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These Black St. Louis Farmers Built A Garden 'Tool Bank'

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Tyrean Heru Lewis works on his urban farm in the Kingsway West neighborhood of north St. Louis. The fourth-generation farmer is part of a small group working to create a tool bank for Black and brown growers in St. Louis who can't afford to purchase garden tools.

Tia Byrd has spent the past five years getting to know her neighbors — and their vegetable preferences.

Byrd runs a small farm in north St. Louis, and when she drops off bags of free produce on her neighbors’ doorsteps, she remembers who prefers okra and who appreciates an extra helping of cherry tomatoes.

“I find a lot of joy in giving food away,” said Byrd, who covers most of the garden costs out of pocket.

A growing community of Black farmers in St. Louis is working to feed residents in areas with few traditional grocery stores, but for some, the costs of getting started are a major hurdle. Byrd, along with other local growers and food justice advocates, is trying to ease the financial burden on these aspiring farmers by offering a lending “tool bank” in north city.

Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Tia Byrd trims the heads off of sunflowers at her community garden in the Lewis Place neighborhood of north St. Louis. “I need these people to be successful, and they need me,” she said, referring to the community of Black farmers in St. Louis.

Tosha Phonix, a food justice organizer with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, remembers the struggle of “trying to do something you love, but not having the funds.”

Shortly after she installed an irrigation system on her three-acre farm in north county, a neighbor accidentally cut the tubing while mowing the grass. Phonix borrowed $300 from a friend to replace the system, but the setback “stalled her efforts.”

In the years since, she’s noticed other Black farmers struggling to get established — so this summer, she took to social media.

“I asked Black growers, ‘What do you need to help feed our community?’ and people just started chiming in,” Phonix said. “They were saying, ‘Hey, I need a tiller’ or ‘I need some hand tools.’ Things that most people can get easily.”

Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Tosha Phonix helps fellow farmer Tia Byrd organize some of the garden tools for the new tool bank.

In early September, she and Byrd decided to hold an “impromptu fundraiser” and sold tomatoes and peppers donated by farmer Tyrean Heru Lewis. The group raised about $250, which they used to buy a supply of garden tools, including shovels, rakes and a wheelbarrow.

Though they’re still figuring out the details, they envision the tool bank will work like a library, with growers checking out garden tools for a specific amount of time.

“Food justice isn't coming in and spoon-feeding people,” Phonix said. “Food justice is allowing people to feed themselves, giving them access to the resources they need and taking hurdles away.”

‘We’re reteaching ourselves’

For these farmers, supporting a more diverse group of urban growers in St. Louis is directly tied to building a sense of community ownership and self-sufficiency.

But it’s also about reconnecting to a lost cultural history, Tyrean Heru Lewis said.

Lewis learned only recently that he was a fourth-generation farmer. His great-uncle helped create a co-op of Black farmers in the 1930s in Texas, where he grew tomatoes, purple hull peas and watermelon.

Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Tia Byrd grows a variety of vegetables at her farm in north city, including purple hull peas, shown here.

“It’s ironic, because the same things I pride myself in growing, he did the same thing,” said Lewis, a former gym teacher who now farms a two-acre plot in Bellefontaine as well as several city lots. “We’re reteaching ourselves something that our ancestors already was doing.”

Lewis started leasing three city-owned lots in the Kingsway West neighborhood in late 2017, through the city’s Garden Lease program, which allows residents to farm vacant lots for five years at a cost of $1 per year.

He spent months cleaning up the lots, hauling out bricks and moldering pieces of carpet. Three years later, the space is filled with sunflowers, rows of okra and several honeybee hives.

In addition to transforming the space, Lewis has built relationships with his neighbors, who nicknamed him “Green Thumb” and honk their car horns when they see him working in the garden. “I can’t get no work done when I’m here,” Lewis said. “If I’m outside, somebody’s gonna stop by and talk.”

David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
“We’re reteaching ourselves something that our ancestors already was doing," said Lewis, a former gym teacher who farms two acres in Bellefontaine and several vacant lots in the city of St. Louis.

Several of his neighbors have started their own backyard gardens in the past few years, Lewis said, and he’ll do whatever he can to support them — including pointing them to the new tool bank.

For now, it remains a small collection of garden tools, tucked away in a dusty shed.

But in the future, Byrd said, the group plans to continue expanding it — in the hopes that it will strengthen the sense of community among Black growers in St. Louis and let them know there’s a network of people ready to lend a hand.

“You can’t do any of this by yourself,” Byrd said. “I need these people to be successful, and they need me.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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