This urban garden pied piper helps inner-city communities transform empty, blighted lots into green and growing nutritional and financial resources.
Part farmer, part passionate activist and part teacher, Small is pioneering organic food security in Cleveland, Detroit, Louisville and other Ohio cities. We're honoring Small as one of our Organic Pioneers on September 16th, but we caught up with him in advance to chat about how he found his passion and what he thinks we need to do to connect more people with good food.
Tell me a little bit about your back story.
My dad did the same thing, just in different ways. My father helped people create gardens, propagate roses, establish perennials. He focused on things that come back and really helped folks enjoy life a little bit more. It was great as a kid to watch him do that. He passed away when I was 8 years old, but so much of what I’ve learned about compassion and community came from him.
What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced while working on food security and urban farming efforts, and what was the key to overcoming that challenge?
The biggest challenge is happening right now. It is the same challenge we’ve been facing for decades. Getting people access to food is still a chore. There are organizations working on the issues around the world, but there is still not enough of that. The health of our communities could be improved substantially by urban livestock in cities like New York and Cleveland. But we’re not quite there yet. People still don’t understand the value. They complain about why everyone needs to have chickens!
You know job creation is a big part of it, too. But what job creation was in the 1960s is not the same as what is could or should be in this day and age. I met with a bunch of national organizers about hemp production as a means of job creation. These aren’t the kinds of jobs people automatically think of, but that just might be where the future lies. Rallying the common people and getting them talking the same language—being able to transcend the classroom and the boardroom and begin a conversation—is the only way to really overcome the challenges.
We haven’t come far, but we have made strides. There are more and more organizations that aren’t afraid to speak the truth about who we are as a country and as individuals, and where we need to be headed.
What do you think is the most important thing for consumers to understand about where their food comes from?
The fact that it comes from the soil. The fact that without healthy soil, we have nothing. The seed contains the promise of life, but without the soil, the seed falters. Soil is really part of our food. For example a banana is not just a banana, it is part of the rainforest. So our food is not just our food, it is a part of our land.
We’ve done a lot to discredit farming over the years, but now we’re starting to circle back to support farmers who respect the soil. People are talking about slow food, but they really need to be talking about slow soil.
What do you see as the biggest hope right now?
We need to teach our youth about the connection between soil and food. We made a rule that you can’t attend a workshop unless you bring a youth. Don’t just go out and bring the information home, share it live! Why can’t all organizations establish the same rule? Just think about how quickly we could educate the next generation if that were the case.
And we have to demand our children are exercising outside. Not in the gym, outside. In the sun, the rain, the cold—with their feet on the ground and their hands in the soil.
Without some kind of combination of these things happening, we will perish.
What do you say to folks to claim organic foods are exclusive—only for people with a lot of money?
I think is a bunch of malarkey. I just don’t buy into that. It really depends on what markets you go to. All they see is the farmers’ market they’re at. Come with me on a bike ride across the tracks. The kind of markets we create look like the neighbors.
Everyone is rich in spirit when they’re buying the right product. And what I’ve seen is that many folks with a smaller income are actually more than willing to spend a little more on their food if they see the health and value of it.
Can organic feed the world?
Organic has fed the world for thousands of years. I believe organic as we know it now comes with a different definition that people still don’t understand. It is a whole system.
Plus, there are many people across party lines, denomination, lines in the sand, who have to come together to pursue the goal of feeding the world together. We cannot leave the table until we come to some form of agreement. Everyone has the potential to create an action. Let’s have a conversation.
We have to reeducate the world and reinstitute certain vocabulary paradigms for it to work. As soon as we do that we will have success.
What tool couldn’t you live without?
My worms. No question about it. They are my true tool. I’m always taking them when I travel and they do good work for me!