Farming in the Fifth Ward
Abundance blossoms in an unlikely area at Last Organic Outpost
Since its inception in 2000, Last Organic Outpost (LOO)—a nonprofit community farm in the Fifth Ward—has embraced volunteer-sustained organic farming practices and transformative, inspirational conversation regarding the importance of urban farms in an area described by Joe Icet, the founder of LOO, as a “food desert.”
“Our world is faced with so many social issues, and while we can’t address all of them here on this farm, I know that one of the greatest issues we face, especially in Houston, is food security,” Icet says. “Instead of farms, many people in this area depend on assistance programs and fast food to get through the week. The absence of urban farms in the community is something that has to be addressed by cities, or else we are in real trouble.”
A retired pipefitter, Icet, aged 61?, has devoted the past decade and a half to arduous farm labor. In the process he has grown increasingly impassioned and vocal regarding a food-security plan for Houston, specifically in the Fifth Ward, where Icet both lives and spends his days. While there are innumerable ways to address social issues such as hunger, Icet believes that supporting tax incentives for landowners who provide and support urban farming in the community is one of the most viable options for addressing both food security and hunger.
“Access to land is the community’s most vital resource,” Icet says. “By encouraging landowners to have urban farms and allow members of the community to work these farms, it creates a lasting impact that transforms a whole community. Individuals can learn how to take care of themselves and their families, and with that, they become more confident, self-sufficient, participating citizens. We could also address hunger in a real way.”
These days, instead of waiting for change to take hold, Icet is taking charge. With the aid of volunteers from all walks of life and various donors, the farmer hosts classes, artistic meetups like poetry slams and readings, and community events inspired and sustained by a mutual appreciation for urban farming and all its facets.
Before Icet became a full-time Fifth Ward farmer, he worked for the Pipefitters Local Union 211 for nearly three decades. But it was during his latter years in that profession that Icet began to feel a transformation taking place. During his usually peaceful morning meditations, Icet’s reflections were becoming much more radical and redefining. The devout meditator began to hear the call to participate in the community in a more substantial way.
“Essentially, I realized I needed to do more for the world around me,” Icet says. “I don’t think we’re meant to wander around this world aimlessly or sit on the couch like a potato to find our bliss. I’ve always believed we should use the skills and gifts we’re given to engage our world in ways we don’t think possible. Our time on Earth is the test for the next life, and I’m trying to pass that test.”
To honor his call, Icet cultivated the earth—beginning on a patch of mushroom-compost soil on the banks of Japhet Creek with a small garden project that included dill, lettuce, arugula and mint. Today, the farm on Emile Street has evolved into a much more substantial entity: 1¼ acres filled with unique and unfamiliar produce, including tropical spinach, Siberian kale and moringa, as well as more familiar fare such as okra, mustard greens, figs, eggplant, sweet potatoes and other Texas staples. With the bounty produced on the farm, Icet feeds volunteers, local Fifth Ward residents and also sells produce at the Eastside Farmers Market.
In addition to LOO’s earth-grown ingredients, the farm also boasts an 11,000-gallon tilapia tank, a new aquaponics system, a multi-breed chicken coop and a bee apiary that all serve a symbiotic purpose: cultivating the land, in particular the soil.
The farm’s intensely rich, pungent soil has been brought to life through a host of techniques, including vermiculture composting. Through the assistance of businesses like CenterPoint Energy tree removal services and Farm Dirt, a for-profit compost facility, LOO diverts various food and landscape waste and allows the decaying, natural matter, such as lettuce and tomatoes in the chicken coop, to break down and convert into healthy soil used throughout the farm. Even nutrients pulled from filtered waste in the fish tank are turned into a compost tea, which provides vital nutrients for the soil and the garden. Even in the midst of the hottest summer days, Icet says, the homemade dirt is so healthy that it rarely ever needs to be watered.
“I like to say that I’ve become a dirt farmer these days,” Icet jokes. “Essentially everything on the farm comes back to the dirt, and we’ve saved so much money not having to use so much water to keep it healthy. It’s a win-win.”
With Icet’s vision and the help of individuals like Ken Crimmins, the property owner; Ryan Niles, the farm project manager; and James and Fatima Fomba, two dedicated volunteers, the farm is a testament to what can change can transpire through a unifying vision.
“I like to think we’re creating a culture of doer-ship here,” Icet says. “That being involved and working hard for place like this has the power to transform a whole community.”