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Food, a Vehicle of Liberation

Numerous individuals and groups of African descent have come together to form the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, a civic body in the US, comprising of black urban and rural growers, collectively working towards food sovereignty.

Among the members of the alliance is a think-tank and collective action network called Black Yield Institute (BYI). The organisation works towards asserting their collective right to culturally-appropriate, affordable and healthy food.

To achieve this vision, they are working on accumulating land and capital, bringing black people to the center of decision-making regarding food – in other words, “building black community power through food sovereignty”.

In Cherry Hill, Baltimore, BYI has been helping neighbouring communities by providing not just fresh food but also employment opportunities and educational programmes via the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden.

Since 2010, Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden has distributed over 150,000 pounds (about 68,000 kilograms) of culturally-relevant produce to surrounding food deserts – areas where over 50% of the people live in poverty, and life expectancy is said to be roughly 20 years lesser than wealthier counterparts of Baltimore.

Among the people involved with BYI is Nicole Fabricant, activist and professor of Anthropology at Towson University, who connects with youth from the community and her own students, learning how to care for farmlands as well as attending programmes conducted by Eric Jackson, founder of Black Yield Institute. In Nicole’s words, BYI is at the forefront of a food equity drive that makes people co-owners, not only creating wealth for black communities but also making Food a “vehicle of liberation”.

When BYI started, they reclaimed an abandoned plot of land to set up the community garden and the institute. This land is officially under the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, though thanks to negotiations with the help of the Mayor of Baltimore, Black Yield continues to operate on it. During the Covid-19 outbreak, the institute and community gained a lot of attention and support while partnering with city officials and activists to distribute food and produce to those in need.

The project is seen as empowering the communities that have so far lacked opportunities to become financially stable. As described by Eric Jackson, these communities aren’t “food deserts” but a victim of food apartheid – where the lack of food is a result of decades of disinvestment. Without access to food and land resources, poor people and poor communities will remain so.

Black Yield have continued to expand their operations through the creation of the Cherry Hill Food Co-op, a membership-based cooperative grocery store owned by the community; partnering with Restoring Inner City Hope (RICH) program to hire youth to deliver produce directly to residents. They are also seeking to take ownership of a 10-acre farm in the countryside to significantly scale up food production and are seeking investment, donations and loans to raise 7.5 million dollars for the planned expansion.

Beginner’s Veggie Guide

As individuals passionate about growing vegetables and edible plants at home, we wanted to share a simplified ‘starter’ guide for the newer and prospective urban farmers, particularly those with less space available.

Full-fledged farms are known to use a variety of techniques and inputs. Here, we share about some pointers to guide you towards a healthy and happy kitchen garden.

Organic compost/manure
Compost in soil helps increase soil health, provide nutrition and retain water. You can buy this locally or make your own from kitchen waste and garden waste.

Seed trays
Plastic trays work wonders but for those seeking a biodegradable option, you have coir trays.

Watering Can and Mister Bottle
A watering can with fine holes helps avoid over-watering. If you keep a mister spray bottle handy, you will be able to increase humidity for tropical or big-leaved plants.

Containers
When growing indoors, on terraces or balconies, instead of pots, you can use containers of various depths depending on what’s being grown. The need is to hold adequate soil, moisture and space for plants and their root systems to grow, while also draining excess water. An average depth of 40 cm (just under 16 inches) is suitable for most plants. Keep deeper containers for plants with longer roots. A metal container may heat up, causing soil temperature to rise as well which might not be good for the roots. If you do use metal containers use newspaper and/or cardboard lining as insulation. Window boxes are a good alternative to using containers, for windowsill planting.

Waste Crockery
Use shards of crockery to line the bottom of the containers to prevent the soil from filling the drainage holes.

Mulch
To protect the soil from the sun and to help retain moisture, dress the top of the soil with 2-3 cm of mulch, pebbles or grit.

Trowel/spade and garden clippers
These are your basic tools for plant care and upkeep.

Soil moisture check
An optional investment is a soil moisture meter. The alternative is to feel the soil – if it’s powdery or slushy, you know it’s got too little or too much water.

If you have the luxury of space, a kitchen garden can extend across inside and outside the house. You can start by sowing the seeds indoor and move the plants out when they are bigger. Harvest some months down the line and repeat the cycle.

Sowing the seeds
Dig over the soil, add some organic compost and tamp it down to rid the soil of air pockets. Draw a line in the soil with a stick. Place the seeds, spaced out along the line then cover the seeds with some soil from the sides.

Watering
Use a watering can with fine holes so the seeds and soil aren’t disturbed. Too much water may cause the seeds to wiggle out, move away and lose contact with the soil.
Alternatively, place the bottom of the seed tray into a larger tray of water for around 30 minutes. The soil will soak adequate water without disturbing the seeds.

Seed sprouting
Sprouted seeds can be transferred from the seed tray to their designated containers. Growing plants require light, water and space. Having to compete with their neighbours may cause many of them to suffer.

What to grow
For those looking to jump right in and make the most of it, plan your kitchen garden in such a way that you plant some herbs that are easy to grow and use, and vegetables with short growth cycles to be sown every few weeks such as salad leaves, radish, beets etc.

Reconnecting With The Land

The importance of green spaces in cities is felt most when there is absolute lack of it.

Living in cities, peoples’ lives and movements are restricted in numerous ways, allowing green spaces the ability to provide people of all ages an escape from the concrete jungle.

This video describes the transformation of New York City from a time when trees were scarce and lives seemed grey, to what the city is seen as in this day and age – an expanse of high-rises, restored and preserved landmarks and buildings, but also a variety of green spaces looked after by the city and its thriving communities.

What once began as a radical movement – the act of taking over abandoned vacant lots and transforming them into community gardens – is now deeply ingrained within the city’s subculture, such that the city made it a practice to lease some of the plots to communities for as little as $1 per month.

Ever since then, these green spaces have provided opportunities for teaching and learning how to care for the environment, improving local access to quality food, sharing and staying connected with their land and communities.

 

Crop Residue Recycling

Agricultural activities generate waste from animal husbandry, crop harvests, fertilizer or pesticide emissions to air, soil and water and even food spoilage.

Harvest waste, also referred to as crop residue, is generated at the time of harvesting and processing the crop. For standing crops that are harvested by mechanised harvesters, this consists of crop stalks left standing in the field.

There is usually a narrow pre-monsoon window during which farmers needs to harvest, prepare the land and sow the next crop. Let’s say a farm grows paddy and wheat in rotation. After the paddy is harvested, the wheat is to be sown. Sowing must happen before the monsoons arrive. While harvester machines speed up paddy harvesting, they leave behind paddy stalks that then need to be cleared before the sowing can begin.

Due to shortage of time or to avoid the expense of employing labour and more machinery to clear the fields, farmers have found it more convenient to burn their fields instead.

Burning causes more problems than you think

While seemingly cheaper and better, burning harvest waste, especially on the field actually isn’t, for various reasons.

Most visibly, crop residue burning emits very large amounts of air pollutants, which travel for hundreds or even thousand of kilometres, affecting the health of millions in their wake.

Burning also leads to loss of biodiversity, microorganisms, nutrients and moisture; the soil hardens and soil erosion increases. In time, these effects increase the requirement for water and fertilizers, further increasing the farmers’ cost of production.

Farmers in China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Thailand, the US and the Russian Federation have contributed substantially to crop residue burning and its associated downstream problems.

What’s the solution?

Rather than burning the residue, there are alternatives, which when implemented can possibly contribute to soil health or even supplement farmer income:

  1. Using as animal feed
  2. Accelerating decomposition on fields
  3. Convert to bio-char
  4. Use for mulching
  5. Cultivate mushrooms

We encourage urban farmers to also explore the ways of nourishing their kitchen gardens using harvest waste.

EnlightenMINT

Mint is a versatile herb that not only spices up a range of eats and drinks, it is also a sought-after ingredient for essential oils, healthcare and cosmetic products. India, China and the USA are among the largest producers of mint and mint related products globally.

Sweet mint, chocolate mint, spearmint, lemon mint, apple mint and peppermint are among the more popular varieties.

Spearmint is the preferred variety to use when cooking. Pot this plant in your kitchen and you’re sure to use it frequently.

For certain varieties of mint, growing the plant from its seeds isn’t possible; instead, use a seedling from a nursery or use plant propagation. When propagating, ensure that the cutting is long enough for roots and branches to sprout; and if growing it first in water, ensure that the water is changed every 3-4 days to avoid rot.

Even though mint is a resilient plant, it is best to plant it right after the frost for optimal growth. Add mulch to lock in moisture and protect the roots of the plant.

They are easy to look after and with proper care, can live for many years. Make note however, this plant, is an invasive one! It competes for resources with its neighbours, and it spreads far and wide when growth isn’t restricted.

Mint management

When planting in a flower bed, decide beforehand if it’s going to be alone or if there are going to be other plants too. In case of multiple plants, start by submerging a container in the flowerbed such that the rim of the container is above soil level. Plant the mint in this container so that the growth of its roots can be controlled.

Position the plant in such a way that it gets the morning sun and partial shade for the rest of the day. The soil must be damp but not soaked so test the soil with fingers to determine dryness. If placed in direct sun, water the plant more often.

Restricting the height of the plant ensures that the plant and its leaves grow fuller. Trim the flower buds before they flower, to retain strength of scent and flavour in the leaves  and also to ensure that the plant doesn’t grow out of control.

Thanks to the strong scent, most pests stay away from mint. There are still some insects and a fungus called Rust that is attracted to the underside of its leaves. Use a fungicide spray or insecticide soap for the leaves affected.

Mint leaves can be harvested at any time after the plant starts to grow out. Ideally, cutting branches that hold the leaves allows harvested leaves to remain fresher for immediate use, and simplifies the air-drying process.

Except when winter’s coming, try not to harvest any more than a third of the plant at a time. During the winter however, the roots may survive but everything above the ground will wilt, so you might as well harvest all its leaves and add some mulch too.

Bundle the harvested branches (with leaves) secured by string or rubber band to air-dry them properly. When dried, you may pluck the leaves and store them in ziploc bags or airtight containers.

If your mint plant has grown into a big plant over some years, it is advised to de-pot and split it into multiple smaller plants.

Other than the fact that its roots would have gotten cramped in the limited space they have, a benefit to re-potting is that it strengthens the scent and flavour of the plant.

A Homemaker’s Urban Farming Journey

Let the word ‘farming’ in urban farming not fool you. The practice does not include hours of toil, large patches of land or heavy-duty equipment. Starting your own vegetable garden can be very simple.

Urban farming is a practice implemented in densely populated urban areas, so people who have taken up urban farming have, over the years, innovated and adapted the practice to suit the urban environment.

One such urban farmer is Padma (Instagram: @padma.maanthini) from Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh — a homemaker who is starting her own business. Padma told us about her experience creating her own vegetable garden.

The first step is figuring out what kind of plants you wish to grow in your garden. In Padma’s case, she had always been fascinated with the idea of growing her own produce. So, when the pandemic hit and she had more time on her hands, she decided to put the idea into action.

When Padma started out, her plan was to have a simple setup where she grew essential vegetables. Repurposing simple plastic containers and using iron stands, she grows leafy vegetables, tomato, chilli, carrot and cauliflower. Soon after, she was able to expand her setup to include fruits like papaya, mango, custard apple and fig.

Thereafter, you need to plan the layout of your garden. A planned garden layout gives a sense of discipline and mental peace. It helps you think more creatively and makes taking care of the plants easier as they are in a structured design. For her garden, Padma used a colony structure as it makes watering and re-potting the plants easier.

When taking care of your plants there are some things that you need to keep in mind, Padma says. Using heirloom seeds makes a great difference in the quality of your produce. (Heirloom seeds come from open-pollinated plants that pass on similar characteristics and traits from the parent plant to the child plant, and are typically saved and handed down through multiple generations of families.) Second, ensure that your soil is fresh and the plants are not decomposing in it. Thirdly, create a proper drainage system for your plants.

Padma also cautions that, as plants in terrace gardens are restricted to pots and don’t have adequate access to the natural resources they need, they tend to die if they are not cared for. You need to maintain a regular supply of nutrients and pest control.

When she faces issues or needs help, Padma looks to YouTube videos and fellow ‘Insta-growers’ (Growers of Instagram).

For Padma, urban farming has been a rewarding hobby. She loves seeing and talking to her plants. The only downside is that she can no longer take vacations because she feels no one will look after her plants the way she does!

Mulch needed

Applying a protective covering on soil surfaces is known as mulching. This is a labour intensive process that leads to multidimensional gains from the point of view of plant care, pest control, soil protection and health, increasing yield and optimizing water use.

Mulching materials can be organic (straw, shredded bark, wood chips) or inorganic (plastic sheets, shredded rubber, crushed glass, volcanic rock, geotextile). Applying mulch is beneficial as it locks in moisture for longer, cushions rainfall and slows water run-off thereby reducing soil erosion, prevents soil crusting or weed growth, and even helps cut off soil pathogens. The added layer above the soil helps regulate soil temperatures from day to night, helps improve aeration and soil structure even.

While carefully done mulching delivers numerous benefits, if done incorrectly the process can end up harming the soil and the plant.

How to choose what to mulch with?

Choose a material based on personal budget and plant requirements. Cool and warm season crops have opposing requirements particularly with respect to soil temperature.

Moreover, most inorganic materials are more expensive than its organic counterparts. It makes sense to use materials locally available – dry leaves, shredded; wood chips; sun-dried grass clippings have many nutrients locked within them which become available to the new plants.

All materials will have associated risks, so do your research before getting started.

Cocoa hulls are fragrant, ornamental and good for the soil but if your farm or garden is home to cats or dogs, this material as that is known to be toxic for them. Piling of hardwood mulch close to the foundation of a structure is likely to attract termites. Plastic sheet mulching is useful though some times challenging to put in place. Over time the plastic starts to break down making removal additionally challenging.

What not to do!

Don’t use too little or too much. 2-4 inches of organic mulch is said to be adequate.

Mulch must not touch the plant at all; circle the stem instead. Decomposing mulch touching the plant can cause rotting.

Ensure there is no volcano or ‘mountain’ piling of mulch around trees. It may look nice but it blocks water and oxygen going to roots. Decomposition of the same also increases the temperature.

Don’t use rocks with mulch even if it may look nice. Rocks tend to heat up faster, which will increase soil and plant temperature significantly.

Lastly, remember to remove some of the older mulch from the bed before you start re-mulching, to maintain an acceptable thickness. And as much as possible, avoid using mulch that has been stored improperly or gone bad. It could do more harm than good.

Water + Fish = Vegetables

Here’s a farming technique that can be used as a food and water solution not just on Earth but in space as well.

Derived from an age-old technique, ‘Aquaponics’ is a portmanteau of Aquaculture (fish farming) and Hydroponics (soil-less farming) – a technology-infused symbiotic relationship between farming plants and fish within an enclosed ecosystem.

Along with some statistics on energy use, GHG emissions, freshwater consumption and the drawbacks of monocultural/ industrial agriculture we also learn of the operational experiences of a Dutch aquaponics farm and hear from a couple of experts in the field.

If by 2050, nearly 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, we need to significantly alter how we source our food. There is already a global need to restore soil health, mitigate over-fishing, reduce use of fertilizers and pesticides, minimize food loss and food wastage, and reduce our carbon footprint.

The Dutch farm shows that with the capital investment, technical know-how and overhead costs for lighting, ventilating and pumping facilities, the sky is the limit!

Some immediate questions that arise are “is it feasible only for industrial level food production?” and “are there ways to this without as much spending?”

While sharing the benefits of aquaponics, the video also shares insights from the Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Germany and Bangladesh Agricultural University encouraging and emphasizing the significance of simpler small scale implementations, especially in developing nations.

What’s more, there are several do-it-yourself projects of all shapes and sizes, for the more hands-on among our Billionfarmers.

Fenugreek

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Fenugreek (European) / Ventayam (Tamil) / Methi (Hindi) / Shanbalileh (Farsi) [scientific name Trigonella foenum graecum] is a legume with historical ties worldwide. In Indian and Mediterranean regions it is considered a cool season crop – both rain fed and irrigated.

  • In ancient Greece: Cattle feed, medicine for some ailments, wine flavouring and to make yellow dye for colouring wool
  • In Iraq, remains of roasted and dried seeds were found, carbon dated to 6000 years in the past
  • In ancient Egypt, it was used in food, medicine and incense for ceremonies
  • It has been a part of south and central Asian cuisine and medicine, particularly in India, for 3,000 years.

About the plant
It grows from a hollow hairy stem and can grow up to 2 feet in height. The leaves are similar to clover leaves – small with elliptical leaflets. White, yellow and purple flowers grow from the nodes, resembling the flowers of common peas. And its aromatic yellowish brown seeds develop in delicate curved yellow pods.

The plant takes nitrogen from the air and puts it in the soil for other plants to use. Also, the fast growing plant is shorter than many others and so it works well as a cover crop – retaining soil moisture and preventing weeds while the others plants grow.

Medicinal uses

Phytoestrogen (chemical compound that works like estrogen) is synthesized by the plant. The seeds are rich in vitamins and minerals. So, in the world of home remedies and medicine, the leaves and seeds are well-known for:

  • easing menstrual irregularities or pain
  • mitigating menopause symptoms
  • improving metabolic symptoms tied to type 1 and 2 diabetes
  • facilitating hair growth
  • improving bone health
  • preventing benign growth of prostate in older men

Planting:

Planting should happen after the frost when the soil starts becoming warm.
In warm climates it should be planted in partial shade, while in colder climates it grows best in sunny spots.

Planting is best done from its seeds. Soil should be kept moist but ensure not to over-water as that is known to impede growth. Due to its shallow roots, a container 6-8 inches deep with proper drainage should be adequate. While it can grow in poor quality soil, adding a little compost before planting the seeds ensures robust growth.

Fenugreek doesn’t normally attract pests or disease. If concerned, apply Neem oil to the affected part of the plant. There are certain discolorations that can be identified and understood.

Suggestions on when to harvest and how to store or use:

Leaves can be harvested from the top third of the plant within 20-30 days of planting.
More leaves can be harvested each fortnight, until seed production begins. Then the leaves become tough and bitter.

  • To maintain freshness, wrap in paper towel and refrigerate in an airtight container.
  • Roughly chop them, wrap loosely in aluminum foil and place this in an airtight resealable pouch in the freezer
  • Fresh or dried leaves can be used as herbs in cooking or tea.
  • Can add to dough to make rotis or parathas as done in Indian homes.

Seed pods can be harvested 3-5 months after planting. Each pod contains 10-20 seeds.

  • Can be lightly roasted to bring out the nutty flavour and aroma.
  • Soak in water overnight; drain and pat dry; roast until colour deepens and then grind to powder – to use while cooking.
  • Store dried, roasted or powdered seeds in an airtight container kept in a cool dry dark place.

Fenugreek flavour blends well with cumin and coriander.

While numerous articles online will scare one with side effects of excessive consumption of Fenugreek, our advice would be to start small and consume in moderation.

Social Media Driven Urban ‘Green Revolution’

Mr Ganesh Kulkarni is a librarian at Sant Savta Mali Gramin Mahavidyalaya in Phulambri taluka, Aurangabad, Maharashtra.

In 2016, he took up gardening as a hobby. Starting with a rose bush that died even though he tried looking after it, Ganesh realised his need for guidance from other growers though he knew none around him.

Eventually deciding to take to the internet, he ended up finding urban farming and terrace gardening groups on social media. Finding a space where his verbal and photo-supported queries were being answered, Ganesh got to learn not just about a variety of plants he could grow but also experimented with remedies for pest control, composting and vermi-composting techniques.

As he expanded his knowledge and garden, he realised that his large terrace garden was straining the structural integrity of his home and so, with the help of an architect he designed the roof walls with permanent ‘pits’ to house a number of plants, supplementing the existing layout of growing bags and pots.

At present, Mr Kulkarni grows around 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers in his 800 sq ft terrace garden; 300 sq ft of which, is dedicated towards composting. Vegetables are planted fortnightly and the garden produce is consumed by his family of 4.

Recognising the importance of urban farming and the need for communal awareness and involvement, Mr Kulkarni is doing much more.

He started growing medicinal and edible plants in the campus of the educational institute he works at. He set up ‘Green Trust’, an NGO that engages volunteers to plant saplings in and around campus, and mentors newcomers via Whatsapp groups, encouraging kitchen gardens for food crops.

“Gardening has given me friends in different parts of India and the confidence to become part of an urban green revolution,” he said during an interview.