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Man in Overalls - Let's Grow Everywhere!


I just read a little book about a big deal: No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg. It's helping me make some sense out of my entire adventure in Overalls.

[For context, Greta is a 16-year-old Swede who has been on a school strike to draw attention to the climate crises because we've got until 2030 to cut our emissions by 50% or suffer a positive feedback loop where warming leads to more emissions which leads to more warming leading to unprecedented climate disruption. (Even in my short life, I've seen the agricultural zones noticeable shift north - even moreso from the stories of my grandmother, so this worries me). Greta calls on us to assess all endeavors not just by financial ability but by asking, "Have we got enough of the carbon budget to spare to go through with this?" She speaks "on behalf of future generations" in simple, challenging words inciting us to confront what needs changing in order to address the crises before us "because we want our [future,] our hopes and dreams back." Check it out. You're welcome to my copy if you'd like to borrow it. PM me.]

Coming this September, I will have been "Overalling" for 10 years.
(Here's my first blog post that launched this whole gig.) 
That whole while my primary bread-earning endeavor has been sharing the magic of growing my groceries by supporting others to do the same. Along the way, I had the privilege to co-found Tallahassee Food Network (we were basically a dating service for would-be partners in the food movement); co-launch iGrow Whatever You Like, TFN's youth empowerment & urban agriculture program; and build FL Dept of Ag's demo school garden. Next, I traveled the world, learning along the way about community food systems, and after rooting myself in #duuuval in 2015, last year, here in #jacksonville, I planted a #seed I'm calling "Overalls Farm."  I am growing in the direction of a cafe/market/farm #bizmodel, but in a hurry to launch last fall without much in the way of time, I piloted a "Subscription uPick Farm."  It's like Netflix, except for neighborhood-fresh produce. Member families can pick whatever they want, whenever they want; my team and I plant and maintain the farm.  It's as close to "free food" as you can get without heading to your mom's for dinner.  But anyway...

The question is: what do all these projects have in common?  What have they taught me? Or, drawing from these experiences, what is it that i can offer the world? Sure, I've taught a lot of people to garden. Hundreds. Well, thousands. And I'm proud of that work. No doubt.  But, when I read Greta's collection of speeches, a bit overwhelmed, I think, "But what's my part? What can I do? What can those of us who work in community food systems offer? We are - our efforts are - so small in face of a global challenge. Yes, Regenerative Agriculture is certainly a piece. But I've learned as much about human systems as I have about agriculture along the way, so though I'm rooted in the soil, I can't stop there. I'm human after all, and we've got a human challenge before us.

And then it dawns on me: my entire professional career has been "small acts with great love," growing in the direction of a decentralized food system.

On a strangely related note, this morning I listened to a TED talk about the Open Source Ecology project that is building blueprints for "50 different industrial machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts" so that anyone, at a low cost, can DIY  their own truck or tractor or wind turbine or 3D printer. And what I take away from this project is that material goods are aiming in the direction of open-sourced innovation and decentralized production. The secret sauce of the factory is ours for the taking. And, so could it be with food and farming?

But in the meantime, many of the veggies (especially organic) eaten on the east coast are grown in California fields, harvested with 70ft wide combines that cut, triple wash, and bag lettuce right in the field. Then it is palleted, warehoused, cold-trucked 3K miles, warehoused, distributed, kept cold in a grocery cooler, and finally driven home to your fridge. Around half of all produce that leaves the field turns into that weird slime in your fridge (or before you even get it). Not to mention, the whole while: we could grow-- in our backyards, neighborhoods, and just beyond the city limits-- most of that which we bring in from afar.

Let me say here that though I am certainly an advocate for people to grow their groceries, I know that not everyone is going to be a farmer, at least in the traditional sense, but a trend towards decentralization from the above scenario doesn't require total agricultural participation. But then, most of us don't consider ourselves publishers either, and yet: many of us own printers and freely print all manner of things. We don't think of printers as "decentralized publishing" but it is. Remember the "desktop publishing" revolution? These days, we don't even think about the luxury of a home printer (until we're out of ink, of course). To bring it back, truth be told, that's how it is with my garden: I always have produce for the picking-- unless I get lazy over the summer and stopped replanting (wink, wink). But generally: it's just there, growing, ready to harvest.

Anyway, tangent aside, the question is: which of these two systems (centralized vs decentralized) would likely be better for the carbon budget? And, frankly, which of these systems is more likely to cultivate a more dynamic, locally-connected community (& economy)? My life work is a bet on decentralization.

I have a lot to learn about business, how to make what I'm doing replicable in such a way as to help support more folks -- even just right here in Jacksonville -- how to grow their groceries and beyond that: how to grow viable systems that provide my neighbors good, wholesome food. But, what I CAN tell you is this: there are a host of decentralized food system models that my peers & I are experimenting with here in the Deep South and around the country. Some viable, some garbage, but there are some real gems, real potential - largely because the transaction costs approach zero, which shouldn't be ignored.
And, there are millions more small-farming-folks out there globally (literally: see La Via Campesina and A Growing Culture) who are, quite literally, already, feeding the world*, and this breadth of experience could be leveraged.

What if we grow from what is, already, growing? What if we spread the grocery growing capacity around so that little, if anything, stood between us and lunch?  What if we grew food systems like nature's ecosystems instead of the way Henry Ford assembled the Model-T? Oh what a world it could be.
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Here's my question for you: what piece of the puzzle will you grow?
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And as always, if you're ready to grow your groceries here in NE FL... 
Please, click here to see my services & book me for a consultation, so I can assess your site; we'll discuss design, answer your questions, talk #s, and get your project lined up. I offer turn-key raised bed food garden support services.
If you'd like to support me...
in freely sharing my stories & expertise, please consider passing along this article to a friend or sharing on social media. Each of my articles at least a couple hours of resource gathering, writing, and editing, so I want to make sure they don't just sit on the digital shelf.

With apologies for the rambling update...

Respectfully,
Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Itinerant Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL. Connecting Globally.
(904) 240-9592
Email Man In Overalls at Gmail dot com
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Why Can I Eat Bread in France, but not the USA?

Updated 10/31/2017 as the National Organic Standards Board meets in Jacksonville, FL. This may well be the most important thing you read this year for your health. (Originally written in 2015 while I was traveling-- and eating bread-- with my wife in France.)

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?

I'll share my best guess in a minute, but 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, meat loaf that was, unbeknownst to me, made with bread in it, I'd spend the next 2-3 da…

Man in Overalls - It's Like Washing Your Dishes

I often hear folks joke, "Yeah, I had a garden once. I put in all this money & effort, and I only got a handful of tomatoes. Each one of them cost $27!" And they usually end by saying something about not having a green thumb.

I smile and think about a mental model I've been working on: Growing your groceries is like washing your dishes.

While they're raving about how many plants they've killed, I'm thinking, "It's not your thumbs. I bet you don't have a sink. And if you do, are you using decent soap or that garbage from the dollar store? And did you mention you've never washed dishes before in your life? And you're surprised you broke a couple wine glasses with no more experience than a four-year-old?" My eyebrows furrow involuntarily belying my thoughts, "Really? That doesn't seem all that surprising to me." But, of course, not only would saying all that confuse people, it'd kill the moment, so I just smile som…

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.
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.
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,…

Man in Overalls - Growing Great Soil

Good soil will basically grow your groceries for you, but how do you build great soil? 
The answer is that there are two options: a quick & easy way and a DIY, hard(er) way. 

So we're on the same page, I'm continuing my #GrowYourGroceries The Easy Way series by digging into the how-tos of growing great soil. These stories and techniques will likely make the most sense after reading Geeking on Good Soil, my last update. (I outlined where I was headed in The Big Picture.)


As I was saying, the easy way to build a great soil is to fill raised beds with a terrific compost-based soil mix like my Magic Mix to jump start your food garden productivity from year one. From there, seasonally, you simply top-dress each season before planting with another few inches of compost-based soil mix. This is how I manage my own food garden and those of my customers. Why? Because at the root of things, I'm a lazy food gardener, and long ago I decided to embrace it. 😎

But if you're not in th…

Man In Overalls - 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 cont…

Man in Overalls - Summer Garden Blues & What To Do

Welcome to mid summer in the Deep South! If you're anything like me, you're actively looking for excuses to avoid going outside this time of year. The heat doesn't so much radiate down from the sun as it seems to rise from the side walk. Rain helps- for about ten minutes- and then simply adds to the humidity as it vaporizes on the payment, so that it feels like you need a snorkel to make it from the house to the car, but of course, it only gets worse when you turn on the AC, and that first puff of hot air feels as though someone just wrapped your face in a plastic bag - not to mention that if you cut your grass yesterday, you're going to have to do it again... tomorrow. And, lets not even talk about how fast the weeds grow this time of year! Or the insects seem to multiply! Oh, home... :)

Here's the good news: If your garden looks a little worse for wear, it's okay. Really. Mine does too. As much as I aim for- and largely achieve- a productive & beautifull…

Man in Overalls - When to Plant Tomatoes

"Plant 'em in the spring. Eat 'em the summer. All winter without 'em's a culinary bummer," as John Denver sings in "Home Grown Tomatoes." 
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Since tomatoes along with other spring favorites like squash, corn, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, and the like are "frost sensitive" (in other words, they'll die if it freezes), it's all about the "last frost date" for your area. Unless you're a weather savant and remember the last freeze for the past twenty years, you'll have to do some investigating.
You could look up your Plant Hardiness Zone on this cool "interactive" map from the USDA, and you'd learn that Jacksonville is in zone 9a, Tallahassee is in 8b, and Atlanta is just bar…

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 yourschool 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 s…

Man in Overalls - What to Do When it Freezes in N FL

Here's the short version: If you've got tender warm-season plants growing (think tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and the like), water thoroughly and then throw a sheet over your warm-season veggies & tropical fruit trees (especially if they've only been in the ground 1-2 years).

I can't count how many people I've met who have a complex about "killing plants" and who think, "I don't have a green thumb." What they don't realize is that anyone (EVERYONE!) who grows their own groceries is well-versed in killing crops (myself not-withstanding). Why do you think there are entire USDA funding streams for crop loss insurance and crop-loss loans? Even the best of farmers-- much less gardeners-- inadvertently kill things from time to time.

On the topic of freezes, a few years back (2010 I believe), I was up late organizing a kids food gardening workshop when I suddenly remembered it was supposed to freeze that night. Being 11pm or mi…