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Fresh Off the Farm

How Plant It Forward and its Farms are Leading the Future of Urban Agricultural Production in Houston

I wonder if it’s nice out in Florida right now, I thought to myself and looked up at the sun.

A sharp gust of frigid air swept across my spine. I rubbed my arms. But there was still work to do, so I pressed on.

By Saturday morning, a remarkable number of my friends were, by then, most likely already in Florida or Colorado or even, South Korea. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the extraordinary amounts of fun they were about to have exploring the magical Walt Disney World, touring the bewitching Universal Studios Orlando, or traversing the enchanting streets of Seoul.

Meanwhile, I was stuck on an urban farm in the middle of Houston. Specifically, an area of my city that I never cared about or, frankly, even knew existed.

But by noon, on Saturday, November 20, 2021, I, along with my fellow Sustainability and Environmental Awareness (SEA) Club members, had weeded vegetation, cleaned up litter, collected harvests, held deep conversations with PIF workers, and experienced an enthralling adventure throughout the fields of one of Plant It Forward’s many urban farms. And, by the end of it all, I’m certain that everyone with whom I had shared the event could firmly say that it had been just as enriching, crucial, and memorable to our lives as any vacation across the globe.

Despite being recently established in 2011, Plant It Forward (PIF) has already made its mark deep within the roots of Houston. PIF is an organization that employs skilled farmers with refugee backgrounds to cultivate urban farms within the city of Houston, providing them with a stable source of income, access to fresh resources, and asylum within the US. Furthermore, PIF provides an abundance of benefits to their partnering farms, including land, agricultural resources, mentorship, and business opportunities.

While being a home and lifestyle for many refugees, Plant It Forward is also an astounding example of sustainable urban farming—a topic that the SEA Club has long been interested in and endorsed. Because the PIF farm network is located entirely within urban Houston, its farms must be compact—less than one acre each—which ensures that the organization doesn’t waste even a square yard of valuable space. Additionally, also due to their location, PIF farmers are motivated to use an arsenal of bio-intensive planting techniques, combined with an agroecological approach, that prioritizes the use of their land, their time, and their natural resources, without cutting back on the maximum production of produce. In fact, with just six acres of urban farmland, PIF farmers can feed up to 500 Houston families a week. Lastly, PIF guarantees that each one of its farms, practices, and productivities focus equally on its customers, workers, economics, and environment without compromising the efficiency of their agricultural achievements.

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When the SEA Club first arrived at PIF’s Fondren Farm Saturday morning, we met up with another visiting school and gathered for an introduction made by Tiffany Jin, a representative and volunteer worker at Plant It Forward. She introduced us to another worker, a Memorial Senior High School alumni, Kayla Mizwa. Tiffany informed us that the urban farm that we were visiting was also the primary workplace of a few refugees from Africa, primarily Christine Kengue, who had originally been from the Republic of Congo.

Thus, our initial tour of the farm began. Tiffany led us to the rows of vegetables and the composting area. Along the way, we learned that this farm grew up to 50 different types of crops, thanks to the skilled labor of refugees, such as Christine. As we observed gardens that were thriving with cabbages, broccoli, spinach, Chinese okra, and turnips, Tiffany simultaneously talked about the goals, benefits, and overall mission of PIF and its urban farms.

Rows of cabbages on the farm.

One key point that Tiffany emphasized was the importance of urban farms to the environment of cities, especially ones as populous and large as Houston. Farms built upon unoccupied land clear of trees could help convert an urban area’s substantial carbon dioxide emissions into clean oxygen for humans and other animals to live off of. Additionally, these farms could also churn out fresh produce for nearby food businesses, stores, restaurants, and residents.

Another key point that Tiffany touched upon was how this specific urban farm resided upon the unused land of a neighboring church that had donated the area to PIF. The gift of the land is incredibly impactful as it not only benefits the PIF farm but also provides fresh produce and volunteer opportunities to the church’s local communities, families, and farmer’s markets.

All the priceless information Tiffany provided aided our first impression of the farm and its land as we trekked across the expansive field under the clear blue sky and crisp air. And although we were exposed to the morning’s breezy wind, the cold could not hinder what we had come here to accomplish.

The first task that the SEA Club members were assigned to do was to pick up litter that had cluttered their way around the farm. This included stray plastic and chip bags, candy wrappers, aluminum cans, and even a McDonald's takeout bag. A while later, after the SEA members had crossed ditches, barren fields, and bubbles of grassy plains, we were satisfied with our work.

Afterward, we were asked to join many other volunteers in weeding the gardens and decluttering the overgrown plants that had invaded the empty soil meant to be set aside for future gardens. As we squatted down and worked, Tiffany gave us a run-through of PIF’s history and their other sustainable practices, keeping our minds just as busy as our hands were.

One of the things we discussed while working with Tiffany was the effect of the past year’s events on PIF’s farms. The most notable and relevant event of course was COVID-19. We were surprised to hear Tiffany recall that the effects of the pandemic were positive on the farms’ distribution of produce. PIF workers concluded that during the city-wide lockdown that occurred mid-2020, many citizens distrusted the health safety of grocery stores, and thus, turned to new sources of produce. This agricultural boom for PIF’s farms was further increased by many people's desire to focus on healthy and local eating during the long period of isolation.

While we were intrigued by the topic of major events that affected the success of PIF farms, another occasion that we asked Tiffany about was the recent winter freeze in February of 2021. Tiffany described how most of the crops, specifically on farms such as Fondren, failed to endure the harsh cold. This, thus, was a major hit to these farms.

(Bottom row, from left to right) Yundi Zeng, Merry Ding, Tiffany Jin, Eliza Khan

Sometime later, Tiffany led all the volunteers to an opening in the fields, to further instruct and explain other topics and tasks that we would be tackling during the second half of our visit.

During this period of instruction, a student volunteer initiated a conversation on how most students nowadays only participate in volunteer and community service activities for the sole purpose of earning college application volunteer hours—with not strong enough of a focus on the overall benefit of their community, well-being, sense of purpose, or ethics. However, for these reasons, all urban farms are advantageous and intrinsic because as students flock to the nearest place where they can obtain volunteer hours—often, places such as PIF farms located next to suburban populations—students will ultimately be helping their local communities and agricultural-related businesses in their pursuit of acceptance to top colleges.

Tiffany (center) speaking about the work that refugees do on PIF farms to the volunteers.

Later during this time, Tiffany, Kayla, and Christine approached the volunteers, offering us bits of fresh produce that they had just harvested from their farms. Merry Ding, our club President and Yundi, another SEA Club member, got the opportunity to take a nibble of some freshly-picked turnip and spinach leaves. “The raw and earthy taste of the produce we got to try at this farm was so unlike the taste that I normally experience from say turnips bought from HEB,” says Merry. “But that’s just the freshness of it—and proof of the beginning of something beautiful.”

Then, we took a quick water break, captured some pictures to post on our social media accounts, and resumed our work.

While many of us, including the SEA members, returned to the fields to continue pulling weeds, other volunteers were assigned to arrange the farm’s first substantial compost bin. They cleared an area of the land and piled in over-ripened okra and other plants to begin the composting process.

Merry Ding, SEA Club President (left) and Eliza Khan, SEA Operations Manager (right)

Finally, as our final minutes of the workday were wrapping up, the volunteers also began to finish and tidy up their work. We cleared out the area, took our gloves, and picked up some of the leftover produce, including Chinese okra and Jerusalem artichokes, to take home with us as souvenirs. While many of the volunteers began to leave, the SEA Club obtained permission and beamed at the incredible chance to interview the Fondren Farm’s owner, Christine, and PIF workers Tiffany and Kayla (included at the end of the article).

On the way back home, as the sky began to get clearer and the air began to get warmer, looking back on the adventure that I just had, I was glad that I participated in the SEA Club’s very first PIF experience—and as we traveled down a road connecting my world and the middle-of-nowhere Houston that had just recently become a part of it, in an inner part of my soul, I also felt satisfied.

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Interview with Christine Kengue

Before our departure, the SEA Club received the chance to interview Christine. As English is not her first language, we decided to keep the interview short (Christine speaks French, Znebi, and Lingala as well!). We asked her about her experiences during her time with PIF and why she enjoyed her job. Her response narrated her love of the food that she grew and the ease of access that PIF has provided her with: a rewarding job that was located right next to her residency. And by the smile on her face and the enthusiasm she held when answering our questions, we could honestly tell that she truly loved her job.

Could you introduce yourself and your background to our viewers?

Hi, my name is Christine Kengue. I have been here at Plant It Forward for 10 years. I’ve worked here on my garden, 10 years. I have children, I have grandchildren. Yeah, I love my job!

So you did farming before you came to Plant It Forward?

This was my job in Africa too. Yeah, it was the same. Same job.

What do you enjoy about farming?

I like my farm, I like everything I plant. I love every produce! I planted every produce. Like the cassava over there (gestures to her right), I planted everything here.

What do your workdays look like?

I’m here all day, every day from 7 am to 6 or 7 pm!

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Interview with Kayla Mizwa

We asked Kayla to provide us with her intel and experiences at SEA, and we were particularly invested and intrigued by what she had to say, especially since she had chosen to work at PIF after graduating from Memorial Senior High School—the SEA Club’s parent school.

Kayla’s insights expressed the importance of a supportive community to aid effective growth and trigger change and progression for a cause. She also described how PIF’s use of sustainable farming practices ensured that the produce that's being grown and distributed is truly healthy and fresh.

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Kayla Mizwa. I work with Plant It Forward, and I work with them through another company called Americore.

What’s your background?

My background is in anthropology. I graduated from Texas State and I just got my certificate in nutrition. So I was looking for a job where it takes both aspects that I like and puts them together, so this is perfect.

So, some of our viewers might not know what Plant It Forward is. Could you give a description of what this organization is about?

Yes! So this organization was started ten years ago, and we noticed that– well, we know that Houston is the fourth city in the whole country that takes in refugees. And typically, whenever people come over here, they get three months provided by the government. So, places to live, and you know, money from the government. But three months, whenever you don’t know the language, or you don’t have any sort of context for the culture here, it’s not enough time to kinda get your life together, so for people that have agriculture backgrounds, Plant It Forward provides a place for accessible land and it also provides people the access to markets to sell their produce at a rate to where they’re receiving fair wages. So that is what our main focus is on.

What are some of the values that Plant It Forward has regarding farming, sustainability, or environmental and social impacts?

So I think one of the biggest things that I’m sure that yall have realized is the community around Plant It Forward. I’ve never been a part of a company that has volunteers frequently come back year to year and such amazing groups of students that want to participate every week. So, for sure, community. And then, for sustainability, these are practices that have been used for a long time that don’t include huge machines, pesticides, chemicals…This produce is the real deal and this is the way that we’re supposed to farm and eat it.

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Interview with Tiffany Jin

One of the topics that we asked Tiffany to elaborate on, was her illustration of how the PIF Farm Share worked, also known as the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). She explained that through the CSA, farmers at Plant It Forward are able to have appropriate, crucial, and satisfactory access to sell their produce with support in marketing, sales, and distribution of products. Families, farmer’s markets, and other businesses can join the CSA and donate or contribute to its operations, ensuring that PIF workers receive the proper tools and necessities that they need to sustain their lifestyles and their beloved farms. The CSA makes it possible for refugee farmers, like Christine, to earn income even if they experience a poor producing season during events such as harsh weather that may lead to low crop yields.

Could you introduce yourself and your background?

My name is Tiffany, I’ve been a volunteer with Plant It Forward for close to two years now. Mainly, in this farm steward role, kinda leading groups of volunteers on the farm doing workdays with the farmer, and as a market volunteer. So, being at the market with the farmers to help tell customers how to utilize the produce, more about what Plant It Forward does, and sort of just like trying to trigger ways that they can use vegetables and other things that they might not have encountered prior, and a ton of other random things! And so that is my background with Plant It Forward!

Some of our viewers may not know what Plant It Forward is yet. So, could you give us a description of what this organization is about?

So, I kind of can talk about it from maybe a community aspect. So the way that I see Plant It Forward as an organization and sort of just a really great group of people, is they’re really setting an alternative way of creating food systems and through what the farmers have already grown up with. Like either coming up from generations of farming in their home countries, and adapting those practices here, and those methods are totally different and radical than what an American or western way of farming is. So, they’re showing us how you can grow sustainably, have these independent businesses that can support their family, and being in better relations with the land and the people that come by and support local agriculture. And Plant It Forward just helps facilitate that through training, learning how to adapt to a different climate, and they’re connecting the farmers to new markets and other resources, like land.

What are some values that this organization has regarding farming?

Um, values! So, values are: being really respectful of different cultures. So, you have farmers coming from these really rich backgrounds, having lived in multiple parts of the world, and they’re bringing those traditions here. And so we’re kinda sharing that with a city that’s already pretty diverse. Another value is making sure that farming and this way of life is supported financially. So putting the value on the intensive labor that goes into this so that there’s an alternative to industrial farming. So, valuing the people and the culture that they bring with them.

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...Surprise! We have started a Youtube channel! Click below to watch our visit to Fondren Farm and make sure to like, subscribe, and share!

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