How teaching city kids to farm paid off for this Texas community

An Austin nonprofit with farms on two plots of land working with young people to grow fruits and vegetables increased production by 40% during the height of COVID with an “all hands on deck” approach.

Urban Roots is part of a growing movement teaching agricultural skills to adults and young people who live in cities, helping them learn how to grow and produce their own food. Along the way, Urban Roots helped feed Texans during the height of the pandemic who might otherwise have faced food insecurity.

The nonprofit, which operates a 3.5-acre farm in East Austin and a second location in South Austin, has donated more than 20,000 pounds of fresh food to Austin hunger relief organizations during the pandemic after volunteers stepped up their support for the organization.

To go! Austin/Vamos! Austin was one of the organizations that helped bring Urban Roots products to those in need.

“It’s a great program, because…they get local, fresh, organic, seasonal vegetables that come right to their door” or are distributed to them in the community, said Erica Reyes, lead food justice organizer for Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin.

A farm field with two white hoop houses is lined with trees

Courtesy of Alison Klein/Urban Roots

Urban Roots, an Austin-based nonprofit, operates a 3.5-acre farm in East Austin.

Urban Roots program staff turned to farm work more than 20 hours a week and a small team of volunteers also helped out, said Ian Hunter-Crawford, director of Urban Roots programs.

“We also changed some of our production methods from our intentional, but less efficient, people-powered processes to more efficient tools,” he said. For example, animators and volunteers used a mechanical seeder instead of sowing seeds by hand.

Interest in urban agriculture has greatly increased in the United States over the past decade. Many of the young people who participate in Urban Roots are new to farming, although they may have some gardening experience, said program director Ian Hunter-Crawford.

“Many of us have older family members who grew up on farms or have farming and gardening experience,” he said. “But most of these [youth] don’t. There are no requirements for them other than the required age.

There was a surge in interest in local food early in the pandemic, Crawford-Hunter said, though he’s not sure for all the reasons.

“I suspect, though, that a lot of people were thinking about being more self-sufficient in new ways, being stuck at home and unable to depend on some of the public services that we used to take for granted,” he said. “More generally, urban agriculture is for people who want to be more connected to their food system and who want to participate in its change. More and more people are realizing that there are big problems in the way we grow, transport and buy our food, and are inspired to do something about it.

A person stands with one foot on a wooden spool at the edge of an agricultural field

Courtesy of Lauren Slusher/Urban Roots

An Urban Roots worker stands on one of the association’s farms.

Jeff Cervantes plans to enroll in Austin Community College to study agriculture. The 19-year-old has already learned on basic farming practices like crop rotation and made connections within the agriculture industry through Urban roots.

Cervantes is about to complete the Urban Roots Food and Leadership Fellowship, which teaches young adults agricultural techniques as well as professional development skills. Young people are paid for their time and spend some time on farmland.

“I specifically wanted to join [the program] because I gain more knowledge about everything from farming, to harvesting, to processing, to growing food, so I connect more to the land.

Cervantes, who owns land in Bastrop, Texas, wants to one day operate his own farm.

Unlike some urban farm programs that ask youth to work for free, Urban Roots pays their interns and fellows, with rates ranging from $7.50 to $12 per hour.

Since its inception in 2008, the nonprofit organization has paid nearly $670,000 in stipends directly to 525 young people.

And Urban Roots participants have grown 380,000 pounds of produce, donating nearly half to hunger relief organizations.

Cervantes said Urban Roots has also helped him to open up more and engage more in the community.

“I became more comfortable being a leader in general,” he said.

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