We recently had the pleasure of hosting a visit to our small family farm. Boone and Soni Holladay came to The Barry Farm to hang out with our family and ask some questions about starting to farm. With notebook in hand Boone and I toured our pasture and talked shop and logistics. We meet after a screening of The Greenhorns where we sat on the discusion panel after the movie. They have a particular heart and goal to begin growing food in the city for Houstonians. He has a unique perspective as an educator of Agriculture. Please listen to Boone’s thoughts.
urban youth and agriculture… disassociated.
I have taught agriculture science in an urban school for five years. After completing a graduate degree with a focus on urban education, I looked forward to the opportunity to reach out to students that haven’t had the opportunity to understand their food, how it is made, and where it comes from. Little did I know the experience I would have once my ideas became reality. In Texas, the vast majority of agriculture science programs are from rural communities. The few in each urban core strain to hold together a thriving program and FFA chapter. There are several simple reasons for this. One, is the lack of community understanding of what these programs mean, in short: the food on our tables and the jobs that are created by that industry. Small towns heavily support these programs, and for the youth, being active in FFA is as important as playing on the football team. In the city, the majority of students, as well as the parents could care less if the FFA program dissolved. They just don’t see the connect between their lifestyles and the industry of food. Access to food is simple in cities, on most street intersections there are fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Access to high quality food is centralized to mid to upper-class neighborhoods. So for most urban youth, what you see is what you get. My teaching partner, when discussing food systems, asked her class “If grocery stores were gone, where would you get your food?” One student honesty answered “McDonald’s.” The labs for many of my courses at the school include several units on vegetable production. We grow a significant selection of seasonal vegetables in raised beds in which we harvest in class and clean and eat. Some try the food, many are resistant. When we harvest salad greens, most students say they can’t eat it without ranch dressing or cheese and bacon, but once they try the greens with a light vinegar dressing, many change their mind. Some just wouldn’t admit they liked it, probably because it is not cool to eat healthy or because it was not bought at HEB. It’s such a psychological deal, if its not cool or normal or the “in” thing, most kids won’t break away and try it, not just with food, but anything. There are other things to think about when trying to figure why these kids try not to learn about agriculture. Their communities are much different that rural communities. I have surveyed kids on their farm experience, personal or family, and most if not all do not have any direct ties to farming. Some say their grandparents had a farm, but now they don’t. Almost like they are saying “no one farms anymore.” They are also dealing with big social issues like drugs, crime, prostitution, gangs, sex, and dysfunctional families. It is also hard to introduce the concept of growing produce or raising livestock when most of them don’t have the room to do this, better yet, don’t know of any green space in their neighborhood large enough to engage in it. The current music trends have a great impact on them, too. While country music talks about farming and ranching, very few urban youth listen to it, or would admit to their peers that they did. Most students listen to a blend of electronic beat rock or hip hop/rap music. These sounds don’t lend well to motivate kids to work the earth for food, better yet work at all. They stress the importance of self image and the need for money, lots of money, to buy cars, big houses, or just to throw the money into crowds…because you have so much of it. To me, it seems senseless, but ask these kids, oh it’s the real deal. Well, it should be easy to understand why urban youth are not the least bit interested in agriculture, after all of this evidence, but I don’t think they are the real reason. I believe that our modern agriculture complex has isolated itself from these communities, hiding the truths of our food system. Urban youth feel they don’t have a part in it because they don’t and they know it. Drive out to far West Texas and visit a modern dairy or pork operation. They make the whole county smell like crap. Do I really see one of these urbanites finding a job in this industry and living their dream? No, not really. But at the same time, I have recommended to many students to start their own urban farms, specializing in rare vegetable varieties and earning lucrative amounts of money doing it. None are receptive. Most kids are visual learners, they have to see something working before they will believe it to be true, and we just don’t have these types of farms in our city. Go other places, like New York, Vermont, California, Oregon, these are big topics and kids would see that “hey these operations really do make money.” Then they would realize that, even though they might not make the stacks of money they see in rap videos, they could earn a decent living off of agriculture. As much as I push them towards agriculture careers or even just personal vegetable gardens, things won’t change until their perception of agriculture changes. I am optimistic that recent developments in our city by local businesses and non-profits have began, will continue to develop urban agriculture into our city, for the sake of me and my duty as an educator, but primarily for the future of the youth of our city becoming associated with agriculture. I do strongly support the “grass-roots” work by local farmers like Geoffrey and his family who have already made their move to develop a sustainable local food system for our community. Their kids are out there working with livestock, learning the truths to local agriculture. Hopefully, they will be the next generation in championing this movement. Again, I am an urban agriculture educator with five years of service in my current position. My wife Soni is currently a horticulturist for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The both of us are long-type supporters of urban agriculture having volunteered several years of service to our local Urban Harvest. We are continually making plans to transition into local agriculture ourselves. Not knowing which focus area we will eventually pursue, we do know that now is the time for local community supported agriculture in the Houston area and we want to be a part of this movement.