New Orleans

I got to New Orleans about a week after Mardi Gras. As I biked the first day from the Bywater to the Lower Ninth Ward, I crunched on the (in)famous bead necklaces littering the avenue.  Crossing the bridge over the industrial canal, I could look to the right and see the huge cruise and passenger ships on the Mississippi River and look to the left and see Lake Pontchartrain.  A few blocks later, past the rows of houses built by Brad Pitt’s NGO, I’m shocked to see a boat high and dry in the street.

The Lower Ninth is still fairly depopulated seven years after Katrina. Sometimes only one or two houses on a block are occupied, sometimes none. In other words, there’s lots of space for farming.  Nate Turner (yep that’s his real name) and his crew run an urban farm at Blair Grocery that is one part farming, one part education, and several parts community building. They have a constant stream of volunteers coming through from the local area and from universities and church groups from all over the country. While I was there, Alternative Spring Break students were on site from universities in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Blair’s after-school program is an argument for community building and the profit motive when it comes to urban farming. All the students I met were African-American high school students, some of whom had been coming there consistently for two or three years. In addition to urban farming, the school teaches life skills in engaging ways. One day they were deconstructing a rap video and another day they were looking at what it means to be a strong woman by looking at poetry by women authors. Needless to say, urban farming also teaches plenty of life skills. When I interviewed some of the students, they said that two things kept them coming back: the community of fellow students and the $50 weekly paycheck they get for the work they do. Although Blair has gotten several big grants, they are bringing money in, too: they sell sprouts, arugula, tomatoes, and other vegetables to restaurants, at a Co-op, and at local farmer’s markets. They also have an aquaponics system up and running, with local fish from the Mississippi in the tank at the bottom and two levels of plants up top.

The Urban Farm at Blair Grocery really is an oasis in the middle of a recovery, and the endless stream of volunteers is only one testament to their success – the stronger proof is in the changes that they’ve brought about in the young people they work with. Some of these kids are the ones you’ve heard of that didn’t know the names of a lot of vegetables a few years ago, and now they want to grow up to be botanists and farmers.

I also had a chance to interview the legendary Macon Fry (everyone I interviewed there seemed to have a memorable name) while I was in town . Macon has been in New Orleans since the early 80s and has been a teacher and advisor to a whole generation of farmers. One tidbit I took away from our conversation: unlike many jobs where you feel like you’re banging your head up against a wall or wondering if you’re really doing anything worthwhile, farming pays back: “All you have to do to see what you’ve just accomplished is look over your shoulder and look at the row of seeds you just planted, or look over at the row you planted last week that’s already sprouting up.” Macon was humble, too – when I said I’d heard he was the godfather of urbam farming in the Big Easy, he was quick to tell me all about the guy who taught him everything he knows.

From what I saw, Macon Fry and Nat Turner are both living up to their oversized names by leading through example. These guys aren’t just talking the talk; they have their hands in the rich Louisiana soil every day.

Thanks very much to my fixer, Virginia Currie, and my hosts in New Orleans: Lisa, Jesse, Emily and Adam.  Couldn’t have done it without you!

More of my photos from the New Orleans shoot are here on Flickr.

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Cuba is a special case. Many are now familiar with the fact that the end of the Cold War ushered in a period of extreme deprivation in Cuba, when its strong economic ties with the Soviet Bloc and Easter Europe were cut almost overnight. This is what Cubans call “The Special Period”. But as Nelson (a rabbit “rancher” that I met at his home in Havana) put it, “In Cuba, it’s always a special period.” Cubans could begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel by about 1999, but there have been two recessions since then, and of course the US economic embargo against the island continues to this day.

What this means in terms of urban agriculture is that Cuba, out of necessity, made tremendous leaps and bounds in the 90s, and they have continued to refine and improve their urban farming infrastructure since then. In some Cuban cities, up to 80% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the city are grown in the city. In Havana this is closer to 50%, which is still very impressive for a city of more than 2 million people.

The reason this is particularly relevant for us in the “developed world” is that the story of Cuba is not like that of many developing countries in Africa and Asia and even elsewhere in Latin America. Until the end of the Cold War, Cuba was very much a developed country with a highly educated population. Then they went through what some observers have called an artificial peak-oil collapse. The Cuban people responded with creativity and intelligence to this unprecedented new challenge. In addition to urban agriculture, they’ve found countless other ways to be more self-sufficient and use less energy. It’s not surprising, then, that a 2006 World Wildlife Fundy study found that Cuba is the only country on the planet that can be considered sustainable.

What is becoming more and more clear is that we in the devoloped world are not living sustainably, and that therefore, inevitably, we will eventually have our own special period. Many people say that going to Cuba is like taking a time machine to the past. In some ways this is true – vintage cars from the 50s are still everywhere. But after my visit, I’m inclined to argue that Cuba is indeed a time machine, but not to the past: instead, it’s a glimpse into a future where we in the developed world are producing more of our food and living more sustainably. Cuba is therefore invaluable for us to learn from as we chart our own course to become more sustainable in preparation for the challenges that await us. Even those vintage cars are an example of reusing and recycling. On the outside they’re pure 1950s America – Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge – but on the inside they’re mostly running on repurposed Japanese and Soviet engines. Nobody in Cuba gets a new car when their two year lease is up.

I interviewed Roberto Perez Rivero for the film while I was in Cuba. In the last few years he has travelled extensively to give presentations about the Cuban story as well as to teach permaculture workshops in Latin America, Asia, Australia, Canada, and the US. He had a lot of great things to say that gave me new insights into what I’ve seen around the world in the last several months, and his perspective will definitely inform the film as it takes shape during post-production.

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The megacity of Calcutta has no sewage treatment plant.  Instead, the majority of its wastewater flows east out of the city in a canal towards the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal.  There, the wastewater is put to two uses: one, as fertilizer for hundreds of farms; two, it flows into huge settling ponds where it serves as a food source for algae and other organisms, which in turn are eaten by fish and prawns.  In other words, it’s an ecosystem, with human waste at the base of the food pyramid.  Many of the prawns are sold for good prices on the export market.  I won’t try to claim that the water is completely clean by the time it flows into the Ganges, but after it’s made its way through the whole series of fish ponds, it’s much cleaner than when it started.

Along the way, the whole system supports a community of over 100,000 fish and conventional farmers living in dozens of villages.  This system has been in place since the 1850s.  While the West was busily developing the system of treatment plants where waste is treated with chemicals, the bheris have been steadily producing hundreds of tons of vegetables and fish every year.  While not applicable everywhere, there’s no doubt that many cities in the developed world could build a similar system.

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In Addis Ababa, my guide is Nico, who works for DAI doing urban farming throughout Ethiopia, contracted by USAID.  They work almost entirely with populations who are affected by HIV/AIDS.  Studies show that the nutrients you get from vegetables improve the efficacy of the antiretroviral drugs that HIV-positive people take to avoid getting AIDS.  Studies also show that overall health improves when people’s diets include regular servings of fruits and vegetables.  What studies have a harder time showing is the intangibles, how growing your own food as part of a community of fellow farmers improves your quality of life and your mental health.  But of course the intangibles are all that people talk about.  One woman said that before she joined the project, she rarely left her home.  Now she and her daughter come to work their plot together and she grows enough to feed herself and her children and sell the surplus.  Sometimes American tax dollars are well-spent after all.

DAI also runs numerous school-gardening projects.  At one of them I met Waldemariam.  His father was killed when he was young, and his mother sent him to the capital for school from the village where he was born.  After a time working as a servant and a brief period on the streets, he found a more stable home and a mentor who helped him to enter school.  At his high school he became involved in urban farming.  Many of the students who initially signed up for the program dropped out over time, but Waldemariam showed the patience and dedication required to succeed as an urban farmer.  One of the first things he bought with the money he made selling vegetables was a flashlight and a supply of batteries, so that he could continue studying after dark; the family with whom he was staying were unable to afford electricity after dark, which in Addis is around 6:30 PM all year.  He studied like this, by flashlight, for two years after his father passed away, until recently when he was able to move in with neighbors who have electricity.  Now 17, his dream is to become a doctor, and his physics teacher told me he has what it takes to make it: this term he earned a 3.7 GPA and received one of the only A’s in physics.

Thanks much to Nico, Cherinet Gidi of The Social Welfare Development Association and the rest of the crew who helped out with the shoot in Addis!  And thanks especially to Weldemariam for sharing his story with me.

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We have a fiscal sponsor!

We’re happy to announce that the International Documentary Association has accepted us into their Fiscal Sponsorship Program.  This means that they act as our non-profit umbrella so that we can accept tax-deductible donations, grants from foundations, and individuals, as well.  If you want to make a tax-deductible donation to the film, go to the film’s page at the IDA and click on the Donate button.  Here’s the link if that one doesn’t work for you:

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Goats are more common than dogs on the streets of Accra. I kept seeing small herds of them browsing on the edges of the streets or in vacant lots. One day I followed a herd until it went home and met Desmond, Joseph and their family. They keep about twenty goats. Around Christmas and for other special occasions they both sell them to other people for food and eat some themselves. Desmond is fourteen and this is the first year that he slaughtered and butchered a goat, though he says that he prefers to play with them.

Bakari Fuseini has been farming in a plot of land in the Dzorwulu district of Accra since the 1980s. He was the first secretary of the local farmer’s association, and is now both a landholder and a mentor to a new generation of farmers. Each farmer has a farm hand, and these young men will eventually inherit plots of their own. Every one that I spoke to had come from the rural north of Ghana and was intending to make farming his permanent career. As Bakari said, it’s a great option in the high-unemployment countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Of course there is also high unemployment these days in the cities in Europe and North America. Why shouldn’t the young men there also making their livings from urban farming? With the price of organic vegetables going through the roof at your local Whole Foods, it’s clear that it’s economically viable. All we need is the political will to put systems like the one in Accra into practice in more of the world.

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One of the big stories of London is the allotments, more or less the same as community gardens in the US.  Ken Coe has had one since the late 1940s, and had some memories of the Dig for Victory campaign during WWII as well.  He also had this advice for gardeners everywhere: don’t plant “pretty, pretty flowers”, plant things you can eat!

Azul-Valerie Thome is the co-founder of “Food From the Sky”, a rooftop gardening project that’s about as intuitive as you can imagine.

It’s on the roof of a supermarket, and I sat down with Azul and the supermarket’s owner, Andrew Thornton, for an interview.  They’ve had a lot of interest from others in how to duplicate the success of this project, and it’s obviously very scalable, so the question becomes: why doesn’t EVERY supermarket grow veggies on its roof?  BrightFarms is giving it a go in the US market…

Moses grew up in the countryside of Madeira, a Portuguese island.  He and his eight brothers and sisters have all immigrated to the UK over the years, and a few years ago they discovered the allotment system.  Now they have recreated a little corner of Madeira in London, complete with the same type of plants they used to cultivate on their farms back home.  Every Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, the family gathers on their allotments to spend time together.

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It’s a rainy day in London so I’m catching up on the blog.  We had an amazing seven days of shooting in Shanghai.  Here are a few stories and a few photos:

Mr. Lee farms organic figs and, underneath his trees, free-range chickens, ducks and geese.  He is one of the rare farmers who has gotten his son, 28, to join the family business.  How?  By making a great living doing something that he so clearly loves.

Photo: Erin Yang

Finding Mr. Lu was a coup.  I went out in search of farmers as close to the center of Shanghai as I could find.  I started with Google Maps’ satellite view, zeroing in on green patches divided into telltale squares and rectangles indicating fields.  Then it was off on the metro and finally by taxi.  The taxi driver insisted that I was crazy – he said the nearest farms were an hour’s drive away.  But five minutes after he dropped us off we were on our first farm, and a few minutes later we found the wonderful Mr. Lu and his wife, who have been farming their plot for decades.  And that’s just the beginning of the story…for the rest you’ll have to wait for the film!

Zhang Lu represents the new generation of urban farmers in Shanghai.  His farm, called Dreamland, is on Chongming Island, which is being developed by the government as a site for ecotourism and as the new locus of Shanghai’s peri-urban agriculture.  He’s much like twenty- and thirty-something urban farmers around the world: concerned with the quality of the food they’ve been getting from industrial agriculture, they’ve decided to grow their own.   Zhang Lu and his partners also market their food to others who have the same concerns.  Like the older Biofarm, which I also visited, Dreamland is primarily using the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model.  Zhangliu gave an excellent interview about his motivations and philosophy.

Photo: Erin Yang

Many thanks to Good To China, an NGO based in Shanghai which helped me organize the entire shoot and provided me with my excellent production assistant/fixer/translator, Erin Yang.  The shoot literally would not have been possible without her hard work.  Plus she taught me how to count in Chinese!

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Luoyang Urban Farmers

I’ve been in China for a month now, mostly acclimating and making contacts for the upcoming shoot in Shanghai, but while I’m here in Luoyang I can’t resist searching out urban farmers. I found a lot of them alongside a small river by the city’s zoo.

Click here to see the full set of photos on Flickr.  I also interviewed the two men in the photos on camera. They had great stories to tell – both of them had been farming their sites for more than twenty years!

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The Kickstarter Campaign Ended Successfully!

Thanks to all the backers who supported the Kickstarter campaign (you’ll also find your names on the Thank You page)!

Now the real work begins, or rather, has already begun. I’ve begun filming here in China, and will continue in India, Africa and Europe before returning to the US in November. Check back here for updates on the work.

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