Man in Overalls helps you #GrowYourGroceries!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Emerging Food Movement

Folks, the food movement is growing quickly in Tallahassee; however it is not root-bound within our home town. A few years back, I read a book named Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. It's about how semi-connected individuals can work together as a coherent whole; the system can and usually displays an "intelligence" greater than that held by the component pieces and a productivity greater than the sum of its parts. In this light, think about yourself... or even all of us in Tallahassee who are "experimenting" with and "just beginning to" food garden. At first glance, it seems we are all fumbling with pests and heat and humidity beyond our abilities. Most food gardeners I talk to comment upon how they're not growing "that much." But, if we take a step back and look at the entirety of the city... or the country (or the world for that matter) we begin to gain a sense of the great abundance of front-yard, back-allyway, raised-bed, and small-farm food we're producing. We can also come to appreciate the way in which we are re-creating our food systems through our localized and modest actions.

To gain a sense of the food movement beyond Tallahassee, I've included a few Youtube videos below:

This first video is a look at Growing Power, an incredible nonprofit in Milwaukee striving to inspire "communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time."

Here's another Growing Power video that features Growing Power's CEO, Will Allen, a retired NBA star who was the recipient of the 2008 MacArthur Genius Award. "It is my belief," he says, "that everybody-- regardless of their economic means-- should have access to the same healthy, safe, affordable food that's grown naturally...."

This next video highlights Urban Farming, an organization that started in Detroit with three gardens. By 2008, they had the "equivalent" of 600 gardens planted across the country and abroad providing fresh produce for an estimated 50,000 people.
According to their website, their mission is to "end hunger in our generation."

The following video overviews the work of The Food Project in Boston. The narrator informs, "We farm with teenagers. We grow over 250,000 pounds of produce each year. We distribute that food in and around Boston to hunger relief organizations, to farmers' markets in low-income communities, and through our community support agriculture program."

The Food Project's mission is to "grow a thoughtful and productive community of youth and adults from diverse backgrounds who work together to build a sustainable food system."

~By the way, I know an impressive lady in the Tallahassee area with dreams-- and the necessary land-- to re-create something like Boston's Food Project here in north Florida. If you're interested send me an email, and I can put you in touch with her. (maninoveralls at gmail dot com).

The food movement is endless, and it's not all up north either:
What follows are a handful of videos about the work of Urban Harvest, a nonprofit in Houston. Their programs involve food gardening education, organizing community gardens, and coordinating farmers' markets. To gain a sense of their impact, take a look at this map of Urban Harvest sponsored community and school gardens. There are over forty of them scattered all over the Houston.

The emerging food movement is not confined to the States either. Globally, according to a CBC news cast about urban agriculture, "there are an estimated 800 million urban farmers, and they produce about 15% of the world's food." Whoa.

The Tallahassee food movement, therefore, is part of something emerging all over the world. So, with Rosy the Riviter cheering, "We can grow food!" let's follow the words of my friend who mis-quoted Plato as saying: "Grow Your Own Food and Share It."

PS- the work and ideas of the above organizations are expressed to some degree through our local Damayan Garden Project here in Tallahassee. I encourage you to investigate, support, and further their work in our community. Of course, Damayan, like any nonprofit organization, appreciates volunteers and funding from time to time. Another way to support their work is to chat-up or otherwise publicize their name... especially with folks interested in starting community and/or educational gardens as those are Damayan's specialty. ("Damayan" is a Philipino word that, as I understand it, means "the way in which you seek to remedy your own hunger, so should you seek to remedy the hunger of others." Or, in other words, "feed others as you would feed yourself" with a golden-rule slant to it.) Want to make a youtube video for Damayan? Email me. maninoveralls at gmail dot com.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Notes from the Roadside...

Monday through Friday this week, I spent hours-upon-hours on roadsides in Tallahassee clad in overalls, holding an upended pitchfork in the vein of the "American Gothic" painting. I simultaneously held signs with catch-phrases about food gardening like, "Grow Your Own Food and Share It" and one with a picture of Rosy the Riviter that said "WE CAN GROW FOOD." Another one, an infomational sign refered people to this blog, "Man in Overalls" on Youtube, and Man in Overalls' Facebook fanpage. Yet another one read, "HONK! for Food Gardens."

On Monday around lunch time I wrote: "I made my roadside debut this morning. It was a stunning success. I connected with all number of folks that I otherwise would have not had access to. I remained shocked by the numerous honks, waves, fist pumps, smiles of humor, and quizzically-puzzled looks aimed my direction."

I also remained impressed by the sheer quantity of passing vehicles. I kept tabs on traffic flow and the length of my roadside stunts. By the end of the week, over 19,000 vehicles had passed by with enough sight distance to see the Man in Overalls. Of the 6,717 or so cars that passed by on Friday when I was holding my "HONK for Food Gardens" sign, over 10% of vehicles honked. That's over 670 honks in one day. That's more than one in every ten cars. And that's not counting hollers, waves, nods, fist pumps or red-light conversations. There is a lot of excitement about food gardening.

Gosh. How do I even begin to communicate the eclectic experience of roadsiding in overalls? What do you want? Humor?

The first day, a lady pulled up at a red light and asked, "Young man, who pays you?" I laughed. 'Course, that's part of the whole idea. "For standing out here?" I asked; "No one," I replied. I guess I should have given her a business car and said, "I'd let you, if you wanted to..." Alas. I didn't. Let's just say, I'm still getting my "Salesman" act together.

The second day, up on Thomasville Rd just north of 7th, a man nearly jumped out his driver's window with a camera. As he swerved by he yelled out, "It for my blog!"

Wednesday afternoon, I met a guy named Kieth. He came walking down the N. Monroe sidewalk around 5:30 dressed in white painter garb. He'd just gotten off the bus-- a full mile before his stop becuase the driver had told him it was broken down. "But look!" Kieth pointed out, "There goes the bus now." And, indeed, it drove past. "Whew. It pissed me off, that did. And I needed someone to talk to, and here you are. So, I guess it works out."

I smiled, said, "Yep. Perfect. Indeed. Here I am," and I continued offering two-fingered waves to passing vehicles.

About that time, we exchanged names, a handshake, and then he was off to the races telling stories and sharing little pieces of his life. He'd just finished a job re-painting all the doors in the Country Club Housing Project. The next day, he was headed for Joe Lewis. Turned out, he was also an artist; he drew exquisitely with pencils. He shared one drawing with me that depicted a sea-scape complete with a frigate, waves, cumulus clouds and exotic vegetation all along the shore. Every plant was chosen either for its botanical rarities or was a imaginary synthesis plant of two or three interesting species about which he knew all kinds of details. In the forground, the focus of the image, there was a flower which he'd drawn using three different techniques. Cross-hatching, air-brushing, and regular shading, he informed me. It was truly a work of art.

Kieth was also a musician. After putting the drawings away, he pulled out his harmonica and muttered to himself, "Now, how's Neil Young's 'Harvest' go...." With a few introductory notes on the harmonica, he sung it through without a missed beat. Then he offered to play requests. "Know any Johnny Cash?" I inquired. So he did "...shot a man in Reno."

You never know who you might meet.

Like this guy Colin I met on Tennessee Street who crossed the road, camera in hand. "Can I take your picture?" he requested. "Yeah. No problem. Want me to rearrange my signs or anything?" I responded. He didn't. He clicked the photos, and then stood up. I asked, "So... what are you up to?" as if he was the person doing something unusual. He stammered. "...I mean," I continued, "with the picture? What are you up to with the pictures?" "Oh," he said, "I work at a law office just over there." He pointed in the direction of Franklin Ave. "The people in my office, we're big supporters of yours."

How do you respond to that when you daily stand beside the road in overalls brandishing a pitchfork? Really?

Instead I asked, "So... are you growing anything this fall?" Come to find out, he's getting married in two weeks, and he and his future mother-and-law are discussing the possibility of buying a little bit of land-- "out east of town"-- to grow a bit of their own food. Food dreams. I love 'em.

On the roadside, I've seen all kinds of people and heard all kinds of nonsense. The first day out, I saw two or three of my neighbors, one of my sister's ex-boyfriends, an elementary-school friend, and a board member of the Damayan Garden Project. On Tennessee, a boy at Leon yelled across the street, "CHECK YOUR EMAIL!" Three times during the week, I saw an old high school buddy named Meg. I saw my pastor and a few other folks from my church. Friday on Apalachee Pkwy a lady studied my signs very carefully and then tried to offer me $2. I gave her my business card instead. And I swear a group of high school girls drove by and then circled back around to tell me, "You know you're adorable, right." I laughed.

To wrap things up, I'll share that repeatedly folks asked me some version of "What are you promoting?" or "advocating?" or "doing?" They want a soundbite. Here's the best I've got so far: "Food Gardens. I'm just trying to pay my bills and get some folks growing food so we can eat well in Tallahassee. In other words, I'm planting vegetable gardens, fruit and nut trees, and/or teaching other folks how to do it themselves."

And generally, as I told Christine, the Damayan board member, I'm trying to "Create a buzz about food gardens."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Taking things into their own hands and backyards"

Last year CNBC ran a news story called "New Victory Gardens."

It tells the story of how folks are "taking things into their own hands and backyards" by starting more and more gardens in 2008-- a year before, mind you, 2009 when the sale of home vegetable garden seeds jumped over 30% by some sources. According to the CNBC news report, there were 25 million households with home vegetable gardens.

Now is as good a space as ever to mention briefly the outrageous economics of food-gardening. As the news report mentions, a large tomato at Whole Foods cost $3, and a package of tomato seeds in the same produce section cost $2.50. "So even if only one of these seeds turns into a plant," the reporter states, "then I'll have tomatoes all summer long." Okay, fine, but we don't have a Whole Foods in Tallahassee nor do most folks shop for organic produce. More and more folks buy organic, granted; the majority, however, still do not. So let's talk about Winn Dixie instead.

I checked the ads in the Democrat this morning. Winn Dixie was selling tomatoes for $1.69/lb. So, the same giant tomato at Winn Dixie would have cost roughly $1.50. A package of seeds from Gramblings on S. Adams St, on the other hand, typically cost .95 cents. But of course, we're not comparing a mere pack of seeds with a single tomato. It's more complicated than that.

Say you start your seed in a little tray. That's a buck. And, of course, with a seed tray you'll need some potting soil. That's another five bucks. Maybe you buy four pounds of fancy organic fertilizer for eight bucks. Plus, perhaps you even hire me to deliver a DIY raised-bed vegetable garden kit. That's another $100. Add that up. We're at .95cents for the seeds, a dollar for the tray, five dollars for the potting soil, eight bucks for the fertilizer, and $100 for a DIY raised-bed you still have to assemble: $114.95. So, now you're looking at that $1.50 tomato thinking, "Maybe it was worth it."

But hold on.

Do you know how many tomato plants can grow from a packet of seeds? Neither do I, but it's somewhere in the vicinity of "Whoa, what am I going to do with all those?"

They won't all fit in your raised bed. But ten of them easily will. With loads of space left over. Truth is, in a 4x10 bed, you could fit between 12-18 tomato plants without a problem. And with decent sun, each plant can produce between 8 to 15 pounds of tomatoes.

So, lets take the low estimate on both those numbers: 12 tomato plants x 8 pounds/plant. That's 96 pounds of tomatoes. With that many tomatoes, you'll have to start giving them away before your family breaks into a Tallahassee version of the Spanish Tomatina.

But wait; we're not finished. Ninety-six pounds x $1.69/lb at Winn Dixie... and you will have raised $162.24 worth of tomatoes. If you're paying attention, that's $47.29 dollars worth of tomatoes over and above the cost of seeds, supplies, and your Tallahassee Food Gardens raised-bed.

One more thing: have you ever HAD a homegrown tomato? When it comes to taste, all I can do is agree with John Denver. "There's only two things that money can't buy. That's true love and homegrown tomatoes."

Of course, fall is on the seasonal horizon, so it'll be months before you can plant tomatoes. Now is the time for greens like collards, kale, cabbage, chard... and turnips, onions, carrots, radishes, and snap peas. But, the gist of garden economics are the same spring or fall.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"All in a Day's Work," or "A Day in Overalls"

It was a busy day today. First, I built, filled and planted a raised-bed vegetable garden at Jackie's house. Collard and cabbage plants, carrot, mustard, radish and lettuce sees. You can see the finished bed to the right.

And then, I moved on to spruce up Faith Presbyterian's -my home church- children's garden before the young folks arrived for Wednesday night program: Planting the fall garden. We planted brussels sprout, collard, lettuce, rosemary, and a few late winter squash and basil plants; carrot, radish, and snap pea seeds. Last spring, the kids named it "God's Giving Garden." Any surplus food will be distributed through a food-pantry being developed in partnership with St. Stevens Lutheran, a church across the street. Take a look at the kids at work.

Around the edges of work, I made a little stop-action video. It makes me laugh. If I can figure out how to upload it... Ahha!

Who is that guy? and for the record...

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Nathan, Nathan Ballentine. Tallahassee's home.

Here's the gist of it: I love food. I love growing, smelling, giving, cooking, tasting, sharing, and eating food. And I live under the impression that other folks at least like food too. It's pretty universal.

- - -

I've been food-gardening since I was eight-years-old. My mother who grew up on a farm in west Florida, set me on the task of creating a vegetable garden in our front yard as a home-schooling project. As I remember it, I grew some bitter carrots, bug-eaten lettuce and a few bush beans. The next year, I carried on the project, but- back in school- it was no longer an obligation. It was just "my garden."

The second year, I planted sweet corn and watermelon. In the years to come, I grew tomatoes and peppers, potatoes, squash and cucumbers, beans, onions, pumpkins, collards, parsley and basil and every year: more sweet corn. In the years since, my food-gardening horizons have grown considerably. But more on that later.

From the time I was eight-years-old to at least ten or twelve-years-old, I subjected my family to daily garden tours. Upon pulling in the driveway and exiting his car, I'd invite my father to look at what was new. "Aw Nathan," he'd say. It's the same as it was yesterday." But, I was ready with counter evidence: "No, come look," I'd say. "There are three cucumber blossoms. And look! This tomato plant has a baby tomato. And the beans! Look right here," I'd be nearly whispering with the excitement, "They'll be ready to pick by, oh, probably next week. See 'em?"

I loved it, and I loved sharing it too.

Still do.

- - -

Before I go any further, I need to state clearly that my aspirations in starting Tallahassee Food Gardens is much larger than a business or a profit-plan. Yes, I have to pay my bills like everyone else. But, if it were just about making ends meet, I'd choose another path.

See, I want Tallahassee to be able to feed itself. I want everyone in town to end their days nutritionally satiated without worry about their ability to eat in the days and weeks to come. This is more than money can buy. Such a dream requires a mass-based social movement for fruition, a local-based city movement defined by popular participation in raising food for self and neighbor. My hope, therefore, is that Tallahassee Food Gardens will serve as a platform from which we can jump-start and sustain a Tallahassee food movement.

Starting a business with a social mission alongside the profit motive is an exercise in bridging the gap between the for-profit and non-profit worlds. Social entrepreneurship, I've heard it called. The truth is, I don't know how to do it. It's an experiment, like all my food-gardening since I was eight. Will it work?
Is it doable?

I have lots of questions, most of which are circulating around this one: Can a food-gardening business stay in the black while it seeks to further a food movement in Tallahassee?

Rumi once wrote: "And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without ever noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Perhaps. I welcome your advice, comments, and ideas. If you're wiling to share, I'd also love to hear your food dreams. Perhaps we can make a few come true.

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