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Urban Roots Grows Young Leaders!

October 22, 2021 Austin, TX

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On the east side of Austin near Boggy Creek, Urban Roots’ first youth farm is situated in a fertile part of the prairie. As we walked into this beautiful, peaceful, tree-lined property, we saw Jacob coming toward us pushing a wheelbarrow. He was coming from the program session, where Teresa was leading a discussion with a group of more than a dozen adults, to unload his pickup truck full of freshly harvested summer squash from their new farm on the south side of Austin.

Assistant Farmer Jacob

“It can get a bit busy shuttling produce back and forth between farms,” Jacob Grob, Assistant Farmer, explained as he generously took a break to give us a tour of this amazing growing place. A graduate of both the University of Illinois and the corporate world, Jacob is thrilled to have found something so meaningful to do with his life. Previously a volunteer, Jacob recently joined Urban Roots as a Farm Assistant at this 3.5-acre site. “I grew up in a small rural town in Illinois where almost everyone in my family farmed. This work feels like a return to my roots.”

Urban Roots’ Youth Leadership Program

“Currently we have 12 young adults working with us as part of the Food and Leadership Fellowship.” These are adults 17 to 23 years of age who are anxious to learn about how to make a positive difference. The first few weeks consist of training and orientation. The FLF work Tuesday through Friday each week with Tuesdays set aside for training and education. Wednesday through Friday, they focus on farm work. As part of the program, youth train and lead volunteer crews on Thursday’s providing them the opportunity to take the knowledge they’ve gained while on the farm and facilitating new members while onsite.

The high school “Farm Internship Program” for young people 14 to 17 years old begins in June after school lets out and ends in July. It’s hard work - especially in the heat of summer. For some of the youth, it’s their first opportunity to spend time on a farm, observing the process for seed to harvest. They also spend time discussing issues facing today’s communities around food access and justice.

Teresa Orduno, Program Manager, is very much a part of facilitating character development in these youth. Each week, she focuses on a theme and objective that will help them learn more about various aspects of leadership.

“We donate most of the food we grow to the local hunger relief organizations (list below), which provides our volunteers and youth with direct contact to the those in need. Historically, the youth would also run a small farmer’s market stand in downtown Austin to sell produce directly to consumers that they grew themselves.”

Community Support for the Farmers

“I spent a fair amount of time in the restaurant business, so I appreciate what chefs are looking for in terms of good produce. I see a really great opportunity for us to work with local chefs to create greater awareness about our efforts and show our program folks all the ways in which their work shows up locally,” Jacob explained.

Urban Roots has fostered great connections with their local community since their inception in 2008. They’ve partnered with local companies in efforts to raise funds and raise awareness of the issues regarding food access and justice in the Austin community and beyond. Companies such as Whole Foods and Love, Tito’s help raise funds for the youth programs and their hunger relief work. Urban Roots also hosts an annual donor event, “Tour de Farm” which pairs chefs and program staff to share a glimpse into the work the youth have done. The event is led by program participants and highlights their efforts and what the non-for-profit organization has achieved over the past season.

Community members and companies also help contribute to Urban Roots’ mission through volunteer efforts. Each week, work blocks are established at one of the two farms to assist in planting, harvesting, processing, and general maintenance of each site. Volunteers either sign up individually after an orientation session or can sign up and attend as a group.

Recently, members of Hershey coordinated a volunteer day led by FLF members. These sessions create leadership opportunities for program staff as they guide and direct volunteers through the specific tasks they’ll complete while on the farm.

“Without our community crew members, most of the work on the farm doesn’t get done. Volunteer labor can be challenging to plan for in managing tasks and swings in attendance, but we’re so thankful for the efforts of everyone who comes out each week.”

Farm Operations

The 3.5-acre farm located off of Delwau Lane has been the main farm site for Urban Roots before the recent expansion to the South Austin site. The farm is organized into stations, each with a different plant schedule, irrigation plan, and harvest timetable.

“I’m one of two full-time farm employees. Montana (Farm Manager Montana Stovall) and I try to be thoughtful and deliberate about how much land we do cultivate.”

Jacob showed us the lettuce, bock choi, broccoli, and kales growing in the first or four zones. They also grow interesting produce like purple daikon and watermelon radish, lemongrass, mustard greens, and collard greens.

Largely run off of well water, there is a bit of automation in terms of irrigation, but iron build-ups and low pressure provide challenges from time to time. Fortunately, they’re also located near a water treatment station in Austin which provides the farm with high-pressure city water, perfect for washing crops after harvest. While not formally certified organic, the farm follows OMRI-approved organic practices and treatments. Bed prep and fertilization are largely accomplished through tillage and application of dry, slow-release fertilizer. Plants are also fertigated using fish emulsion and Chilean nitrate.

On a terraced wall on the south side of the farm under the shade of trees, they also grow culinary herbs: oregano, sage, and rosemary. Close to the central area of the farm is the cooler and root cellar to store produce until they can get it to market. “We have a great partnership with the GAVA (Go Austin/Vamanos Austin) and Ghisallo Cycling Initiative to get our produce directly to those in need every Friday. Ghisallo actually has members who bike to pick up and deliver the produce to neighborhoods each week.”

Expansion at the South Austin Site

Last October (2020), Urban Roots added a nine-acre farm in South Austin through a 30-year lease with the city.

“Things are pretty rudimentary there. We’ve got a small corral for equipment and we irrigate the fields using sprinklers and drip tape that’s directly connected to a city fire hydrant. We still need cooler space, electricity, storage to make the farm fully functional, but that’s part of a larger effort over the next few years. In terms of planting, we’ve tried to focus on single-harvest crops like cabbage or root crops (beets/carrots) so that we can effectively harvest and transport from the site.”

Long term, Urban Roots hopes to build out the new location to include a pole barn, cooler space, greenhouses, and a visitor center that will also function as an educational space.

Hunger Relief Partners in the Austin Area:

Author: Farmer Karl

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