So, what's the deal with urban agriculture? I have heard so much, and have been dying to talk to someone involved in the urban ag community to hear their perspective.. I had the pleasure of sitting down with an old classmate from the University of Iowa, and she told me all about her role in urban agriculture, how she got started, and why it is important not only to her, but to many throughout her community and throughout Iowa.
Meet our Prairie Woman of the Month, Rebecca Vasquez:
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
I grew up in Marion, Iowa. It's a small city next to Cedar Rapids.
WHAT DID YOU STUDY AT IOWA?
Everything! I transferred to the University of Iowa from the Chicano Studies Department at UTEP/EPCC (University of Texas at El Paso/El Paso Community College) hoping to pursue a Geology Degree, but ended up with a B.A. in International Studies: Global Resources & the Environment, a French minor, and a certificate in Sustainability.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN INVOLVED IN AG?
I would say 3 years of growing food directly in the soil. I grew my first vegetables by container gardening 7 years ago in plastic 5-gallon buckets and would wheel them in and out (depending on weather) using a wagon. My parents were planning on moving and didn't want me to dig up their yard, haha!
WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN URBAN AG?
This is definitely the question I get asked the most!
It seems like 7 years ago when I moved back to Iowa from Texas that I started container gardening out of nowhere; or I guess having the urge to grow food for unknown reasons, haha! I purchased a few starter vegetable plants (tomatoes and peppers) from the Cedar Rapids Farmer's Market. I worked at a restaurant, so I decided to save the empty 5 gallon green pickle buckets, and BAM I was growing food in the basement of my parents' house and wheeling them out on the patio by wagon. I have always been kind of a crafty person, so I guess I just wanted to see if I could actually grow something. At the time, I didn't know anyone my age growing food, I didn't know about local food, or CSA (Community Support Agriculture) and sustainable farming.
My parents like to say I grow food because my grandpa Vasquez did it. He lived with my grandma in Burlington, IA in a small apartment and grew vegetables and herbs on a rented piece of land owned by a friend down the road. He also gardened in a small plot at CASE (IH Agriculture) where he worked as a painter, painting tractors. As a kid, my brother, cousins, and I would help him sell vegetables during his yearly garage sale. Now, thinking back, I'd like to think of myself as the next generation of urban farmers or gardeners! So with the influence of my grandpa growing food next to his apartment (growing food with no land ownership), my interests in growing food in an urban setting, my interests in environmental science and cultural anthropology (cultural studies), and food sovereignty, I believe that is what got me interested in urban agriculture.
WHERE ARE YOU WORKING NOW / WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
I currently have 2 part-time jobs (3 if you count Etsy!). I'm a farmworker at a CSA (Community Support Agriculture) Farm in Solon, IA called Sundog Farm / Local Harvest CSA. Carmen Black, the young farmer who owns Sundog Farm, grows spring, summer, and fall vegetable shares.
I'm also an urban farmer for Horizon's 'Meals on Wheels' program, and my job is to help farmer Sonia Kendrick of Feed Iowa First (a non-profit in Cedar Rapids, IA fighting against food insecurity "To combat food insecurity today and tomorrow by growing food and farmers") to grow vegetables and herbs for Meals on Wheels, food pantries, and other community food assistant organizations. Sonia is helping me work on a side project growing maize and Iowan cactus. I'm trying to learn how to grow heirloom flint and flour corn varieties for making tortillas and growing Iowan Prickly Pear Cactus for eating. Both (maize) corn and (nopal) cactus are a part of traditional Mexican cuisine. This idea started with my interests in food sovereignty and hoping to teach other Mexican Americans and Latinos about growing vegetables related to their cultures.
Another personal project is growing Iowa native plants, "unusual" and diverse vegetable and herb varieties, and trying out organic gardening techniques (companion planting, integrated pest management, vermicomposting, etc.) in my "research" rented garden plot in Squaw Creek Park. I'm growing edible flowers, chocolate and Mexican mint marigold, purple pole beans, yellow and brown Kumato tomatoes, and other fun stuff!
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART ABOUT YOUR WORK IN AG?
I get to be outside! The cool part about urban agriculture is that food is growing in the city next to buildings, homes, schools, and parking lots, etc. and this helps people living in the city see firsthand 'how food is grown.' Right now I live across from one of the Feed Iowa First gardens, and its so awesome that swiss chard and cilantro are growing in back of a gas station car wash and next to apartment complexes. I also love the whole process of planting the seed, harvesting the crops and giving it away for free not just to those in need, but also to those who volunteer, to students, and to people who have never tried a 'homegrown' herb or vegetable.
I've also been learning how to harvest 'weeds,' and how beneficial they can be! For example: purslane, redroot pigweed, wild chamomile, creeping charlie, etc.