by: Megan Belongia, Conservation Education Program Coordinator, City Sprouts
This week the globe celebrated World Soil Day, and this past weekend we had the pleasure of hosting the first ever Omaha Urban Soil Health Expo. The event, held on December 3rd, welcomed over 25 presenters and 60 guests and served as the official launch of City Sprouts’ new Soil Health + Conservation Initiatives. In case you missed it, we’ve got you covered! Keep reading to find key takeaways from the day’s presentations and more opportunities to get involved in soil health!
NRCS State Soil Health Specialist, Aaron Hird, kicked off the day’s events with a talk on Soil Health for Small-Scale + Urban Farms. Aaron began his talk by defining soil health as, “the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” And when it comes to health, Nebraska soils are in critical condition.
Poor land management practices have led to widespread water infiltration issues across the state - and rural farmers aren’t the only one affected. Damaged soils lack the ability to absorb and store even moderate amounts of rainfall. Much of this water then either pools on the surface or runs off the land, carrying with it valuable topsoil and transporting contaminants into waterways. To illustrate this point, Aaron went on to share three live demonstrations of healthy soils’ enhanced ability to absorb water while remaining intact.
Luckily, the NRCS is here to help farmers - rural and urban alike - combat poor soil conditions. The NRCS offers a wide variety of programs, including collaborative conservation planning, cost sharing, equipment grants, and more to assist farmers seeking to improve their soil health. Farmers that take advantage of these programs enjoy many benefits along the way, including increased long-term financial and environmental sustainability across their operation. To learn more about NRCS services visit their website, contact your local Service Center, or attend our upcoming Introduction to NRCS Resources for Urban Farmers workshop on February 21, 2023!
But that’s not all! Aaron also announced a new citizen science opportunity at the event, which the NRCS is launching in collaboration with UNL. UNL and the NRCS are currently recruiting more that 200 urban growers in Nebraska to implement new soil health management practices and collect plant and soil data along the way as part of the Nebraska Urban Soil Health Initiative. To determine your eligibility and apply to participate, visit the program webpage or contact UNL Associate Professor and Environmental Horticulturist, Sam Wortman.
Up next was a conversation with panelists Stephanie Finklea (Black Chick Farm and Omaha Sunflower Cooperative) , Alex O’Hanlon (Free Farm Syndicate, Blazing Star Seed Cooperative, and Omaha Sunflower Cooperative), and Mark Brannen (Benson Bounty, LLC) exploring the persistent and emerging resource concerns affecting urban growers as well as the innovative management and stewardship solutions currently in practice to conserve soil, water, and other resources. The conversation spanned much of the urban food system, but ultimately landed on one particularly crucial resource - water. Water can be scarce for urban growers farming on vacant lots, and delivering water to a site that lacks a local water supply can be a massive drain on one’s financial and human resources. The considerable time and money spent accessing water can create a bottleneck in an urban farmer’s land management system, limiting the resources available to invest in other inputs and practices - such as amending soil with compost - needed to improve your soil health. So how do we begin to break down this bottleneck? Stephanie, Alex, and Mark all had ideas.
Money: Increase availability of funding for the installation of water infrastructure on urban farms; make reduced agricultural water pricing available for urban farmers
Ecology: Perennialize to reduce irrigation demand; select seeds suitable for drier conditions
Policy: Stronger food policy councils to advocate for urban farmers; Call and lobby MUD to develop a program to support urban farmers
Last but not least, panelists Christine Ross (Refugee Women Organization of Nebraska), Luis Marcos (Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim), and Noemi Bravo (Latino Center of the Midlands) brought the event to an incredible close with a captivating discussion exploring cultural perspectives, stewardship identities, and other factors empowering their respective work on community-based urban agriculture programs. Each of the panelists offered unique insight on what motivated them to become involved in urban agriculture.
Christine grew up in South Sudan and arrived in the US in 1995 as a refugee. While living in the United States she gained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the field of healthcare and began working to address health disparities in the refugee community. She understood that many refugees desire a healthier diet but struggle to find the fruits and vegetables that they recognize.
“Why can’t we grow what we eat, what’s not found in the grocery store?”
In response to this question, Christine founded the New American Urban Farmers Program (NAUFP), which gives refugee women from African and Asian nations the opportunity to farm collectively and grow the foods they wish to eat. Through the program, participants have identified many crops - including sour leaf, pumpkin leaves, and sweet potato leaves - that are commonly desired in both Asian and African communities. This year, the group began selling the produce they grow at health centers across the city, often delivering traditional foods to community members that have not seen them since arriving in the US, sometimes decades ago.
Luis, a member of the Indigenous Q’anjob’al Maya Nation, co-founded the Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim to serve the over 4,000 individuals of Maya origin living in the Omaha area today. The organization’s Maya agriculture program, known as the Maya Regeneration Project (MRP), was born in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic to enable the cultivation of traditional Maya medicines for the community. Today, the community also grows a mix of traditional corn, beans, and squash using a milpa system. Luis emphasized that land stewardship is a vital part of the Maya’s sacred relationship with Mother Earth and that Indigenous peoples should be elevated as leaders in agriculture.
“Why don’t we have a Native American restaurant in Omaha?”
The traditional foods of native peoples across the region, and the globe, are severely threatened by industrial agriculture and colonizing powers. Luis hopes to restore his community’s access to land and traditional foods by eventually expanding the MRP by obtaining legal stewardship to over 400 acres of land to establish a regenerative poultry and agroforestry operation.
Noemi also describes a personal journey leading her to work with urban growers at the Latino Center. Time she had spent on her family farm in Mexico contrasted greatly with her more recent experiences working in a commercial industrial greenhouse. Chemicals were liberally applied to control pests and disease in the greenhouse, and when she suggested implementing more biological methods she was met with resistance. Her discomfort with the conventional approach at the greenhouse led her to seek a new career opportunity that more closely aligned with her own values. Today, she works with families enrolled in the Latino Center’s Siembra Salud program, which marries gardening and nutrition. The program helps participants to develop their gardening knowledge and skills to grow healthy, culturally appropriate food for themselves and their families.
All of the day’s incredible speakers shed much needed light on the role of urban land stewardship in sustaining vibrant and resilient communities and urban environments - and it all begins with healthy soil.
We hope to see you at next year’s edition of the event, but until then don’t forget to check out our upcoming soil health workshops and field days and online resources!
For more coverage of this event, see the December 4th Omaha World Herald Article, “Omaha Urban Soil Health Expo Reflects Growing Interest in Urban Farming”.
Questions about upcoming Soil Health Initiatives?