Interview with DeVonne Jackson Perez, Urban Farmer

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH

DeVonne Jackson Perez is an Urban Farmer and sustainability educator in Brooklyn and the founder of Positive Obsession, Inc, a sustainable fashion collective. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University at Albany, SUNY, and a Master’s degree from the New York Institute of Technology. She started her career in communications and television production, working for companies including New York Daily News, Warner Bros., Fox News Channel, BET Media, Starz, and A&E Television

In 2020, she shifted to a career in food production and sustainability, and in 2021, received an NYC Urban Farmer Certificate from Farm School NYC. She is a founder of Good Ground Growers, an organization that uplifts community development by focusing on food and land equity. Currently, she works as an urban farmer for Green Thumb and is the Food Systems Coordinator for the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Earlier this year, Jackson Perez went to Kampala, Uganda to help teach urban agriculture skills to pupils of all ages at St. Anthony’s School for the Deaf. Jackson Perez, school staff, and students planted more than 600 seeds of Ebbugga, amaranth, watermelon, squash, pumpkin, beans, carrots, tomatoes, and eggplant in a two-day period. Since returning home to Brooklyn, she receives monthly updates on crop growth and provides technical assistance to the farmers in Uganda.

Food Policy Center: Thank you for your time and for sharing your experiences with the Center. Could you tell me about your background and how you got involved with urban farming?

DeVonne Jackson Perez: Of course! Stoked and blessed to connect with you. 

Waste awareness was central to my Carribean household. We were always conscious of the value in what we had, and making that resource expand and last was a part of our daily ritual. That could mean reusing multipurpose plastic bags or upcycling hand-me-downs, but the crime of food waste was at the highest height of wrongdoings. During my career in communications, I was hired as a wardrobe stylist. After experiencing overproduction, intentional waste, and misuse of fabrics and textiles in the fashion industry, I became interested in textile biodegradability and composting as a solution to the waste problem. Volunteering with a Bedford Stuyvesant community farm’s compost program in 2018 led to becoming a farm manager. In 2020, my curiosity about farming and composting led to a departure from a career in TV production to one in food production and sustainable education. 

The impact of my work in urban agriculture and food education has been recognized by The New York Times, Good Morning America, PBS, Melanin and Sustainable Style, and has opened doors for the Catholic Relief Services’ Farmer to Farmer program. It’s been a wild yet grounding ride.

FPC: You recently returned from teaching urban agriculture to deaf students in Kampala, Uganda, as part of the Catholic Relief Services Farmer to Farmer program. What made you decide to embark on that mission? 

DJP: I was referred to the CRS program through Whitney McGuire, the Director of Sustainability at the Guggenheim Museum and Co-Founder of Sustainable Brooklyn. Similar to NYC and many parts of the US, the food supply chain in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, was heavily disrupted by COVID-19. Food supply and reliability concerns caused by drought, lack of fertile land, and population growth have led to an increased interest in local food, agriculture, academic programs, and small-scale growing at home to prevent shortages, increase self-sufficiency, and create market opportunities. This is a pivotal revolution considering that before 2006 urban farming was against the law in Uganda. I hadn’t heard much about the agriculture policies or ​​environmental hindrances in East Africa, but as an Urban Grower and Educator working in system coordination, I know that no local food system can exist without global community conversations, the exchange of information, skills, and language. We have to know where we all stand in order to create sustainable, inclusive, responsive practices.

Speaking of language, in Uganda, differently abled children who are deaf, are deemed unimportant and to invest in their education is thought a waste of money or far too expensive.

The opportunity to empower, plant, and nourish seeds of possibility in these students, providing them with the training and techniques that would allow them to survive and excel, while allowing me to learn about their culture, language, land and practice, moved me to say “Yes.”

FPC: We recently published an article about the Urban Agriculture Ordinance in Kampala, which established guidelines to legalize urban farming and ultimately improved residents’ and government officials’ attitudes toward the practice. Was the ordinance discussed at all as part of what you were teaching? How did people in Kampala feel about urban farming? 

DJP: Slightly over fifty percent of the land within the municipal boundaries of Kampala is used for agriculture, and forty percent of the population’s employment is involved in agriculture, so it was a shock to learn about this ordinance prior to my trip. (I returned on May 26th and saw your article on May 30th and thought there was a spy in my suitcase. Ha ha) 

While the Ordinance was not directly referenced, the history of agriculture and land ownership in Uganda was. Despite the enormous potential of Uganda’s agricultural sector, the country still faces regional and seasonal food insecurity and varying degrees of adult and child malnutrition. Access to land is a major constraint, and only a small fraction of urban farmers own their land or equipment. But with foundational skills, hands-on experience, and the proper permits and licenses, a limited amount of space can still reduce the need for produce to travel long distances, increase health, and add nutritional value to the plates of families and communities.

The main objectives of my curriculum were to demonstrate and train students in basic home gardening techniques such as botany, soil health, types of small-scale farming, how to start seeds, the use of sack mounds to grow vegetables, container-gardening, and planning a raised bed garden for fruits and vegetables. In return, the educators, staff, and students taught me about their food, culture, and agricultural practices, Ugandan Sign Language, and how to slaughter chickens, pigs, and goats that had been raised on their school farm compound, all of which was new and beautiful to me. 

FPC: What similarities and differences did you notice between urban farming in Kampala and Brooklyn? What challenges do people in Uganda face that you might not have to deal with in New York? What benefits are there to farming in Kampala versus Brooklyn? 

DJP: There are far more similarities than differences, I’d say. While Kampala’s land is vast, available, and lush, like Brooklyn it has many space constraints, leading to the adoption of vertical, sack, grow-bag, and rooftop farming techniques to maximize productivity within a limited area. Urban farming in both Kampala and Brooklyn emphasizes the importance of native and sustainable practices such as organic farming, composting, water conservation, and the use of renewable energy sources to reduce environmental impact. Climate affects us all. Can I say that again? They have droughts and so do we. 

Kampala has a tropical climate with a rainy and a dry season at relatively consistent temperatures throughout the year, whereas Brooklyn experiences seasonal variations in temperature. The different climates impact the types of crops that can be grown and the growing seasons in each location. Brooklyn’s winter season also allows for the land to rest and recover between plantings.

Economic constraints in both Kampala and Brooklyn can influence the scale, profitability, and commercial viability of urban farming ventures. Factors such as wifi access, availability of technical assistance, land prices, market demand, access to capital, and government support programs can vary significantly between the two locations.

Overall, urban farming can play a vital role in promoting sustainability and improving local food access in both Kampala and Brooklyn. However, addressing land availability, water management, waste management, education, policy support, and infrastructure development are crucial to ensuring a healthy and sustainable food supply in both cities.

FPC: What is your overall assessment of urban farming, sustainability, and local food access in Kampala? What other measures need to be in place in order to ensure a healthy, sustainable food supply?

DJP: Without a doubt, urban farming in Kampala has the potential to contribute to sustainability and improve local food access, but the answer isn’t that simple. I wish food security were only about educating the farmer to grow the food and getting the food to the consumer’s plate, but there are so many branches on the tree of connectivity. Farmers need ongoing technical help, they need tools, tractors, irrigation systems, cold storage, trucks, funding, wifi to research. They need proper pest management and soil assessments, they need marketing and promotion skills, and the list goes on, to maintain a food system that works and will continue to do so. Kampala faces water scarcity issues, which can impact the viability of urban farming. Efficient water management systems, such as rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation, are implemented to reduce reliance on municipal water sources but they are not enough.

FPC: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experiences in Kampala?

DJP: American farmers are not the holders of all education. We do not know it all, no country/continent does. But together, sharing resources, we can hear and heal Mother Earth and ourselves. As much as I was an educator in this program, I was even more of a student. To urban farmers, growers, and makers I say, visit a farm/growing space you’ve never been to, and in that space, speak less with your mouth and more with your eyes and hands. I promise you, you will be forever changed.

Grew up in: Queens, NY
City or town you call home: Brooklyn, NY
Job title: Urban Farmer + Food Systems Coordinator 
Background and education: BA from the University at Albany, SUNY, MA from the New York Institute of Technology, and an NYC Urban Farmer Certificate from Farm School NYC.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Inequitable
Food policy hero: Donna + Christopher Perez, it starts at home
Favorite food: Ackee + Saltfish with Callaloo 
Favorite last meal on Earth: Branzino Grille from Cafe Rue Dix
Favorite food hangout: The Shipwreck on Throop Ave in Bedford Stuyvesant is my current favorite food hangout. They are a Black-owned restaurant with two Brooklyn locations and offer fresh  seafood to Central Brooklyn residents and their Old Bay french fries? A must try!
Food policy social media must follow:

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