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Omaha Soil Health Expo Reflects Growing Interest in Urban Farming

Emmanuel Sekamana brings passion and family to his urban farming in Omaha.



For Luis Marcos, there is no such thing as weed.

Every plant has its purpose in a thriving ecosystem, says Marcos — a piece of wisdom he gleaned from his Mayan heritage.

Marcos, a member of the displaced indigenous nation Q’anjob’al Maya Nation, is one of dozens of Omahans working to connect people to their heritage through projects such as community gardens and large-scale sustainable farming operations.

None of the projects would be possible without one crucial component: healthy soil.

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On Saturday at Metropolitan Community College, about 100 people — many of them young, women and people of color — gathered for the Omaha Urban Soil Health Expo, a conference on sustainable urban farming, restorative agriculture and soil health.

The event, hosted by City Sprouts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Soil Dynamics, represents a new wave of interest in agriculture as a method for community building and cultural connection.

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“Even though agriculture is one of the world’s oldest professions, urban agriculture is much younger,” said Megan Belongia, conservation education program coordinator at City Sprouts. “It’s also very diverse. Every culture has an agricultural or stewardship tradition, so it’s something people can practice, no matter what their background.”

The four-hour expo featured panel discussions and talks on urban soil health, resource issues, soil stewardship and industrial composting. Belongia said soil health is especially important in urban contexts, as a strong base in the soil builds resilience against extreme weather events and yields co-benefits in the form of healthy food and economic opportunities.

The message resonates with young people looking for land control.

Justin Gantz, a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha studying environmental science, said he is passionate about soil conservation and intends to pursue a career in the field. He attended the expo with friend Dakota Wagner, a young conservationist who works as an intern with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We’re used to doing things a certain way that breaks down our fields and lowers our yields,” Gantz said. “There are different ways we can improve the health of our soil and the quality of our crops, and many people don’t know about them.”

Few people know more about it than Marcos, who attributes much of his knowledge to his relationship with Mother Earth. He does not see the earth as a resource, but as a being that must be respected and protected.

Marcos was one of the original founders of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, a Mayan community center and nonprofit organization. In addition to education and health initiatives, the organization has placed a significant focus on restorative agricultural practices by building community gardens with traditional medicinal plants and using indigenous methods.

An established garden already sits at the South Omaha Community Center, but the nonprofit’s plans are much bigger. To reconnect the Q’anjob’al people to their spiritual relationship with the land, the nonprofit plans to establish a regenerative poultry, agroforestry and value-added farm operation on 300-plus acres of land in a rural area near Omaha .

Marcos said it would be a big step to allow Mayan people to strengthen their sacred relationship with the earth. Even on a small scale, the practice is already encouraging the next generation of Mayan youth to explore agricultural traditions.

“Some of the kids who were just starting out wanted to be doctors or nurses or professions they hear about at school,” Marcos said. “But when they work in the community gardens, they ask questions like ‘can we major in this?’ And we tell them ‘yes, you can get a degree in soil health, in water health.’ And many of them plan to do so.”


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