My Montrose: Daniella Lewis, Plant It Forward
Daniella Lewis is the Farm Stand Program Manager at Plant It Forward, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees grow urban farm businesses to provide fresh, local produce for Houston.
Tell me about Plant It Forward and your work with refugees.
We help refugees who have agricultural backgrounds become urban farmers here in Houston. Currently, we have seven independent farmers growing for our brand. This October, we’re planning to start training a new class of prospective farmers, probably 20-24 from all around the world.
So the seven farmers actually manage the farms for Plant It Forward?
Our current master farmers went through the training program several years back [and now] they are farming independently on Plant It Forward land, fulfilling farm shares, farmers markets, farm stands and wholesale orders. We have seven individuals who are making a living off the farms; we actually had nine until just recently, but we have our first alumni: Albert Lombo and Adrien Ikaba. They started their own business called Houston Gardening Market, and they have their own farm out in Tomball now. So they’re our first successful trainees that really did go out and become independent.
Are there any other cities working on similar refugee farming programs?
There is a whole network of refugee farms between many different cities nationally. But we’re unique in that our program provides a full-time occupation and a livable wage. A lot of other programs are more focused on community building and supplemental income, which is wonderful, but we’re making this an economic program. And part of that is possible because we live in a climate that’s a year-round growing season.
Are there any vegetables or other plants unique to Plant It Forward’s program?
In the summer, our farmers grow vegetables that they treasure from home. Many African vegetables like roselle, different kinds of okra, amaranth, African eggplant, water spinach. It’s a really welcoming thing to be able to share food and customs with our customers. I was unaware of many of the vegetables when I started, but some of them I’ve adopted, and they are my favorites now, particularly roselle.
What is roselle?
People are usually familiar with hibiscus tea. Roselle is the plant that makes that tea, and we have it fresh from September to October. I think we are the only source in Houston for fresh hibiscus. All summer long you can eat the greens as well, and they have a similar flavor that really zazzes up what you’re cooking.
The University of St. Thomas is home to Plant It Forward’s first farm stand here in Montrose. Can you talk about that?
Yes, over a year ago we opened a stand at [University of] St. Thomas. Farmer Roy [a Plant it Forward farmer] is pretty beloved in the Montrose neighborhood. He’s open every Saturday from 10-2 with fresh-picked [produce] off the farm, steps away from the stand.
Why did you come to Montrose first?
We came to Montrose because we knew that it would be easy. We knew that there are people walking around and enjoying their neighborhood. In other parts of town, we struggle with farm stands because it’s mostly vehicular traffic zooming by, but in Montrose, it’s kind of a natural spot for local business.
Do you have any partnerships with the university?
We do! We are farming on University of St. Thomas land, so they enable us to be in such a wonderful neighborhood. The students do a big President’s Day of service every year, and help Farmer Roy tackle a big project that he could not have done on his own.
Is there any way Montrose residents or local businesses could get more involved with Plant It Forward if they were interested?
I tell people the best way to support Plant It Forward is to buy our produce. Your dollars go directly to the farmers; that’s how they make a living. When people in our community buy in the neighborhood, that allows us to grow our concept and be successful.
Plant It Forward Farms, 4030 Willowbend Blvd, 832-983-0405, plant-it-forward.org