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One city is offering fellowships to encourage young people to farm

Urban farming in Phoenix
Posted at 8:56 AM, Mar 15, 2022

PHOENIX — It’s hard not to be drawn in by the lofty prose of Angelica Willis-Smith. To speak with her is to speak little and absorb the emotions that imbue her words.

And then you focus on what she's speaking about.

“Most people have no clue, no idea, don’t know the first thing about what it takes to put a seed in the ground," Willis-Smith said. “And it’s the one thing every person’s ancestors have been doing since the beginning of time. It’s the one thing that connects every person on this planet. It’s farming. It’s cultivating. Like, and hardly anybody knows how to do it.”

Willis-Smith is a singer, a licensed massage therapist, has certificates in IT and also models. But she spends most of her time on an acre and a half in southern Phoenix. That, among everything, makes her rare.

“For people like myself who are young, single, who are out here living in the world, there’s not a push to get us back into the work of the earth," she said.

Farming has long been the domain of older white men. Willis-Smith defies it all. But she’s also busted another misconception: that farming can’t happen in cities.

Jessica Diamond oversees operations for Project Roots, the non-profit that runs the acre-and-a-half.

“We’ve got lettuce, we’ve got mustard greens, kale, garlic, green onions," Diamond said. "We’ve got beets, carrots, sunflowers, dill, fennel.”

In the last 30 years, urban farming has grown more than 30%. It’s hailed as one path to bring food security to areas with little. That’s why more cities are taking a vested interest.

Joe Rossell is a Food Systems Program Manager for the City of Phoenix.

“There is an entire generation out there," Rossell said, "that are interested in where their food comes from and learning how to grow food.”

The city this year launched the Urban Agriculture Fellowship Program. They’ll pay nine Phoenix residents between the ages of 18 and 24 to work on 9 Phoenix farms. One of the 9 fellows is Willis-Smith.

“We hope that by the end of the year, they'll have great relationships with the farms and choose this as a career path for the future," Rossell said.

Few cities are trying fellowships. This one is funded by the American Rescue Plan, meaning the funds are temporary. And 9 fellowships don’t erase that there are far more farm producers over 75 than under the age of 35.

Willis-Smith believes in the promise of the future.

“Everybody who comes here sees it just a little bit more every time they visit," she said, "that I’m no different than you and you’re no different than me because we all have the same basic needs. There’s so many other things that I could be doing, but this place keeps me here.”