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At the organic farming conference this weekend

Jan 23, 2011 4:33 pm
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Urban farming envisioned for Detroit, as pictured on the Gas 2 website."][/caption]The news out of this year's statewide organic farming conference in Saratoga this past weekend, at least as reported in the Times Union on January 23, is that, "urban agriculture is about more than growing food, and growing food is about a lot more than farming and gardening," according to a leader of the Detroit urban farming movement that's gotten a lot of coverage in the past year. "We're not just growing food. We are growing communities as well," said Malik Yakini, who chairs the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, in the annual conference's keynote speech on Saturday. "We're a post-industrial city that is struggling to find its way," and "urban agriculture is playing a role in that." The three-day conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, with the theme "Diggin' Diversity," drew more-than 1,200 to the Saratoga Hilton and City Center, making the 29th annual organic farming and gardening conference the largest ever for the organization. Some of this year's growth is attributable to a scholarship program that paid the $225 registration fee for 75 beginning farmers, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she said. Including so many younger farmers in the mix, along with those more experienced members in their 50s and 60s, has added a fresh note of excitement for all the participants, organizers said.

During his speech, Yakini, 55, touched on the challenges in trying to interest young people and African-Americans -- who make up a majority of Detroit's population -- in growing food.

For African-Americans, the idea of growing food and cultivating land can be entwined with historic experiences of slave labor and share-cropper farming, he said, describing this as "a mental barrier."

"We have this mind set we have to get through," while well-meaning whites may reflexively move to build relationships that are too paternalistic, rather than supportive, he said. "It has nothing to do with bad intentions," but failure to recognized the tendencies can undermine progress, he said.

Yakini, who was a school principal for many years, described the growth of his own immersion in food and agricultural advocacy from first encouraging children to garden. Gardening took root in the curriculum as a way to help the students build self-confidence and a sense of service, and also develop a sense of environmental connections.

"We also were very concerned about the quality of food in our communities," Yakini said. Residents shopped at convenience stores with little fresh produce and tastes gravitated toward meals high in fat and salt, he added.

He concluded by urging the farming audience to help fuel the momentum of what he called the "good food revolution."

"It seems that the stars are aligned, and people are beginning to catch on, from the White House on down," he said. "This is our time right now. We have to strike while the iron is hot."

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