Growing SEED

It has been a busy four-plus months since our last post!  We shouldn’t have been surprised that talking more and more about SEED and the automated system with more and more folks generated more and more questions.

What exactly is it? How does it work?  What’s in it? Who can use it?  Among others.

It was difficult to answer some queries simply because there was no assembled package.  But there was also the matter of sharing too much and having an idea appropriated before we even got it off the ground (literally!).  So, we began further developing the SEED project kit so that we could answer some of those questions without losing the more proprietary elements.

SEED_prototype

The kit, which is run on Arduino, is receiving a lot of interest and we have taken it on the road.  One of the highlights of the last month was an invitation to share SEED at the Food Day LA showcase at Los Angeles City Hall.

SEED Food Day LA

“But still,” you ask, “what is SEED?”   SEED is —

TRAINING and ENTREPRENEURSHIP – The future-forward job skills participants learn can be transferred to work in larger food/agriculture technology companies, neighborhood small farms, or their own enterprises, and each participant learns how to install resource-conserving systems that reduce waste and expenses.  Our goal is to provide this training as a key opportunity for traditionally hard-to-employ groups such as youth, veterans or previously incarcerated community members.

STEM EDUCATION and AGRICULTURE TECHNOLOGY – South Los Angeles, like many low-income communities, is often ignored in terms of technology and innovation.  So, we’re working to tap into the agriculture technology and robotics market – an industry projected to grow to $16 billion by 2020.

WORKSHOPS – Our current workshop curriculum educates community members in food security and production topics such as permaculture gardening, food preparation and preservation, health and nutrition and food distribution, along with job training to prepare residents for work in the emerging “green economy.”  STEM sessions focus on: assembly and utilization of low-cost technologies; garden and farm development; explorations of computer coding; soil management; permaculture; and, business development.

FOOD SECURITY and SUSTAINABILITY – SEED engages residents in the citizen science and food system innovation that increases access to fresh produce. Importantly, our participant farmers analyze scientific and engineering processes to understand the complexities of our globe’s food and ecological sustainability challenges.

SEED Food Day LA box

We know that is still a lot of words — and little visual — but we hope you will stay tuned as we complete development of the growing kit and eventually make it available to the public!   Oh, and if you’d like to see the kit in person, we’ll be at the DTLA Mini Maker Faire December 2nd.

From Santiago to SoLA: More tales of two cities

Two weeks ago, we headed back to Santiago de Cuba for phase three of our Arduino automatic irrigation project. We held a full-day workshop to train permaculture farmers – promotores – how to code and program the Arduino system.  Home&Community was beyond fortunate to have the assistance of workshop trainer, Ruby Ríos, who rose to every challenge with calm and smarts.

Traveling to the island always requires a special kind of organizational skill. We had to manage bringing our materials in to support the training – Arduinos, breadboards, relays, moisture sensors, LCDs, LEDs, mini-solar panels and more wires and tiny things than anyone needs to travel with! Security screeners in both countries seemed unfazed by all our knickknacks.

CUBA 6_17 taller 4

Once we were in Santiago, the fun began. Thank goodness we’ve got great partners on site with the Centro Lavastida. They always provide a wonderful workshop space along with lunches and transportation.

The workshop was a great success! It was so exciting to see each participant, notebook in hand, diligently and intensely learning this new system.  There were so many great questions and hours of problem-solving.

In one particularly long session, we discovered it was only a matter of reversing the > symbol in a line of code. It certainly was a great lesson in the precision and flexibility of coding!

Over the next two days we visited four chosen sites of varying sizes, to determine where each irrigation system would be installed based upon water source, plant layout and sun exposure. When these systems are fully operational, each participant could see up to a 30% increase in yields.

It is so hard to leave our friends there each time, but we’re always buoyed by the prospect of returning to complete our work.

In city number two, just a few days after our return, we welcomed the volunteers from Google for our third-annual GoogleServe event. Each year the good folks at Google have come out to help us set up, build and plant at our farmsite in South Los Angeles. This year, over two days, they built two new beds, including one in the parkway, planted our herb garden and connected new drip irrigation to our existing automatic system.  Several plants, shall we say, blossomed (maybe exploded!?), while we were away in Cuba.  We’re happy to report no volunteers were lost in the tangle.

With the renovations of the workshop building and addition of another 130 square feet of outdoor growing and demonstration space, the SoLA site is almost ready to commence the fall workshop series. Gstead workspaceNot only will participants learn sustainable growing practices in our Permaculture 101 series, but there will also be opportunities for folks to create their own automatic irrigation systems using microprocessors like Arduino. We’re excited about the possibilities for other agtech projects, too (automatic aquaponics monitoring, anyone?).

More food, more farmers with economic opportunities, more folks with marketable tech skills (especially in agriculture), more sustainable practices. The SEED program (SoLA/Santiago Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Development) is growing! All puns proudly intended.

From SoLA to Santiago

Since our last post, we’ve continued to develop the food and farm entrepreneurship program, with some exciting additions. The SoLA Entrepreneur Ecosystem Development project – SEED – is now in service, and it’s already taking lessons on the road.

To recap, the SEED project gives participants a practical foundation in the areas of aquaculture, hydroponics, and aquaponics and they can pursue further education and/or job training in careers related to agriculture, science and engineering. During two-day workshops, members participate in a real, working alternative energy center focused on urban agriculture and farm technology.

CUBA bad tinaMuch of our permaculture work over the past few years has been informed by lessons learned from Cuban farms. In particular, farms in and around Santiago de Cuba have some of the same edaphological, climatological, and social challenges as those in South Los Angeles. So, with friends in Cuba’s second-largest city, we thought it was time to travel to learn directly. We created a sister-city program to share food production practices and visited farms for a week in May.

During the trip, we proposed a project that uses solar power and general STEM concepts and Arduino microcontrollers. If you’re not familiar with these little devices, don’t worry, we weren’t either up until a few years ago! But once you get to know all the Arduino applications you’ll love them as much as we do. This microcontroller is essentially a little computer with a lot of places to plug things in (like switches and sensors, etc.). It can be used to control motors, pumps and watering all with a little simple programming – effectively increasing growing efficiency and productivity.

CUBA Lavastida sign

We met with staff and other participants in the permaculture program of the Centro Lavastida, in Santiago. Elmer Lavastida-Alfonso, the organization pastor, met with us along with Heidi, a physician and coordinator of health, nutrition and food production programs. They gave us a 30-minute presentation on the organization, in their beautiful art-deco building. Then Heidi organized a personalized, private tour of three permaculture sites in the rural suburbs. We spent nearly four hours traversing the countryside visiting fincas and organopónicos.

CUBA small plot okra

Quimbombó (okra)

 

At one site in a large yard, I talked about how the inclusion of solar power will increase efficiency and water flow. At another, we met with Cesar, agronomist and head of Lavastida’s permaculture projects. I shared how our proposed solar system, hooked up to Arduino, could store energy in batteries and automate the growing and aquaponics processes at his finca (large farm). Finally, we visited a medium-sized organopónico run by a professor of mathematics at the local university. She shares her bounty, which includes amazing sun-dried mangoes, in the larger community.

It was at the finca that we were able to participate in a workshop event where 30 people, from the surrounding six provinces, were learning about permaculture techniques. It was exciting to talk about how we will work together.

Back at home this month, we’ll be firming up our SEED work at the Ghettostead. Some of the materials we’ll be working with are solar packs and batteries, Arduino sensor arrays, drip irrigation control, soil moisture calibration and connecting monitoring applications like Carriots and Twitter. While much of the system plans are equivalent in both cities, notably, in Cuba there will be no Carriots and Twitter…for now. There are only about 50 hot spots on the entire island. In order to access the hotspot, you have to buy $2 Internet cards that contain one hour of access. So, our focus will be on technologies that allow farm systems to interact and automate without the Internet or wifi, like OpenHAB, Zwave and Apitronics and SMS technologies.

There are some meaningful changes coming to these cities and their growing sites. Importantly, we believe these small systems will keep farms efficient and productive in the face of looming pressures to introduce non-sustainable practices in both the U.S. and Cuba.

The Right Race

Vote!

Vote!

We submitted our first ever “vote-for-us” campaign. There have been many things to come out of it. But one thing is: 

It helps to have a huge email database!

Don’t get me wrong, it has been fantastic to receive such support from our dedicated folks and be reminded of how people appreciate what we are doing…along with getting a chance to spread the word to several more people.  That has been nothing short of great.

It’s the campaigning and realization that some of the time, you can have a pretty neat thing you’re doing, but without ready access to big numbers of people to vote, there’s a lot of “campaigning” to do.  There are a lot of proposals to read! Even I have only been able to read about a third of them in our category of 60. (I intend to read them all, because they deserve that.)

But really, no sour grapes here.  No way. It’s simply a realization that these platforms work best for groups with large followings or ones that can quickly energize numbers to compete with those large groups.  The difficulty (sometimes) is that smaller groups already have limited resources to commit to such a campaign.  Of course, there are examples of small groups getting something going and going viral in an effort. Of course there are!  It is finding that one compelling image, story, video that takes your issue from relative obscurity to superstardom! It’s a different kind of race, really.

So, yes, there have been many things to come out of this.  Lest this comes off as negative or defeatist, there’s this:

More people see the value and are behind this project…momentum!  People are asking us about how to create a fair food system and how to bring more food to low income communities and how to take charge of food production.

The project is actually in progress.  There is food GROWING and being shared on site and it is getting notice by and inquiry from neighbors who live in the community.  They are asking how they can grow at their homes.  It’s incredible and this is what we’ve wanted.  

We're growing at the Ghettostead.

We’re growing at the Ghettostead.

There are many among us that want to do things that are meaningful and some of us are unrelentingly compelled to do so.  With Original Green, we at home&community inc are aiming for multiple hundreds (dare we dream thousands!) of households served, but even serving 10, 20, 50 has been worthwhile.  That’s 10, 20, 50 families that are eating better and feeling better and reviving their community.

A fair food system, more access and increased decision making.  That’s our primary race.  And we’re already hitting that trifecta of food justice, food security and food sovereignty.  Oh, and we haven’t given up the campaign by any stretch.  There’s still time to vote.

Failure is like…

…a word that gets used far too often as a motivator for change or some instructive path to success.

Lately, I’ve been surrounded by people talking about failure. They find comfort in quotes about failure being necessary to reach a goal.  They seek permission to fail. They worry that they are not making or building anything of consequence.  They lament that they are not achieving this or that plan.

Well, I won’t ever give someone blanket permission to fail, and I’ll argue that what we often call failure is sometimes not.  On the point of making things, I say pick something and do it.  Start something.  Make something.  Grow something.  If it helps people in some way, even better.  (I’ll like you more.)  On the point of achieving this or that plan I ask, “Are you moving a plan forward?” It’s not even “are you moving THE plan forward?”  Because THE plan often changes.  (The fact that it shifts is usually what makes you think you are failing.)

Now…it is important to distinguish between a plan and the goal.  The goal, that’s the thing you choose, and it doesn’t change.  That is the “eyes on the prize”.

We have a goal for OriginalGreen: food justice and food security in South Los Angeles.

I do not fail

How we achieve this is a consistent strategy: create a healthy community food system, empower low-income food entrepreneurs, increase access to fresh food.  But there have been a bunch of variables and incompletes along the way, including loss of land and lack of resources.

The thing is, I’ve never conceived of these incompletes as failure, even if some folks consider them the traditional definition: “lack of success”. They’ve been opportunities to learn and get the thing right.  And that’s why I don’t buy into the vaunted “cult of failure” discussed all over the Net, in start-up culture and entrepreneurial philosophy.

Moving towards a goal and not reaching it the first, second, or even tenth leap, is not failure.  It is moving towards a goal.  It’s taking all the steps.  Even those times you hit it out of the park, you still have to run the bases to validate the effort.

Now that home&community is the closest to opening the co-working homestead, is connected to 67,000 square feet of growing space, and has technological help for our open tools platform, I look back on getting here and see the incompletes, the almosts, the detours.  Actually, I saw them pretty clearly when they were happening, but none seemed negative to me.  They are simply the 100 things that won’t work and needed to be figured out.

So, no “embracing failure” or “failing forward” or “failing fast” for me, OriginalGreen or home&community.  We’ll stick with trial and error, process, making, doing, collaborating, risking.  Failure is too easy, and it doesn’t get people fed.

As always, the garden and farm offer a great metaphor for failure and risk.  A garden is the ultimate laboratory for goal-seeking and learning from mistakes.  You don’t fail in the garden; you don’t founder on the farm.  You learn and then you keep growing.

Growing South

Our site is here

Our site is down here

There is food growing in South Los Angeles.  This, many know.  If you didn’t, then you are not reading the right news outlets, or blogs or talking to the people who live and work there.  Original Green has the privilege of being a partner and client in an effort by USC planning students to address food security and provide recommendations for developing our co-working space and homestead for low-income entrepreneurs.

Los Angeles Green Grounds Site

A Los Angeles Green Grounds “Dig-In” Site

We know grocery stores have fled the area, increasing the “grocery store gap”.  We know entrepreneurs have few outlets or resources for growing businesses.  But, there is food there.  It’s in the front yards planted by LA Green Grounds, who we are so pleased to have connected with on the homestead project.  The consistent theme, seldom highlighted in articles about their work, is the building of community.  At every site we have visited, residents either tell about connecting with neighbors and other locals or we’ve seen it in action in neighbors’ bags of shared produce.  We will continue to be a partner and involved supporter of their great work.

Map courtesy Community Coalition

Map courtesy Community Coalition

We are also grateful for the support and assistance of Community Coalition, which has shared invaluable knowledge on the local food justice scene and their efforts to increase access to healthy options.  Mobilizing residents is key and their work is well-known and respected on that front.  In recent weeks, we also loved hearing that the Crenshaw Farmers Market is ready for more local food.  We’re talking hyperlocal food…within 5 miles local!  We were happy to hear from and talk to the folks at the imminent SoLA Food Coop and long-standing RootDown LA.  And, we are ever grateful for access to Al Renner and the Solano Canyon Community Garden, to learn more about urban farming and opportunities for entrepreneur activities.

Our work over the past few months has entailed formalizing the homestead and co-work space.  As we move forward, we add goals and narrow our purpose.  There is a larger undertaking to achieve, of which the homestead is one piece.

There is food growing in South Los Angeles.  The question is: How do we grow more of it and get more of it to the people who need it?  We have an idea (always have) and are developing the homestead as a center for identifying and connecting the nodes of production, so that local entrepreneurs can engage in the distribution of healthy food.  We are already organizing the first meeting of local stakeholders.  Spring is going to be wonderful.

Edifice Complex

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring. –Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few months ago, we acquired a free-standing homesteading, co-working site.  It was unexpected given our happy resolution to accept the next-best-thing. We are restructuring, in the spirit of the MLK quote.  This structure relies upon a DIY ethic that a lot of people call “new” but we all know is “old”.  In the not so distant past, communities helped less-fortunate and down-on-their-luck members.  They helped by directly providing resources and opportunities for improvement.  They worked to create productive members because they knew the edifice of community required it to stand. We are learning even more about our responsibilities to that process.

As we build and learn, we change things up.  We held the last in our Food Craft series recently.  Our first series of four community dinners (Soul, Solh, Sol and Seoul Food) helped us learn quite a bit about how to bring community together…and how community loves it some good food!  When we announced the end of this series, we were met with a lot of disappointment…and it surprised us.

food craft building

Food Craft: The Final Date photo by Cindy Bolf

You might call it our Sally Field moment.  We always intended to have a series of series, as it were.  The idea was to keep it changing and involve different people over time to keep building community.  As it turns out, people really love coming together over a meal, especially a meal that they create themselves.  Who would have thunk it?

People are equally excited about the development of our homesteading site (we’ve got quite a name reserved for it, too!).  It will be more than what we hoped and permit real, direct work in the neighborhoods we serve…just as communities did decades ago.

For us, restructuring means using the lessons of the past to improve the future.  So, we will take what we’ve learned from working with residents at farm sites and lessons from the first two dinner series to do just that.  This means (definitely) more food crafting.  More art.  More community.  More edifice building.

Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand…

This past Saturday, we held our third Food Craft Evening.  This one – Food Craft Evening Trois: Dopamine Release – featured the flavors of chocolate, passion fruit and chilis.  As always, proceeds benefited the Original Green Community Food Plan.  As always, it was a lovely evening full of great conversation and food improvisation!  And, as always, there are lessons in the creating.

One of the evening’s hits was our version of Three Floor S’mores.  There’s an awesome recipe for these on the Callebaut site.  It’s a truly gorgeous display of graham cracker, chocolate, marshmallow and caramel sauce!  But, recreating that beauty was not practical for our event.  Seriously, look at the link.

What do you do when the very thing you really want is not available?  The German language has a word for this: Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand. Or what if the thing is perhaps just not possible in the scope of your available time? Obviously, you could quit the entire idea.  You could substitute another thing altogether.  Or, you can use what you have and put your own spin on things.

As we’ve been developing our co-working space, we’ve idealized the perfect site as a free-standing building with a large outdoor growing area.  And, that has been the quest.  But what do you do when the very thing you really want is not available?  We’re certainly not going to quit the entire idea.  We can’t simply substitute another project or concept.  But perhaps it’s time to use what we have and put our own spin on things.  Our site may very well be available space in a larger, multi-use building with gardens on the roof.  Just maybe…

Here’s our version of Three Floor S’mores…

Food Craft s'mores

photo courtesy Cindy Bolf

Homemade graham crackers and caramel sauce with marshmallows and chocolate.  Were they really delectable? Seemed so.  The thing that was almost the thing we wanted, became our thing that was meant to be.  It’s likely that our co-working site will also be the thing that was meant to be.  Unsurprisingly, the Germans have a word for that, too: lebenslangerschicksalsschatz.

Will Food (Craft) for Work

We’re moving along.  Business plan? Check.  Marketing plan? Check.  Growing site? Check. Co-working space? Almost check!  Great minds? Expected check!

Original Green is gathering urban farmers and homesteaders who are creative, curious and enthusiastic (or people who want to be any of these) for the next phase in developing our co-working space.  This space, as we have narrowed it down with assistance from LAEDC, will be located in an area identified as both a food desert and grocery gap area in South Los Angeles.  It will offer networking and incubation support for low-income entrepreneurs and their entrepreneurial allies who want to develop their own food production businesses.  Our existing growing site will be included as a network node for the community food plan. Our first node connection!

It’s time to DIY, open source and hack the heck out of this thing.  And we know you want to.  The main lesson learned from our Slow Food series is that people want opportunities to gather and talk about ways they can support emerging communities…in addition to their own.  Ask yourself, would you like the hands-on, direct experience of mentoring a resident creating their first mobile food or pastry making service in their neighborhood, while learning how to grow, cook and distribute items, yourself? Or would you participate in a farm and homesteading camp to support a community food system? If the answer is yes, then you’re our type of human.

Gathering and crafting

Our new series, called Food Craft, was tested with success in August. Food craft is the intuitive, traditional and scientific pairings of food flavors, from which guests craft dishes.  As the flavors are complementary, almost anything goes!  The August pairings were sweet potato, goat cheese and figs, and people came up with wonderful dishes during what basically amounted to a fancy version of playing with our food!

Sweet potatoes, goat cheese stuffed figs and kale on the grill

The next event (more on that soon) will feature the trio of pomegranates, feta and chiles.

It’s not all fun and eats, of course.  There is work to be done, and it should be done across a spectrum of experience and ideas.  Some of the best ideas for Original Green have come from our gatherings, and have proven that great minds don’t need to think alike, they just need to share (and sometimes create) a meal!

So…great minds, ready to work? Check.

Photo credits: Kiino Villand