Latonya Assanah is a hydroponic grower with Harlem Grown, in Harlem, New York
Harlem Grown is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire youth to lead healthy and ambitious lives through mentorship and hands-on education in urban farming, sustainability, and nutrition.
Keep reading to learn how she went from never having heard of hydroponics, to becoming an expert grower, passionate about sharing her knowledge with others.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Harlem Grown
My name is Latonya Assanah. At Harlem Grown I’m known as Ms. Assanah. I’ve been there for 10 years, but I actually started out as a volunteer.
I was introduced by my daughter when she was just five. Her elementary school had partnered with Harlem Grown, and one day she came home talking about someone named Mr. Tony and his garden. I was confused because I didn’t know a thing about any garden at her school… Or anyone named Mr. Tony! So I came down to learn more and before I knew it I was introduced to Tony Hillery and Harlem Grown.
This all happened at a time of real transition for me. I had just lost my father after being his caretaker for years. My mom had retired and my daughter had just started school. Things were all thrown apart, but coming to the garden helped. Tony was teaching kids to recycle, to grow and eat vegetables. I liked it a lot. Before I knew it, he got me to volunteer at the salad bar at the school cafeteria. My job was trying to convince the kids to eat salad. Boy did they walk by me so many times!
There wasn’t a paycheck, but it was something to do. I really felt like I had a way to step up and be a part of my community. I would just go and stand behind that salad bar and try to convince those kids to eat the salad. They hated it! A lot of kids weren’t used to eating vegetables at home, so it was almost stigmatized. I always tried anyway though, and it was fun. Like a game.
So while I was doing this, Harlem Grown started to expand. There were 5 employees, then 10… 20… 35. I started spending more time in the garden space, where I would come hang out and play with the kids. One day I came in and Mr. Tony looked concerned. He had a meeting to go to but didn’t have anyone to watch the greenhouse. He said that I should do it, and he said I should work with him, and I said yes. I had no experience. I didn’t know anything. He gave me 2 weeks of training then he was gone.
He was off fundraising, telling people everywhere about who we were and what our mission was. Meanwhile there I was stuck in a greenhouse with 101 channels, 73 holes per channel, and no idea what hydroponics was!
Still… I don’t know what came over me, but I fell in love with it. I remember I just stood there and said: “I can figure this out.”
I can’t tell you the thrill of putting that first seed in and seeing a sprout come out 6 days later. It was over for me. I was obsessed. In those early days I was waking up in the middle of the night and running down the street to make sure things were alright in the greenhouse.
What’s the Mission of Harlem Grown?
Our mission has grown over the years, but one of the strongest goals has always been serving the youth. Harlem Grown was founded to encourage young people to eat healthy; eat sustainably. The community we come from hasn’t exactly offered a lot of healthy opportunities. Like I said, many people didn’t hardly eat vegetables at home at all, but we wanted to give the youth a chance, even if it seemed like adults were set in their ways.
But times are changing. Lots of people are getting more interested in taking care of their body and treating it like a temple. Even just in the last couple years. We’re in a pandemic, and people want to learn to be healthy.
So the mission ten years ago was not exactly the same as it is now. Now we’re catering to adults too, including families in shelters. Even seniors can come in and learn how to garden, farm, and grow mushrooms.
I was born and raised in Harlem, and it warms my heart to see people putting their shame in their back pocket and accepting free produce from pantries to bring to their families. There’s been a shift. The kids at school aren’t embarrassed to eat the salad.
So the original mission was trying to get into more schools, get into communities. Now it’s bigger than ever.
Tell us about your relationship with hydroponics.
Well what you need to understand is: I’m still not a big hydroponics science expert. I’m not known or connected in that industry. I don’t have anything to do with selling produce. But I can tell you that growing with hydroponics, the tools I’ve learned… It’s the joy of my life. No one can take it from me.
Another thing I’d say is that teaching it to kids is natural and easy to me, but I would have a hard time teaching it to people who only want to do it for their business. You have to have a passion for this. You have to have patience. It has to mean something to you if you want to do it and do it the right way.
You can’t do it if you think you’re going to start and automatically make a ton of money.
How has it been working with AmHydro?
[Laughs] You’re going to love this. I taught myself for 8 years, but I never knew that the system we had was from AmHydro. I knew I loved it, but I didn’t have any frame of reference. I didn’t really consider that there were different systems.
So, I could grow, but I didn’t have expertise. For example: Why were my plants turning yellow? Everyone I knew only did soil farming and couldn’t tell me. I tried to find classes, but couldn’t. I wanted to know who teaches about this stuff? Who knows what they’re talking about?
Two years ago, I randomly found AmHydro online and learned about the seminars they do, and I was so excited. Harlem Grown paid for me to go. I showed up at the first day of classes and I had my HG shirt on, and when I walked in, someone looked at me and said “Oh hey, Harlem Grown! We gave you your systems.” I had no idea! When I got back I looked at our system and it was AmHydro! It had been right under my nose.
All the answers I wanted were there. Joe and the team had answers to all my questions. When I was in California I saw that AmHydro was doing some of the same work with kids that we were doing, I was able to bring fresh ideas back. I took so much from AmHydro. This last summer was the biggest volunteer season we ever had.
Ever since I left that seminar, I tell everyone I know: AmHydro rocks, they’re everything. If you want to know anything about hydroponics, they are your people.
What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone who is just starting out?
I was just a little Black girl from Harlem. I never imagined I would be able to be a farmer, but here I am. I’ve learned that there are so many ways to give back to the community. So many ways to connect healthy and innovative tools to our children’s schools and education.
If you want to get started in hydroponics, make sure you’re also sharing it, not just keeping it to yourself. That’s number one. Invite others who want it in. Find people who have patience and passion.
Number two is: plants can talk to you, and you need to listen if you want to make it. If someone doesn’t care, they’re going to struggle. So make sure you want it. Don’t just do it just because it seems like a good investment. But also try it, however you can! Don’t hold off because you don’t know how to do it. You might be surprised.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I don’t want to cry… But I just want to say that Harlem Grown and hydroponics has introduced me to the best things in my life. It’s helped me provide for my daughter, given me daily structure, and empowered me to provide for my community. Everyone at Harlem Grown has seen a change in me as I’ve grown over the years. I received so much, and I learned to give back.
I didn’t get a dime for the first two years, but I believed in the vision and what Harlem Grown was doing in my community. We aren’t just a non profit org, we’re a movement.
Oh, and the one last thing I hope I can mention… I’ve tried other hydroponic systems. None of them compare to our AmHydro. It really feels like everyone is just trying to duplicate you all. Every 6 months they all break and say they are coming out with something better, but AmHydro just keeps working.