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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Fenceless Farming in Detroit and Beyond

July 18, 2011 |

Urban Farming (urbanfarming.org), the organization that uses abandoned city lots to grow food for the hungry, was conceived when singer Taja Sevelle, a protégé discovered by Prince, moved to Detroit to record an album for Sony Records. She was devastated by the struggles of the city’s poor, already in the throes of the recession. The food banks couldn’t keep food on the shelves and were appealing for donations. She also noticed that as people fled the city there were more and more empty lots.

Sevelle, who is from Minneapolis, had spent several of her childhood years living on a farm and had even spent a year living in a wilderness cabin without any amenities. During those years she had dreamed of being a botanist. So it didn’t take long for her to see the hidden potential:

“A lot of people didn’t really know what I was talking about,” says Sevelle. “(But) when I saw all that unused soil in Detroit, my mind’s eye visualized planting food for people who need food.”

Using $5000 of her savings, Sevelle started three gardens in Detroit and officially launched the organization in 2005. Last year, Urban Farming planted 51 gardens in 21 states as well as gardens in England, Jamaica and Canada. The organization’s gardens are fenceless, meaning they are always accessible to the public. People can simply walk in at any time of the day or night and help themselves to food. The Linwood garden in the heart of Detroit offers two open acres of fresh vegetables for its neighbors to help themselves to.

Urban Farming has also had a significant impact on food banks in the communities it serves, donating their harvests to the banks and encouraging people with home gardens to also donate excess food. If you count those home participants, the organization is responsible for planting, facilitating or influencing the creation of some 47,000 farms or gardens.

All Are Invited

Urban Farming’s mission is simply to eradicate hunger, but as everyone knows that’s anything but simple. The organization’s crowning achievement is that it has helped feed countless people. “That’s the most important thing. That’s what we’re most proud of,” says Sevelle. “I’ve had people come up to me at the garden crying, thanking me because they don’t know how they would have fed their families without these gardens.” However, Sevelle says the organization recognizes that hunger can result from countless inadequacies in society—lack of education and job opportunities as well as ignorance about nutrition and wellness.

Urban Farming now runs workshops at many of its farms teaching people how to grow food at home, what foods provide the greatest nutrition, and providing other useful information. The organization has also started to educate people that live near to its farms about the green sector, informing them about green jobs and connecting them to training programs and job opportunities. Corporate sponsors Home Depot and Coca Cola recently funded a rain-harvesting project in several of the Detroit gardens that collected rain from the roofs of pergolas to supply the gardens’ irrigation systems, which are powered with solar energy. The project has become a tool for teaching people in the surrounding community about green jobs and renewable energy. “It’s the idea of using the garden not only as emergency food relief but also as a catalyst,” says Sevelle, who likes to say the organization is simultaneously providing both the fish (food) and the fishing pole (training).

Just as anyone is welcome to eat from the gardens, everyone is invited to donate. Urban Farming receives substantial support from corporate sponsors like Coca Cola, Home Depot and Triscuit, which has funded their efforts to promote home farming. However, Urban Farming bills itself as non-political, non-denominational and completely non-partisan.

“This is something for everyone,” says Sevelle. “We want the youth, we want the adults, different religions, political parties, we are connected to everyone and we welcome everyone.” Sevelle likes to tell the story about the Victory Gardens during World War II where Americans grew almost half of the country’s food supply to bolster shortages.

Latest Initiative: Urban Farming Global Games

The Urban Farming Global Games is a fundraising competition where every month or so celebrity volunteers use social media to get their fans to contribute as much money as possible to the organization. The competition will play out on a “Donation Scoreboard” on the organization’s website where fans can keep track of how their team is doing. There’s no prize for the winner of course, it’s all for bragging rights, but the money raised will help Urban Faming continue it’s innovative work.

Sevelle is hoping the Global Games, which launched last week, will provide a fun way to use celebrities to raise funds to support its expanding programs. The organization has always depended on celebrities to draw attention to its programs and spread the word to the public. Everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to rapper Snoop Dogg has pitched in. For the next few weeks NFL stars Vince Young, Marcus McNeill, Sean Jones, Kenny Britt and Chauncey Davis will be tweeting, facebooking, phone-calling their fans and corporate sponsors to support their “teams.” The next round of the games will feature college football stars and in the fall, music industry celebrities.

“It’s a fun, innovative way to bring money into the organization,” says Sevelle. “One of the things I do want to say is that we are all connected. A statistic that drives that home is that poverty costs people a lot of money. It cost the United States approximately 500 billion dollars in 2007. That’s not taking into account poor education, environmental factors and suffering. So if somebody out there feels like they are not motivated to get rid of poverty maybe (the societal costs) could be a motivating factor.”

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