Farmer Joe: building a culture of stewardship and a Houston food economy

One thing Houston has plenty of is land. The city’s weather is perfect for year-round growing.  We just need to cultivate the will, and we can build a community where everyone eats.

by Sara G. Stephens

HFM: How did you become so deeply involved in urban agriculture and sustainability?

Farmer Joe: Late in the 1980’s I was introduced to the Dubose family in Blanco Texas who were involved a permaculture project.  Shortly afterward, Bill Mollison came to Houston and Jacquelyn Batisse organized an event at the Museum of Natural Science at which Bill spoke to about 300 folks.  The next weekend we started having permaculture classes at my house in the Heights.  Jacquelyn and I started a permaculture group called S.E.E.D (Sustaining The Earth Through Environmental Design). 

Through one of our Board Members, Marcus Glen, Prairie View A&M University hosted several programs. Through this collaborative effort, we started working together to increase the involvement of the surrounding neighborhood and the greater 5th Ward Community. Along with regular valued LOO volunteers and the Cooperative Extension Program, we were able to identify our goals and move in our current direction. [

In 2014, we had a meeting with the Food Everywhere coalition and discussed the need for resources to build soil. A few friends were able to contact Tree Inc. who handles CenterPoint power lines clearing.  We began mulching the pathways and future beds. John Kholer, of YouTube’s “Growing Your Greens,” has an excellent video on us called “Urban Farming Using Wood chips.”  The video was made in December 2014.  What we have done in the past year is shift from growing vegetables to farming resources. 

HFM: Your farm crew has worked to develop a low cost solution to reintroducing farming back to neighborhoods with food insecurity issues. Can you tell us a little about how successful you’ve been in this regard?

FJ: In June we partnered with Danny Wilson and his family where they compost food waste and wood chips using the aerated compost method.  I saw it as an opportunity to stage an agriculture development project in the Fifth Ward by regenerating unused land through land stewardship.  We are addressing food insecurities by reintroducing farming back into neighborhoods. The wood chips break down very fast.  They create a reservoir that holds moisture.  Recently we noticed that the compost beds on top of the wood chips were wicking moisture into the beds, keeping the beds slightly moist–exciting stuff. 

HFM: One of your stated objectives for Last Organic Outpost is to establish a local food economy. Can you explain what you mean by that?

FJ: A local food economy is about resourcing a community around needs and establishing through the stewardship of land access to a quality food resource–workforce development. At the Emile farm project we have created a demonstration on how communities could build resources through soil building doing vermicomposting. Water harvesting a 11,000 gallon pond with a capacity to do a commercial aquaponics project. The farm is raising hens for egg production, beekeeping, black soldier fly, composting using lots of methods, and growing a wide variety of crops.  Thanks to Lowes we have a presentation area to do food preparation demonstrations–a stage for education presentation on healthy lifestyle choices and more.  We have tasting events introducing folks to what the farm is growing. 

HFM: You talk about hoping to build a fleet of additional equipment to stage resources in areas of Houston that welcome farming efforts. What exactly are you hoping to gather?

FJ: This is our campaign to Farm Houston.  With additional equipment–a truck and a dump trailer, we can focus on communities’ loading available land with wood chips staging a food security plan for Houston.  There are 70,000 abandoned lots in Houston that can be cleared and mulched with wood chips to suppress weeds.  We can wait a year or two and then introduce the aerated compost to the top of the wood chips to start growing immediately. We start with one crew of 3 or 4 people and begin the fertile build out of Houston. 

HFM: Do you see churches playing a large part in these roots spreading? 

FJ: I am on the Fifth Ward super neighborhood board as Historian.  I have talked to one of the Pastors and other community leaders in the Fifth ward about faith- based ministries support.  I understand that there are 67 Pastors in the Fifth Ward, 25,000 people from the Fifth ward attend church, and 50,000 come into the Fifth Ward from outside the community.  With the Churches’ support we can address real needs in this community through land stewardship. 

HFM: Have you felt support from Mayor Anise Parker or other city officials/community leaders in LOO’s efforts?

FJ: In January 2014, I did a brief presentation before a public session at City Hall outlining a food security plan for Houston’s limited resource communities.  Five City Council members were interested. What we have been able to do is work a demonstration so that we can Farm Houston.  Through collaborations we have begun a food security plan for Greater Houston.   With a workforce of farmers we can build farming operations, plant orchards, and build a food security plan for entire communities. 

HFM: How does building a workforce of farmers synchronize with Houston’s staggering growth and consumption of resources?

FJ: There are so many issues with food insecurities–hunger and poor health, for example.  People could use meaningful work.  If we, as an entire community of Houstonians join together, we can create a beautiful city of agricultural parks and resource whole communities around stewardship. We could introduce varieties of crops that taste delicious and build dinner for Houston.  Wherever there is available land we could plant orchards or gardens for food productions. We can work with landscape architects so that projects fit with development. 

HFM: What can our schools be doing to teach youth about the values you are trying to instill in the Houston community?

FJ: Good example stands tall. Educational hot spots demonstrating techniques on the stewardship of land. Incorporating sciences. Conservation. Imagination. Food safety. Outdoor classrooms. Art. Service work. How to plant a tree. How to grow an economy for an entire neighborhood. Reinvent. Move forward. Try things. Resource what available. Feel passion. Get excited. Introduce crops. Taste is the next revolution.

HFM: Tell us about volunteering opportunities at Last Organic Outpost.

FJ: When the weather is good we open 7 days a week from 9 til 4pm.  We have tours, we plant, and we have potlucks.

HFM: If you could impart one piece of wisdom to Houston youth, what would it be?

FJ: If your dreams don’t scare you’re not dreaming big enough.


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