Published 05 August 2014
Sitting on the verandah at Ray and Leslie Chasser’s urban farm in Miami in July you might be living in Far North Queensland in deep summer. Surrounded by birds, insects, and a green canopy that protects you from the summer sun, the heat and humidity close in on you like a warm blanket.
Ray and Leslie’s farm sits on two acres of land, just off 79th Street on North Miami Avenue. It is surrounded by a working-class residential area of Haitian migrants and their families, many of whom fled the notorious 15-year dictatorship of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in the 70s and 80s.
It is a poor but proud neighborhood with strong cultural roots. It also has a history of drug use and violence. In addition, the housing bubble burst loud in Florida. Gutted high-rise buildings and vacant lots still sport hand-written signs offering ‘cash for houses’.
In 1978, long before the global financial crisis, Ray bought his first quarter-acre parcel of land on the site. His portfolio now extends beyond the farm to adjoining properties, including former crack-houses which he stripped and renovated. He provides safe and good value rentals to individuals and families up and down the street.
Long and short-term guests can stay on the farm itself in a variety of accommodations including single rooms, self-contained cabins and a tree-house which has withstood several hurricanes. Those who stay defy attempts to profile – an eclectic bunch of students, permaculture enthusiasts, ‘wwoofers’ (those seeking World-wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), backpackers, hammock-liers and air b ‘n’ b guests.
Anyone who stays is invited to join in communal activities including pot-lucks, ‘talent’ shows and 5pm Sunday afternoon volleyball –a regular weekly fixture that is equal parts exercise and entertainment, and an occasion to see the incredibly positive impact of the farm for the diverse community.
An open-gate policy means that everyone in the neighbourhood is welcome to visit the farm, as long as they respect the human and non-human residents, and the environment. Church groups and local schools make frequent visits.
Major drawcards are, needless to say, the Vietnamese miniature pot-bellied pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and two emus that make the farm home. Most of the animals on the farm have been rescued from neglect or a trip to the slaughterhouse, including the self-proclaimed stars of the show – cockatoos Gabbie and Casey. Others, such as a motley crew of a dozen or so cats and a couple of raccoons, have found a safe haven from the busy streets on the farm and no one asks them to leave.
The farm has had many faces over the years. Shawnee, Ray’s sister, raised her kids, Josh and Wren, in the tree-house, which she designed. Until Ray’s bees were decimated by an introduced species his hives produced a steady flow of honey for sale. The farm has been a schoolroom, a yoga studio and a music venue. Seasonal produce including papaya, Barbados cherries, lychees, almonds, chard, tomatoes, eggplant and avocados provide a small income, as do delicious farm fresh eggs.
While permaculture methods, including an efficient composting system and a thriving worm farm, make production sustainable and organic costs remain high. Despite the self-evident value of the farm to the community, funding from local councils and government is scarce because presenting tangible evidence of the farm’s benefit to the community is a constant challenge.
Yet, the argument for agro-ecological food production in the United States, as in the rest of the world, is undeniable. In the last fortnight Minnesota health officials have investigated 13 cases of E coli. Central Californian company Wawona Packing issued a nationwide product recall over a listeria scare. Meanwhile distribution giant Sysco just settled a $19.4 million case concerning the storage of perishable food in unrefrigerated sheds.
Beyond food safety local community-centered projects, such as Ray and Leslie’s farm, provide a model of better living and a space for retreat to those who need it most.
Legendary civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, a key figure in the renewal of Detroit, is very clear about the tangible benefits of urban agriculture. “It provides fresh nutritious food, beautifies neighborhoods, creates neighborhood social capital, advances neighborhood economic development, stabilises communities, and provides sustainability. But it also provides concrete examples of alternative, value-oriented means of securing our livelihoods.”
The Greening of Detroit started when some African-American women saw vacant lots and converted them to community gardens. Ray Chasser, similarly, saw wasted land in Little Haiti and continues to create a living sanctuary for urban refugees – people and animals alike.
His philosophy is captured a sign in the communal kitchen. “Live simply, so others can simply live.”
Alana Mann (@alana_mann) is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and is involved in SEI’s Food, People and the Planet node.She is the author of ‘Global Activism in Food Politics’.