Farming gets citified: Growers, educators, politicians gather to consider feeding Houston’s people

          HOUSTON – Urban sprawl is about to get dirty.

           Amidst the asphalt, brick, mortar and penthouse views, green acres are popping up at the hands of city farmers, municipal organizers, educators and politicians – all hoping to feed the hungry, add household income and encourage a healthier lifestyle.

           Getting dirty is easy. Yielding fruit, vegetables and animal products is harder. But a state agency long associated with “cows and plows,” the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, has teamed up with Houston-area leaders to teach interested urbanites how to grow food.

           “What we’ve done in rural areas throughout our 100 year history is easily translated into urban centers,” said Dr. Doug Steele, AgriLife Extension director, of College Station. “Everybody is concerned about their food sources, their food supply and the health aspects of their food. What a great opportunity for AgriLife Extension to come together with our urban audiences and urban partners to talk about the benefits and value of locally grown food systems.”

Dr. Joe Masabni, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist from College Station, explained weed control during the recent Urban Food Conference in Houston. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Kathleen Phillips)

Dr. Joe Masabni, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist from College Station, explained weed control during the recent Urban Food Conference in Houston. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Kathleen Phillips)

        Steele addressed the recent Houston Urban Food Production Conference, a first of what promises to become an annual event in the city, organized by AgriLife Extension’s Harris County office. More than 200 people attended to learn about everything from how to grow fruit, nuts, poultry and goats to marketing options, funding support and how to get organic certification.

        “What we are attempting to do is to provide a linkage between the producers here and some of the local government agencies that provide regulation and such,” said Dr. Allen Malone, AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in Harris County. “We hope that this conference will help bridge the gaps and open up an opportunity to start some dialogue that will allow for safe, affordable production.

           “In the Houston area, there are several communities that have food deserts meaning the people who live there don’t have access to fresh food produce,” Malone said. “We want people to be able to grow and provide produce in those communities.”

           “Healthy eating should be available to everyone,” said Robert “Skip” Richter, AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Harris County. “Not everyone can easily access or afford the kinds of fresh produce that we need in our diets, but everyone can grow things where they live.”

Richter said AgriLife Extension has educational resources to help anyone in the greater Houston area grow healthy food at home whether in a traditional garden, in flower beds or in five-gallon buckets filled with a growing mix.

“If you want to grow food we can help you succeed,” he said. “Our assistance is just a phone call or email away, and we offer free classes and open garden days for people wanting to learn how to garden.”

           Filling that need is personal for Texas Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, who told the group about his childhood in the southern Houston community of Sunnyside where fresh fruits and vegetables were not widely available, yet he saw these items in stores when he visited relatives elsewhere.

More than 200 people attended the first Urban Food Conference organized by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts in Harris and Fort Bend counties. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Skip Richter).

More than 200 people attended the first Urban Food Conference organized by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts in Harris and Fort Bend counties. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Skip Richter).

        “As an urban kid growing up, I did have concerns about the lack of proper nutritional values in the inner-city,” Miles said. “Houston has one of the highest rates of diabetes, obesity and malnutrition in the nation. Through efforts such as this, with AgriLife Extension and Urban Harvest, we are able to educate the community on how important it is and what they can produce for food inside the community.”YouTube Preview Image

        Miles said the urban food conference was a “breath of fresh air” for the congressman who has devoted a portion of his legislative activity trying to pass bills aimed at encouraging more urban farming and to educate “the entire body of 149 colleagues” in the Texas House on what urban farming is.

        “In the direction in which this country is going, we have to be more self-sustaining especially when it comes to health and resources of our own, this is going to be the start of something big across this country,” Miles said. “When things get tough and times get hard, we just go right back to the basics of what got us here. And if farming the earth got us where we are, then we need to go right back to it. I’m excited about that.”

        For more information about urban farming and food production, see https://www.facebook.com/HUFPC2013 or call 281-855-5600.

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