The filtered morning light casts a peaceful air, the dew on the grass refreshes sandaled toes and farmer Roy Lemba is busy tending his inaugural farm stand at Plant it Forward Farms in Montrose, which lifted its awnings last weekend. A continuous stream of regular supporters drops by to either pick up their weekly CSA share or congratulate him on this newest entrepreneurial effort. Others are merely curious, stopping en route to other destinations to peruse the baskets laden with a cornucopia of seasonal fare ranging from carrots and beets to peas and fennel.
“I drove by and thought ‘Hey, I could use fresh vegetables and now I have fresh vegetables,” commented one enthusiastic new customer, downright giddy with the anticipation of digging into his bag of greens. Though the stand’s primary focus is to nourish tummies, it’s clear by the social engagement between Roy and his customers that the experience runs deeper: Hearts and souls get a healthy dose of feeding too. “We’re very lucky to have the ability to be able to support the organization,” says CSA member Jared Gregory who, along with his mother visiting from out of town, is here with his two dogs—one of whom has a serious infatuation with fresh vegetables. The little hound eagerly snatches whatever tidbits Roy conveniently drops in reach, on purpose no doubt.
So how does it work? Simple. If you are a CSA member, check the posted instructions detailing how much of each item to take from the designated white coolers along one side of the trailer, sign off that you took your share and go on your merry way. Roy will select which produce is in your share to ensure diversity reflective of the season, but you can always supplement by purchasing additional items from the shelves opposite the coolers.
Non-members select produce à la carte and pay Roy directly. If a basket is empty, chances are he’ll take to his field and hand-harvest a bunch of green onions or a bulb of fennel from the earth for a literal farm-to-table meal. Roy recognizes the significance of his work not only for its ability to pay for his living needs but for the connections created with customers, even the little ones. Two young girls are part of that group, making their presence known with giggles of delight. “They are helping me every day [they come],” says Roy. “Sometimes they come and say ‘We want to plant!’ so I give them something to plant. In this job you want to be nice to the people. If you’re not nice, that’s no good. I want to be nice to everybody, to laugh. You want to talk very well, to make people happy.”
“It amazes me how spoiled we are with the quality,” says Gregory. “The love and the knowledge that Roy has for cultivating the land and making the vegetables available, the flavors that come out are so much better than what you’re getting even at H-E-B, which I think people would say have the best [grocery] produce in the city, it’s just unbelievable.” Gregory lives mere blocks from the farm and is a prime example of the beneficiaries of Plant It Forward’ mission to have ‘A Farm in Every Neighborhood.’ Currently, the organization supports 10 farms at four locations in Houston, with each farm averaging two thirds of an acre tended solely by its respective farmer and volunteers. Executive director Teresa O’Donnell says the farmers have full discretion over what is planted, though she provides numerous resources to assist in cultivating the land to its full potential.“What I think they like about it is being able to set their own hours and work when they can,” she says of the flexibility, adding that children and spouses are always welcome.
Roy’s farm resides on land owned by the University of St. Thomas and both parties have embraced the connection for the past several years with the environmental sciences department offering support and student volunteers. Eventually this land will be reclaimed by the university and become another source of inspiration and growth by nourishing minds as a fine arts pavilion. That’s still a few years off, though, and in the meantime everything’s coming up roses—or radishes, if you prefer.
Plant It Forward Farms is expanding the farm stand to the remaining farms, with stands starting service this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the Westbury location, each one tended by a different farmer. Look for special coupon cards onsite offering discounts and “make 10 purchases get a special freebie” deals.