A Bomba (The Pump)

Association Agricola Muda Macequesse is lucky. In 2016 they received a very large irrigation pump from a government and NGO-funded project. The provincial governor attended an innuguaration ceremony.


And it is an impressive machine with three electric engines and a massive capacity to pump water from the Muda River.

irrigation pump

But then again, they are not so lucky. In March 2019 Cyclone Idai hit. A damn on the Muda River burst causing massive flooding downriver across the Association’s land. The Association’s recently plowed 47-hectare field washed out, preventing them from planting the crop which would now be ready to harvest. High-water marks, still visible, reach above the doorways. Most people I’ve met say they survived by spending several days on top of a roof or in a tree. Many people across the river lost their lives. I was told the remains of a house appear in the photo below.

house in river

Nearby on the national highway many dies while trying to cross the Haluma River on an old bridge built prior to independence from the Portuguese. It collapsed. We pass the construction site every day.

bridge hole

Or perhaps they are lucky. The Association’s land is a bit higher than the land on the other side saving them all from the fate of those nearby. The pump station’s mooring cables prevented the platform from being swept down river only shifting out of position to rest along the bank.


But then again, maybe they aren’t so lucky. The electricity station is not functioning and now sits at the edge of a steep embankment. The government has said they would like to move it but no one has said when, and if in the meantime it will be repaired. Their electric irrigation pump engines are likely damaged, sitting unused four months after the storm. I picked my way down the embankment to photograph the pump make and model. If it is true that the sugar processing company is going out of business they may choose not to repair this sophisticated system and instead purchase something cheaper and easier to maintain and repair. My job is to provide the information needed to make these decisions. 

For now, post seminar smiling faces lean towards lucky.


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To cure your sugar addiction, spend some time watching sugar cane being cut by hand.

This week I’ve been working with a farming association who grows 100 hectares (nearly 250 acres) of sugar cane under contract with a sugar processing company located roughly 40 kilometers from them along the national highway, the EN6, which runs from the port of Beira to Zimbabwe.


I’m training association members how to market and sell their vegetable production, an enterprise they are developing to diversify their business. Each day at 2 PM I’ve conducted a marketing training seminar immediately adjacent to the sugar cane fields. Each day I’m stunned by the progress made by forty workers wielding machetes.

It’s brutal smokey, dirty, lung-choking physical labor. The day prior to cutting the fields are burned. I have simply developed a cough from sitting a couple of hours every day next to the fields.

burn from highway

The workers cut by hand beginning at 6 am. The winter the sun forces them to quit before 5:00 pm, otherwise they would keep working.

cutting caneA typical worker earns 250 mt ($4) each day. These are the people who feed the world’s sugar habit, allowing us a cheap burst of pleasure and comfort.

piling caneRemember them the next time you drink a soda or consume your favorite sweet treat.  Express gratitude and respect.

carrying cane


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Been busy…

Six years.

I’ve been busy at energy-sapping jobs and writing cover letters, often with help.20180428_174155

One weekend I entered an essay contest to travel the world for a year on $50 a day. I did not win.

I recovered in Italy, Croatia, Cuba, and on Wisconsin farms and by Michigan lakes.


Sylvania Wilderness. Watersmeet, Michigan

Old Barn Highland WI

Old barn. Highland, Wisconsin


Vestibule, Diocletian’s Palace. Split, Croatia

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Olive harvest. Pistoia, Italy

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Urban agriculture. Havana, Cuba

In mid-July I quit my office job to spend a year in Malawi as a U.S. Peace Corps Response volunteer to refresh, revive, rehabilitate, and rediscover. Unfortunately, I did not medically clear in time to make the mandatory departure date at the end of August. I’m now available to take on new opportunities and— officially in perfect health.

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Ricardo’s Beans

Innovation. It was not covered in any of the training seminars, but it is a good way to describe the general mentality of the Belas Association- innovators. From my first day I can see that it exists in this group of farmers. As I tour the fields of Associacao 7 de Abril 1 I notice a smaller plot of beans.

I ask if it is also contracted to Vanduzi Company. Ricardo tells me those are his leftover beans. He is experimenting and trying to save seed because the only source of green bean seed comes from Vanduzi Company. Local seed suppliers do not carry it. I hate to ask, but I do- “Is this hybrid seed?” Ricardo looks confused. Perhaps it is my pronunciation of hybrid. One of the CARITAS staff members accompanying me for the day repeats the question. Someone else repeats it in Shona. “Yes it is.”  I inhale and exhale and decide to give a straight forward response. “You know that hybrid seed won’t reproduce true to form.” Silence. A nod. Does it mean he knew that or is waiting for more?

“If you plant the seed from this who knows what kind of bean you will get and, well, it is also planted right next to your dry beans which could also confuse things due to cross-pollination.” He seems to remember hearing this some place before, but masks his disappointment. I say, “Well you have a great experiment going. Perhaps you will develop a new breed of bean that will be perfect for the Belas District. It will be called Ricardo I.” He laughs and says “I might be able to make a lot of money from that.” Determination. Next time I will bring Ricardo at least ten varieties of green beans for his experiment. Maybe some yellow and purple ones as well.

The group turns out to be great actors. I shouldn’t have been surprised given that I immediately picked up on their willingness to innovate. Turns out they also improvise. I give a general scenario for a sale.

One person plays the buyer, the other the seller. The goal is for the seller to close the deal to their advantage. Even when the role play takes place in Shona I understand what is going on. Rafael tries to swindle me at my market stand. He talks to me in a loud rude way. I ask him “senor why are you to talking to me in that loud voice.” At the end of the scene he claims he has no money and actually tries to walk off with the bags full of vegetables. I get loud applause for chasing him down and taking back the vegetables.

We take turns and change the scenarios. A whole sale buyer from the city calls Simao on his cell phone to buy cabbage. A buyer shows up at Lucia’s farm demanding a good deal. I play a lost city person who shows up at Ricardo’s farm and wants to buy lots of vegetables. We switch back and forth between Shona and Portuguese depending on who is playing the roles.

Many times Rafael volunteers to be the buyer. We start calling him “the swindler”. I learn a lot from him. Much of what he improvises is likely reality. “You need to lower your price because I arrived here late in the day and now it will be difficult for me to get a ride back to the city. I will have to wait all night”, he tells one woman playing the seller. At first she caves in until we all begin to shout at her “tell him that’s not your problem if he made a bad plan!” I love this afternoon. We laugh. We talk. We discuss. And in the end we dance, improvising without music.

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Antonio remembers the extraordinary multi-lingual street kid, Benedito, who lived in Quelimane in 1990. Sergio knows Abilio. The seed salesman lived in the same student pousada in Maputo that I did. This trip I even meet the daughter of the former ambassador to the US to whom I once wrote a letter and actually received a reply. But Elliot, the chef at the lodge where I am staying has no idea the Belas Association farmers exist and travels to Chimoio to buy his cabbage. He was shocked when I told him the cabbage he was buying came from nearby- that the guys he was buying from traveled out here to purchase the cabbage he bought in the Chimoio markets.

During the farmer trainings we brainstorm places for direct market sales. We talk about cutting out the middleman. We discuss how to overcome lack of transport to and from market. They love the Madison farmers’ market video. Ferai says he is ready to jump up and start a market like that right now.

One of the woman comments how much movement there is and if I ever get to sit down. Ricardo notices details like the bags in my back pocket and the fact the vegetables are transported in a refrigerated truck. Rafael, who turns out to be the star of the role-playing, likes that I am laughing with the customers. All of them even like that all the customers only walk in one direction around the capitol square.

But somehow after role playing various direct market sales scenarios an animated discussion begins. I’m lost. It’s all in Shona. I finally interrupt and ask for a translation. It turns out they are listing all the things that won’t work with every direct sales outlet on our list. Too small, too far, not enough people live or work there, we don’t know anyone there. I try to explain this is about creating a new future- that it is in fact more than that- it is about controlling their future. Collin, who is accompanying us for the day, tells the story of the women we gave a ride to in the morning. They were tobacco traders from Zimbabwe. One was carrying an infant. The both carried large sacks of dried tobacco scavenged from the harvest leftovers. Twice a month they crossed the border to Mozambique and traveled to the Belas District to trade the tobacco for vegetables. They were determined to change their life. They knew they had to do something and just could not sit back and discuss all the reasons they could not do something. If they can take risks, why can’t you? It had an impact. Heads nodded. The conversation then turned to how do we solve our transport problem? When we travel to the cities to sell how do we make sure we do not get ripped off? Who can we trust? How can direct sales benefit us? Do other more progressive wholesalers exist who would be willing to buy a wider range of product? Do we have to give up our Vanduzi contracts and sales to the wholesale buyers?  Let’s make signs for the highway so that customers know we exist.

Diversification. Hope. A new future. I feel the connections being made in their minds. I see eyes light up.

I’m not a person considered a super-connector by Facebook or LinkedIn standards, but I remember things and I ask a lot of questions. I remember faces. I forget the names of streets, but I can still find my way around Maputo and guide the driver to my old student lodgings along the railroad tracks. I listen carefully. And here in Mozambique I talk a lot. I hope one day that my endless story-telling, questioning and listening leads me to discover Benedito’s story after he was taken from the Quelimane streets and adopted by a well-off man in Maputo. Does he still speak seven languages? Has he had a good life? I hope his eyes are still shinning the way I remember them. I hope he is still open and friendly to everyone. I hope he now speaks ten languages and has a PhD. I hope the farmers try something new.

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The only (lonely) guest

Most nights I am the only guest. I sit in an empty dining room. Every night the menu is brought to my table, but it only takes me one night to learn exactly what is available and what is not. I really want some soup. How hard is it to make soup? One night I succeed in ordering a cheese sandwich. It is not on the menu, but it exists in the computer system. I am charged 80 MT, or about $3. With a beer and a cabbage salad I feel satisfied.

Guests come and go- arriving before dusk and departing shortly after dawn. One night a lively German tour group arrives followed by an English family. The place is hopping. The Germans are on a 21-day driving tour beginning in Zimbabwe and traveling through Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Their trip will end in Kruger National Park in South Africa. I wonder if they ever have time to get off the bus. One of their tour guides tries to pick me up. It’s fun to have people to talk with, but I wish them good luck in three languages and say good night. One night I sit at the bar and tell the bartender that it is part of his job to talk with the guests. He laughs and plays along as all good bartenders do. When my food arrives, however, I am sent to my table. Another night I help out some fellow travelers by giving them 5 MT. They are extremely grateful and thank me, but then head to their own table. The next morning as I am waiting to be picked up one of them approaches and begins to chat. He is surprised that I’m from the United States and suddenly wants to talk about the upcoming elections. He regrets not talking with me the night before.

Most nights I fall asleep under my mosquito net with a book. Unfamiliar animal calls cause me to stir. I wake up just before dawn to familiar rooster calls from across the valley. I water the plants outside my house, sit on the front stoop and watch the mist rise. One morning someone is plowing along the river.

I ask the lodge managers when the water will rise and if he has a chance of getting a harvest. No chance I’m told. The water will begin to rise in October and by late November his fields will be completely covered. It makes great fishing for the tourists. Apparently the bass hang out in the flooded corn and and sweet potatoes getting fat and lazy. Yet at this time I year the local fisherman need to work and herd fish into their nets by slapping the water.

At 6 I walk to the main lodge to see if I can find my breakfast. Some days I’m immediately successful, others I’m not. I’ve bought yogurt, granola, cheese and juice which is locked away in the kitchen every night as white toast and marmalade doesn’t last when I won’t eat again until 7 or 8 at night.

I’ve given up asking for a pot to make cowboy coffee and instead drink the provided Ricoffee (instant coffee made with Chicory). The first day I was served sweetened condensed milk. I asked for fresh and it’s been out every morning since. I’m thankful. Sometimes I have to wait for someone to bring the key to open the kitchen. While waiting I drink my coffee, watch the bartender measure and count his stock. Once I tease him and say I know the count- one beer less than yesterday. No one else was here. He laughs. I talk to Rambo, the avocado-eating-scavenging young lodge cat. Sometimes I let him sit on my lap while I wait. I have to watch him as he is quick and will stick his entire head in my juice (or beer) before I can react. Sometimes I’m lucky and there is no waiting my plastic bags containing my special breakfast items are waiting for me at “my” table.

After breakfast I walk back to my “house” and prepare for the day. “Bom dia, tudo bem?”, I call, hoping for a conversation, but only getting a friendly greeting in return. I do the same when I return in the evening. Eventually my efforts pay off. I meet the head chef and ask him if he could possibly prepare a soup for me on the weekend. We speak in English. He is from Zimbabwe. I finally get my soup.


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Just cabbage and kale?

One thing the farmers (and market sellers) haven’t seemed to learn is market diversification. From my first day I heard about cabbage, saw cabbage and ate cabbage. Cabbage is spoiling in the Manica and Chimoio markets yet these market sellers say they could sell more. I found it so depressing I didn’t even take a photo of it. Beautiful cabbage is sitting in some farmer’s fields yet no one buys it. Yet they say they want to buy more and grow more. How come?

The farmers say they are able to make a good profit growing cabbage. This was confirmed by Bella, a PhD student from Zimbabwe who has been working with the Belas Associations and conducting some case studies. But I’ve begun to wonder. What about cucumbers, onions peppers, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach or potatoes? These twenty-something potato sellers in the 25 Junho Market in Chimio told me most of the potatoes they bought and sold were from South Africa.

They were unable to find a reliable local source for good quality potatoes. When they say good quality they are primarily talking about size, but they also value red potatoes which often are not found on the South African market. These guys also said they wanted to sell more then potatoes (unlike the cabbage sellers) and could sell almost anything. I believe them.

All they need is a local source. At least this case the young are moving faster than the older generations.

I’ve seen few new agricultural products for sale. In Manica I saw ginger, although I’m told it as been available for several years, mustard greens and broccoli rab and a few sad looking eggplant in Chimoio. Otherwise little has changed in the markets. There are perhaps more sellers and non- agricultural related business in Mercado 38. Mercado 25 de Junho has built a line of permanent stalls and cleared out a pathway for customers.

The farmers in four of the six Belas Associations have just completed four days of intensive business plan training from GAPI, a local microfinance organization. This week I’m planning to follow up on some of the theoretical concepts they learned last week- especially on the concept of diversification- why it makes good business sense and why it is good for production. Their other favorite crop couve, or Portuguese kale, is the in the same vegetable family as cabbage. Their fields are full of cabbage worms. I’m a bit worried that the photos and video of the Madison farmers market

will overwhelm them, but I’m hoping they will learn to imagine what more is possible. Growing petite green beans for Vanduzi Company is just one small step.


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Forgetting and Learning

Dusty bumpy roads just make me tired. It doesn’t help that I was forced to speak Portuguese all day on my second day of work. When I get tired I like to have a translator on hand to help me out. Maybe I’m lazy, but when I’ve just arrived and haven’t spoken a word of Portuguese in two years it minimizes the chance of total confusion. Today my translators only spoke Portuguese. I had no choice. I had to speak. Sometimes we were confused. I am exhausted.

This time around it seems I’ve forgotten more than usual. My mouth struggles to form the words. I stutter and laugh. It makes me think just how much do we forget in our lives? Where we are from? Where we went to school? Our parents? This week I heard a story of a man who forgot all those things. The people say such persons emerged from the belly of a dead man bewitched during the war. It seems it is how they explain refugees, new immigrants or those who just move to a new place. More and more people are moving for employment here in Mozambique. So many people seem to be from someplace else.

Luckily the farmers stay put. And they are learning. After a three year absence from Manica province I’m surprised by some changes. Many of the farmers have cell phones and many have contracted with Vanduzi Company, a large vegetable exporter.

They are used to foreign consultants. One group of associations has even received World Bank project funding to line their irrigation channel with cement. The roads have improved, brick houses are being built and I found strawberries for sale at a roadside stand produced by either a man from Zimbabwe or the United States depending on who you asked. Later I found much better strawberries in the Manica market where I was told they were organic or at least grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizer and that is why they tasted so much better than the ones I had purchased on the EN6. In fact, several people repeated this to me over the course of my stay. It seems this is an opportunity to promote organic production techniques. I can’t wait to start using this example during my training seminars.  I suspect, however, that most of the farmers have never eaten strawberries.

I haven’t forgotten how things were just three and a half years ago. I can also still find the markets in Chimoio and Manica. I’m encouraged as the farmers in the Belas Associations seem like they won’t forget anything I say.

And, luckily I don’t seem to forget about vegetables- just how to talk about them in Portuguese.

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Where is my hammock?

The scene is too perfect-even at the end of the dry season. Bird calls in the morning, frogs singing at night. I long for my hammock which is hanging empty in my backyard in Madiso. Somehow this time I’ve gotten lucky. I’m staying in a resort called Casa Mskia that caters to mainly to fisherman from South Africa and Zimbabwe. Travelers also use it as a rest stop as they travel through southern Africa often arriving no later than 5 pm and departing as soon as it is light- no later than 6 am.

My imagination runs wild with ways to improve the quality of accommodation and food. It has the potential to be an incredibly beautiful yet simple place, but the clients are here for the fishing, not the accommodation and atmosphere. I do, however, decide to water the plants outside my door everyday.

Originally the resort was a crocodile farm and sold both the meat and hides for a good profit. In more recent times it has become a small reserve that includes an animal rehabilitation program. The managers’ daughters were carrying two baby gazelles in a basket both around a month old. On my Sunday off I went for a two hour walk around the reserve in search of giraffes. Apparently, the day before they had been close to the main lodge. However, after fifteen minutes of walking it was clear they had moved.

After spotting track and scat from zebras, wildebeast, impala, mongoose, serval and even feral cat, we found the giraffe tracks. Finally I saw my first wild giraffe. The four are still quite young and haven’t yet reproduced and were brought here from South Africa on 8 October 2010.

Clemente and I spent quite a bit of time watching and photographing them. Later they watched us as we stood and talked.

Casa Msika is located on the Revue River which feeds into the lake created by the Chicamba dam built in 1968 and is only 5k from the main highway between Chimoio and Manica.

This dry season the lake is at an all time low after two years of drought and due to the fact that the dam has recently been releasing water in to the blank river that flows towards Chimoio and eventually the Indian Ocean. The managers explained that by December the lake will be as high as the main lodge and boats will be tied to the rail outside of the small house where I am staying. I can only imagine how gorgeously green it will be. Spring arrived with the rain last night.

As usual I have plenty of time to spare and can often be found sitting on my stoop reading, gazing at the scenery or observing people going about their daily routine.

Cats keep me company.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hammock- the perfect combination of work and relaxation. But I wonder if they even have hammocks here- perhaps in the surfing resorts around Vincolos- perhaps I should start a hammock making business. I can only imagine.

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Urban Agriculture Is Trendy?

Really? It is? Agriculture can’t be trendy. Urban agriculture is like a Pet Rock only around for a single Christmas season? As I see it trends are things that have no business existing like those super baggy extra low riding pants that just don’t seem to go away or like rare pork. I am not trendy. How can something I am passionate about be trendy?

My favorite summer fruits, all locally grown. Are they trendy?

My thoughts ticked like a news feed during a July 2011 trip to NYC where I met enthusiastic 15 year old girls from Brooklyn Tech completing their required volunteer service hours Added Value Community Farm in Red Hook, 20-something hipsters organizing crop mobs, and 30-something families with CSA shares. I ate at restaurants advertising and featuring local produce. In Edilble Brooklyn I read that Eat Local Brooklyn Week had taken place in June. I enjoyed harvesting and eating strawberries with my niece on my brothers’ rooftop garden and discussed the potential of vertical farming with the adults.

Onions for sale in Madison, Wisconsin

When I told New Yorkers in addition to visiting my brother I was there to investigate urban agriculture in Brooklyn the usual response was “Oh, that’s so trendy now”. Some said it as fact, others with distain, others as if I was passé for investigating an over done subject. Unfortunately, as often happens when I’m around kids, I caught a bad chest cold and my investigations slowed, but for the past year I’ve been mulling over the implications of urban agriculture as trendy- is it good or is it bad?

Added Value Community Farm, Red Hook Brooklyn and, yes, that is an Ikea store across the street.

Most trends fade away and some may even disappear overnight as followers are distracted by the next shiny thing. Trend followers are attracted by what is cool, hip and in the moment. A quick search on Google on “Is Urban Agriculture Trendy” brought up numerous recent results from the US and Canada referring to urban agriculture as trendy. This article in the San Francisco Chronicle from June 2011, Meet the Farmer Next Door, caused a stir and many comments disparaging urban agriculture, hippies and trends.

One of the featured farmers, Esperanza Pallana, from Pluck and Feather Farm in Oakland seemed as puzzled as I and wrote on her blog with “it is hard to be trendy with growing and raising your food because it requires so much labor to keep it going”. This perfectly explains my gut churning reaction to the claim “urban agriculture is trendy”. Without vision, commitment and perseverance your farm will fail. Any farmer will tell you this. Any person who grew up on a farm knows this as well. Trends and the people who follow them come and go. Farms and farmers do not.

Added Value Farm in Brooklyn sits on a concrete slab, which was covered with enough top soil for growing vegetables.

But it wasn’t just my gut reacting. From what I witnessed urban agriculture in Brooklyn has grown rapidly in order to meet the trend generated demand and has perhaps suffered for it. Produce at a co-op, a farm and in a CSA box just did not meet my quality standards. The systems and quantity of produce being harvested at an urban farm also did not meet my expectations. Unfortunately it seems that people have jumped on the bandwagon so fast that their farming skills have not yet caught up and reached the level that we have here in Wisconsin.

Beautiful beets from Harmony Valley Farm at the Dane County Farmers’ Market- Madison Wisconsin

On the other hand how can urban agriculture be trendy when it is not really a new idea? Do all trends need to be new ideas? Immigrant populations in cities have always kept gardens. Growing up in Chicago in the 70’s my family had a community garden plot. In World War II families, both urban and rural, had Victory Gardens. In 2005 I visited massive urban gardens in Warsaw.

Family community garden plots in Warsaw often include a summer kitchen- practical, not trendy.

Such a surprise to find this oasis in the middle of a very large city- Warsaw, Poland.

Some say it is merely the term “urban agriculture’ that is new. Yet I think the term ‘urban agriculture’ is used to promote a paradigm shift. Can we change the way we eat? Can we increase our knowledge of where our food comes from? Can we reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in food production? Can we create new jobs in cities? Can we eliminate food deserts? I would hate it if urban agriculture were simply a trend and my city-born niece’s only exposure to agriculture was her roof top garden. My niece is fortunate to have parents who value organic produce and raise a few vegetables on their roof. I, too, was lucky to have parents raised with Victory Gardens and an interest in food. Not everyone is so lucky. Once while farming in New Hampshire a childhood friend from Chicago and his New York city-raised wife came to visit. The wife, with an MBA from Columbia University, had no idea how to identify the vegetables growing in the field. Her joy in picking her first carrot is something I’ll never forget.  I’ll also never forget her husbands face as she asked “where is the carrot?” when I was pointing out a row of carrots and then exclaimed “so they grow underground?” We all learned something that day.

My niece enjoying her carrot harvest at Added Value Community Farm- Brooklyn, New York

So it is clear to me that one good thing about trends is that provide a wide range of exposure. Michelle Obama created a White House Kitchen Garden. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver attempted to push local healthy foods into schools on his reality tv show Food Revolution, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Reality Program. Although the show was cancelled Jamie Oliver continues his work through his foundation, Jamie’s Food Revolution. Here in Madison community gardens are thriving, with Troy Gardens even operating a CSA farm onsite. Growing Power and Will Allen have helped to start Badger Rock Middle School, Mad City Chickens have changed laws so that people can raise back yard chickens, and this year I bought a CSA honey share from Mad Urban Bees.

Part of my July 2012 honey share from Mad Urban Bees- Madison, Wisconsin

With so much going on how can trends not play a major role in opening people’s eyes and minds to new ideas, products, and places. Sometimes trends initiate positive change? If urban agriculture had been trendy in NYC when my friend was growing up she most certainly would have known how carrots grew. The more people know about agriculture the more they will appreciate and value good food and the work farmers do. The more good food people eat the healthier they will be and the lower our cost of health care. So a year after being hit upside the head with the idea that urban agriculture is “just a trend” I’ve convinced myself that it is okay to be trendy and that there are too many committed people working to move urban agriculture forward in order for it to not to continue to grow and thrive.

High school students learning about farming at Added Value Community Farm in Brooklyn, New York

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