Man in Overalls helps you #GrowYourGroceries!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Man in Overalls - Geeking on Good Soil

"I just don't have a green thumb! I kill everything I plant!" Or, so folks say. Having grown up in the Deep South with a heavy cinematic helping of Fried Green Tomatoes, every time I hear such woes, I can't help but think, "The secret's in the [soil]."

Picking up on my "#GrowYourGroceries - The Easy Way" series, second to sunlight, the next most important thing for ensuring a productive food garden is great soil. (I outlined where I was headed with this series in my post, The Big Picture.)

- - -
My spring garden in '97 or '98
I remember taking a trip to Indiana when I was a kid, 11 or 12 years old. By this point, I had already been gardening every spring for a few years. Due to my wonderment, we stopped on the side of the highway to inspect a field of Indiana corn. The stalks were a solid 10-12 feet high, maybe taller! Each stalk had 2 or 3 ears of corn. But the thing that really hit me was the soil itself. It was jet black! Having been trying to build soil in my childhood garden, I asked my mom, "What did they put in their soil?!" She explained, "That's just how it is in Indiana." 

But for those of us in the Deep South-- who don't live in the Bayous of Louisiana or in Belle Glade, FL, we don't have the luxury of inheriting eons' worth of jet-black soil.

Before I go into how to build soil for better crops, which I'll explore in my next post, let's talk background: what is soil? And, what makes it great?

Notice I didn't say dirt. Dirt is a 4-letter word for that dusty crap that piles up at the base of your driveway, the stuff smeared on your backdoor by your 3-year-old, the skeletons in your closet that someone has on you. Don't call your soil dirt.

Okay, sometimes I say dirt, like when I fill a bed with my Magic Mix and say, "Look at that great dirt!"

But the point is that soil is more than dirt. Dirt is just the "mineral" part of soil, which is- mostly - sand, silt, and clay. Dirt is important but, by itself, won't grow very good crops. So, what distinguishes soil from dirt?

Good soil contains as much as 45% dirt but is also comprised of roughly 25% water, 25% air, and- here's the kicker- at least 5% organic matter. At least 5%. Sometimes good soil can be as much as 49.9% organic matter, with just a "smidgen" of dirt. But, however much there is, it's the organic matter that's key to great soil.

Organic matter, is everything that is 1)alive, 2)recently dead, and 3)once alive but long-ago eaten up, pooped out and probably digested again, again, and again. (This last type of organic matter is called "humus," which is what makes soil dark, or, in high amounts, black). These three types (or stages) of organic matter are both the food and the lodging of beneficial microbes that continually breakdown nutrients, so that they are "available" to the plants you're trying to grow. You can consider good bacteria, fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes, and the rest of good soil's microbe community as the chefs of the soil. Most nutrients in the soil are much like whole potatoes. Just as you'll need to chop up and cook your potatoes before expecting dinner guests to eat them, your microbes have to breakdown the nutrients in the soil, so they're "available" to your plants. 

Another benefit of organic matter is that the worms (and other visible creatures) will move in because they've got something to eat. They'll open up channels in the soil for air & water to flow. They'll poop out sticky stuff that helps hold the soil together in clumps, so it doesn't collapse into a bunch of anaerobic mud when it rains. These channels and clumps allow it to quickly absorb water as well as drain, so it doesn't water log.  

This "soil structure" that helps water flow into and through good soil also helps air penetrate deep into the soil, which helps maintain the 25% air, 25% water balance - key to keeping the beneficial soil life alive and well. Another way of saying this is that good soil is both moist and aerated. 

Good soil is awesome! It's a whole ecosystem in and of itself. Everything you learned about ecosystems: primary producers, herbivores, predator-prey relations, nutrient cycling,... it's all happening right there in the top couple inches of any good soil, and it's key to plant health. In fact, according to one of the foremost soil biologists in the country, Elaine Ingham, plants are largely in control of the "soil food web" since they have the ability to secrete sugary substances (called exudates) through their roots. 

Plants' exudates are specifically tailored to benefit the growth of specific nutrient collecting bacteria and fungi, so, for instance, if a plant needs chromium, the plant will put out exudates that encourage the chromium-finding bacteria and fungi to reproduce and gather chromium. However, it's not until another, larger, soil microbe, further up the food chain, like a beneficial nematode or protozoa, eats the bacteria or fungi that the nutrients will be "mineralized" or made "available" to the plant.  So, without a well-developed soil food web, your plants won't be able to get what they need no matter how nutrient rich your soil might be. This is what I meant when I said that dirt, by itself, won't grow good crops.

(As a side note, all this, I'd guess, is why bagged soil always seems mediocre: by being sealed in plastic, all the beneficial aerobic soil life dies.)

Anyway, if you geek on soil science like I do, here are a few additional resources to explore:

-  - -

In my next post, I'll talk about how to build great soil. For now, to close, my tip is: avoid chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that disrupt and kill your soil ecosystem (Yes, this includes Miracle Gro). In the meantime, learn all you can about caring for and improving your soil food web. If I had to venture a guess, one day soon, we'll openly wonder at the fact that we once used chemical fertilizers, broad-spectrum pesticides and herbicides on our gardens and farms because working with natural systems is wildly more productive-- not to mention less poisonous. 

Just take a look at this picture from a recent webinar with Elaine Ingham, the agricultural soil biologist I mentioned above.
The pictured fence line separates two farmers' dairy pastures. Until the year pictured, these two fields had been managed the same. This year, the field on the right was re-seeded (to fill in ruts & gaps in the grass) and fertilized with "conventional," chemical fertilizer (your standard "seed and feed"). This is the standard and recommended practice. On the left, per Ingham's suggestion, the field was not reseeded or chemically fertilized. Instead, it was inoculated with beneficial soil micro-biology by a few applications of compost teas. By late in the growing season, the grass on the left had grown so prolifically that the farmer had grazed cows through the field 5 times and, at the time of the photo, just weeks later, was 6-12" tall again. The farmer of grass on the right, which had been chemically fertilized was only able to graze cows on it once, and by season end, it was looking brown and patchy, in need, again, of re seeding and fertilization.

If you were farming or if you were in ag-business, if you were trying to buy milk for your children, or, if you were simply trying to #GrowYourGroceries in your own raised bed food garden, which of these two methods would you gravitate towards?

Though I tell people to #GrowYourGroceries, the real secret is to focus on caring for your soil, because good soil (with a little sunlight), will grow your groceries for you. If you've got good soil, your food garden will produce more than you can imagine. Then, you'll hear people say things like, "How do you do it? I kill everything I touch. You must work in your garden all the time!" You'll just smile and think, "The secret's in the soil."

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Man in Overalls - The Valley of Food & Ag Startups: Warren Wilson College

If you're interested in tech, pay attention to Silicon Valley. If you're interested in food and agriculture, Swannnoa Valley, more specifically Warren Wilson College, is the place to keep on your radar.

Man in Overalls with (L to R) Mary Elizabeth, my wife and
Rachel (Williamson) Perry, WW alum and herbal tea entrepreneuer
I'm an alum and proud of it, class of 2008. I studied community organizing, wrote a 140 page thesis about social movements as my capstone.

Nathan, as college Freshman
on WW Electric Crew. (Look
for the blue water bottle)
It's a work college, one of seven in the country. Think universal work-study, so in addition to whatever one's academic track, students are also working in the cafeteria, the library, admissions, as carpenters, lock smiths, lab techs, and-- per the agricultural legacy of Warren Wilson-- as row crop, animal, and vegetable farmers, gardeners, and edible landscapers.  Personally, I worked on the electric crew and then on the landscape crew where I led the edible landscape sub-crew in managing a 1-acre edible (Permaculture) landscape around the "Ecodorm."

Per the "triad" of Warren Wilson's educational system, we were charged with academics, work, as well as giving back through service.

The impact of Warren Wilson's food and ag entrepreneurial spirit, however, can only, in part, be understood through the lens of requirements. Warren Wilson is a place that encourages and replicates a culture of curiosity, passion, and dedication for issues and enterprises related to good food.

Kids would disappear for the weekend, and when someone asked where they'd been, they'd say, "Oh man! I visited this amazing farm!" In dorm kitchens across campus, students would share family recipes and offer samples to friends studying in common rooms. Students would ponder together as they brushed their teeth about how to affordably provide food access in low-income communities and overhaul the health of our current sugar-laden food chain. Cafeteria worker-students synced up with the recycling crew students to explore how to compost food waste, safely, at scale.  A friend brewed batch after batch after batch of organic beer... in his dorm room. Students conducted undergraduate research about the antibiotic qualities of garlic. Spontaneous student campaigns coalesced about every 3-4 years (for the past 30) to pressure our food service provider, Sodexo to... launch a new student-run vegetarian cafe on campus, purchase produce from the on-campus garden, partner with a student-run local food name it.

In the midst of things, I didn't realize the extent to which Warren Wilson was incubating generations of food and agriculture leaders. A few years after I launched as Man in Overalls, a friend and I started taking mental note of the many, many of our fellow alums (some agricultural majors, but mostly not) who-- whether they had started their own enterprise or were working for something larger- were all working in the fields of food and agriculture.  To give you a taste, this past weekend at homecoming, friends and I- in a couple minutes- brainstormed an extensive list of businesses & organizations that fellow alums have started:
And here are a sampling of food and ag organizations that our fellow alums work with and for:
WW Alumni, Emily
Beyond these organizations are
  • an employment and immigration lawyer who spent summers picking fruit as a farm worker to better understand the situation of his migrant worker clients
  • a serial soil-science entrepreneur who has co-founded multiple businesses and who speaks and consults globally
  • several doctors who - though poorly educated on the subject by med school- are nonetheless integrating holistic diet and nutrition into their practices
  • several artists and authors who elevate food and farming, for example Kathryn Stewart.
  • public health administrators who are writing policy and educating the public to address food desert realities
The question is, of course, from whence cometh this wellspring of curiosity, passion, and dedication that has compelled generations of Warren Wilson alums to become food and agriculture leaders, to become food system creators and influencers?

Sure, we've had a farm since the school was founded in the late 1800s, a farm that in 2017, won "Top College Farm in the US," a farm that continues to inspire incredible undergraduate research, not to mention a farm that supplies delicious protein and vegetables to the cafeteria year round. But it's more that that.

On wikipedia, Timothy Sturgeon is quoted as saying
Perhaps the strongest thread that runs through [Silicon Valley's] past and present is the drive to "play" with novel technology, which, when bolstered by an advanced engineering degree and channeled by astute management, has done much to create the industrial powerhouse we see in the Valley today.
Pie Day Pie Share at WW
This, I believe, is close to the mark. For years, as students, as faculty, staff, and administrators, we played with our food, no, our food systems. We experimented, daily, with ways to compost, plant, with new recipes; we entertained sweeping policy changes, imagined hunger away, cooked for (and cleaned up after) each other for meals. And, just as importantly, we talked to each other about all of it. If there was a subject that captured more air time than anything else at "Wilson," it was food and agriculture. One couldn't help but be instilled with the principles and practices of good (healthy, green, fair, and accessible) food.

People ask me if I majored in agriculture, and the answer is, of course, no. But should you ask me if I "studied" food and agriculture at Warren Wilson, the answer is, "Yes." My friends majored in sustainable agriculture, and we talked about soil science in the hallways. I spent two years observing and working, almost daily, in a Permaculture landscape. A friend interned at a major food waste reclamation nonprofit in the UK, and I followed her blog. I learned to cook on a whole new level with friends in my dorm's common room kitchen. I co-led a student campaign for a local food purchasing policy. I gained a better understanding of a part of the migrant farm worker experience through a study abroad semester on the US-Mexico border. I volunteered at the food pantry around the corner from campus. I taught freshmen a page out of my grandmothers book: how to can apple butter.

And, truly, my experience wasn't, isn't unique. Without realizing what was going on, only in looking back are we realizing that we went to school in a place just as generative as Silicon Valley, only the focus was food- not tech.

So, here's my tip. If you want to nurture new (and old) food ways, to help cultivate community-based good food systems that do, indeed, work for everyone-- or if you just want to have a prolific food garden this fall-- play with your food, in every way you can. And talk about it with folks of all walks of life. You never know, maybe they're looking to play with their food (system) too.

Man in Overalls at Oct 2017 homecoming garden cleanup day
with former landscaping crew boss, Tom & current student, Nick,
who now manages the edible landscape at WW's Ecodorm.
After posting, fellow alumni contributed these additional organizations founded or led by WW alums:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Man in Overalls - Today is 2 Years in Jacksonville

Today marks two years since my wife, Mary Elizabeth and I rooted ourselves in Jacksonville, FL the city of her birth, the city of my father's childhood. We planted here by way of a 16-month stint traveling the western world to learn language, culture, and community-based food systems. Though I'm still the new guy on the block, I've been welcomed into Jacksonville by an ever swelling network of folks working on issues of food: farmers, gardeners and permaculturalists; chefs and hunger advocates; writers and food desert activists; composters and herbalists; health professionals and neighbors - not to mention a growing base of customers to whom I owe my livelihood (along with my lovely wife-- as business picks up).

This city is teeming with amazing people doing great work! For those who know me well, I might even say there's a movement beneath the surface, a great many seeds planted, sprouting, and looking to grow and interconnect. Rather than my typical story, I'd like to share with you some of the awesome people and efforts I've encountered in hopes that you'll learn about someone or something you didn't know was going on. This is not an exhaustive list, but a start, the first page in Man in Overalls' Jacksonville version of Who's Who:
  • Chef Amadeus winner of Food Network's Extreme Chef competition who is using his celebrity to uplift local chefs by hosting Extreme Food Fights.
  • Duval County Agricultural Extension: Mary Puckett with the Urban Gardening Program, a great and (free) educational resource on edible gardening. She and the master gardeners run a fantastic demonstration garden just around the corner from the the McDuff Ave HQ. Also: Ashley Johnston is Program Manager of Family Nutrition Program, which has a little grant funding available for youth and community gardens in low-income communities.
  • Lauren Husband, former convener of the Duval County Food Policy Council. She's an amazing woman who knows how to make things happen in, with and for community.
  • At a meeting of the Coalition to End Senior Hunger in NE FL, hosted by Eldersource, chaired by Dr Tannenbaum, I learned that over 1000 seniors in Duval county are on a waiting list for feeding programs. While there, I met Sherrie Keshner. She's an amazing woman who is senior-by-senior, helping hungry elders sign up for SNAP over the phone (since the application process is online and, often, confusing for older folks). If you know folks who need a little extra grocery money but aren't computer types, have them give Sherrie a call: (904) 391-6688.
  • Diallo Sekou, founder of Urban Geoponic and the Sankofa Initiative is a community activist, entrepreneur, and former farm manager of Newtown Urban Farm. He's making plans for an urban teaching farm in Durkeville.
  • If you're a foodie, you've got to know about Edible Northeast Florida. Amy Robb, publisher, and Lauren Titus, editor are an awesome team that puts out the most delicious farm-to-table magazine!
  • I've been pleased to cross paths with a handful of peers who are also helping people grow food themselves: Val Hermann of The Food Park Project and Tim Armstrong of Eat Your Yard Jax.
  • And I'm glad to have made the acquaintance of farmers Brian Lapinksi of Down to Earth Farm, Caria Hawkins of Abundant Harvests Farms, and Simon of Urban Folk Farm.
Here are a few more folks you've just got to know about:
  • Ju'Coby Pittman's Clara White Mission feeds over 500 hungry people every day and runs a culinary job training program. A few years back, they started White Harvest Farms, a initiative to grow food (and offer education) in the midst of Jacksonville's northside.  (Note: Val Herman was just recently hired as White Harvest co-farm manager).
  • This past spring, I was honored to assist Melissa Beaudry in launching Fleet Farming Riverside, a program that converts people's front yards into micro-market-farms in exchange for a portion of the produce.
  • Betty Burney, director of I'm a Star Foundation, a youth-driven leadership organization. I first heard about them in 2015, when they presented their ideas on how to improve childhood obesity rates to the Surgeon General in Washington DC.  Every Friday, to combat lack of access to food, they operate a fresh-food market at the downtown Rosa Parks bus station, and they're making plans to launch a youth farm in NW Jacksonville. This fall, I've had the honor of doing a few workshops with the "Stars."
  • Kurt D'Aurizio is executive chef at Sulzbacher Center (for the homeless) and president of Slow Foods First Coast, which coordinates the Tour de Farm. I love their vision by the way: Good, clean, and fair food for all. Powerful words. I could take them as my own.
  • Karen Landry of War on Poverty is working with Agape Health Clinic and other partners to launch a vegetable prescription program, based on the national Wholesome Wave model that will prescribe fruits and vegetables (and provide vouchers to buy them) to patients in order to improve family health... as well as support the local farm economy.
  • Meanwhile, Florida Organic Growers' Fresh Access Bucks program is partnering with a number of area farmers markets to a)allow low-income customers to buy local produce with SNAP/EBT at farmers markets and b)to "double their bucks." (In other words, for every $10 a SNAP recipient spends with, for example, Riverside Arts Market's farmers, they can buy $20 worth of produce.) It's a food access, local farm development program rolled into one.
Lastly, I've found these great local sources for vegetable plants & seeds, herbs and fruit trees:
  • Standard Feed. On Kings Road, source for vegetable starts and seeds + baby chickens, coops, and feed
  • Gores Nursery. On Jax NW side, source for fruit trees
  • Hall's (ACE) Nursery, on Blanding, source for veggies starts, seeds, and herbs
  • Bluebird Growers, frequents farmers markets, source for tomato starts + great herb starts.
This list is too long, and I'm nowhere near finished. But, the rest will have to wait for another day. In apology, all I can say is that there are "too many" people doing good food work in Jacksonville. Haha. But really: it's wonderful!

I'm glad to be moving and shaking among such a wonderful network of great folks. More power to you, and keep up the good work!

Nathan Ballentine, Man in Overalls putting down roots in Jacksonville, FL

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally
Contact Me
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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Man in Overalls - Fall: The Best Time to #GrowFood

Here in N Florida, it's time to plant your fall food garden, now through the end of October. When most folks think garden, they think spring: tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, peppers, etc. While I do love tomatoes, the fall-- here in Jacksonville-- is the most pleasant and bountiful season to grow! In the fall you can grow salad greens like lettuce, arugula, spinach; cooking greens like collards, kale, mustards; root crops (other than potatoes) like turnips, carrots, radishes, beets; the garlic/onion family of crops; and many herbs (other than basil) such as parsley and cilantro, which actually do better in the fall than spring.

But let me back up. Beyond the greater range of fall options, why do I love growing food in the fall? It's simple really: less bugs, less heat, less work, more production, all the while looking gorgeous!

Heat and bugs go together. As the temperature goes down, so do the number of bugs trying to eat up your garden.  And, as the heat drops each passing day, it becomes more and more pleasant to check on and harvest from your food garden, so you're more likely to actually benefit from what your garden produces.

There's less work in a fall food garden than in a spring/summer garden because none of the fall crops require staking and tying; plus there are fewer weeds sprouting.

In terms of production, you get far more per square foot in the cool season than you will in the warm season. For instance, in a square foot in a warm season garden if you grow green beans, you'll likely yield a handful or two. In the same space in the fall, you could yield as much as 12 heads of lettuce.

And then there are things like kale and collards! Plant them once and harvest for six to seven months! It's easy to yield at least 5-6+ bunches per plant, a value of $2-3 each. Largely due to to the fall season, I was able to grow 400 lbs in my 80 square foot food garden, a total value of roughly $1600 of organic produce.

Last but not least, all the fall crops "stay in their place" so to speak; they don't vine or climb* all over the place, so you can count on a more manageable, kempt-looking garden. (*Okay, Sugar snaps do climb and like a trellis, but they don't go all over the place.)

For all these reasons, I love growing in the fall!

To help you plan your fall food garden, here's my planting guide that outlines raised bed plant spacing and seasonal crops for food gardening in N Florida. Also, since your garden is still likely a hot mess from what's left of your warm season garden (especially on the heals of Hurricane Irma), here's a little how-to video about cleaning up for the next season.

If I can support you in growing food for self and neighbor this fall, let me know. I offer full service food gardening support services here in NE FL and can support food gardeners in other places remotely via live-stream video conference food gardening lessons and Q&A consultations.

#GrowYourGroceries - with Overalls Support


Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

Man in Overalls on FB
Blog - About - Services - Projects - Resources

If you would like to receive my "semi-monthly" updates, which include a story and food gardening tip please email with subject line "Count Me In."

Monday, August 14, 2017

Man in Overalls- #GrowInYourFrontYard #GrowYourGroceries

I grow my groceries in my front yard.

I've been growing in front yards since I was eight years old.

It started that way simply because that's where the best sunlight was, right out front.

Let me ask, if you're honest, where's your best sunlight?

For, I'd say, 90% of Americans with yards, their best sunlight is in the front yard.

"Yeah, but..." I hear a lot of people say, "...if I planted it out there, people would take my tomatoes!" Like their neighborhood is especially prone to vegetable thieves. Like, maybe there is a vegetable-eating gang of young people that roams their streets, who they're afraid to talk about. (Which, if you do have a vegetable-eating gang in your neighborhood, please tell me about it because I definitely want to meet these kids!)

Anyway, as I was going to say: if you're afraid to grow in your front yard where you've got good sun, and you instead choose a protected (albeit shady) spot, you won't grow much at all, so you won't have to worry about people stealing anything. Voila, perfect. Theft averted!

But, I was in the middle of a story. Let me back up.

Because I grew a vegetable garden in the front yard as a child, I became known as "that kid who gardens on the corner."

I never had anything stolen out of my garden as a kid. But it was in a "quiet" suburban neighborhood. And there was no sidewalk.

But then my elderly neighbor who had been campaigning for a sidewalk on our block for a decade finally got her wish. So then people walked right by my vegetable garden. And, as it happened, our street actually was a short-cut between the "projects" and a shopping mall. So guess what happened after the sidewalk was built?
...I got to know more of my neighbors, plus some folks who walked through. And, I learned that food gardens are one of the best icebreakers for meeting people, learning recipes, and hearing stories about other people's families. And, still, no one ever stole anything.

Well, there was that one time around Thanksgiving, during the 2008/9 financial collapse when -- I can't remember, did I tell somebody they could pick some greens?-- someone harvested three collard plants down to the nubs, seemingly in the middle of the night. So, I lost like $3 of collard greens. Maybe. Meanwhile I had another 50 plants laden with greens that went untouched.

But, after all, that was in a suburban neighborhood.

In 2011, my wife and I moved near downtown into a duplex, our first home. Our landlord allowed us to build and grow a garden, and the best sunlight was, again, in the front yard. So, there we grew.
There was heavy foot traffic on a sidewalk across the street, and a long, long red light stopped people immediately in front of our food garden for minutes on end. My wife and I weighed and recorded everything we harvested for the sake of research. Out of our 80-square-foot raised bed food garden, we harvested 390lbs of veggies and herbs in 9 months. (Here's a little press release my friend wrote up about that garden.) We think, but aren't sure, that someone took a single head of lettuce.

Next, in order to be close by TFN's iGrow Whatever You Like youth farm, we moved to "D-Block," a section of a neighborhood that was the "hood" by most definitions: boys walked the street who were probably selling; ladies walked the streets who were, also, probably selling (something different); one of our neighbors regularly ran down the street playing imaginary football with himself.

Nevertheless, by this time, we realized that not only did front-yard food gardens afford the best sunlight and, therefore, productivity, and give us a great way to meet our neighbors; front-yard gardens also permitted us to see and tend our food garden in small easy ways almost daily,  so weeds couldn't sneak in, nor could produce go bad before we noticed it ripening. (This deserves it's own post, so stay tuned). So, once again we planted in the front yard, right by the street (both inside & outside the chain-linked fence).
I remember one day when I was out pulling carrots and cutting lettuce for dinner, bent over, back to the street. These two big guys came walking up on me; I just caught them out the corner of my eye; they'd kind of snuck up on me. I had that sinking feeling like "Oh s***" as I slowly stood up and pivoted to face them. And you know what happened?

This guy, the bigger one, he smiles, the glasses on his face rise on his cheeks and he said, "Evening, how you doing? It's a cool thing you're doing with the garden. I like it."

I don't believe we had a single snap pea taken from our garden in the hood.
- - -

So, as you might imagine, when we moved to Jacksonville, FL because, as is usually the case, our best sunlight was in the front yard, and since we wanted our groceries growing "in-sight and in-mind," and because we wanted to get to know our neighbors, we, once again, decided to grow our groceries in the front yard.

This past week, someone took a bush full of habeƱero peppers, a definite disappointment because our buddy, Chad, had planned to make hot sauce. But, to keep things in perspective, the loss of the habeƱeros brings our total lifetime losses up to about a full $10.  In 25-ish years of growing our groceries in front yards we have harvested, conservatively, $10,000 of produce. My household has eaten its fill, and we've given hundreds of pounds away to friends, family, neighbors, passersby, and food pantries. Easily $10,000, maybe more. Any loss pales in comparison to the bounty of our front-yard food gardens.

So, I'll say it again...




#GrowYourFaithInHumanity But moreso, just

#GrowWhereTheSunShines, please.

For your own sake as well as for the sake of that gang of vegetable-eating teenagers in your neighborhood.

- - - 

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

Man in Overalls on FB
Blog - About - Services - Projects - Resources
If you would like to receive my "semi-monthly" blogs by email, which include a story and food gardening tip please email with subject line "Count Me In."

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Man in Overalls - Back to Basics: What You Need to Know to Grow, The Big Picture

After making sure you've got adequate sunlight, the next two things necessary for food gardening success -- as any kindergartner can tell you-- are good soil and, you guessed it, water. These are your food growing basics: sunlight, soil, and water.

However, before I jump into talking about soil, which I'll do in my next post, let me take a step back. You see, I've realized that I could draft a book by writing it a blog-post at a time. Originally I had conceived this "What You Need To Know To Grow" series as several blog posts about sunlight, soil, and water-- with "sequels" about how to plant, deal with pests, what/when to harvest. Not more than 5-6 posts in total.

But then I thought: rather than stop there, what if I expanded beyond the basics to share my own "bigger picture" perspective that helps ensure my food gardening projects are bountiful & successful in a holistic sense? secret food gardening recipe so to speak.  And, of course, in keeping with my style, I'd plan to share stories & personal experiences to give you something to anchor the facts onto.  What do you think? Should I do it?

To give you a sneak preview of this possible "What You Need to Know to Grow" book, here's an outline sketch:
In short, as I approach any food garden project, this is my triple-lens through which I think about things: agriculture, nature, and people. Any successful food garden project requires a synergy between these three elements.

Agriculturally, you need to have sunlight, good soil, and adequate water. It's also helpful, of course, to know the technical basics like how to plant. Regarding nature, at a minimum, you need to plant in season. Also, knowing about your existing soil, adapting your practices to the regional climate & terrain, and attracting beneficial insects will make you more successful and your work easier. Finally, it's essential to consider the people you're trying to engage (even if that's just you). What do they like to eat? Where is the kitchen? Is the food garden space inviting? How easy is it to maintain?

Say you get your grand-kids excited about growing a garden (people), and you were a successful gardener up north (agriculture), so you just do what you did there. But things go wrong: your lettuce gets eaten up by bugs, and your tomatoes yellow and die right before your eyes. What happened!? It turns out the climate and seasons are entirely different in the Deep South compared to the North, so you planted at the wrong time of year. Whoops! You forgot about nature. If on the other hand, say you're a great agriculturalist-- even if you integrate natural principles-- you may end up with an uninviting food garden in the far recesses of your backyard full of produce that no one recognizes or will eat.  And, ultimately, since no one feels any real benefit, it will go neglected, be overtaken with weeds, and then, finally, be mowed to the ground. You forgot to think about people.

Let me share a story.
In 2009 right as I launched my food gardening business, I volunteered extensively with a nonprofit to assist a community elder in starting a community garden in a subsidized housing community (in other, less gracious terms, in the "projects"). It was exciting! It was vision of abundance in the midst of a food desert! Tons of kids in the neighborhood- okay, maybe a dozen- came out to join the day we built and planted the garden. In the following weeks, everything grew great because the team of day-of volunteers had brought in great compost, planted things in season, and we kept things well watered in the weeks that followed.
However, after that initial build day (and one more when volunteers planted a bunch of fruit trees), very few people were involved other than Mr. Oliver and I. A few kids ventured over to join us when we were pulling weeds from time to time, but generally it was just the two of us. I got to know folks in the neighborhood hoping to find and cultivate interest in participating, but they saw the garden as "Old Man Oliver's Garden."  As the red chard grew one foot then two feet tall and the spinach plants were beautifully abundant (but no one touched or harvested any of it), I started asking friends in the neighborhood if they wanted some of the produce. "Oh, chard, you say? Oh, that's what that is. I've been wondering. Never heard of it. It's like spinach you say? What's spinach? ...Why don't y'all grow some things that people around here know? Like collard greens and mustards."

I share this story because it's an oft repeated story in the community gardening world. Between us volunteers, we had the agricultural knowledge, and we worked with nature so far as growing in season and planting flowers that attracted beneficial insects. We also had lots of "one-time" volunteers, but the most important people, the community residents themselves had not been considered, consulted, or engaged from the beginning, so the success of the whole community garden project was compromised. (Don't worry. It wasn't a complete "failure," but it certainly wasn't as successful as it could or should have been.)

It takes all three (agricultural best practices, natural systems and cycles, and engaging people "where they're at") to make for a successful food garden project -- be it a community or school garden, an edible landscape, or simply a raised bed or a patio container garden. Like a fire which requires heat, fuel, and air, a food garden can't be wonderfully successful over the long term without paying attention to all three of these key elements: ag, nature, and people.

Next up, let's talk about soil.

#GrowYourGroceries - I'll help!

Nathan, Man in Overalls
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting Globally

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Man in Overalls - Cafe/Market/Farms: A Growing Dream

It's time I let you in on a dream of mine. It's not fully formed, but neither can it still be understood merely as ingredients in the figurative kitchen cupboard. I think of it as a loaf of bread, not yet baked but certainly mixed and rising. In looking back at my notes, it's a dream I've been workshopping and mulling over for more than two years, a dream born out personal experience and travel, books and conversations. It's a dream shared in parts and pieces (and separately conceived of) by a growing number of people. And, though I am not certain of the path to get there, I'll be walking the road (and building it where necessary) with others bound for the same vision.

Here's a rough sketch to whet your appetite:

My take on this shared dream draws from a mix of personal sources:
  • 2010, I met City Farm Boy in Vancouver. He was growing veggies for 50 families on 8000 square feet (i.e., 1/5th acre). All his customers lived within 1/2mile of his house; most walked to pick up their weekly produce box. This stands in contrast to the current models of local food that rely on farmers driving 5 to 10 to 50 miles into town and 50 customers all driving 2 to 10 to 20 miles to the farmers' market, which-- though better than 1500-- still amounts to a lot of miles. My other takeaway from Vancouver was the number of families he was feeding, 50. Living with my folks at the time, there were 900 households in their neighborhood. At 100% market penetration, that's 18 farmers in a single neighborhood! (Just for vegetables!) Ok, 100% is never reasonable, but what about 5%? That's roughly one micro-farm in each major neighborhood. I'm dreaming of "corner farms" as prevalent as McDonald's.
  • As I reflect on my experience in cultivating Tallahassee Food Network's iGrow Whatever You Like youth farm, I carry a few things with me. First, communities are hungry for beautiful, productive urban agriculture spaces. We had folks who would stop by on their commutes to/from town just to "walk through the garden." Ironically, second, we had a hard time shifting people's life and habit patterns to make veggie purchases at iGrow. Neighbors would walk and drive right by our youth farm on their way to the store to pick up items we grew. Takeaway: to be successful, we have to integrate other habit patterns into any urban ag business model. Think dog walking, morning coffee, socialization, prepared food purchases. I want to capture the atmosphere of a community coffee house but put it in the midst of a beautiful, productive urban farmscape. Lastly, iterating a space, program, and business model in partnership with all involved (youth leaders, neighbors, volunteers, and customers) proved to be an awesome way to develop a model that worked and was supported all, and, interestingly, is in sync with lean startup practices that rely on early/ often customer feedback.
  • A few years ago, I stopped through Growing Power, the flagship "community food center" urban farm in Milwaukee. They sold not only fresh produce, but other grocery basics like milk and eggs, which makes for a multi-purpose food stop. We've got to sell more than produce.
  • In 2015, my wife Mary Elizabeth and I visited the Mondragon Federation of Cooperatives in NW Spain. The big takeway was their "multi-stakeholder" cooperative model, which is the ultimate expression of reconciling and drawing from the expertise of the constituencies necessary to run a boomingly successful business. It takes workers, customers, investors, and community-- all of us collaborating and working in sync to thrive-- and there's already a democratic business structure model for how to do it profitably.
Here's the dream in a nutshell:
A cooperatively-owned chain of cafe-market-farms
Think the atmosphere of a community coffee house, but take away the building and replace it with a Parisian brick-patio cafe space shaded by a grape arbor-- in the midst of a beautiful, intensively productive community farm. The model's core will include a production mini farm that grows for the super-local market, providing a 1-hour or less harvest-to-delivery freshness; a cafe serving prepared food, ideally hot food, smoothies at a minimum; a mini-market with farm-fresh produce complimented with organic "commodity" items like onions and potatoes plus grocery basics like milk and eggs; the space will also serve as base of operations and education for an expanded food gardening business that helps people grow their groceries the easy way (in their own spaces) -- in keeping with my current business model.

Imagine neighbors taking their evening dog walk here.  Can you imagine grabbing your morning coffee or meeting friends for a smoothie? The cafe will serve dinner without a million choices, but instead a daily offering or two based on the farm's bounty. The question will be "how hungry are you?"-- instead of a menu with 47 choices to make. It'll be like going to a friend's for dinner, and the simple menu will keep prices down. I want folks stopping through to buy fresh bread sourced from a local bakery, gardening classes for kids, cooking workshops that start with harvesting veggies right behind them; I see a crew heading out to build food gardens at area homes and businesses. And I see one of these cafe-market-farms in all major neighborhoods. Each cafe-market-farm will be organized as a semi-autonomous (multi-stakeholder) cooperative that brings workers, customers, and community supporters to the table. Autonomous, but not alone, each cafe-market-farm will benefit by affiliation with the others by sharing best practices in a "learning network" and synchronized back-of-the-houses. The cafe-market-farm coops will invest 10% of their profits into a "pay it forward" model to financially capitalize additional cafe-market-farms and invest 5-10% into the community as a way to reciprocate to the community for its patronage. We start in Jacksonville with the flagship, get the single cafe-market-farm model tight, expand to several across town, get the coop-of-coops model tight, and then head down I-10 with it all the way to Houston.

There are plenty more details of the dream that's emerging and more roots most especially the partners and collaborators. Some of us overlap in our ideas almost completely, others less so; some of us are already working together, others not yet or in fledgling ways, but allow me to name some folks in Jacksonville with whom I'm excited to be talking and mutually supporting in the urban ag (& good food) arenas: Betty Burney, Laureen Husband, Karen Landry, Kevin Anderson, Diallo Sekou, Allen Skinner, Angela Tenbroeck, Corey McNair, Melissa Beaudry, Valerie Hermann, Don Justice, Ju-Coby Pittman, Sylvia Powell, Ingrid Mathurin, Teena Anderson. Thank you all for advancing my thinking and for doing what you do that inspires us all towards the greater good food vision. I look forward to working with these folks, those to whom they're tied, and many more.

--And, while I'm dreaming, if my cafe-market-farm dream is a tree (so to speak), perhaps even a cluster of trees, there's a forest idea to go along with this dream, but I'll leave that for another time. For now, I'll leave you with a sketch of a possible cooperative structuring for you to consider.

Allow me to close with a food gardening tip:
I've long used 5/8" rebar cut to 6'8" lengths to stake my tomatoes. If you prune the suckers, like I explain in this How-To video, you can grow tomatoes very close together in order to maintain order and achieve a much higher overall yield/space than a single tomato plant in a cage that inevitably escapes and grows all over the place. But that's old news. What's new are these amazing ties I just found (in the picture). They loop back on themselves, and save tons of time compared to using tie tape, string, or cutting strips of old rags, like I did as a kid. Worth checking out.

If I can help you #GrowYourGroceries, let me know.

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