Omaha soil health expo reflects growing interest in urban farming

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

To Luis Marcos, there’s no such thing as weeds. 

Every plant has its purpose in a thriving ecosystem, Marcos says — 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 with their heritage through projects such as community gardens and larger-scale sustainable farming operations. 

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

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At Metropolitan Community College on Saturday, 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 a lot younger,” said Megan Belongia, conservation education program coordinator at City Sprouts. “It’s also really diverse. Every culture has an agricultural or stewardship tradition, so it’s something that people can practice no matter what their background is.”

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

The message is resonating with young people looking to break into land stewardship.

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

“We’re used to doing things in a certain way that’s degrading our lands and lowering our yields,” Gantz said. “There are different ways that we can improve the health of our soil and the quality of our crops, and a lot of people don’t know about that.”

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

Marcos was one of the original founders of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, a Mayan community center and nonprofit. In addition to education and health initiatives, the organization has placed a significant focus on restorative agriculture practices through 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 larger. In order 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 this would be a big step toward allowing 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 youths to explore agricultural traditions.

“Some of the kids just getting into it wanted to be doctors or nurses or careers that 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 a lot of them plan to do that.”

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