Dr. Bob Randall:
Planting a legacy with seeds of change
by Vicki Wolf
Bob Randall, PhD, retires in February after serving as executive director for Urban Harvest, Inc. He will leave behind a legacy of the fourth largest community gardening program in North America. Randall started with one community garden in 1987 when he worked as garden coordi-nator for the Interfaith Hunger Coalition. Today, Urban Harvest’s program boasts 135 gardens on various plots of land across Houston. “The idea was to create places where people can learn to get decent food and get inspired about doing things in their backyards,” Randall says.
But the thought before the form that became Urban Harvest goes much deeper.
Randall received his doctorate in Ecological Anthropology from the University of California in Berkeley in 1977. He had started out to study chemistry and quickly became disillusioned while working in the summers on malathion pesticide research. The research was aimed at helping the World Health Organization find a less toxic pesticide than DDT for dealing with mosquitoes and malaria in Africa. “I was getting ill from pesticide poison in the labs and couldn’t stand the chemistry labs any more,” Randall says.
Another way of doing things began to brew for Randall when he became friends with a biologist and ecologist. They carried on conversations about different ways to control insects. Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring” came out at about that time and shed light on the problems of conventional agriculture and the use of toxic pesticides. Randall decided he didn’t want to spend his life in a chemistry lab.
Exploring other options, Randall took an anthropology course. During this time he met people who were involved with the Peace Corp. He eventually joined the Peace Corp and was stationed in Sahel, a tiny town on the edge of the Sahara Desert. There he learned the native language and decided to learn about the farming in the community. In 1967 he went to graduate school and wrote his master’s thesis on the food supply issues in the southern Sahara. In the doctoral pro-gram at Berkeley, he went to the Philipines to do research and learned more about food supply issues. He married Nancy who had worked on truck gardens, school gardens and school diet issues, and was able to her take her work there. They began to grow gardens at the places they rented. The gardens got larger and larger as they learned to grow various things.
“I began to have this worldwide perspective on ecology and food systems as I learned about problems in different parts of the world,” Randall says.
Randall taught at three universities, including the University of Houston, before settling into his life’s work of teaching people about growing food. In 1987, Randall began working with Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston as the community gardens coordinator of the Interfaith Hunger Coalition. He says the theories he had learned as a social scientist were not very useful in in his efforts to understand poverty in the city. “Why are there all these vacant lots? Why do urban homeowners grow lawns? Why do people on low pensions think people in Mexico will grow food for them and ship it here at a price they can afford?”
Then one day, in 1989, it all came together in a phone call from a volunteer who told Randall that a vice president of one of the Houston banks, who had been trying to get his neighbors to grow food to give to food pantries, was having trouble growing peaches in his own yard and needed some help. “Here’s someone with an MBA from Harvard who is a VP of a bank trying to grow peaches, and here we are with such a tiny budget. I realized that the problem wasn’t poverty, it was literacy -- we were not educating people about how to be creative and sustainable,” Randall says. The epiphany led Randall to begin to see a bigger picture for the food supply solu-tion: To promote literacy, schools convenient to where people live are needed. To teach people how to make a piece of land productive and sustainable, takes creating community gardens close to where people live.
Randall sees the long-term reality of food security in Houston as another reason to have more food come from local sources. “If you look at the under pinnings of our food economy, you see tremendous inputs from foreign countries. Only with a strong dollar are you going to have cheap food in Houston,” Randall says. “Today we have 5 percent of the people dumpster diving. In 25 years, it could be 20 percent.”
In addition to the community gardens program, Urban Harvest also facilitates the Bayou City Farmers’ Market, three organic gardening classes a week, a permaculture series, a school and youth gardens program, an after school program and the Organic Horticulture Business Alliance.
Randall attributes much of Urban Harvest’s success and growth to extensive planning. In “Some Parting Thoughts” on the Urban Harvest’s website, Randall describes the planning process. He says a year of conversations with board, staff and volunteers took place before writing the five-year plan began. That much talking and listening is time consuming but the result is “an organization that has defined its goals, and knows pretty much how it will get there without a lot of dissent about which goals, when, or how.”
Randall says volunteers and long-time devoted people also play a major role in Urban Harvest’s success. About 12 people have been working with Randall since the early 90s. At the annual celebration Urban Harvest honors people who have 5, 10, 15 and 25 year of service. Last year the 375th person received a certificate. “If my contribution has been anything, it has been getting people to work together so they can see that their efforts make a difference,” Randall says. “It’s not one person’s organization. It’s a lot of people doing things they believe in, working out differences and getting consensus with the understanding that every person has a good idea.”
Working for Urban Harvest has been a 24-7 responsibility for Randall. He says the organization has accomplished far more than he could have hoped for 10 years ago. “We started 1994 with $500 in the bank,” Randall says. “This year we have an $800,000 budget.”
In addition to the work he has don with Urban Harvest, Randall has authored two gardening books: “Year Round Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers for Metro Houston-A Natural Approach Using Ecology,” now in its 12th edition; and “How to Grow Tomatoes in Houston -- The Community Garden Experience.”
Randall lives with his wife Nancy in Houston. After he retires next year, Randall says he will continue to volunteer for Urban Harvest, teach and write. He’s looking forward to having more time to do his favorite thing: “Every year for 21 years, mid-October to December and mid-March, the phone rings off the wall,” Randall says as he ponders retirement. “I’m hoping to do some gardening. We grow 90 percent of our product, but I never have time to sit back and smell the roses.”