JUNE 17, 2020
‘I choose growth’: My story of transforming an abandoned lot into a thriving urban farm, offering fresh food and jobs for my community.
By Tyrean ‘Heru’ Lewis
I’ve always had problems with fighting in school. The first time I got suspended for fighting in middle school, my mama told me, “You gonna get suspended while fighting on class time, you better get them grades together.” It was important to her that no matter how much I got in trouble that I remembered to keep my grades up. I never forgot that.
When I got kicked out of Normandy high school my senior year for fighting, I told myself, “Well I'm not going to college. This is it.” I had given up. Fortunately, one of my best friends and my high school counselor at Normandy saw potential in me. They both helped write and submit all my college applications. With their help, I graduated from Normandy in 2001. I went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree from MacMurry College in Jacksonville, Illinois and a Master’s degree in Management from Walden University. All of this was possible because two people believed in me.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my two degrees, but I always dreamed of owning my own business. One day, I stumbled into the business of farming.
It all started after I went on a field trip to four different Schnucks locations, searching for freshest produce. My first stop was at the Schnucks on Union, the location closest to me. I walked into that location, looked around, and thought, “Man, this selection is poor.” The fruit and veggies didn’t look healthy and the selection lacked variety. I decided to try the Schnucks on Lindell next. The produce section there was a little bit better; there was more variety, and the fruits and vegetables looked a little prettier. So I thought, “Let me try the Schnucks in Clayton.” That location’s produce section was much better; there was variety, and it looked really fresh. My last stop was the Schnucks in West County. It ain’t even look like a Schnucks. There was a winery and sushi bar, and the fruits and veggies at that location glowed in the light.
The Schnucks in West County is seventeen miles away from the Schnucks on Union. Why are the produce sections so different?
People say I live in a food desert, or a geographical area where access to quality food is limited. I think this term is misleading. A desert is natural, right? The lack of access to fresh food in black neighborhoods in St. Louis is not ‘natural.’ It is deliberate. I believe there’s deliberately a gas station on every corner in the hood instead of a grocery store. You might see some bananas and oranges at the cash registers, but gas stations don't sell anything fresh. Of course, we got a Schnucks in the hood too, but that selection sucks. That fateful field trip opened my eyes to what is actually happening in low-income, black and brown neighborhoods like mine: food aparthied. Food apartheid describes how food suppliers deliberately create food vacuums in underserved communities like mine. My neighborhood and neighborhoods like it across the country, are overlooked or forgotten by food suppliers, who deem them as unworthy or undeserving of fresh food.
I decided I wanted to do something to address food insecurity in my neighborhood, so I started growing food for myself and giving away some to single moms and the elderly. It wasn’t long after that when I decided to grow food for my whole community. I remember I was sitting on my porch, staring at an empty lot across the street, where three houses once stood. I pictured myself starting a garden on that empty lot. I’m talking down to the most minute details, like the smell of the plants, the sound of the wind, and the feel of the soil in my hands. I manifested every detail of my dream business that day.
I named my business, Heru Urban Farming and Garden, after my spiritual name, Heru, which means ‘King/liberator.’ Our mission is to provide quality organic food and herbal supply for low-income, black and brown communities devastated by food apartheid. By doing so, I liberate my people through food.
My daddy always told me, ‘Whatever you do in life make sure it’s something that you want to do. If it’s easy, then that’s something you were born to do.’ When I farm, everything comes naturally.
I didn't know it growing up, but I found out in 2018 that I am a fourth generation farmer. My great uncle, Minor Washington, and his son, Ernest Washington, were first place growers in Lamar County, Texas. They won first place prizes in the state fair for their watermelon, purple Hull peas, corn and tomatoes. The number one thing I grow is watermelon. I also grow purple hull peas and tomatoes. When I learned about my ancestry, I decided to name my tomatoes “Minor” tomatoes, after my great uncle. I also started honoring my ancestors by pouring libations out for them in my garden. When a cardinal bird visits my garden, I know it's one of them coming to watch over me.
My experiences over the past three years have taught me to not set limits on where the universe takes me. As long as you do everything you need to do in the physical realm, the metaphysical will take care of itself. It’s like church. You can pray for something, but you gotta put in work to make it happen. I truly believe that, and my story is a testament. In 2017, I started off with three lots or 10,612 square feet, and now I have over two acres of land. I watered the seed of my vision until it blossomed into a thriving community garden and farm.
With business booming, I took a leap of faith recently and applied for WEPOWER’s Elevate/Elevar accelerator. The program seeks to build wealth in low-income communities by elevating Black and Latinx entrepreneurs. When I became one of ten entrepreneurs accepted into the program, I was ecstatic. It made me think I can actually be successful at this business. It's like when you finally feel like you can squat somewhere. Being accepted into the accelerator gave me the confidence boost I needed to know I am on the right path.
I am grateful for the organizations like WEPOWER and people like my best friends and my high school counselor at Normandy, who chose to invest in my vision and dream. But sometimes I wonder what would have happened if those people didn’t see potential in me. Would I be where I am today? The reality is the places I have lived and the people I have lived among are constantly underestimated, overlooked and forgotten by people in power. You can choose to see failure in someone or someplace, or you can choose to see growth. I choose growth.