Meet & Eat: Taja Sevelle, Executive Director of Urban Farming in Detroit

Meet and Eat

Getting to know the folks behind the food and drinks you love.

"We want to reconnect people with the simple joy of growing your own food, how easy and approachable it is to get started."

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Taja Sevelle in one of her many gardens. [Photograph: Urban Farming]

Solving issues of food security and environmental deterioration is tough work. Internationally active organizations like Urban Farming seek to tackle these issues through advocating for lively agricultural development in the heart of America's most populated cities. Since 2005, this group has been expanding their operations, from planting small community gardens to building edible walls. I spoke with Taja Sevelle, executive director and founder of Urban Farming, about how she got to where she is and how we can all start urban gardens of our own.

What was your original inspiration for starting work in urban agriculture?

Well, I'm a recording artist, but right before I decided to become a singer, I wanted to be a botanist. Even though I was born and raised in the city, I had some experience on a farm when I was 12, 13, 14—I learned how to plow fields, plant and harvest and all that. But I've always sung, so I went in that direction first.

I was recording a CD for Sony in Detroit, Michigan, and I started to become acquainted with all the job loss and the amount of poverty in that city. The big thing that struck my eye was the large amount of unused land—Detroit has the most unused developed land in the country. Vast pieces of land. I was just thinking in terms of my experiences on the farm. Wow, I thought, that lot could be corn or tomatoes! So I put two and two together and started to plant gardens.

I started with three gardens in 2005 in Detroit. At the time I thought that Detroit could be the first city to end hunger among its residents, because of the sheer amount of unused land available for farming.

Your organization is one of the largest of its kind, with projects across the country and the world. Can you talk about the implementation process and how you connect with the local communities where you plant?

We always had a global vision, to end hunger globally. Initially we were driving around, finding pieces of land that we thought would be good for a garden. We would get phone calls from community members who wanted to see a garden in the vacant lot next door to them. Our message has grown in terms of how we select gardens, but we still operate by the old system in some of our selection process.

Connecting to the community wasn't hard. Finding sites in Detroit especially wasn't hard—the city has partnered with us from the start. They understand that we are a win-win organization; we help to lower crime, beautify the area, galvanize people together—and take the onus off of the city to have to maintain such a large plot of land.

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They have adorable "Urban Farming" T-shirts! [Photograph: Urban Farming]

How do you see your organization playing a role in developing a more equitable and green economy in the coming years?

We built some of the country's first edible walls in downtown Los Angeles. We are certified to train people on how to install, maintain, and repair these edible walls. That's a green-collar job and that's a great example of a win-win. Not only are these walls edible and helping to feel the community, but they also cut down rain water runoff and heat index in the city, as well as greatly reduce the heating and cooling costs of the host building.

We're all about empowering and helping communities be lifted out of poverty conditions, and be lifted out of those conditions forever. We're not trying to help people survive—we want them to thrive.

As well as the larger projects, you are also on a mission to encourage home gardening as a means of using wasted land for crop production. How can people in urban areas find the space and time for gardening if they may not own their own land?

One of the things that we're doing with Triscuit this year is not only are we planting 50 community-based farms, but also encouraging a home farming movement. We're trying to use our web resources to facilitate conversation among home gardeners who can share tips and gain advice from our pros.

If you have a windowsill or veranda, you can get started with some tomatoes and basil. If you have any patch of land at all, you can use our resources or other online resources to find out when the frost will lift, what plants you should put down.

Our whole goal is planned to reconnect people with the simple joy of growing your own food, how easy and approachable it is to get started. The main thing is to get some seeds, some soil, some sun—and just do it.

To learn more about Taja and the Urban Farming movement, check out their website. And get started on that home garden!