After a little more than three years, Lucy Howell, cofounder of Springfield Urban Agriculture Coalition and DIRT Coordinator is taking off her school gardening boots and is bidding SUAC a formal adieu. Before she left, we managed to eek out her story through an e-mail Q&A. She also offered some advice for anyone who has a dream.
Where are you from?
Mid/North Missouri. I spent a lot of time in Fayette, Missouri, where my dad lived. From 5th grade on, I spent my years in Schuyler County, Missouri (smallest county in the state) and graduated from high school there. I came to Springfield to SMSU for college.
Did you grow up gardening?
Yes and no. My dad farms with his brother and our family always had a garden full. There are stories of me picking only the green tomatoes as a kid. And I distinctly remember hating to pull weeds in my moms flower garden.
However, the idea of eating local was always present in our family, but not because it was a popular movement, but mostly because that’s the way it was. Not only in my family, but wide-spread throughout our rural community.
What was your degree in college?
I double majored in Print Journalism and Public Relations.
Did you ever see yourself building an organization such as this in your college years or even as you were working at Marlin?
It wasn’t until after college and after several years at a creative advertising agency that I knew I wanted to go down some sort of agriculture path doing something I thought was making a difference.
With a group of a few other friends, I had already started a Slow Food chapter for Southwest Missouri and I had spent a lot of time re-learning about gardening and started to spend every daylight moment in my backyard garden, which eventually led to wanting to grow on a much bigger scale. I was meeting farmers, volunteering where I could, organizing events with Slow Food and seeing all kinds of cool things happening and beginning to take shape within our community, and actually getting to be a part of a portion of it. All of those things snowballed into wanting to help build an organization to do the things SUAC has been doing. Except it wasn’t nearly that crystal clear back then.
Where did you get your vision for SUAC?
So very many people!
I didn’t have a vision for SUAC. Then I met Melissa Millsap. We’d become friends and bonded over many hours daydreaming about the many ways we (together, but also individually) wanted to be involved in agriculture, specifically urban agriculture. Mel had been asked to help with a school garden at Reed Middle School, she asked me to assist. We drew up plans, gave them a materials list, volunteered time and built a garden. Then Mel got a garden going at Cox North, got sponsorship from Drury University, established relationships with many donors and we started building raised beds and she volunteered her time teaching Boyd kindergartners in the garden.
Even when we were building 48-foot long raised beds in the dark with headlamps, and after a full 8-hour day of work at our paying jobs, I remember thinking how cool it would be if my job was school gardens and teaching kids to grow food, reconnecting them to the soil and outdoors.
Mel was trying (and was successful!) to change policy at the city level to allow for urban farming within a residential zone to start Urban Roots Farm. At the same time, she was researching grant opportunities like crazy, writing project plans and draft after draft of budgets, with the help of additional friends. Little by little, our vision, hopes, dreams and goals all came out on paper with help from many, many, many friends as a grant application to Missouri Foundation for Health under their Healthy & Active Communities funding. We kissed that application for good luck and mailed it off. One grant review after the next and a year later found out we had been funded. I quit my job and became the first full time employee for SUAC.
I’m sure there were a lot of obstacles as you built this program, what kept you going? Did you create a personal mantra, read a lot of inspirational quotes? Have a strong vision of where you wanted to go and that just kept you going?
…Just keep going. Just keep going. Just keep going.
In some ways, it was easy to just keep going. I was getting to do things I’d been dreaming about. In many ways, it was harder than I ever expected.
Constant inspiration from: Wendell Berry, Eliot Coleman, Edible Schoolyard, Alice Waters, friends, family, and kids.
What is one of your best moments at SUAC?
There’s a gazillion!
The day Melissa and I drove to each school to let them know they had been chosen for a DIRT garden was pretty amazing. Hearing kids talk about how much they love their garden never gets old. Watching them turn down skittles as a prize because they preferred seeds was also pretty a major high five. Learning to be a teacher, learning from other teachers, and having a job that I knew was making a difference to someone every single day was pretty special.
What was it like being a garden-teacher/grant-writer/administrator, etc. with just two people on staff?
Well, we didn’t know it any other way. So, we just kept going, and going, and going! It should also be noted although there were only two of us on staff, we have THE MOST AMAZING friends in the world. From garden construction to tool borrowing, to finding people who know how to do things we didn’t. Also, our Board of Directors is of utmost importance. They’ve believed in us, helped us, and guided us quite well.
I also give thanks to my crazy-fast paced ad background as well, that was good training.
Is it hard for you to leave? What will you miss the most?
It is hard to leave, but it’s so easy all at once. I don’t think of it as leaving as much as it is just not being an employee or on the payroll. SUAC will always be a part of me.
I’ll miss the fantastic people you encounter on a daily basis—the kids who do so much work and who are changing their behaviors and ideas about health; the teachers, who have more patience and deserve more thanks than anyone could ever give; the volunteers who give their time so freely; the custodians who know just where the tool you need is located. I’ll miss those gardens too.
Will you be volunteering in the future with SUAC?
Without a question, yes!
What have you learned about yourself, people, and just Life in general in this process?
Probably more than could ever be summed up here.
I’ve learned by and large, people are so giving and so good.
Kids are hilariously funny. And they crave the outdoors, the garden, and their hands in the soil. It’s good for them.
You can plan and have a plan all day long, but you’ve got to be flexible.
I learned how to use tools I’d never even seen before
If you have purpose and believe in what you’re doing, others will too.
Be happy. It’s easy to be happy. Do at least 1 thing per day to make yourself happy.
Don’t EVER forget to daydream. I can think Melissa for that constant reminder.
What would you tell someone like you who has a vision they wish to pursue?
Volunteer, get a sense of what you’re trying to accomplish. Work with others who have the same passion, and spend as much time as you can doing those things. Plan. Be flexible. Be a problem solver. Work hard. Join others in the community. Share as much as you can.
Now that you are leaving SUAC, what will you do? Where will you go? Build another program? Move with Melissa into an electricity-less cabin and daydream?
I’m going to make a huge garden in my backyard again, finally! I’ve not had a personal garden in a couple years. I’ll volunteer for SUAC, I’m sure.