We encourage & assist folks to grow food for self and neighbor

Friday, February 10, 2017

Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Design

Before you get to build your school garden like this,
before you can help kids get their hands dirty like this,
 or teach kids in your school garden like this,
there are a few things you've got to take care of first.

The #1 most important thing you've got to do is build your team. I say- with no exaggeration-- that human infrastructure is THE most important aspect of developing a successful school garden. But, I already wrote about building your school garden team last time. Assuming you're on track with that, a simultaneous step is to begin developing your school garden design.

Here are a few things to should consider as you develop a school garden design:

Purpose
  • In your school garden interest meeting, one of the first questions you should ask is: "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Interestingly, this question serves two purposes. First, it helps the team gel because there will likely be a lot of overlap in answers. This will lend itself to a sense of shared purpose. Secondly, use these answers to guide your design-- with regard to size & features as well as programmatic elements. For example, if teachers want to hold class in the garden, there should be an "outdoor classroom" aspect. Another way of saying this is that the best physical designs help programmatic design dreams come to fruition.
Existing Features, Life Flows & Patterns
  • Where do kids run and play? Don't get in the way.
  • Where are the existing footpaths worn-down through the grass? That might be where your pathways should be-- but definitely not where your beds or fruit trees should go.
  • Is there a bench outside for student/administrator 1-on-1 conversations? Could it be incorporated into the garden?
Location
  • Sunlight I. In order to grow, plants need sunlight. Food crops require 4-5 hours of direct sunlight as a bare minimum. 
  • Sunlight II. Here in the northern hemisphere, the sun dips towards the south (moreso in winter, less in summer), so tall objects will cast shadows (to the north)-- especially in the winter.  Think about this when locating your garden next to buildings, near trees, and when thinking about where to plant fruit trees or tall crops (like sunflowers).
  • Sunlight III. In Florida, given our extreme heat, if you have to choose, it's better to have morning sun and afternoon shade than the opposite.
  • Water. Is there a water faucet within 25-50ft of your food garden? If not, is there a way to get one installed?  Are you going to run a micro-irrigation system? Be sure to leave a clear path if you need to run pipe underground for a new faucet.
  • Visibility. The more visible a food garden, the more successful it will be. Think "front yard," not "back yard." My personal raised bed food gardens are immediately next to my front sidewalk; therefore, I walk by my garden daily. When there are weeds, I pull them; it takes 10 seconds. When there is produce ready to pick, I see it. Whenever a garden is out of sight, it is out of mind; whenever one has to "go garden," they don't. Grow your school garden as close as possible to where you and the school community pass by every day.
Beds & Paths

  • Paths, gates, etc. should be wide enough for a wheelbarrow to fit. If the paths will remain grass, be sure they are wide enough for your mower to fit. If you don't know how the grass is cut, ask facilities. (While you're at it, ask facilities if there is anything else you should know; any input they have. Their knowledge of school infrastructure, past events, how things get done, and the like is invaluable.)
  • Make sure the distinction between paths and beds is clear; this makes it easy for students & visitors to walk through the garden without worry and without killing things. You can do this, for example, by building raised beds or by clearly mulching pathways with wood chips.
  • If you're building a garden for middle or high schoolers, the maximum width of beds should be 4 feet. For preschool and elementary school gardens, the max should be 3 feet. Why? Because that's the maximum distance that hands can reach from the sides of the beds without having to step into the garden beds, thereby saving your soil from compaction. (Length does not matter.)
A few other things

  • Start small. Any small, successful school garden can get bigger. On the other hand, school gardens that start off too big very rarely shrink; they fail.
  • Enclosure. If there is a way to do so, design the garden so you can go "into" it. Think gates, arbors, or fruit trees, grape vines outlining the space, or simply beds to outline entrances and the perimeter. Somehow, create a sense of enclosure so that when children are "in" the garden, they know it and feel it.
  • Google SketchUp is a free design software. Watch a few SketchUp YouTube tutorials like I did, and you'll be able to create basic to-scale food garden designs within an hour or two.
At the risk of going on too long, I'll leave you with two of my own school garden designs that I like enough to replicate. Feel free to use them as templates or jumping off places to inspire your own school garden design efforts.

Seminole Montessori Preschool Garden Design (Tallahassee)
  • (4) 3'x3' raised beds with 3' pathways between all four beds in all directions
  • (2) trellises that inter-connect beds with arbor-isk arches. These serve as a structure for climbing crops like sugar snaps. They also provide a fun pass-through to give preschoolers the opportunity to "run through" the garden, especially once the crops cover the wire arches.
  • Garden is located in the playground field near-- but not in the way of-- other playground equipment and heavy traffic pathways.
  • When I was still in Tallahassee, I returned each season to work with the kids to top-dress the beds with fresh compost and to replant seasonal veggies. Week-in, week-out, the teachers helped preschoolers water, and they harvested veggies and incorporated them into their school snacks.
Normandy Village Elementary Outdoor Classroom Garden (Jacksonville)
We started our design effort at Normandy Village in the initial interest meeting comprising a couple teachers, the guidance councilor, principal, and a few students from their Leadership League. First, I asked "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Next I asked, "What do you imagine in or about the Normandy Village Elementary School Garden? What does your dream school garden look like? What ideas do you have?"  I gave everyone a piece of paper, and asked them to take a few minutes to write or draw their answers. Then we shared with one another. Here are two examples:
As you can see from these two examples, there are both physical design ideas (fruit trees, garden boxes, "lots of color") as well as program design ideas (parent involvement, vegetables of the month).

Before our next school garden team meeting, I took the many ideas generated by the school garden team and played with them in the context of the space the principal had selected. I took into account things like sunlight, water, existing features, where people walk, how to create a sense of enclosure, appropriate bed width, and the many other things above. Additionally, my wife, Mary Elizabeth, who teaches 8th grade, had-- the week before-- asked me to help her rearrange the desks in her classroom. As part of this, I measured her classroom length and width. It was 27x28 feet. As I was preparing the Normandy Village design, I thought, "Could I incorporate a classroom-sized open-space in which teachers could gather their classes in the midst of the garden?

Here is my rough draft sketch:
Notebook rough draft

I sent this picture to the principal. She & other members of the school garden team approved, so I committed it to Google SketchUp:
Design to-scale via Google Sketchup
Here is the day we built & planted-- everyone together. (Remember the parent involvement?  This is an example of enacted program design.)

And here it is the "Normandy Village Outdoor Garden Classroom" two months later, just waiting on the grape vines to grow up the trellis and the fruit trees to fill out the space behind where a teacher would stand at at the front.

- - - 

If you think a bit of support to launch -- or sustain-- your school garden would be helpful, give me a buzz. As I'm able (and you're in NE FL), I'm happy to participate in your school garden interest meeting or assess your space and offer my thoughts on your design. Should you want more committed assistance, let me know. It's what I do.

One parting piece of advice: if you're filling raised beds, make sure you start with the best compost-based mix available. If you're in the Jacksonville area, I sell my Magic Mix at cost to school and community gardens. If you're in Tallahassee, iGrow is your go-to. If you are somewhere else, make sure that several long-time area gardeners vouch for the mix you'll be using. You'll thank yourself when the kids "Oooo" and "Ahhh."

Happy Growing

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Build a Team

 You want to teach kids where their food comes from because if kids grow it, they'll be more likely to eat it, and since you hope to improve kids diets, offer a little exposure to the natural world and provide outdoor, hands-on, STEM learning experiences, or simply, you want child to have an opportunity to care for something and learn responsibility.

So you want to start a school garden.

I understand. School gardens can be beautiful opportunities for schools to engage kids, parents, and community partners in a collective effort that spills over into all manner of benefit for kids, the school, and the community as a whole.
Regrettably, I've seen lots of school gardens grow into weedy plots that are ultimately reclaimed by turf grass. This is often the case in spite of inspiring community build days where 10, 20, 30 even 50 people come out to get a school garden started. I hear similar stories from Kristi Hatakka, Farm to School Garden Specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). (They've got great resources by the way, including the School Garden Guide that I wrote back in 2013, which they updated last year.)

So you want to start a school garden. And you want it to succeed and continue growing into the future. 

Basically there are two routes that lead to thriving school gardens: 1)Find the money, or 2)Build your team. Or, more simply: money or people.

In terms of money, it's rare but-- who knows-- maybe your school has extra cash on hand for a "beatification project," or maybe you're a fundraising genius and serve on the PTO board.  With money in hand, you can hire someone like to me design, build, handle weekly maintenance, provide educational support to teachers, and otherwise facilitate your school garden.  Sometimes, the money is in the hands of a local nonprofit that has a mission aligned with school gardening. Kristi with FDACS says that some of the most successful school gardens around the state have "a very active nonprofit or entity that maintains or works with a very active parent or two." This is a great model because teachers -- more often than not-- are simply stretched too thin to make it happen without a lot of external support. Exemplary school garden related nonprofits around the state include: The Edible Peace Patch Project (in Pinellas), Memory Trees (Palm Beach), Miami Dade Education Fund, Keep Tampa Beautiful, Damayan Garden Project (Tallahassee). 

But then, maybe you don't have money; there's no school garden nonprofit around; the nonprofits that do that sort of thing aren't taking on new projects, or they are only offering minimal materials grants or garden-build volunteers.  That's not enough, so what do you do?

You build a school garden team: teachers, parents, kids, community partners, grandpa Jones, anyone... so long as they have some related interest.

When I help build school garden teams, I use an ABCD or asset based community development approach. In essence, this is the idea that everyone has assets to bring to the table, or more simply, everyone has something to offer. Everyone has things they know (skills, ideas, knowledge), things they have (time, tools, money, materials), and connections to other people and groups, which have assets of their own.  This is the philosophy I take with me as I start talking with people about the idea of a school garden. 

The flip side of the ABCD coin is that everyone has a dream. Unless there is an exchange, a sense that people are in someway getting something they want (out of participating), any sharing of their assets and participation or support of a school garden is going to be short lived. If you're going to effectively rally & sustain a school garden team, you need to think like the below community garden partner map developed by the American Community Gardening Association. What does the school garden get? And what does the school garden team member get? It's got to go both ways.
With this in mind, let me stop while I'm ahead before I end up re-writing the entire School Garden Guide I developed with FDACS. The guide will take you step by step through how to build a school garden team.

[As an aside, if you're looking for inspiring school & youth garden leaders here in NE Florida, you ought to know about Success Gardening's work at First Coast High School, Urban Geoponics's New Town Urban Farm, YMCA's Seed Differently program, the Eastside Environmental Council's school garden projects, I'm a Star Foundation's youth farm dream, and I hear there are many more. If you know of any impressive school or youth gardening efforts, please tell me, so I can keep learning.]

Let me close by offering you a magical question, one that has helped me build more teams and groups than I can count. When I'm trying to tease out whether someone might be interested in joining an effort or to see if they might be willing to offer some sort of support-- and to do so without putting them or guard and to provide them with an easy way out in case they aren't actually interested but don't want to disappoint me,  I lead in with "So I was talking with so-and-so about the idea of starting a school garden here at _________. They said...." and then I ask, "Who else do you know who might be interested in the idea of a school garden?" 

Happy Growing.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Man In Overalls - Back to Basics: My Compost System

Composting, they say, is an art form. But, truth be told, I'm just too lazy for all that. My own compost philosophy is, "Crap rots in the woods, doesn't it?"

But really. :)


Whenever I think of home gardening systems, I always reflect back on my grandmother. She gardened up until the week she died at 93. She planted by the signs and assured me that's why her collards were not eaten up by bugs and were able to grow for 3 years running and up to 8 or 9 feet tall. She had a little rototiller, planted straight rows, mulched by spreading leaves to keep the weeds down. She threw out a little 10-10-10 from time to time and kept the cabbage worms at bay with Sevin dust. She hoed if the weeds called for it. But mostly, she harvested. Her pots were always full and her freezer always stuffed with produce: collards, mustards, turnips, peas, tomato gravy, squash, you name it.

Now, I don't use 10-10-10 or sevin dust, and I'm not big on tilling. However, the thing I continue to take away from my granny was the simplicity of her systems. So, as I've developed my own composting system over the years, my primary aim is to keep it simple. Easy is the name of the game.

Before I outline how I compost, I've got two disclaimers for you. First, backyard composting is exempt from regulations (at least at the state-level-- that I know about). If you're composting at scale for use in a market-garden or farm (from which you'll sell produce), you'll need to be mindful of the state guidelines established to ensure sanitation, namely to turn your pile at least 5 times in the first 15 days, achieving an internal pile temperature of 140 degrees prior to each turn.

My second disclaimer is that I compost primarily for the purpose of eliminating food waste from my trashcan. I hate the smell of rotting food; it is, as teenagers say, "Nasty!" Though I use the finished compost I generate for my fruit trees and at times in my raised beds, a perfect finished-compost is of secondary importance for me... primarily because my household need for finished-compost typically outpaces my capacity to generate material- no matter how "perfect" my system.

So, enough waiting: Here's my compost system in 6 Steps:

#1 Food waste goes into a ceramic pot next to my sink. (I've also used a plastic ice cream bucket, a tupperware, and glass bowl with a plate on it). Some people are compost vegans (by which I mean they only compost raw fruit and veggie scraps). I'm not. If it rots in the woods, it goes in.

#2 Empty food waste into a wire basket immediately off of my back porch. Notice the bottom layer of leaves.

#3 Fill up compost bucket with water to rinse it out and pour waste water onto compost pile to help keep the pile moist. (Sometimes I add the water when it's still full of food scraps to avoid a second trip from my sink).

#4 Add a handful of leaves on top of *every* container-full of food waste. This covers the unsightliness of food waste. Also, if I consistently layer leaves atop every container-full of food waste, there is essentially no odor. The smell of rotten food in a compost pile is most-of-the-time due to anaerobic bacteria which thrive in mucky piles of wet food-on-food.
(I keep leaves in a couple plant pots in the corner of my porch. I refill the plant pots about once a month, as necessary from bags of leaves I store in the corner of my yard).

#5 Once the food-waste and leaves fill up to the brim of my wire basket (once or twice a year), I use a pitch fork or shovel to turn it into an adjacent wire basket just a little further from my porch.
I usually pull the basket up, off the pile to make the shoveling easier. Turning mixes the relatively newer food waste near the top (which is still identifiable food scraps) with the more broken down material at the bottom of the pile. It also introduces a lot of air into the pile which helps aerobic bacteria get to work. If the compost is moist like a wrung-out sponge, all I do it turn it. If it is dry and dusty/powdery as I'm turning, I'll water it a little.  In 2-4 months, this pile will a)reduce in volume by about 1/3 to 1/2, and b)all but the very top and outside leaves will be decomposed finished compost. When I'm ready to use it, I typically pull the wire basket up and off, and rake away the exterior identifiable leaves. The rest is the good stuff.

#6 To keep the system going, I'll replace the original wire basket in place right off my porch and add a small bag of leaves at the bottom to ensure breathability from the bottom of the pile.
(Notice that my compost wire basket is just feet away from my porch table. If my compost was stinky, I certainly wouldn't place it so close to where I eat dinner.)

Here are a few parting notes about...
  • Air and Water - The ultimate condition for aerobic bacteria (the "good guys" who require air, or, more specifically, oxygen) is a moist but airy environment like a wrung-out sponge. By the laziest methods possible, I maintain moisture by rinsing out my ceramic food waste container and dumping the waste-water on my pile, and I maintain air flow (or aerobic conditions) by layering food waste with leaves.
  • "Critters" - I have two cats, and, therefore, don't have a problem with rats. If I ever notice a problem, I'll create a top for my wire baskets out of hardware cloth, which will allow the rain to continue to fall into my pile.  If I can't figure that out, I'll just put a piece of plywood on top.
  • Location - Like I said, I'm lazy. The closer the better. I don't want an extra chore, I want compost. That's why my pile is right next to my back porch. Also, if it's stinky, I can't ignore it, so I'm, most likely, going to fix the problem before my neighbors complain.
  • Odor - If your compost stinks, it's because there is not enough carbon or air. The solution to both of these is to get religious about adding leaves on top of every dump of food scraps.
  • Ants - If your compost has a a full-on ant bed in it, typically that's an indicator that your pile is too dry. Wet it down with the hose to start and then make sure you're adding your food waste container waste water to the pile each time you empty.
  • Weeds - I add garden scraps and weeds to my pile as well but only those weeds that a)have not made seeds and b)are not hell-froze-over-and-it-went-on-living type weeds. For instance, bermuda grass I literally throw in the middle of the road to kill it... the same goes for nut grass. Neither, God willing, will come anywhere near my compost pile-- ever!
That's it! Happy Composting.

(Should you want a more official backyard compost guide, check out  this one by Cornell. And if you're on a compost-kick and need an expert, reach out to my friend who operates his own composting business in Tallahassee. He does contract compost-pick up for homeowners, businesses, and for special events. I understand there's also a company named Apple Rabbit Compost in Jacksonville that is similar to my friend's if you want help composting in Duval.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Man in Overalls - #iVoted #iPlanted #GrowingInJax


Happy election day! Here it is 7pm, Tuesday night on Nov 8th, election day. By the time many of you read this, we'll have elected a new President and a whole slate of candidates.

Whether you're aiming to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, proudly claim #ImWithHer, voting Stein or Johnson, or, for that matter, making a vote of no confidence; however the chips fall, now that the polls have closed, and votes have been cast, here's what I what to know:

#HaveYouPlantedYet?

We're living during a time when our children are forecasted to have a shorter life-expectancy than their parents, largely due to diet-related preventable diseases. An absurd portion of our available foods are tainted with roundup and other harmful chemicals. Food travels an average 1500 miles from "farm" to plate, migrant workers are mistreated and sometimes even enslaved, teenagers often don't know the first thing about how to cook, and our food-growing ancestors are growing older. So,

#HaveYouPlantedYet?

Last fall, my wife and I rooted in Jacksonville, the city of her birth, the city of my father's childhood. We purchased a home near downtown, and I spent the better part of this campaign season doing renovations. This fall, nearly a year after moving, we finally planted our own food garden. Around the edges, I've had the good fortune of connecting with Jacksonville good food leaders and Duval farmers and gardeners. It's also been my privilege to support Riverside Avondale Preservation, Sanctuary on 8th Street, and Normandy Village Elementary with their community gardens, and I look forward to working with the I'm a Star Foundation to develop their youth farm. It's what I do. I encourage and assist folks to grow food for self and neighbor.

#HaveYouPlantedYet -- Let me know if I can help. I'm happy to consult, design, install, maintain, educate, or simply answer a few questions to get you growing.

#iVoted #iPlanted #GrowingInJax #ManInOverallsForDuvalFoodGardener #iHeartJax

Friday, September 25, 2015

It's back to Collards and Cornbread

After 16 months traveling, Mary Elizabeth and I are Florida bound. Our home base will be Jacksonville, and I look forward to rooting in a new community. I will, however, continue to support the good food work in Tallahassee. I remain on the board of Tallahassee Food Network (TFN). (This past year I served as TFN ambassador to connect with and learn from community-based good food efforts around the world.) More than remaining connected from afar, I intend to be in town monthly for TFN's Collards and Cornbread Gatherings, which means I'll be in Tallahassee on the 2nd Thursday of the month, 1:30pm, Oct 8th at TFN's iGrow Whatever You Like Youth Farm (514 Dunn Street). Will you join me?

On a side note: if you would like a food gardening consult, a garden built, or you are dreaming of a community garden in Tallahassee, or, of course, in Jacksonville, by all means, send me an email or ring me: 850-322-0749. To the extent that my ability and location allows, I'll jump right on it as fast as my overalls can carry me. Encouraging and assisting folks to food garden- though not the limit of my community food system development skills- is still a passion of mine. Now, back to the blog:

Tallahassee Food Network's board sent me as an ambassador to connect and learn, and did I!? Below is a smattering of people and organizations I am privileged to have encountered:

Matt Macioge with Sustainable Food Center in Austin. They have 30 staff who work in 3 departments: 1)Grow Local: Everything production including drought tolerant sustainable agriculture research, a "garden at every school" partnership with the district, and a community garden association. 2)Farm Direct: Everything distribution including 4 farmers markets that they manage, local food brokering between farmers and institutional buyers, and a possible future online farmers market (which of course, reminds me of Tallahassee's RHOMarket.com). 3)The Happy Kitchen: Everything about consumption and education including a partnership to introduce a chef into all district schools and an educational kitchen that teaches groups and produces resources in both english and spanish.

Sligo, Ireland, Tallahassee's Sister City. Driving down the highway in Ireland on the way to my grandfather's birthplace, not an hour away, we happened upon this sign saying that Sligo is "twinned" with Tallahassee, FL. Wild! We stopped in at City Hall to bring greetings and were able to connect with a few staff in the Local Enterprise Office. Additionally, we found a monument to "those who died and those who fled" the Potato Famine, of The Great Famine. 30,000 people-- folks similar to my grandfather-- emigrated from the port of Sligo. I emailed pictures to Ms. Whitaker in Mayor Gilum's office, and she- ever so sweet- promptly responded, "Nathan, what an awesome experience of "home away from home." I will share your email and picture with our Chief of Staff Dustin Daniels who also serves as the Mayor's Office Sister-City liaison. Be safe and enjoy the journey of learning more about your heritage. Thanks for sharing. You are a great representative of Tallahassee."
Barbara Turk, NYC Mayor's Director of Food Policy. We met at a talk she gave at Union Theological for the Faith Leaders for Food Justice group. Her program's 3 tiered priorities are developing policy and supporting efforts to ensure NYC's food systems will provide 1)enough food to eat (1.4 million New Yorkers are food insecure), 2)adequate nutrition, and 3)be sourced from just sources. There are over 1700 urban gardens on public land: 800 on Housing, 700 on Park, & 200 on School land. They produce 100K lbs of food annually. "I fight for urban gardens not just for the food, but for the community value. They are the cheapest way to build a community center, to promote intergenerational connections." For more complete notes, click here.

Craig Willingham with Shop Healthy NYC, a health dept. program that is a systems approach to encouraging healthier eating in NY neighborhoods. Craig's team works with distributers to help them note foods that meet health standards and connect them with marketing tools to promote those options. He works with retailers by providing technical assistance, store shelving that will better display healthy options, and by connecting them to distributors that sell healthy options. Lastly, Craig works with community by blanket marketing and encouraging neighborhood groups to support stores that have healthier options. Supply and demand side strategies. Here is an implementation guide, adopt a shop guide, and program report.

Josette Bailey with We Act, an environmental justice organization based in Harlem. Ms. Bailey and her team attended the Faith Leaders for Food Justice meeting. We Act was the first environmental justice organization to be founded in New York City. They joined together to address the institutionalized racism regarding the oft-repeated practice of locating environmentally hazardous sewers/dumps/plants/etc in and near black neighborhoods. For them, the catalyzing situation was a sewer. Ms. Bailey spoke up boldly that black neighborhoods don't need people coming in to "teach" them about healthy, economical eating. Folks are doing the best they can within the context of (often) working multiple jobs & being faced with living in food deserts. She challenged the group to check any patronizing approaches to working on issues of food justice. We Act is starting a food coop and is looking for places to garden.

Wendy Stayte with Transition Town Totnes (in S. England). While in Britain, Paul Beich, a partner from Tallahassee reminded me that the Transition Town Movement originated in Totnes, so with the help of Transition Tallahassee's Rachel Walsh, I went digging. Wendy is active in Totnes' food group, specifically the "Incredible Edible Totnes" group which is: "an inspired bunch of people getting veggies and edibles growing in public and unused spaces in Totnes for the common plate."

The Intervale in Burlington, VT. It's an "agricultural ecosystem" of 350 acres that are home to 12 organic farms, a community garden, Vermont's largest composting operation, food and fuel production from agricultural waste, an educational center that hosts youth programs, the Intervale Food Hub, and a garden center (nursery). Collaboration and mutual support is all the more possible due to proximity.

Kathryn Scharf, Co-Founder Community Food Centres Canada. CFCC works across Canada to cultivate community food centers, or "welcoming spaces where people come together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food." They combine 3 focuses: 1)food access, 2)food-skills, and 3)engagement. This looks like "dignifying" emergency food assistance (think family style, chef-prepared community meals, or no-line food banks) with training on gardening and/or cooking with community organizing & advocacy training to give "individuals and communities voice and agency on hunger and food issues." Here's a list of their 80+ "Good Food Organization" Partners that they have networked and amongst whom CFCC has facilitated organizational mentoring. CFCC's flagship community food center is profiled in the book The STOP by Nick Saul, their Director.

Laura Lengnick, author Resilient Agriculture (& my former professor at Warren Wilson College). Interested in the impact of climate change on sustainable agriculture, Laura captures the stories of farmers who have noticed temperature shifts and other "strange" changes in climate in their lifetime. She then shares the stories of how said farmers have adapted to floods, droughts and other changes.

Jessica Bonanno with Democracy Collaborative, which was instrumental in establishing the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland that launched in 2009. Evergreen includes three for-profit worker-owned cooperative businesses whose major customers are "anchor" institutions (i.e., hospitals, universities, and other entities that are very unlikely to up-and-leave). There is a hydroponic operation to grow veggies (which is how I first learned about them), an industrial LEED Certified laundry, and a green energy/building contracting business. They employ a combined 100+ worker-owners.  All three coops feed 10% of their profits into a nonprofit that works to expand asset-based economic development in Cleveland. Democracy Collaborative has great publications like this Worker Cooperatives: Pathways to Scale and Policies for Community Wealth Building. And FASCINATING: did you know they were hired by the former Mayor of Jacksonville to report on cooperative business possibilities?

Susan Sides, founder The Lord's Acre in Asheville, NC. Susan contacted me to share her dream and ask a couple questions five years ago when they were just starting out. Since then we've been in loose contact. I've kept hearing good things, so it was a joy to finally see their Acre that donates food to their local pantry, a sharing market, a community Welcome Table, and a chef training program for folks with barriers to employment. What a gorgeous, prolific place! They produced 9.5 tons of food last year alone! Susan shared that at their first harvest, they cheered as they gave away food to the first 70 people, but then realized, "We should celebrate when there are no more hungry people in our community." In this light, they garden & give food away as a stop-gap measure; however, their "best yield," according to Susan, is bringing people together to work, thereby building relationships & cultivating civil discourse around the need to affect the root causes of hunger.

I also connected with a former iGrow youth leader in Germany, the world's largest cooperative in Spain, an organic tea-growing farmer friend in Virginia and her husband that makes local jam for a living, a campesino organization in Ecuador, several fair-trade, economic development organizations and a fantastic community in Nicaragua, just to name a few-- all of which I've already mentioned on my blog or on my facebook page. Just click the links above.

Connecting with new (and former) friends and learning about all the many ways that people are engaged in growing community-based good food systems was one of my favorite things about our travels. The models are organizational and individual, for-profit and for-purpose, agricultural and policy-oriented. What I love is that all of them build on their strengths and strive to support the ecology of other efforts in their networks. Speaking of which...

To close, I'll offer this food garden tip: Meet other food gardeners. Develop your ag network.
Stop when you see people in their gardens- even in you're driving (turn around!). Tell them that their tomatoes or collards or flowers are beautiful! Point and ask, "What's that?" Inquire about what they like to grow the most. Quiz them about when they planted this or that. Ask what their favorite source is for seeds. Inquire about why they grow or how long they've been gardening. Share about your love of growing food; your favorite crops, and about your squash that recently died without any warning. Ask if they know why. Offer leftover seeds. Tell them you're going to the nursery tomorrow, and do they need anything? You'll learn new varieties, new techniques. You'll find food garden answers and ideas that won't surface on google. You'll get free food. You'll hear family stories; your neighbors will become your friends. And your food garden will prosper.

Don't hesitate to reach out to me if you'd like me to come speak to your group, want support with a school or community garden, or, simply, have an idea you'd like to pass by me-- especially if you're in Jacksonville, but then again, I'll be in Tallahassee once a month :)

Nathan, MIO


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Visit to Mondragon, THE COOP of Coops



Mary Elizabeth and I have been back in the country for three weeks -- long enough to...  attend a best friend's wedding in WNC; visit my herb-tea-farming buddy, Rachel in Virginia; catch sunrise on the Brooklyn Bridge; go berry u-picking with friends and put my overalls to work shoveling at a community garden in the Philly area; participate in a fellowship at the Wake Forest Food and Faith Conference in Asheville, NC; blur through Jacksonville for my wife's high school 10-year reunion; and stop in Tallahassee long enough to learn about the iGrow Southcity Grand Opening happening 2:30pm, Friday, June 26th. Folks, we've been on the move.

But what about Europe? We were there for two months. Other than good, seemingly untainted bread, what stood out?

There was this coop in Spain... A network of coops. THE COOP of coops! I gotta tell you about it.
It's called Mondragon. It's a "federation of worker cooperatives" based in the Basque (NW) region of Spain. It's comprised of 101 worker-owned cooperative businesses that pulled in 12 billion (yes, that's a B) Euros last year. They have 75,000 employees, most of whom are worker owners. Though there are coop model parallels with our local Bread and Roses and New Leaf, and coops in Nicaragua, this is a whole other ballgame. Our visit blew my mind!


A statue of Father Jose 
Maria Arizmendiarrieta, 
Mondragon's founder
With support from a local priest, they started with a worker-owned stove factory. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, there wasn't a lot of capital to go around, and a local source of jobs in the Basque region, the stove factory was closing shop. So, five workers put up the initial money and, essentially, crowd-sourced (or "community-sourced") the rest to buy and reopen the factory. From that beginning, they've developed all manner of cooperatives. 

They've got a bike manufacturing coop, a medical supplies coop, a restaurant industry supply coop, auto-manufacturing machines coop. (They make the tools that Detroit uses.) There's a cooperatively owned bank, an insurance coop, a dairy coop, a rabbit meat coop, a hydroponic vegetables coop, a cleaning-service coop, and a construction business coop. Not to mention research coops, and a university coop -- all, mind you, based in a small town in rural Spain.

The coops practice networked-resource sharing. Let's say one of the (fully autonomous) cooperative businesses is in short-term cash-flow trouble. Say they've got a major order coming down the pipe in 4 months, but for the next 3 months, they're going to run 20million euro short of meeting payroll. Rather than close shop, they call up one of the other coops and say, "Could we borrow 20 million euros for the next three months?" No problem. When there are downturns in particular businesses, the worker owners are reallocated to other coops in the network. They haven't had to lay off a worker-owner in 60 years. They trade knowledge and partnerships. They combine leadership development and training efforts. 


Research Coop
One of the coops is Mondragon Services Coop. This is, essentially, "Headquarters." They have 60 worker-owners on staff. Total. 75,000 employees, and they've got 60 worker-owners in headquarters! Wrap your mind around that. Their job is coordinating the networked resource exchanges amongst the coops. Ultimately: they facilitate relationships. Also, they're charged with catalyzing new cooperative enterprises and spreading the cooperative model.  They do what Tallahassee Food Network does at the scale of 12 billion euros annually. All the Mondragon coops pay 10% of pre-tax profits into a fund to capitalize* future coops.  (*Mondragon invests approximately 300k-500k euros for every new job they create; more on money later).

Another innovative aspect of Mondragon's coops are their leadership structures. This is where the parallels with US consumer coops or traditional farmer coops end because the former coop examples are typically single-side coops. (That will make sense in a second). All Mondragon's coops are ultimately lead and controlled by whoever are the major stakeholders (not stockholders) in the business. So, for example, their grocery store coop, Eroski (one of the largest grocery chains in the country) is lead by a team of 8, 4 worker-owners and 4 customers members. These eight are elected by and answer to the Eroski general assembly, comprised of 250 worker-owners and 250 customers*. How do you make a bad business decision when the workers AND customers are both at the table? And did I mention power is divided between them 50/50!? They HAVE to reconcile differences. They HAVE to develop business models and practices that work for everyone.  (*The customer delegates predominantly are drawn/elected from 20-member customer-advisory councils that every Eroski store has).

Or take the university coop as another example. Their decision power is split three ways: 33% worker-owners, 33% end-users (in this case, students), and 33% community collaborators (such as business, government, and community-organization leaders). The institutions that desire skilled work forces are at the table with students and the people teaching and cleaning up after them. Organizational direction, spending priorities, and financial realities are faced in partnership. Imagine how things might shift if FSU and FAMU's boards of directors were so comprised?


Mikel Lazamiz, Mondragon
Services Coop director of
cooperative diffusion
The last thing I'll share for now are a few notes about Mondragon's relationship with money. Our host, the director of "cooperative diffusion" explained to us that in traditional capitalism, money has the power and labor is viewed as a factor in production, i.e., a tool to achieve the purposes of capital. In cooperativism, labor has the power and money is a tool used to achieve labor's purposes. (*It's a major flip from our way of thinking; however, lest someone throw me on a red-bangwagon: cooperativism is not communism. Communism is where the state owns the means of production, controls the economy and employes both labor and capital as tools to accomplish its own goals under the auspices of empowering its people.)

So, if money is to be leveraged as a tool to achieve the dreams of workers, where does their seed money come from?  Themselves. Always. When you start working in a Mondragon coop, the first year you are a "temporary" worker. At the end of that year, assuming you've got good reviews and you're interested in staying on, you've got 5 years to invest a years' salary in the company. It's a 15,000 euro pricetag to become a worker-owner. So, you've got to "cough." But granted, minimum wage in Spain is 9,000 euro, so you're more than 150% ahead annually compared to your typical starting job. Should you chose to bail, the coop keeps a 3,000 euro "entrance fee."  So why join? Because the average rate of return over the past 60 years has been 4-7%, so your ownership investment will grow substantially-- and because membership is ownership, ownership is power. And, in this way, they say, "Everyone is an entrepreneur."

I could go on, but I've long since lost most readers. If you want to learn all kinds of nitty gritty, check out this powerpoint. Also, you should know that Evergreen Cooperatives is a US-based coop network modeled after Mondragon that's expanding rapidly in Cleveland.

~ ~ ~

Just know that I am dreaming dreams.  I dream of agricultural coops, food processing coops, micro-finance coops, healthy corner store coops, food education coops all networked together for the sharing of resources, ideas, & people. And I'm reflecting on the models in N FL that are the seeds, roots, and saplings of our own scaled up future: TFN and its iGrow, Red Hills Small Farms Alliance, Seed Time Harvest, N FL Culinary Incubator, the Slow Food Farm Tour in Jax, New Leaf's expansión to Bradfordville, Frenchtown Heritage Market, the North Florida Cooperative, the NE FL Community Garden Network, Compost Community and all manner of other pieces. 

May your WILDEST dreams grow into being,
Nathan

Oh, and a food garden tip. Summer's upon us, so it might be time for you to transition to the next crops:



Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Can I Eat Bread in France, but not the States?


I've got a food riddle for you from Paris, France: Why can I eat bread over here when it makes me sick at home?

First, a little personal background.

Since my senior year of high school, I've not been able to eat much bread at all. For five years, I was severely hypoglycemic, and everything I ate had to have more protein than carbohydrates.  That meant, in effect, that I spent my years of college beer-less and eating lots of salad with meat on top. I ate tons of vegetables, very little fruit, basically no carbohydrates to speak of, meat, nuts, eggs, and cheese. If I accidentally ate, say, cream-spinach with corn-starch in it, I'd spend the next 2-3 days mentally cloudy, depressed, and lacking motivation. It was a health-imposed paleo diet of sorts.

Finally, the year after my college graduation, I learned to manage (and all but eliminate) my hypoglycemia in two ways. First, I took chromium supplements (chromium is an essential micro-nutrient that helps the pancreas regulate its production of insulin) for 8 months. Second, inspired by Michael Pollan's reporting on green vs grain-based food chains, I made sure to eat sufficient sources of omega 3s: sardines, flax, grass-fed meats, and especially loads of green vegetables (sustainably raised on good soils are especially balancing for me).  Though I still do not eat much refined sugar in the form of candies, sweets, or sodas by American standards, at least I can now eat carbohydrate basics like rice and potatoes, fresh fruit, and, well, ice cream from time to time :).

In spite of having learned to dietarily manage my hypoglycemia, your typically, store-bought bread has continued to cause me problems. From constipation and abdominal bloating to hypoglycemic-like low-blood sugar symptoms such as exhaustion and irrational anger, eating bread causes me all kinds of problems.  Dr Li, a Tallahassee acupuncturist says that wheat exacerbates swelling in my low-intestine, which puts pressure on my pancreas and gall bladder. The pancreas is responsible for insulin production, thus the hypoglycemic reaction, and an irritated gall bladder, I hear, is often accompanied by anger. So, you might think that I'm gluten intolerant or otherwise allergic to wheat.

Except: When I eat bread homemade by friends with organic wheat in the States: no problem.  And then, also, in France, I've ate all manner of bread. Well, I should say: baguette, baguette, baguette. Over here too: no problem whatsoever. Why?


Here is my working hypothesis: In light of the fact that France is very restrictive on GMOs and increasingly on Roundup®, I'm guessing that the reason I can eat bread in France but not at home is due to RoundUp® residues in US bread. And, I'm guessing I can eat bread made with organic wheat at home because neither GMOs or Roundup® is permissible in USDA Organic foods.

To paint the full picture, let me delve in a little. This is my health (perhaps all of ours) and a $200 billion rabbit hole, so stick with me. Here's what I've learned:
  1. Although GMOs are sold to the public as a way to "feed the world" by developing more bountiful, nutritious crops, the most numerous* genetic modifications are, in fact, seeds/crops that are "Roundup Ready®." Roundup Ready® means that a field of, say, Roundup Ready® corn can be sprayed with Roundup® and the weeds will die, but the corn won't. The obvious labor-saving benefit has, you might imagine, led to incredible amounts of Roundup® being used on US crops. (* in terms of total number of seeds grown).
  2. Roundup® kills plants - not directly- but by blocking the absorption of key micro-nutrients critical for plants' immune defense. Without a functioning immune system, non Roundup Ready® plants (like weeds) succumb to any-ole soil fungi that comes along. Spraying Roundup® could be considered akin to giving a plant a particularly brutal strand of HIV-Aids. (An interview with Don Huber, a world-renown expert in plant pathology from Purdue University explains it all if you want the details. Or: here if you'd like it in plainer speak.) On a personal note, it seems reasonable that there may likely be a connection between my chromium deficiency and the fact that the active ingredient* of Roundup® is a chelator, meaning it "binds up" (makes unavailable) nutrients like chromium. (*Glyphosate).
  3. For years, the counter argument against worry concerning widespread use of Roundup® on our food went like this: Roundup® only affects plants, not humans. Turns out, this does not appear to be true because Roundup® disrupts key metabolic processes in our gut bacteria rendering them stunted or killed outright, which seriously compromises our overall health -- not to mention the general mineral chelating (nutrient "blocking") property of Roundup®, which was the reason it was patented in the first place. In Dr. Huber's words, "You may have the mineral [in your food], but if it's chelated with glyphosate, it's not going to be available physiologically for you to use, so you're just eating a piece of gravel."
  4. Since the release of Roundup Ready® crops into the US Food System in the early 90s, and, thus, increased Roundup® residues in our food, a host of health problems (including ADHD, Alzheimer's, Celiac/Wheat intolerance, cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes) and have risen drastically in almost direct correlation to the increase in use of Roundup®. This article explains the medical links to glyphosate. To lay the case bare, this study shows that "chronically ill humans showed significantly higher glyphosate residues in urine than [a] healthy population."
  5. Back on the topic of wheat: though Monsanto discontinued its Roundup Ready® Wheat development program in 2004, Roundup® is, nevertheless, being used in US Wheat production as this South Dakota Ag Extension resource demonstrates as a "harvest aid."
  6. In a 2013 presentation in Tallahassee, Dr. Don Huber, the world-renown plant pathologist from Purdue University suggested that the real reason Monsanto and the BioTech industry is fighting GMO labeling tooth and nail with millions of dollars is not because of direct labeling-related costs or even an anticipated drop in sales. The reason for the biotech industry's fight is because labeling will allow for interstate health comparison studies. For example, if Florida adopts labeling while Illinois consumers remain in the GMO dark, state-wide health comparisons could be made with millions of replicates to implicate GMOs. Friends of Dr. Huber in the public health arena have estimated the cost of public expenditures on Roundup and GMO-related health problems at $200 billion. That is an average of $4 billion per state, or, in other terms, 4x all the Big Tobacco settlements put together. But for the trial lawyers to pick up the case, they need major health comparison studies. Thus the fight.
In light of all this, I'm guessing that Roundup® residues in conventional US store-bought bread is the reason I can't eat it. The real kicker for this idea came while visiting Switzerland. Within a day or two of being in the country, with no real change in diet (still plenty of good cheese, fresh veggies, fresh bread, and local wine-- just like while in France), my stomach bloated up like I was stuffing myself with white sandwich bread from the States. Come to find out, Switzerland is more GMO and Roundup® friendly than most countries in Europe. When we left Switzerland, I almost immediately began to feel better.

So, here's my Food Gardening tip of the day: If you have weeds, before you reach for Roundup®,
watch my YouTube video about weeding:




Until next time y'all-- happy growing,
Nathan, MIO


Since the time of publishing, I've learned more from farming friends:
  • Roundup® is the original brand, but since the patent ran out over 10 years ago, there are other brands and seeds to match. Glyphosate, the broad spectrum chelator is the problem. The minerals that Glyphosate chelates (or "binds up") are essential for immune function in most or all life forms, not just weeds. 
  • When a farmer or other entity buys GMO seed, s/he must sign a contract that the seeds will not be used for scientific study. Thus, the meta-analysis of state-to-state comparisons is the only way to do studies on the effects of GMOs.
  • The French are writing the same things. Here's an article (in French) entitled, "The Real Reason the Wheat [in the US] is Toxic and It's Not the Gluten."



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