BRENT ROSEN (Originally published January 2012)
Urban farming operations exist throughout the South, but their stories often go unreported. I’ve read newspaper articles about Brooklynites whose roosters annoy their neighbors, and I’ve read about Berkleyites who have dinner parties using only ingredients grown locally by the attendees, but local agriculture in the South does not make headlines. If I tell you people are growing things in Alabama, you’ll likely shrug, knowing that melons and peaches grow just as easily as peanuts and cotton, that greens thrive in our mild winters, that pecan trees are as commonplace in backyards as Labrador retrievers. Even in Birmingham, Alabama’s largest urban area, you need only drive 15 minutes in any direction to be surrounded by farm and field. Agriculture is everywhere, so it seems unnecessary to focus on the agriculture that now exists within city limits.
Because the stories of Southern urban farms often go untold, many people in the region do not realize they have urban farms in their backyards. The farms are an amazing resource for community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, where consumers purchase an up-front share or membership in the farm, and then receive a bag or basket of seasonal produce throughout the farming season. Southerners also don’t realize we have leading urban farmers living in Little Rock Arkansas, Atlanta, Georgia or, in the case of Alabama, Montgomery. For instance, Edwin Marty, a farmer, gardening writer and author of the recently published book Breaking Through Concrete, (which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in urban farming and sustainable agriculture), lives in Montgomery serving as the Executive Director of the Hampstead Institute.
The first time I met Edwin Marty was Christmas Eve-eve morning, and I’d attended a Christmas party the night before. The spirits, Christmas and otherwise, were flowing more than amply that evening and I arrived at the Hampstead Farm in East Montgomery unsure of what to expect and thoroughly unprepared. What I discovered was not only impressive, but re-energizing. My meeting with Edwin not only changed my attitude that morning, it changed my opinion about the future of Montgomery.
First, some background. Edwin Marty is an urban farmer best known for his work at the Jones Valley Urban Farm in Birmingham. Edwin is a Birmingham native who was awakened to urban farming while attending the University of Oregon. His interest in environmentalism coupled with his love of landscaping led him to take a course on urban farming, and afterward Edwin knew his life’s work would be stopping the immense environmental degradation caused by our current food system. He explained that we can feed everyone on the planet through environmentally sound, organic and sustainable methods were it not for inertia and government farming policies. Edwin had a true philosophical awakening: somehow, farming had become nature’s enemy. To bring agriculture back into harmony with nature we need more, and not less, sustainable and organic urban farming. After spending time at the applied agriculture program at University of California – Santa Cruz, where he lived on the campus farm overlooking the ocean, Marty went off to work internationally, focusing on sustainable agricultural development.
When he returned to the States, Edwin saved enough money to co-found the Jones Valley Farm. This project was the first of its kind in Birmingham and Edwin will tell you that much of his success came despite the city of Birmingham. Even though his farm was fewer than 10 blocks from City Hall, the Mayor of Birmingham visited the property once, and his reaction was decidedly “meh.” Even without much support from the city, Birmingham’s chefs, in particular Frank Stitt, embraced the idea of locally grown, organic sustainable produce. Within five years the farm was receiving grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, had partnered with local schools for educational programs, was supplying food to the best restaurants in the city and had full-time staff working the three-acre farm.
After ten years, Edwin felt ready to move on. He and his wife looked at a map of the world — he was interested in Bali, she Italy — and plotted their next move. Then, they had a child, and focused their search a bit closer to home. While California and New Orleans made attractive offers, Montgomery stepped into the fold and offered something nowhere else could: the opportunity to turn a small project in Birmingham into a state-wide movement. Montgomery offered access to the state legislature, agricultural commissioners and the other thought leaders who would be necessary allies if urban farming were to become the norm in Alabama. Montgomery is the place where a state-wide sustainable food council could be launched and headquartered. The Mayor of Montgomery, Todd Strange, also personally called Edwin and promised the city would be cooperative and supportive: a partner, not a passive observer. In the end, Montgomery made a “Godfather Offer” and Edwin now calls it home.
To understand the importance of Montgomery landing someone like Edwin Marty, one needs further background. Montgomery had the same issues every other city in America had throughout the 80’s and 90’s: Crime, failing schools, white flight and crumbling infrastructure. Rather than attempt to solve those problems the city choose to expand, sprawling ever further eastward until now Montgomery, a city of around 270,000, has exurbs twenty miles from the city center. Whole new communities were created from scratch while old neighborhoods in the city core languished. Since the early 2000’s the rallying cry of “Montgomery’s coming back” could be heard from civic boosters and at the chamber of commerce, but the dilapidated buildings that made downtown look like a jack-o-lantern at night were strong evidence that the rallying cry was falling on deaf ears.
Today, however, it appears people are listening. The for sale signs that created the illusion of a perpetual political campaign are gone, and scaffolding, contractor vans and sawdust are as common today downtown as the homeless were before. People who call Montgomery home are selling the city to outsiders rather than defensively admitting it as their place of residency, and yet this sense of optimism felt a touch premature. Or at least it did until I met Edwin Marty and through him learned how dedicated to redevelopment the city leadership has become.
Edwin oversees two farms, one at Hampstead in East Montgomery and the other downtown along the Alabama River. The farm sits on six acres of land formerly occupied by a railroad switching station. The land was heavily contaminated with pollutants because of its former use and the city forgot about the parcel as the population moved further and further eastward. For years the land sat unused. When city leaders envisioned the plot of land as a potential urban farm, the city applied for and received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency under its Brownfield redevelopment program. After removing the top three feet of soil and placing a heavy mat across the entire parcel, the site was ready for agricultural production. The Hampstead Institute took control of the farming operation; now a dozen elevated beds produce lettuces, root vegetables, greens, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and many other food crops completely free of toxicity. Local restaurants purchase produce from the farm and Edwin hopes to add a converted shipping container to the property that will serve as an on-site stand for retail produce sales.
The city also plans on making the farm’s location a key component for future development. The farm is situated exactly between Montgomery’s entertainment district and Maxwell Air Force Base. Formerly there was nothing in between the two, just abandoned, burned out buildings, boarded up store fronts and homes with more bars on the windows than some jails. The city plans on creating a development path that will connect the downtown entertainment district to the base, and the path runs right along the border of the farm. This will create the sort of foot traffic that turns a neighborhood from “dodgy” to “transitioning,” and at its center is the urban farm. The farm acts as a bridge to a vibrant and dynamic downtown. While the city has long talked about projects like this, now there is something tangible along the riverfront that makes future claims believable.
Edwin thinks projects like Hampstead’s downtown farm can make Montgomery the capitol of sustainable agriculture in the same way that Austin, Texas is the capitol of music. Edwin already has plans to expand beyond growing produce in raised beds: he wants to have an edible forest. Blackberries, peaches, apples and other fruit trees and bushes are going to be planted at the rear of the farm, and once there is enough shade Edwin wants to graze sheep and goats right up to the railroad tracks that form the farm’s western-most border. Imagine children running around in the forest, goats bleating as they roam the grounds, people plucking berries straight from the tree and popping them right into their mouths; now imagine you are watching all of this from your 8th floor office window.
Edwin’s current six acres are just the beginning. The many abandoned lots where grass has gone to seed, the many areas where houses have burned down and never been replaced, the many people who need jobs: small urban farms could spring up all over Montgomery, oases in what would otherwise be food desserts, bringing good, real food and economic development to the community. There is so much opportunity for food production in Montgomery; all it will take is the interest of a few more people to make a local food economy reality.
The economic impact is not the only benefit the urban farm will bring, as Edwin makes educational programming a focus at his farm. When children come to the farm they do not just learn about agriculture, they learn about healthy eating, the importance of fruits and vegetables, and how hard work pays dividends when the time comes to reap what has been sown. Local schools can partner with the farm, sending their students to learn about agriculture, healthy eating and the importance of fresh foods, and the farm can supply the school with the vegetables needed for the school lunch program. The Montgomery location affords another unique opportunity: by law, every 4th grader in Alabama must visit Montgomery to see the state capitol. As it happens, the school bus parking area for this trip is mere feet away from the downtown urban farm. Picture those 4th graders also visiting the farm on their trip, and instead of eating Doritos for lunch they harvested carrots, beets and lettuces and ate them straight from the ground.
Edwin and I discussed these ideas while we stood on top of the recovered caboose that serves as the downtown farm’s office. The ideas themselves are practical, the logical extension of having a showcase farm in an urban area. What is revolutionary is that the conversation was taking place in Montgomery, and not some other city someplace else. Montgomery was long a laggard when it came to creatively solving urban problems, so the recruitment of Edwin Marty signals real change. His ideas will make Montgomery a better, safer, healthier and more interesting place to live. Urban farming is the future, and for the first time in a long time, the future is now in Montgomery.