Working with gardeners all over town, Peterson has discovered that a garden means much more to a community than the food it produces. “It changes the perception that your neighborhood is a certain type of neighborhood when it has a community garden,” he says. “You’re the type of neighborhood that can support a community garden, that does community things.” In terms of acreage, urban agriculture projects have reclaimed only a small percentage of what lies vacant, overgrown, and blighted. In Memphis, for instance, the 38 Grow Memphis gardens count for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total number of vacant land parcels.

But community gardens change the way people think about where they live and can open up unexpected dialogues between neighbors. Ask anyone who does community gardening, and they’ll tell you that you learn more about your neighbors during an afternoon of planting than you’d ever guess — about their likes and dislikes, about their history and their needs.

At McMerton, when a young immigrant from Africa hears they’re about to plant sweet potatoes, she exclaims, “Oh, sweet potatoes, they make you go to the bathroom. When we were in the refugee camps, they would give us sweet potatoes, and we would mix them with beans, and they make you go to the bathroom.” The entire group breaks into laughter, including Vaughan, who continues to smile after the hilarity has quieted. It’s not every day he hears the kids tell stories about what it was like to grow up in refugee camps.

Vaughan continues working into the afternoon, long after the kids have gone home. He takes handfuls of leaves and sets them over the newly planted sweet potato shoots. After a morning of gardening, in which so many kids showed up to help, Vaughan can’t be bothered about aches and pains that go along with stooping over plowed earth in the hot afternoon sun. “It’s such a joyful thing to do,”Vaughan says. “I mean growing food, building community is an absolutely joyful, life-enriching thing.”

When he’s done with the last of the day’s work, he puts away the gardening tools and walks along Merton Street back to his house. It’s well past lunchtime, and Vaughan hasn’t had anything besides water since breakfast. The sun sends waves of heat radiating off the pavement.

When he gets to his house, he finds a 12-year-old girl named Neema waiting in his driveway with her younger brother, Vianne. Earlier in the day, Vaughan found out that Neema doesn’t have a bicycle. He greets the two kids and then walks into his house. Neema has changed into a purple dress since the morning when she was on hands and knees burying sweet potato shoots. When Vaughan returns, he carries a bright purple bicycle that matches her dress. He hands Neema the bicycle and turns back to his house, smiling as Neema and Vianne pedal back home side by side.

Garden Groomer: Cadarius Shelion, a volunteer, pulls buds off strawberry plants, making room for sweet berries to grow in. PHOTO BY CAMERON YOUNG.
Garden Groomer: Cadarius Shelion, a volunteer, pulls buds off strawberry plants, making room for sweet berries to grow in. PHOTO BY CAMERON YOUNG.
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Scholastic Farming: School gardens represent another large chunk of the urban agriculture happening in Memphis. At New Hope Christian Academy, parents can pick up fresh produce harvested from the garden, along with seed packets and recipe cards. PHOTO BY CAMERON YOUNG.
Scholastic Farming: School gardens represent another large chunk of the urban agriculture happening in Memphis. At New Hope Christian Academy, parents can pick up fresh produce harvested from the garden, along with seed packets and recipe cards. PHOTO BY CAMERON YOUNG.
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Over the past decade cities have had to deal with expanding stretches of vacant land and boarded-up properties. In Binghampton, a diverse neighborhood at the center of Memphis, Tenn., community leaders have been growing food and building community by planting gardens on vacant lots. PRODUCED BY CAMERON YOUNG.
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