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Cropping Up: Specialty crops in unlikely places

“So, kids are very excited when they see the onions and they can just pull them right out. When we harvest, we're going to have some kids who are going to help us yank this stuff out. And also, it's fun to show kids that they can pull stuff right off the vine when it's really fresh. So, it's, again, a good way to get kids to try different kinds of vegetables because if you've never had a snap pea, you're more inclined to try it if you pop it off the vine because they just think it's cool,” said former first lady Michelle Obama.

You might recognize the voice of Michelle Obama talking about the 1100 square foot fruit and vegetable garden she planted in 2009 on the south lawn of the White House. The former first lady was motivated after a doctor’s visit where she learned that her daughters' diets weren’t nutritious enough. Having been raised on the southside of Chicago, she knew nothing about gardening but as she planted and tasted the benefits of locally grown produce, she began a campaign to increase healthy food choices and promote healthy eating in homes and schools across America.

In our own backyard New Roots, a local faction of the International Rescue Committee is helping refugees nourish themselves by developing small scale urban farms and community gardens where these families new to Salt Lake City can literally plant strong roots, giving them access to fresh, local, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.

“My name is Sierra Govett. I am the New Roots Community Garden Coordinator.”

The New Roots garden program serves 150 gardening families in 12 garden sites around the Salt Lake Valley. Other organizations such as Wasatch Community Gardens, partner with New Roots, providing seeds and starts to these new-to-America families. They grow all of their starts at a greenhouse in West Valley that is operated by Utah State University.

“And a lot of those seeds and starts are kind of culturally appropriate seeds that are a lot harder to find in the US because they're not vegetables that are commonly eaten here,” said Govett.

For example, Govett and colleagues found seeds to grow the sought-after African eggplant, which vary in size and color, the big ones being white.

“And then another example is African corn, which is like a less sweet version than what we're used to in American grocery stores. And so that's another one that we can't find anywhere. So, our farmers love it. And people from Africa, and Bhutan, and other countries are all growing it and love it,” said Govett.

New Roots also runs a farm training program where currently about 50 refugee farmers garden on 18 acres of land and sell their vegetables at farmers markets. Not only is this income for the farmers and families trying to make a living in the US, but the rest of the refugee community can now find the vegetables they have missed from home at affordable prices. They can even purchase vegetables using vouchers such as double up bucks, or SNAP.

“And there's a senior incentive voucher that they can also use at our markets. And then we give them tokens and they are able to spend it freely, kind of working with the farmers who are setting their own prices and bartering with them as they want to,” said Govett.

And the whole family gets involved!

“Gardening is definitely like a family activity; the whole family comes out usually. And we have a gardener who is Burmese, and she loves to bring our kids to the garden and her kids love cucumbers. And so, they usually like to come in and pick cucumbers and immediately start eating them in the garden, while she's working away at cleaning out the weeds. It's truly adorable. I hear over and over again how much the kids love the vegetables, and how much both the whole family loves being in the garden as a gathering space, as a healing space,” said Govett.

The program is very successful. New Roots is looking to expand so they can enroll more new gardeners arriving in the United States, getting them more connected with their new land and the crops they like to eat, while giving them food security. If you want to get involved, you can volunteer to help a farmer in the garden and frequent their farmers markets listed on the IRC SLC website. Your patronage will directly financially support these families.

Now picture mostly tattooed men in bright orange jumpsuits growing a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. Unlikely? Well, inmate gardeners at the Salt Lake County jail in partnership with USU Extension learn how to nurture crops from seed to market. Jail horticulturalists teach inmates mulching, soil conditioning and planting and they grow tomatoes, garlic, peppers, peas, chard, lettuces, and all kinds of flowers, herbs, and much more. They also have a chicken coop they call Coop Knox, and a pond where they raise endangered native Utah fish. This jail garden produces 20,000 pounds of produce a year and they distribute it to local senior citizen centers, the Utah Food Bank, and other organizations.

To check out what’s growing in the greenhouses, get answers to your spring gardening questions, and see the inmates at work, you can sign up for a 60-minute tour! To register or if you have questions, please respond to clivingston@slco.org or call 385-468-880.

Remember the children’s book, Jack and the Beanstalk? Jack takes the cow into town and is offered magic beans in exchange for it. When his mother sees he's brought home beans instead of money, she throws the beans out the window and a great beanstalk grows into the clouds. Jack climbs the stalk in hopes of finding food but instead finds himself in the castle of an unfriendly giant where he manages to take a treasure from the giant's home.

The moral for Jack is to make the best of a situation, and when opportunity knocks, take advantage of it. Look up. And you might see dangling foliage, vegetable gardens climbing walls and flourishing atop rooftops. In fact, Vertical farming is gaining momentum. Nona Yehia and her company Vertical Harvest, grow stories upon stories of crops, producing about 100,000 pounds of produce every year. Tomatoes are their tallest crop.

“And you know, these plants can grow up to 40 feet tall. They're giants, they're really beautiful,” said Nona Yehia.

They also grow super nutritious microgreens like micro radish, micro arugula, and micro wasabi.

“It is the Willy Wonka part of our farm because the taste is phenomenal. So, you have a really healthy product within a very tiny package. So, on a 10th of an acre, we grow the equivalent of 10 acres worth of food all year round. And we do that by maximizing growing area,” said Yehia.

Yehia says they have plans to expand and build a network of vertical farms across the nation.

Specialty crops are sprouting up everywhere. The shift in mentality to fresh, local and healthy food is sparking innovation. From the White House to refugee, inmate and vertical gardening, unlikely places are becoming the norm.

Sheri's career in radio began at 7 years old in Los Angeles, California with a secret little radio tucked under her bed that she'd fall asleep with, while listening to The Dr. Demento Radio Show. She went on to produce the first science radio show in Utah in 1999 and has been reporting local, national and international stories ever since. After a stint as news director at KZYX on northern California's Lost Coast, she landed back at UPR in 2021.