The Hansons Tour the Country and Publish a Book
By David Hanson ’00, Photos by Michael Hanson ’03
Michael hands me an old Gatorade bottle half-full of diesel fuel. I pour a splash into the air intake, and Michael cranks the engine. It sputters and conks. We let it rest. The desert sky is a sunset wildfire of lemon pink that darkens to blood orange. Warm light fills the bus, painting everything inside: our wood bunk-benches, the two desks, the rickety kitchenette repurposed from an old RV, and the small dorm-room fridge that holds fresh kale, arugula, carrots and goat cheese picked up at our last farm stop, in Santa Barbara, Calif.
We've waited long enough. The sky has faded to a deep, inky blue. We crank the ignition again. It doesn't work. The first stars come out. On our fifth try, Lewis Lewis (we'll get to him) revs to life, we shut the hood, close the folding school-bus door and roll onward, ton the glittery oasis of Flagstaff, Ariz.
This was late May of 2010. Our mission was simple: Make a book that tells the story, in words and photos, of the visionary people and vibrant farms happening in America's cities. By Flagstaff, we had been traveling for 10 days and had visited three urban farms since leaving our Seattle home on May 19. Another six weeks and nine cities lay ahead of us if we wanted to complete the journey and make a book.
I am not a farmer or a diesel mechanic. Neither is Michael. I am a freelance writer contributing to magazines such as Southern Living, Sunset, Outside, Mountain and Preservation. Michael is a freelance photographer who has shot for Outside, NPR, the New York Times, Budget Living, Coastal Living, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others. Freelance working conditions vary, from cushy four-star resorts to remote villages, like Venezuela's tiny, boat-access-only town of Chuao, where the villagers grow the world's finest cacao. So we occasionally find ourselves in situations like the one in Arizona. It's just the nature of having a big project (driving cross-country in a school bus powered by recycled vegetable grease) and a tiny budget (aka a book deal).
Fresh and Healthy
According to the USDA, over 1,000 new farmers' markets popped up in America in 2010, bringing the (official) national total to 7,175. That's up from 1,755 in 1994. A wave of do-it-yourself, back-to-the-land, organic interest is easing across the country. Grocery stores, farm-to-plate restaurants, even mega-corporations are touting their local cred: McDonald's billboards in Seattle boast of using Washington potatoes, and Domino's ad campaigns trace their pizza ingredients to family farms.
The tilt toward fresh and healthy is necessary. Our country's disjointed and transportation-dependent food system has needed an overhaul for decades. While increasing rates of obesity, hypertension and diabetes indicate a vast array of complex social problems, it's undeniable that our health issues' main taproot is limited access to fresh, healthy food for a large percentage of our population. It seems we've settled for cheap rather than healthy and affordable.
I used to teach in national parks (Olympic and Yosemite). Students ages 8 to 18 had no idea where their food came from. I'd ask about the origin of their cheese slices. The most common answer: "the grocery store." My brother and I, like most of our contemporaries, are now over a generation removed from the farm. We grew up in the suburbs, and we rarely even had a vegetable garden.
All this is to say, urban farms, at their most fundamental level, are changing the way we understand food by simply opening a piece of the city and letting us look at food growing-slowly and obviously-out of the dirt. Urban farms appear in a hundred different shades, from raised beds shared by neighbors, to small-business incubator farms for refugee immigrants, to educational farms, to rooftop gardens. None of them intend to feed the masses. The benefits to their immediate communities and the ways in which they are evolving our nation's perspective and conversation around food go far beyond the kale, chard, carrots, tomatoes and sunflowers they produce.
Hundreds of city-farm visionaries are doing this kind of work. Edwin Marty is one. He's also a close friend whom I met while living in Birmingham, Ala. In 2001, Edwin founded Jones Valley Urban Farm (JVUF) on a patch of soil in downtown Birmingham. He grew it into a city-block farm that teaches youth and adults, provides fresh produce to the city and trains new farmers. Edwin and I often talked about new farms and visionary city farmers we'd been introduced to around the country-Edwin as an urban farmer and me as a magazine editor. We hashed out our ideas over cold, cheap beers in a neighborhood dive: Birmingham's Garage Café.
Eventually, after I'd relocated to Seattle, our barstool brainstorms turned into a formal book proposal on America's urban farms. By January 2010 we got a bite. The University of California Press would publish it. Oh, no. Neither of us had ever written a book, and this would require a two-month cross-country road trip to visit and document the farms. Edwin had a newborn at home and a farm to run. He would write the intro and conclusion and the how-tos that accompany each chapter, but he could not hit the road for two months. We needed a photographer and a vehicle.
The photographer part was easy. Michael and I shared a house in Seattle, so I asked him if he wanted to drive around the country and make photos for the book. We'd likely be sleeping and eating out of a bus or van, and we'd make no money. But we'd meet amazing people and tell a good story. He said, "Sure."
Now we just needed our 21st-century Rocinante. For two months, we scoured Craigslist. Finally, a month before we needed to begin, we found the perfect vehicle on a curb two miles from our house. The short school bus, a '97 Chevy, which had toted schoolchildren in Washington's Kitsap County, had been converted to run on recycled vegetable grease (two tanks: one for diesel, one for veggie) and had three bunks, an old-but-functional RV kitchenette and a mini-fridge. Three guys had driven it to Baja and back on a surf trip. I got a lesson in veggie-grease operation and bought it a few days later.
We installed two desks, and Michael signed up for a portable modem. We hung curtains. We spray-painted the bus white, and it looked pretty good. Eventually the name "Lewis Lewis" stuck, in memory of Edwin's first farm employee, Lewis Nelson Lewis, on JVUF's original vacant lot. A homeless veteran who volunteered and eventually became a full-time paid employee, he died in 2009. Lewis always had a story, often full of half-truths, and he punctuated the gaps between his own laughter with a pull on the cigarette held between his dry, cracked, soil-darkened thumb and forefinger. We needed his spirit of second chances, the healing power of growing food, and the positive ripples that flow out of projects with intention and authenticity. But Lewis Lewis, the man, also had his vices, so we were not surprised when his namesake bus broke down in Berkeley, then again at sunset outside Flagstaff.
Between Seattle and Birmingham, we saw six farms, each bursting with the young summer's new energy. In Santa Cruz, Calif., we met homeless men and women who were changing their lives through a three-year training program at the Homeless Garden Project. In Santa Barbara, Calif., directors at a historic farm had figured out a way to preserve it in the face of suburban residential encroachment. In Denver, a partnership between Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), the city and the Trust for Public Land is rehabilitating a vacant lot in a neighborhood full of refugee immigrants. The new American citizens began growing vegetables on the abandoned lot across from their apartments as a way to curtail grocery bills, create community and reconnect with their agrarian roots.
America's heartland rushed by us, through eastern Colorado and across the green sea of Kansas. Massive mono-crop farms of corn and wheat reminded us of the troubling trend toward big agriculture and the conversion of the independent family farm to family farms indentured to corporations. Kansas now imports the vast majority of its fruits and vegetables. The tiny towns along Interstate 40 were on the verge of becoming ghost towns. We couldn't even find a proper diner.
But Kansas City has new ideas for food. Big gardens and small farms harvest from the fertile city soils, and individuals sell the yield at farmers' markets, most of which now accept food-stamp swipe cards. At New Roots for Refugees Farm, women from Myanmar, Sudan, Somalia and Burma train in a small-business farm incubator program. They learn how to market and sell their robust vegetable yields grown next to a housing project. With support from Cultivate Kansas City and Catholic Charities, the women can resume their agrarian lifestyles, earn income for their families and feel useful in their new home.
We hit New Orleans with a heat wave. Even with every window and roof vent open, Lewis Lewis felt like a tin toaster oven. The Vietnamese community of Versailles sits in east New Orleans, a 1960s planned community whose wide boulevards, cul-de-sacs and modest ranch homes somehow hacked their way into the jungle of wetlands and canals draining Lake Pontchartrain. Versailles recovered faster than any other community following Hurricane Katrina, in large part because the residents grow most of their household food on the canal sides and in backyards the size of a one-car garage.
By the time we reached Birmingham and JVUF, Lewis Lewis was worn out. We weren't even that surprised, and almost relieved, when he stubbornly refused to start in the parking lot of JVUF. Lewis had made it back home, powered by vegetable grease for much of the 6,000-mile journey from Seattle. The tour was only half over, but we were full of inspiration. How could we argue with such a poetic homecoming? We gathered our gear and grease-stained clothes and relocated to a rental minivan-shiny white with automatic doors, A/C, a CD player and no discernible character.
Our route continued north to Philly's Greensgrow Farm, then to New York and the 6,000-square-foot rooftop farm on a warehouse with views across the East River to Manhattan. There, founder Annie Novak takes advantage of her postcard-perfect urban view to use Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, in Brooklyn, as a far-reaching educational outlet that brings city kids and adults in direct contact with food growing in dirt.
My favorite farm came near the end, in Detroit, a city that's become America's urban revival laboratory. An estimated 100,000 vacant lots tempt urban agriculture pioneers, artists and a radical-thinking mayor who's toying with the idea of converting massive chunks of abandoned cityscape into farmland.
One public school for teenage mothers and mothers-to-be sits quietly on the fringe of the revitalization fray. The Catherine Ferguson Academy is half school, half urban farm, with vegetable gardens, hoop houses, chickens, goats, ducks, a horse. The girls built a barn that houses hay harvested from vacant lots. Young mothers, many of whom have been rejected from most aspects of their lives, milk goats daily. In between math and English classes, they discover their power and value behind the wheel of a diesel tractor.
Our journey ended north of Chicago at the edge of suburb and farmland. Sandhill Organics farm earns $25,000 an acre growing a diverse range of vegetables. That's far more than the per-acre average of the nearby mono-crop farms. So maybe there's hope for the ideas creeping out of small lots in cities.
We made it back to Seattle without Lewis Lewis. But I can now change the glow-plugs and bleed the fuel injectors on a diesel, and I can test the water content of old french-fry grease using a frying pan and camp stove without burning my eyelids off. And our book, "Breaking through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival," came out in January.
And though I'm still not a farmer (the six rows of greens in my front-yard garden patch aside), I know the new American farmers. He and she seem to be a mix of savvy entrepreneur, educator, marketing director and tractor driver. They use Facebook and Twitter and e-mail blasts and multimedia to reach their audience with the simple message: Come outside and get some food.