The three week journey of an aspiring high school senior and her mission to learn about urban farming and write about her experiences.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Transferring the Plant--Transferring My Research to My Life

Hello all! I just returned from a bike ride with my little brother where I saw a small group of kids (probably elementary or early middle school) at a fast food restaurant up the street from my house. Wyatt and I had biked up to the grocery store and it was scary what I had begun to notice. The items that so many people chose to purchase were calorie, sugar, sodium and fat loaded processed foods. Next to nothing was fresh food. Now do not get me wrong, I, too, munch on the occasional potato chip, packaged cookie or bowl of ice cream, but the extent of these foods for so many Americans is ridiculous. About half of our "food dollars" are being spent on restaurants and other convenience food. Also, the amount of processed foods in our home has doubled since the 1980's. Have we just become lazy, eat-whatever-is-convenient and tastes good nation? No, not necessarily. I was raised in a fairly health-conscious home. Sure, we had the occasional Coca-Cola and junk food in the house, but we ate three meals a day and most of the time it was a hot, home-cooked meal. I learned to eat fruits and vegetables at a young age and, growing up as an avid athlete, I educated myself about the ins and outs of what to eat and what not to eat to be a healthy, prepared athlete. And of course as I discovered the information, I was SURE to make sure everyone in my family learned it too (sometimes to their annoyance). I thought that this was a fairly normal way of living at least for most, but I soon discovered that was not the case. Especially when entering high school I began to notice what kids chose to eat at school, what they bought from the local CVS and saw what my friends ate for dinner when I would visit. I couldn't understand why you look at a box of food and notice the mile-long list of ingredients, you see the nutritional label loaded with fat, sugar, calorie and sodium--oh the sodium--and yet you still buy it. This was not just one or two items in a cart, but many times it was nearly the entire cart! As Yoni Freedhoff said, "You'll gladly die for your children; why won't you cook for them" in his article in US News, we seem to have reverted to allowing the food industry to take over what we feed our children. (Read more at Now although we may disagree on whether that is because of miss-leading information, convenience, or lack of knowledge, I'm sure we can all agree on the fact that it isn't okay. These realities are marked in child obesity levels skyrocketing in this country in the last decade. Whichever applies to you; if any or all, I believe the most prevalent is the misleading information given to the American public by the food industry. As Nan Feyler, the author of the blog, "Did the food industry buy your kid" said, "Selling food and beverages to kids is big business. According to a recent Federal Trade Commission report, the food and beverage industry, including fast food restaurants, spent 1.79 billion dollars in 2009 to sell products mostly low in nutrition and high in calories, sugars, salt and fats to America’s children. Seventy-two percent of this was spent on fast food restaurants, carbonated beverages and breakfast cereals. (Read more at Also, there is a lack of education and understanding of the lies told and how to weed through them mindfully. How can a gluten-free mother be expected to feed and educate her children when these food companies are claiming gluten-free foods when they are not always 100% gluten-free? Well, that's just part of the job. I don't blieve that is a good enough excuse for the situation Americans are in today. It may be a factor and certainly a road bump, but it is each and every parents' responsibility to do their research and educate themselves so that they can educate their kids. Children do not just grow up knowing how to cook and eat healthily; but they must be taught. Yes, the food industry deceiving the American public is an issue in itself, but educating families is a solution that can be implemented tonight. Do some research. Learn a new recipe. Cook as a family. And hey! If you have a garden in your backyard you do not even have to worry about those pesky food labels!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Nurturing the Sprouting Plant--Doing My Research

It is 9:30 on Wednesday night. I have been working with the farm for just over a week now. The most surprising thing for me about my experiences on the farm is not so much what is being done there or who is there or anything like that. The most impactful moments for me occur once I leave the farm. They happen when I am driving around town, getting lunch or going for a walk with my German Shepherd, Casey. It is astonishing how much attention I now pay to the yards, curb strips and parks around me. I notice every luscious, blooming, colorful garden I pass by on the street, but I also notice the ever so many yards in my neighborhood with nothing alive except for maybe some patches of grass and a bush or two. So why is it that we, as Americans, throw out up to 50% of our food ($165 billion!), yet there are nearly 50.2 million Americans who are food insecure (including 17.2 million children)? Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, yet they are undernourished. Our industrial food system pushes for harmful, chemical fertilizers, dangerous pesticides, earth-crippling fossil fuels and reckless, genetic modified crops. Just in the last decade we have had outbreaks of BSE (or mad-cow disease) and high arsenic levels in a childrens' organic pear juice in 2003, a deadly strand of E.Coli found and traced back to spinach packs from California that killed five people in 2006, among many other food scares to come. All of this just for a little less manual labor and a slightly cheaper price tag. In addition, our grocery shopping experience has lost almost all human interaction. Buying food used to be an experience of going to see your local farmer or farmer's market for fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs, then heading to the butcher for your meat, and to the shopkeeper at the grocery store for any canned food you may have missed. Families knew and trusted their farmers, fishermen, butchers, shopkeepers, ranchers and fruit growers. Today, you are lucky if you even speak with an employee at the store, let alone know who planted, grew and harvested your food. So why is it this way? Why does the industrial food system account for 99% of food purchased in North America? Why, with all these medically harmful and morally shameful realities, do we perpetuate this situation? It's simple...the food industry is big and we are very small. Nobody thinks about these things as they are perusing the aisles at their local grocery store or as they dump the leftovers that sat too long in the fridge from dinner just a few nights ago. So why not? Why not plant a garden in your yard, raise some urban chickens, keep an urban beehive? Let's just run up to our local garden center, buy some plants and take them home with us! ...okay...a bit of a stretch, right?? That is originally what I thought to. I am not sure what I would do if I walked down my street and saw fresh tomatoes and basil growing in all the yards of my neighbors as they knelt tending to their flower beds...overalls, sun hat and all! But hey, you have to start somewhere right? Wrong. You can't start with the plant, but you need to start with a book. I wanted to find an economically and environmentally viable way of approaching this idea. The next day, I marched up to my local library and borrowed seven books about urban farming, the industrial food system, the food waste in this country, vertical farming, composting, hydroponics, vermiculture, and any other aspect I could think of that would be helpful in my adventurous plan. (I know it may be a bit much seeing as we have the internet and all, but I am a bit old fashioned that way I guess) I read stories of fellow urban farming fanatics, statistics and numbers that blew my mind and gained some basic knowledge of a few techniques that are specific to urban farming, but nothing really set me on a path to putting this thought logically into action in my neighborhood. Then I met Dave Wright. Dave works with the farm with a focus in permaculture and education. His education side became apparent very quickly upon meeting him. He had a wealth of knowledge about how everything worked and why it was set up the way it was on the farm. Within the next two days, he placed two books in my hands that were the missing pieces in my puzzle. The first was, Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture-Second Edition and the other was, A Pattern Language: Towns Buildings Construction . Okay, not to be that girl, but what in the world was permaculture?? I hoped that was not just my eighteen year old side peering through, but an honest question of many (and hopefully a few of you reading this)! I learned that the word permaculture is actually a combination of the phrased "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture", originally coined by two Australians by the names of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The idea here is to follow a set of principles and practices to design and create sustainable human settlements. The system follows a set of "permaculture ethics" which are to care for the earth, care for the people and reinvest the surplus that this care will create. From those ethics comes a set of 12 "permaculture principles" which are as follows... 1. Observe and interact: By taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation. 2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need. 3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing. 4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well. 5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behavior and dependence on non-renewable resources. 6. Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste. 7. Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go. 8. Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other. 9. Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes. 10. Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides. 11. Use edges and value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. 12. Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time. (Here is a picture model of the permaculture principles for you visual learners like me!) Everything in permaculture is done to reflect the natural occurrences in nature and mimic natures self-sufficient ways while factoring humans into the equation. Take weeds for instance. It is a hated word and a dreadfully annoying reality for many garden growers and landscape fanatics alike. But why are the weeds there? When humans dry out the soil by over fertilizing and overly planting, weeds (with their strong roots) sprout up to break up that hard, dry soil and allow air to reach it. Weeds are part of natures natural "fix-it" system. Less abuse to the soil=less weeds. So, it is not so much about what to plant and what not to plant or what to keep and what not to keep, and more about taking each and allowing them to work together in the most natural way possible. Focus less on the components themselves and more on the way that they interact with one another. Find patterns and systems that flow and work to assist one another. Setting up a permaculture garden can be a bit a work to begin with, but the cool thing is that after about three years, the garden will be basically self-sufficient and working naturally, meanwhile providing you with an abundance of resources, food, comfort and even more money in your pocket! I learned all this from reading for a few hours and I couldn't be more excited about my research to come. I'll be sure to check in soon! Peace. Source Citing: 1. Food and the City by Jennifer Cockerall-King 2. Gaia's Garden-A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Watering the Seed--Adjusting and Understanding

Well Tuesday sure sprung up quicker than the muscles in my back would have liked! I was relieved to find myself transferring plants that morning rather than composting. I transferred quite a few plants and watered them. I used the soil from the worm composting, aka vermiculture, to transfer plants. There was just something about using the natural soil that was made right there on the farm. You knew exactly what was in it and exactly what it was going to do. Wednesday was really an exciting day for me. The food truck arrived bright and early with pounds and pounds of red cabbage, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and onions. After Bëlît mentioned the amount of food that was donated to them and how much of it really was still okay to eat, I began to pay closer attention. She told me that the FDA has regulations on the amount of days that food can sit before being fed to people and if any food misses that deadline, it was thrown out. No questions asked. I found countless tomatoes, cabbages and even some sweet potatoes and a few onions that I could have eaten right there. There were three other volunteers there and it sure made the tedious job of composting a lot more fun. All six of us laughed and cracked jokes about how composting was a definite stress reliever--ripping bags of onions open, dumping tomatoes, hauling boxes of sweet potatoes and tossing red cabbage around. The work seems monotonous and boring, but it really is about the people you are with. I met a young man by the name of Winslow who was a volunteer that day. We conversed as we dumped bags of tomatoes. At the end, there was something to be said for the image of the reds, purples and yellow/browns all strewn across the compost pile. Not only were the colors beautiful, but we really were putting that food, money and beauty back into the earth, and eventually back into the pockets and stomachs of local residents. There is a wealth of knowledge from these people that is really incredible. Everyone (workers as well as volunteers) comes from different walks of life, yet we can all come together and find common ground at the farm. I never once felt out of place. Being there really helps me to feel a stronger sense of connection with the world outside of cell phones, WiFi and other materialistic necessities of the 21st century. Simply looking at the way that my friend Ahe takes care of his body and spirit through aromatherapy and walks in the park after a long day with the many different scents on the farm shows me how truly out of touch I am with myself and my body. There is a sense of peace on the farm that I did not understand the first day. I arrived as the same busy, high strung, go-getter type of girl that had left her crazy life at home and it almost felt as if I had arrived somewhere truly rural. Although in reality we were right in the middle of Cleveland, Ohio, the people moved a bit slower and took the time to enjoy and appreciate everything around them. There was a sense of peace for me on the farm. A comfortable feeling. Like home.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Planting the First Seed--My First Day

Monday morning. I woke up at 6:45, ate breakfast and got ready for the day as usual, except this day would be a bit different. It was my first day on the farm. I took my little brother, Wyatt, to school, grabbed a cup of coffee and went on my way. The drive there was quiet. I had turned the radio off, rolled the windows of my car down and listened to the early morning of a community other than my own. The quiet of the early morning has a way of mesmerizing my mind like nothing else. Soon enough I found myself cruising along with nothing but time and space to think. I have to admit that I was somewhat nervous. What would it be like? Would it be hard? Are the people nice? Is this worth it? Yet, through all of the fear, I could not shake this overwhelming sense of excitement. Excitement to see a program that gives back in every sense of the word. Excitement to learn about urban farming. And excitement to be apart of it and tell the story! When I arrived, I found myself dumping boxes of old lettuce onto compost piles and then laying coffee grounds and beer mash onto the lettuce and finishing it off with a layer of wood chips. This was my first experience composting; a process which fertilizes with a mixture of decaying organic matter. My adviser, Bëlît, told me that this pile would take 4-6 months to be ready. The food is donated from people all across the city, the coffee grounds are donated from three area Starbucks' restaurants (which the workers pick up 6 days a week), and the beer mash is donated from a friendly brewery on the west side. People also donate plants to the farm. It is pretty incredible to see so many different people helping out. Everyone from local businesses to large, corporate chains like Starbucks donate what they can and essentially provide the fuel for the farm to run. All of the local donation and support is amazing, but what I found to be the most fascinating was the level of passion and dedication of the workers on the farm. Bëlît told me that this location alone receives 25,000 pounds of food each week and that a lot of it has absolutely nothing wrong with it. So many people could be eating the food that is given to them for the compost. She cautions herself to not think too much about that unfortunate truth. Another new friend on the farm is Ahe. We bonded over our love of Reggae music and he showed me some tricks to save time on the farm. He also told me of his plans to one day own his own farm and truly "live off the land". Sounds pretty nice to me! They both truly see the issue at hand and how this program works to help solve it. Bëlît gave me a tour of the farm and explained its past, present and future. The farm sits on the land that was once known as, "the forgotten triangle"--an area destroyed by fire and turned into an illegal dumping site in Cleveland's Kinsman neighborhood. Three childhood friends, Damien Forshe, Keymah Durden and Randell McShepard, grew up near the Kinsman neighborhood and years later became co-founders or the Rid-all Green Partnership which works to provide healthy, fresh food, farm-raised tilapia and job opportunities to Cleveland's inner city residents. They have produced around 14,000 lbs of food and around 350 lbs of tilapia fish along with expanding their site and involving the community with programs teaching kids and adults about urban farming, hosting seminars and even producing comic strips for kids teaching them about environmental issues just outside their door just in the last year or so. In the near future, they hope to build a 6,000 square foot greenhouse and expand their mission. As I wrapped up my first day, I recall walking to my car and thinking to myself, "I got lucky with this project." And so the excitement ensues... --Planting hope--