Notes From Underground: The Last Organic Outpost
“Notes from Underground” by Phil Walk
Travel to the area immediately northeast of downtown and you’ll find yourself in one of the more economically deprived sections of the city, Greater Fifth Ward. Here, you will find neighborhoods long since forsaken by development. Among the shadows of towering warehouses and silos — abandoned and rusting — once-quaint homes exhibit the signs of years-long wear and neglect. Nearly every yard is surrounded by chain link fence. Scattered storefronts are derelict and despoiled. From here, when you look toward the southeast horizon, Houston’s gleaming skyline seems about as real as the Emerald City.
If you’ve ever heard the term “food desert,” you wouldn’t be surprised to find one here. Unless, that is, you were standing at 711 Emile Street, AKA the Last Organic Outpost. Rising from the ruins of what was once a massive rice mill, is a volunteer-driven urban farm, an oasis in what might otherwise be reasonably termed a relatively barren wasteland. If the name conjures up post-apocalyptic imagery, you’ll not be disappointed by its appearance. Far, far overhead, the legend “FARM ART” is painted in gigantic letters on the side of the old mill. A motley collection of odd artifacts — a gazebo roofed with license plates, a planter fashioned from the hull of a pickup truck, and other like flotsam and jetsam — is scattered throughout the rows of greens and vegetables. Survey the tilled land, which has spilled over into adjacent vacant lots, and the dedication of the volunteer workforce is apparent. Anyone can volunteer here, and in exchange for hard work, one is allowed access to a share of the produce, fresh, delicious, and still warm from the
This farm serves a wide-ranging community culled from all walks of life, but primarily owes its existence to its progenitor, Mr. Joe Icet, who you are most likely to spot early in the day. There is always work to be done, and volunteers are welcome all week, but on Saturdays, the volunteer force swells and there are occasional craft fairs or potlucks.
Icet’s efforts catalyzed the transformation of a nondescript, desolate lot into a fertile garden. His intentions are evident in the more prosaic subtitle “Emile Street Community Research Farm.” Worms and composting generate pale brown, silty earth in which thrives eggplants, mustard greens and corn, as well as flowers of every color (in addition to a plethora of blossoming and fruiting flora I couldn’t begin to identify). Everything is permeated with vibrant, rich life here. It seems as though, were you to stand in one spot for too long, you might inadvertantly take root.
I am not a gardener myself, and (mea culpa) I have not actually participated in any capacity as a volunteer at the farm. In fact, the reason I came was an impromptu “mid-month” gathering some friends of mine had organized. There was a morning yoga session, which ended before I awoke, some proper gardening, and then a well-appointed, catered lunch. I am not ashamed to admit that helping to eat the prodigious amount of food was all I did to help on this particular occasion. That being said, I strongly encourage the reader to bring friends, drop by some weekend — bright and early — and help. There are always weeds that need pulling, and your new friends need assistance.
Follow Phil on Twitter: @nfuphil