When you're farming, intention is everything, part 2 of 2
An urban farmer draws on the wisdom of his ancestors, and that’s just common sense.
Part 1 of 2 on Heru Urban Farming
By Lisa Brunette
For Heru Lewis, intention is everything. Over the past five years, he took a leap of faith, leaving his gym-teacher job behind and forging a new career: farming.
But without land on which to practice it, Heru used what he had around him, and in urban St. Louis, that meant vacant lots. He first broke ground across the street from his rental and then expanded from there. Today, Heru Urban Farming comprises a total of three acres and serves restaurants in St. Louis as well as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription for underserved neighborhoods. There’s a non-profit component as well, as Heru works to educate youth on farming practices.
Farming must be in his blood, though he didn’t know that when he began the work. Hearing of his atypical urban pursuit, family members sent him clippings showing his great uncle’s leadership of an all-black farmer’s co-op in Paris, Texas, back in the 1930s. The man grew prized tomatoes and showcased them at the Negro State Fair as late as the 1950s.
That legacy is part of where the intention comes into play.
Heru calls it “old-school stuff, from our ancestors,” while acknowledging with all seriousness that it gives his urban farming a decidedly “spiritual aspect.” Heru ran through some of his practices during our recent interview with him, 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 explains:
So right now we’re in the new moon phase, so we’re trying to put stuff out there, and in the full-moon stage, you want to do your harvest. They don’t always pan out like that, but eighty-some percent of the time, I think it works. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do; you can’t wait on the cycles of the moon, but I try to plan that intentionally. It’s all about intention. But I swear it makes a difference.
His intentional means don’t end with moon phases and their tie to crop cycles. Throughout the past five years of intense change for Heru, he’s frequently meditated, and now he has a place in the woods to engage in the practice. Impressed by Heru’s efforts to bring high-quality organic produce to “food desert” areas in St. Louis, the non-profit Confluence Farms invited him to make use of their land and facilities, and that includes hundreds of acres of woodland. Heru meditates on a bench under an old cottonwood tree.
He’s also appreciated there for his sage-smudging, a well-known practice in many cultures to “clean” away bad energies or spirits and prepare a place for new life without interference. “I believe in all that,” says Heru. “I sage everything… [The people at Confluence] can’t wait till I come out here and sage the fields. I walk around the whole property, walk down everybody’s rows with sage in my hands, and I’m thinking something in my head while I’m doing it, making it intentional.”
The results speak for themselves. Since beginning gardening in earnest out of buckets in his tiny city backyard five years ago, Heru has come a long way. In 2021, he won a $50,000 grant from the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Diversity Equity and Inclusion Accelerator to support his work to provide quality farm produce to areas considered “food deserts.”
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Some of Heru’s practices might even verge into woo-woo territory, and he has no qualms about that. “My plots in the city,” he says, “I’ve actually got crystals in the ground. I’ve got some quartz, some black tourmaline for protection.”
But don’t think of him as any kind of New Age acolyte. Many of his techniques actually remind me of popular gardening personality Jerry Baker and his “Supermarket Super Products.” Heru swears by Irish Spring soap, for example, which he slips into tube socks and buries along the fence line where he’d like to keep rabbits out. “It’s activated from water,” he explains. “When it rains, you really smell it.”
Other tactics fall into the tried-and-true area of companion planting, such as growing cilantro at the base of tomatoes to keep out hornworms, or using basil to draw Japanese beetles away from his peppers.
Another aspect of intention might have a psychological or even physiological basis. Says Heru:
For example, we call it soul food because you put your ‘all’ into it, right? This is just me personally; if I go to somebody’s house, and there’s a lot of confusion going on, I don’t want to eat that food. I’m not saying you’re a bad person or nothing like that, but at this moment your energy’s not right, so I don’t wanna eat that. That’s why some people say, ‘I got to be in the mood to cook.’ I take that to farming, too. You’ve got these precious seeds in your hand, you’re growing food, you want to make sure you’re in a good mood because you’ve got to eat that. If I’m in a bad mood, I sit back and say, OK, I’m in a bad mood… let me get myself together. I might even meditate, burn some sage. But once you come out here, you’re in a good mood anyway.
He smiled and gestured to the fields around us at that last part, and the beautiful day spoke for itself, with early-spring sunshine warming our bones after a long winter, and tender green plants poking up out of dormant soil.
The dramatic changeover from winter to spring brings me to the most practical aspect of Heru’s farming belief system. “I think you should eat with the seasons,” he says. “In summertime, we’ve got a lot of fruit: Eat more fruit. You’re supposed to eat thicker stuff in the wintertime because it’s colder. It’s hunting time; you should get some deer meat.”
More and more people are discovering the benefits of seasonal eating—the food is fresher, might have traveled less distance, and retains its peak vitamins and minerals. But our ready, year-round supply of supermarket produce such as tomatoes and citrus have trained a populace that often has no idea what food is in season at any given time. This despite the fact that eating what grows well around you that time of the year is rule number one in many traditional cultures, forming the basis of their cuisine.
“I think it’s common sense,” says Heru, acknowledging that seasonal eating, once obvious, has been albeit lost in our overly complex modern times. “My dad always told me, ‘Common sense isn’t always common.’”
Anthony Valterra contributed to this story by asking interview questions and recording.