By J.D. Herman
There is a certain beauty when good intentions and hard work, combine for positive results. Plant It Forward is a growing success story of a great idea coming to fruition in Southwest Houston. The nonprofit started in 2011, by the brother and sister team Pat and Teresa O’Donnell, looked to make urban farming available to refugees who found themselves resettled in Houston. The O’Donnells had met early success as software developers, selling their company and moving onward. For Teresa, that meant volunteering with resettlement programs trying to match refugees to local jobs. Urban farming had yet to take off in Houston but Teresa felt the gap could be filled by these newly arrived Houstonians with deep agricultural backgrounds and intuitive farming skills. The O’Donnell’s set out to find land and, working with Urban Harvest, crafted a program that would allow everyone to benefit. Once off and running the O’Donnell’s created a training protocol and planting began in earnest 2012. Today, the program has proven extremely successful, with over a dozen active farmers earning real incomes from crops grown right here in the Brays Oaks Management District.
“Farming is hard, managing crops is hard,” says Farm Programs Manager, Rachel Folkerts. “You are at the whim of the weather and while our farmers are experienced, these are new crops and they come with challenges and learning curves.” Rachel, who spent time as a Peace Corp. volunteer working on sustainable agriculture in West Africa, runs the training program and manages the farm operations. Plant It Forward subsidizes the farmers by securing land, farming equipment, and operating a wash-n-pack facility, allowing the farmers to function as independent business owners. “Everything we do is in support of the farmers,” says Rachel. “They really are the heart of the organization and drive everything we do.”
Plant It Forward’s model is a simple one. Each farmer’s income is directly related to how much they produce and sell via weekly Farmer’s Markets and Farm Share box subscriptions. The challenge comes in meeting customer expectations for a varied and diverse selection of goods, requiring the farm to produce a variety of smaller crops. Each season the farmers manage 30 different crops, 60 over the course of a whole year, and fine tuning the level of management required for success can be stressful.
Despite the challenges, Plant It Forward has been successful in establishing opportunities for farmers––so successful in fact that many farmers, like Toto Alimasi and Fatuma Rukundo, and Roy Nlemba, have been able to buy their own homes. Others have seen their children graduate from college and even join the Air Force. These farmers have truly taken root and are thriving in their communities. Partnerships also play an important role in the organizations success. Small farm distributors like Common Market and Farm to Table help Plant It Forward manage the supply chain by getting the farmer’s produce to area restaurants, chefs (like Chef Evelyn Garcia), commercial kitchens, cafeterias, and independent grocery stores. The Urban Harvest Farmer’s Market has even made a beloved local celebrity of Plant It Forward farmer Constant Ngoualia.
Given the program’s success, more farmers would like to participate but the project is land limited. The 2-plus acres in Westbury are at capacity, so the search is on for additional space. Many homeowners have offered the use of their side-yards but the organization is looking for underutilized spaces or easements where they can bring the program to scale. Ideally, the new land will be located within the Beltway so that operations can be easily managed by the Plant It Forward team.
For those interested in signing up for a subscription, the options are flexible. You can choose form 4, 12, 24, or 52 weekly deliveries. SNAP (Lonestar Card) participants can receive 50% off full price of all Farm Shares with a week-to-week subscription.
“Tomato season is a great time to be a Farm Share member,” notes Rachel. “Those will be coming in mid-May.” Other Spring vegetables, starting in late April to May, include peppers, radishes, beets, carrots, jalapenos, eggplant, summer squash, green beans, arugula, cucumbers, collards, kale, fennel, mint and other herbs. Boxes in the Summer months typically include hard squashes, edamame, fresh black-eyed peas, eggplant, basil, peppers, okra, arugula, cucumbers, green onions, roselle greens & pods (fresh hibiscus tea), malabar spinach, water spinach, amaranth, long beans, possibly cantaloupe, and even watermelon if weather cooperates. Make sure to explore the website for recipes!
$23/week , Petit Portion | $34/week , Grand Portion
- You have the option to sign up for 4, 12, 24, or 52 weekly deliveries.
- 12 deliveries – 5% discount
- 24 deliveries – 5% discount
- 52 deliveries – 5% discount
- You can place a delivery hold on your account if you anticipate needing to miss a scheduled delivery.
- SNAP (Lonestar Card) participants can receive 50% off full price of all Farm Shares with a week-to-week subscription.
- To gift a Farm Share, click here!
COVID-19 UPDATE: While pick-up locations remain open, Plant It Forward is piloting Home Delivery options in limited zip codes. Please refer to website for details.