Last year on a visit to southern Egypt, I careened my neck left and right as I searched both sides of the Nile for the great wheat fields that once crowded the valley, the same fields that I knew once fueled the Roman Empire. Then another traveler pointed to a line in her guidebook and told me that most wheat in Egypt is purchased from the United States; in fact, Egypt is now the world’s largest importer of wheat.
How long had that gone on, I wondered, and how many Egyptian families had picked up and left when it did? Had their descendents all but forgotten how to farm by now? I myself am only two generations removed from mid-western farming and, even as a proponent of raising ones own food, I could likely manage little more than a backyard-sized garden without much trial and failure.
Backyards, however, are becoming a more popular way to farm.
In the barrios around the world, garden after garden is springing up in the backyard patios of poor local residents. In Rafael Nuñez, a barrio on the outskirts of Cartagena, Colombia, I saw the changemakers at Granitos de Paz go beyond helping install these gardens by teaching locals how to raise their crops. The process is so popular that nearby changemakers have followed suit and the idea is quickly spreading around the world.
Like many city-based Americans, however, there are people in the barrios with no backyard to work with. In Cartagena, Granitos de Paz has helped put together a small community garden. In the United States, many towns and cities have their own community gardens, but some changemakers have taken the idea even further, to great success.
Changemaker Edwin Marty is a prime example.
A man who has raised crops in all parts of the world, taught gardening, and who served as the assistant garden editor for Southern Living magazine, Marty began creating urban farms for Jones Valley Urban Farm in 2001. It began with one vacant lot in the Southside of Birmingham.
“Abandoned houses surrounded the weed-and-rubble-strewn plot. A corner convenience store across the street sold everything but wholesome food. The afternoon ice-cream truck supplied the freshest food for miles,” David Hanson wrote for Grist Magazine as part of the Breaking Through Concrete team – more on them shortly.
“The original vision was that we would have this big, beautiful piece of vacant land converted into a thriving production farm with a community garden attached to it, education programs running every day, and a community of people supporting the farm and believing that through direct action we could create a better food system,” Marty told Bob Carlton at The Birmingham News.
Ten years later, Jones Valley Urban Farm has over 3 acres of urban farmland spread throughout Birmingham, Alabama as well as 25 acres in nearby Mt. Laurel and a garden at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
The crops these farms raise are sold to fund education programs that include an agri-science course for local highschoolers, nutrition education programs in local elementary students through the Seed 2 Plate program – a program that Jamie Oliver would be proud of, offers internships for college students, and more. Not forgetting his tried and true followers and fellow gardeners, Marty himself sometimes puts out planting recommendations as well.
Not satisfied to continue where he has already proven his success, Edwin Marty left Jones Valley Urban Farm early in 2011. His primary move took him 100 miles south to the Hampstead Institute in Montgomery, Alabama.
“There is no reason to think Montgomery cannot become a leading model for sustainable agriculture, education, and outreach for other markets across the country. I look forward to leading the city and The Hampstead Institute to the forefront of the local, healthy food movement,” the official press release quoted Marty.
However, Marty is doing more than just his usual.
“I’m going to spin off my job into a consulting business, and if all goes well, it will help lots of other communities around the country, maybe even around the world,” Marty told The Birmingham News.
This summer he has been focusing on spreading the world of urban farming, including a stop in Detroit to work with the American Institute of Architects Sustainable Design Assessment Team and to speak at the urban agriculture symposium presented by Detroit By Design. He’s sure to be traveling more in the near future too, as he and the rest of the Breaking Through Concrete team prepare for the publication of “Breaking Through Concrete: An Urban Farm Revival” – co-written with teammate David Hanson. The BTC team’s goal is to bring distinct urban farms to the public eye to inspire a growing connection between people, place and food.
The Jones Valley Urban Farm and Breaking Through Concrete are just two good organizations fueled in part by Edwin Marty, and so will be the Hampstead Institute, and many more, as this inspirational changemaker spreads his word and his media.