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Q&A: Urban Farming founder Taja Sevelle


Taja Sevelle, breaking new ground.

Glance over her résumé and you'll think Taja Sevelle is an unlikely advocate for urban farming. She's a singer who got her first record deal as a teenager in the 1980s and went on to work with music greats such as Burt Bacharach and Thom Bell. (Her big hit was the pop song, "Love is Contagious.")

But look a little deeper and it makes more sense. Before she got lucky in the music business, Sevelle wanted to be a botanist. She had lived in an off-the-grid cabin in the woods with her family as a child and later on a potato farm. In 2004, while in Detroit recording a new CD, Sevelle noticed empty lots across the city and thought: We could do something with all of this.

A year later, her nonprofit Urban Farming was born. The group, still based in Detroit, has helped to start more than 1,000 gardens across the country. In partnership with Kraft Foods, Sevelle is personally breaking ground on 50 new gardens in 20 cities this spring and summer. She will christen the group's first garden in the District today at the Urban Planning Organization on Rhode Island Avenue in Northwest.

Sevelle, who says she is "ageless and weightless," (and certainly looks it) stopped by The Post to talk about the movement for urban farming. Excerpts follow:

-- Jane Black

Your organization is breaking ground on a new garden every Tuesday and Thursday all summer. That's a big push.

Our organization is partnering with Triscuit to start 50 home farms in 20 cities. We started planting in March. They've made a commitment for this year of $700,000 to fund these 50 gardens and that includes soil testing and trucks of topsoil and compost and plants and tools.

But that's only one-half of the plan. The other part is to encourage people to start planting at home, to let people know how easy it is to get started. So they've launched a Web site where you can register your home garden and then you can share tips with all the folks who have registered all around the world. We already have over 4,000 people and we've only just gotten started. Triscuit is including seeds in each package of crackers so people can plant at home.

Why did you decide to get involved in urban farming?

I wanted to become a botanist before I decided to become a singer. But after I graduated from high school, I was accepted to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. That same week, Prince offered me a record deal. So you know, it wasn't a tough decision. It took my life to a whole different place. That's what I've done all my life: singing and songwriting. That's been my world.

Then about six years ago, I was recording a CD for Sony in Detroit. What popped out for me there is the amount of unused land.

I realize people don't understand what's going on in Detroit. Many people don't understand what is happening in so many cities in the United States. The people who are talking about this recession don't realize that for a lot of people, there has been a recession, a depression, for the better part of a decade. I felt this was a simple solution. It was one that struck my spirit because of my experiences living on a farm, wanting to be a botanist, seeing these big vast unused pieces of land.

How many farms do you have in Detroit?

We have 8 to 9 acres. We have a few sites that are entire city blocks. All told, it's more than 100 farms. [Urban Farming defines a farm as one 20-by-20-foot garden.] The food is free for the community. It's not certified organic but we use organic methods. We do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Who works in all these gardens?

We get groups to adopt the gardens. It could be a group of friends, a Girl Scout troop or faith-based organizations. They're great partners because they have youth groups.

When did you start to expand?

We went national in 2006. We were the adopted charity of Atlantic Records. We're in almost half the United States right now. Total, right now, I believe we are in 22 cities in the United States. We also have a garden at a school in Jamaica, we have a garden at a school in England and we have a farm in Canada.

And you also do edible walls?

Yeah, they're amazing. It's sort of like a rack or a lattice where you can slot in the plants.
You can pretty much grow everything, except some root plants. You can grow eggplants and cucumbers and tomatoes and peppers and melons and all kinds of greens.

The great thing about these edible walls is that they have environmental positive impact, just like a green roof. They cut down on 60 percent of the heating and cooling costs of a building. They cut down on the urban heat index. They provide green-collar jobs. They cut down on the rainwater runoff. And with ours, people can walk by and harvest food to feed themselves.

By Jane Black  |  May 13, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, sustainable food  
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