The 'gatekeeper of Maffit' is a unicorn, part 1 of 2
Tyrean 'Heru' Lewis takes up a career path that's incredibly rare today: farming.
Part 1 of 2 on Heru Urban Farming
By Lisa Brunette
According to the latest USDA census, fewer than 1 percent of US citizens are farmers. Filter that down to blacks and African Americans, and the figure drops off the data charts, to only .08 percent1.
That makes Tyrean ‘Heru’ Lewis practically a unicorn.
Even more so because he’s an urban farmer, growing on several plots in St. Louis and St. Louis County, Missouri. Heru first broke ground in 2017, sowing seeds in buckets in his backyard. This was on Maffitt Avenue, in a neighborhood he describes as a “food desert,” where the only nearby food options are fast food or convenience marts.
As his bucket gardening expanded to include empty lots he rented through the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority, he became known as the “gatekeeper of Maffit.” While his neighbors at first regarded him with suspicion, he found that if there’s one thing that will bring people together, it’s gardening. Soon his little operation grew to three urban lots totaling just a quarter of an acre.
The community response was overwhelmingly positive, with four more lots added to the Heru Urban Farming project since then, including a sizable presence at Confluence Farms for a current total of just under three acres. Leaders of Confluence—a non-profit that owns 240 acres of spent farmland and woodland in the midst of a large-scale restoration project—reached out to Heru when they saw what he’d been able to accomplish with so little space. At Confluence, in addition to two of his largest plots for vegetables, he and his crew now have access to a greenhouse, a food prep shed with aerial water sprayers, a walk-in cooler, and a cedar root cellar.
“During watermelon season, I kind of just take this over,” he says of the walk-in cooler. This was during part of my recent tour, which took place over two days and included a forage hike through the woods, led by Heru and a doula friend, Malia Jones, who’d wanted to bring her clients into connection with nature. He enjoys use of the Confluence facilities for free, which helps enable him to provide agricultural curriculum programs for local school children who might not otherwise gain any experience with farming.
“I’m blessed to be here,” Heru says of his Confluence arrangement. “I’m blessed they gave me an invitation to come out here… It’s love, really. We help each other out. It’s like family out here.”
That’s half of Heru’s focus these days, the non-profit outreach work to connect urban youth with farming. The other half goes toward his for-profit venture: selling wholesale produce to local chefs. He also provides a CSA subscription for communities in St. Louis with nearly half the residents living below the poverty line. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture; a CSA box provides people living in food-desert areas with everything from fresh dill and basil to jars of honey and the many watermelon varieties for which Heru is known.
He’s come a long way in five years from those backyard buckets.
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Making Heru rarer still as a farmer is his choice to farm organically and regeneratively, rather than conventionally. This has everything to do with health for the forty-year-old farmer. “I used to have sleep apnea, so I’d stop breathing for 90 minutes, and that scared the crap out of me,” he explains.
Another wakeup call came when a brutally honest student in his gym classes pointed to a waistline Heru describes as “out to here,” gesturing to encompass a girth that would put Santa Claus to shame. The kid said, “How can you be a gym teacher with a belly like that?”
“That did something to me,” Heru says. “I needed to hear that.” He took a good, hard look in the mirror and altered his diet and other habits. The experience ended up changing not just his health, but his life as a whole. Disturbed by the lack of healthy produce options in his neighborhood, he set out to revamp that system and has succeeded in more ways than one, from the city residents he provides with fresh, organic produce to the school children who get to practice making herbal remedies fashioned from homegrown plants.
Now he’s involved in several organizations as well, including the National Young Farmers Coalition. Together with 150 other farmers, Heru recently participated in a DC fly-in as part of the group’s Farm Bill lobbying efforts. Agriculture is one of the areas where people can meet across political divisions, he says. “I think there is a lot of connection without bias when we’re dealing with agriculture, for the most part. I think that is one thing where they kind of see eye-to-eye.”
There’s room for improvement, however, as farm programs have a long history strictly tied to rural areas, and the language often doesn’t work for those growing in an urban environment. For example, Heru lost half his watermelon harvest—3,000 pounds—one year due to predation from skunks. Groups such as the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provide funding for fencing, but the language used to specify an intention to pen livestock.
Through the efforts of Heru and those like him, that wording is, as of this writing, undergoing change to include human uses. The result is that urban farmers like Heru could apply such funding to a fence to keep out the skunks. “I’m just trying to get [these agencies] to be more urban-friendly,” he says. “That’s my goal.”
That is his short-term goal, which is already being met. His long-term vision is to make sure he doesn’t continue to be a unicorn.
“I love this setup,” he says, gesturing around at the Confluence site, encompassing its fields, greenhouse, and an old farmhouse on the property currently being used as a base of operations and meeting space. “This is the vision for my setup, like a homestead, you know, with a house, at least 50 acres of property, that’s ideal. That’s what I want.”
Heru has applied for a collaborative grant with two other farmers for 80-120 acres of land adjacent to St. Louis so they can expand their support in the metro area with quality produce and educational opportunities.
“My goal is to have at least five farmers in an urban setting that need space come out to my property, and they can learn how to farm,” says Heru. “I’ll give them five years, they can do what they want to do, and I’m not gonna charge them. After five years, they’ll have learned enough to move on with their skills. I want to be a training space, I want to have goats and chickens, maybe some hogs.”
Additional credit: Anthony Valterra, for interview and recording assistance.
“Farmers” are defined as principal producers, according to the latest United States Department of Agriculture Census, from 2017. “The term producer designates a person who is involved in making decisions for the farm operation,” according to the USDA.