Volume 9, Number 10 October 14, 2006
Urban Gardens: A country taste in the cities
By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Muímin Muhammad
The Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us that Agriculture was the root of civilization. Agriculture and civilization began in Africa. Legends record this development in the form of a story about a husband and wife team by the names of Ausar and Auset. According to this African legend, Auset domesticated wild crops and animals so that she could grow the crops near her house and keep the animals in a corral nearby. Her husband, Ausar, took this technology which became the root of all civilizations and spread it around the world. Now people would not have to travel long distances hunting and gathering food. This steady supply of food, close to their homes, allowed humans to pay attention to other sciences and interests instead of spending most of their day finding food to survive.
Agriculture has now developed to a point where instead of the food being grown close to home, it is now being produced on mega-farms or feedlots hundreds and even thousands of miles from the population centers. Consequently, the quality, safety and with impending gasoline shortages, even availability of food has been compromised for the convenience of the city dwellers and the pockets of, what the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan describes as, the "merchants of death". The recent E.coli outbreak in spinach, carrot juice and lettuce is the most recent dramatic example of the break down of the agricultural system. Some very large "organic" farmers are suspected of cutting corners to make a profit by growing vegetables using untreated animal waste in the irrigation water.
Our experience at Muhammad Farms has led us to conclude that a safe and sustainable agricultural system must include both large scale farms and smaller farms and gardens. This mixed agriculture system and an emphasis on urban gardening was documented on our recent visit to Cuba as well. Large farms are good at producing products like wheat, feed corn, dry beans, sugarcane, cotton and potatoes because they can be grown using large machines for production and harvesting and they store well for long distance shipping. Other crops like watermelons and tree fruits are also amenable to large scale production since they require a lot of area to grow and have a long shelf life. On the other hand produce such as spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and other fresh vegetable crops should be produced close to the point of consumption using smaller plots of land and more hand labor to reduce the need for harmful chemicals, and then eaten almost immediately to reduce the need for lengthy storage. In this article we will highlight the urban garden movement in America and how it can bring the taste of the country back to our cities.
Rashid Nuri, 58 year old agriculturalist and revolutionary, has come full circle to his first love. "I have decided that the most revolutionary act that I can perform is to grow healthy, delicious food right in the city to supply the needs of the people," says Bro. Rashid.
Bro. Rashid earned a B.S. degree in political science from Harvard University in the 60ís but after studying the life and works of Kwame Nkrumah, he decided to get a masterís degree in agriculture from the University of Massachusetts. Bro. Rashid analyzed that Nkrumah had made a mistake by basing his agricultural development strategy on selling raw commodities like cocoa to Europe instead of further processing these raw materials into products that would bring a higher price in the world market. Bro. Rashid decided that Black people in America needed to control the production of food from the seed to the table.
He started his first urban garden project in San Diego, CA before he was drafted to oversee the management of 13,000 acres of farm land owned by the Nation of Islam in 1975. Included in that farm acreage was 4,500 acres of land in Terrell County Georgia which was sold off in the late 1970ís, of which 1600 acres was redeemed by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan as he rebuilt the Nation of Islam according to the vision of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The present writer has been the farm manager for that farm since 1995.
After the Nation of Islamís Salaam Agricultural Systems was shut down, Bro. Rashid sought work elsewhere in the agricultural field. He worked with the USDA under Mike Espy, the first Black Secretary of Agriculture where he helped Mike Espy develop the first investigation of the systemic discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. Being the revolutionary that he was, he also requested to investigate the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies handed out by the USDA to large agribusiness firms on an annual basis which allowed them to make tremendous profits while Black farmers were being pushed out of business.
Shortly thereafter, Bro. Rashid left the USDA and has worked on agricultural projects in 38 countries including his last assignment in Ghana. He returned to America in 2006 and has come back to the idea of urban gardening. In April of 2006 Bro. Rashid formed Truly Living Well Natural Urban Farms (TLW), a community-supported agricultural organization with two farm sites in Atlanta and a site each in Henry and Clayton counties.
"Our goal is to reach people and give them exceptionally good food," Bro. Rashid said, "People should get their food from people they know and trust." In discussing the now infamous E.coli infected spinach and lettuce coming from supposedly "organic" farms in California, Bro. Rashid points out that the codes for "organic" are too loose for his standards. For instance he said that one of the regulations reads, "If you canít get organic fertilizer from your local supplier, you can use whatever is available locally." This allows those who want to cheat to do so. Therefore, he keeps his production to a higher standard than the so-called organic association certifications.
Growing and selling fresh healthy food is just part of the mission of his organization. Eugene Cooke a young gardener who got his basic farm training from his grandfather and now works with Bro. Rashid, states that his goal is to get youth in the local communities adjacent to the gardens involved in the production and distribution process so that food production begins to bind and heal the communities. Mr. Cooke was greatly influenced by his mentor Master Gardener Adonijah Miyamora El who set up the Food and Forestry Project at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles under the paradigm of "guerilla gardening", where you see a vacant piece of land and just go to work without a bunch of government red tape. Although young, Mr. Cooke loves gardening, however he is concerned about its ability to sustain himself, his wife and son financially. Love for the people is one thing but care of his family is another.
The TLW has not taken the complete "guerilla" approach. Bro. Rashid has been given permission to utilize 4 acres of urban land owned by different land owners. He hopes to expand to 40 acres. He has found that many land owners have idle properties who will buy into this concept of urban agriculture.
Presently Bro. Rashid has 20 families who purchase their produce in advance for the growing season and come by on a weekly or monthly basis to pick up their orders depending on whatís in season. Families can pay $350 for 13 full baskets of produce over the growing season if they pick up their baskets. They must pay an additional $100 for home deliveries. Bro. Rashid says that "people must realize that 70 to 80% of the price that they pay for food is eaten up in transportation costs." Therefore bringing food production closer to the home will become more of an issue as gasoline prices continue to rise.
He stated that prospective gardeners must pay attention to site location to insure adequate sun light and the availability of water for irrigation. Ideally one should lay out his rows in the north-south direction to take full advantage of the sunís rays.
Bro. Rashid produces his own compost and mulch. Once the raised beds are set up, he uses minimal tillage to encourage earthworm production which insures the long term fertility of the soil. He is glade to teach others gardening as they supply volunteer labor for the upkeep of the organizationís gardens, i.e. knowledge for work programs (smile). You can keep up with the progress of TLW by visiting them on the web at www.trulylivingwell.com.
Bro. Rashid directed us to another urban gardening project in Atlanta called Gaia Gardens headed by Daniel Parsons. This project is somewhat different from Bro. Rashidís in that Gaia Gardens is a 1.5 acre farm operated on a 5 acre plot of land connected to and owned by a co-housing condominium community called East Lake Commons. The community leases the land and equipment to Mr. Parsons. They also purchase produce in advance and help with the gardening in their spare time.
Mr. Parsons has noticed an increase in the concern for quality which has increased the demand for locally grown organic produce. He states that the people who generally support community gardens are those who are health conscious, concerned about the environment, concerned about the number of miles food has to travel and he also notices that women in particular when they get pregnant seek him out as a source of healthy produce. According to Parsons there are about 150 community gardens in the Atlanta area affiliated with an organization called Atlanta Community Gardens Coalition. The greatest production challenge in farming and gardening is labor.
Parsons stated that the University of Florida in Gainesville has recently set up a degree program in organic farming. However, like Bro. Rashid, Parsons suggests that those interested in organic farming should find a farmer and be prepared to volunteer at the farm to learn techniques. At times, they do have minimal stipends available to learn the craft on a part-time basis. He obtained an agricultural degree from Clemson University but had to read between the lines to learn what he needed to actually be a farmer.
On January 20, 2007 as a part of our annual Ministry of Agriculture Conference held at Muhammad Farms in Georgia, we will have a special work session on setting up a home or urban garden facilitated by experts in the field. Once participants return to their respective cities they can begin preparing to plant their gardens. In most regions of the country planting will begin in March or April, after the last killing frost and the ground begins to warm up. Other workshops will include how to develop and sustain food buying clubs and other information on developing a sustainable and healthy food system. Continue to monitor www.MuhammadFarms.com for more conference details and information concerning farming, gardening and our food system.