By: Katie Crenshaw
The first time I met Marsha Howe, she greeted me with a colorful bouquet of zinnias, rosemary and Thai basil she hand-picked from a garden she grew herself surrounding the Museum of the Cape Fear’s walking bridge.
“I gorilla garden,” she said.
“Gorilla garden?” I asked.
With a smile, she corrected me. “Guerilla. It’s when you plant food in public spaces.” Originally, the soil around the bridge was nutrient-depleted sand that Marsha volunteered to bring back to life. Marsha planted a variety of plants that are drought resistant and require little maintenance. After a little love and care and mulching and compost, the soil began to mend.
“Notice the Thai basil has roots,” she said, referring to the bouqet. “I like to share living plants that can continue to live and grow. Everything in this arrangement is edible.”
Marsha Howe is the Director of Sustainable Neighbors, a business dedicated to developing “plot to plate” enterprises through consumer education and sustainable growing practices. Marsha’s vision for Sustainable Neighbors began around the concept of a grange. A grange was a place where farmers gathered to showcase their fresh produce and canned goods, to solve problems and to support each other in times of hardship. It was usually followed by a celebratory barn dance at the end of the season in gratitude for their abundance. She wanted to model this grassroots level of farming by “bringing the community together, enjoying the wonderful food that comes straight out of the garden we locally grew and have a barn dance.”
She elaborated, “I put Sustainable Neighbors together because I envisioned every neighborhood with people growing more food in their yards. Of course, not everyone is going to be an urban farmer, but if there were more people growing food in their yard and selling it to their neighbors, we could create more jobs, have a greater food economy and increase our local economy. We are very food insecure here.”
Learning the basics
Most of our foods—fruits, vegetables, meats and packaged goods—are transported long distances and sourced from all over the world. Very little is local. This means the quality of food is compromised. In these circumstances, produce is picked green to ripen in travel, but vitamins cannot fully develop without vine ripening. The industrial food system depletes nutritional value in food because ntrients are lost during the harvesting, processing and packaging process. Bulk handling during harvesting often causes fruits and vegetables to bruise, which leads to abnormal ripening that stimulates greater nutritional loss. While convenient, pre-cut produce is highly perishable and has less nutrient density. These foods also can contain films, coatings and chemicals, added to protect produce from early deterioration.
All these attributes affect the taste and smell of our imported versus local food. Local produce, properly grown and ripened, offers more flavor, more nutrition and instead of a bland fragrance and taste, smells and tastes fresh and bright like nature intended.
Healing the soil
So, what can we do?
Marsha revealed, “I have a card by my computer that says, ‘I wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. And then I realized I was somebody.’ In 2012, when I started Sustainable Neighbors, I had never been an activist. When I dove into what was going on with our food system, I realized we needed to go back to growing our own food.”
Farm-A-Yard is a Sustainable Neighbors program training people, through an online webinar course, how to grow food in their own backyard and, if they want, teaching them how to sell it at markets to earn money. Anyone can sign up at the website www.growfoodearnmoney.com.
“I believe it all goes back to the soil,” Marsha said. “My campaign to 'Farm-A-Yard' brings food close, to be the most local and the most nutritious. But the other caveat to this is the soil.” It shocked her to see farmers growing vegetables in sandy and depleted soil. She couldn’t understand how they could grow a thing. So, Marsha’s other big mantra is to build the soil back up.
She explained, “Commercial farming is not sustainable because they have to supplement the soil and add fertilizers that are necessary for the plant to grow. Commercial fertilizers only have some of the elements needed to grow ‘healthy’ plants. Sandy soil has almost no life at all. Good soil does not look like sand. There are billions of microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil. There is a network of life and communication in soil. The network is responsible for healthy plants and bringing the diversity of nutrition to food.”
In her presentations, Marsha explains she might alarm audience members with the statistics, but her goal is to wake them up. Her focus is less on problems and more on solutions, so she follows through immediately with ways to get involved, and in her education lessons, Marsha talks frequently about soil. She focuses on farming “from the soil to the belly.” She explains that a commercial farmer can’t grow plants the same way a backyard farmer can. “The soil is nature’s immune system. It mirrors the human gut.” Consequently, even though a person eats what most people consider as healthy fruits and vegetables, if that produce comes from depleted soil, it can’t offer proper vitamins and nutrients they are assuming it can. “Healing the soil heals us.”
Farm To Table Training
Sustainable Neighbors also partners with Fayetteville State University in a program called Cultivating Profits with Small Scale Farming. This is an educational and hands-on event for small-scale farmers to learn different models of farming. “I look at the food movement as not just growing the food. It is all the other things. We are influencing chefs to use food from the farmer. We have partnered with Fayetteville Technical Community College Culinary Arts Department. They are all about sourcing local food. They are rolling out a Farm To Table Training this fall. Combining this and our efforts with Slow Food, we are hoping the consumer will want to eat that way so the restaurants will start offering more local food.”
As demand grows for local food, demand also grows for local farming. In addition to teaching how to grow food in the backyard, Marsha also educates people how to cook from scratch and eat healthier. She hosts most of Sustainable Neighbors’ educational events and workshops at Guiding Wellness located at 143 Skateway Drive. Guiding Wellness is a future pick-up site for Farmzie, a program Marsha highly recommends. She explains how it works, “A consumer can go on Farmzie (www.Farmzie.com) to see what farmers are selling in our area. We don’t have very many yet, but we will. The farmer's inventory will all be online. The consumer places the order and pays for it online. As soon as the consumer buys the inventory, it is immediately taken offline. The farmer will drop inventory off at a pick-up point. The consumer then can just go and pick it up.” She further explains that Farmzie is going to put on a training session at the FSU Cultivating Profits with Small Scale Farming for farmers, chefs and consumers to demonstrate how easy it is to use. The Farmer will never have to pay for any transactions. This will help farmers become more successful. Farmzie is another convenient way for the consumer to be connected to the food system. Farmzie is in the beginning stages, but there is room to grow.
Sustainable Neighbors also collaborates with the Slow Food USA Chapter in Fayetteville. Slow Food is a nonprofit that supports efforts to bring food education through farm to table dining events that source from our local farmers. You can find future dining events as well as other Sustainable Neighbor educational workshops at www.meetup.com/sustainableneighbors or www.sustainableneighborsnc.com.
Marsha stated, “My business at Sustainable Neighbors and working as a facilitator and educator around the local food movement and Farm-A-Yard is really a new way of doing business. We are all collaborators. We are all in there together, mutually promoting each other around the local food movement. It is sacred commerce.”