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.

What Happened?

growing happeningAs it turns out, plenty!!

It may be an understatement to say that it has been a busy and productive year here at home&community. With our OriginalGreen and fiscal sponsorship projects firing on all cylinders, it’s often been dizzying but always exciting. One sneak peak for 2016 we think you’ll dig…we’re bringing some neat, new technology to the farm sites.

We know a lot of friends and supporters follow our activities and many of the news items we post, but it’s still easy to miss some of the news! So, we’ve put together a list of our most popular posts for the past year.  Let’s see…

We became certified to sell at the farmers market AND we sold out of produce on our first outing. The culmination of a months-long process to get our first farm entrepreneur selling has been satisfying, since we’ve been working without the benefit of large donations or funding.

We gave it our best shot at lot takeover with Broadchester Farms (we’re not giving up, just yet!) and even received nice local news coverage (here and here), along with starting urban farm work with Alliance Judy Ivie Burton Tech students, at a donated site next to their high school.

There were posts offering insight into gender and farming.

And we highlighted successes in public housing gardening while continuing to add to our own public housing garden census (nearly 150 strong across the nation!).

We grew peanuts and a great soul food garden at the Ghettostead!

We talked a lot about the benefits of growing food in the city (they go far beyond nutrition), and the fact that 20% of the world’s food is growing in those cities (but what does that mean?), while contemplating growing food without owning land.

We shared lots of science! There was a bit of “we told you so” about the benefits of living near trees.   Not to mention some knowing nods about a 30-year study revealing organic farming outperforming conventional farming in years of drought.

Last and absolutely not least, our farm sites were cleaned, amended and all-around transformed, by the volunteers from GoogleServes.

What will we do next?  Well, there’s even more planned than the sneak peak we gave you about new technology.  You’ll just have to keep up with us in the new year!

Tech Sneak Peak

Tech Sneak Peak

We’re in!

HF Farmers Market 6What happens when you grow using some of the best permaculture techniques, get certified by the county to sell your produce, then take said produce to your first farmers market experience? You are a colossal success, that’s what! Yes, we sold out of produce on our first outing. The culmination of a months-long process to get our first farm entrepreneur selling has been satisfying, since we’ve been working without the benefit of large donations or funding. Many simply do not believe that a food hub in South Los Angeles is possible. But, not us and certainly not our food entrepreneurs.

It has been an eventful past several months. We’ve hosted volunteers from GoogleServe, participated in working groups to advocate for local fresh food options, attended permaculture workshops, advocated policy to farm on urban vacant space, established a partnership with a local tech high school, and continue to brave the vagaries of local politics in holding on to the large site we have been working. But mostly we’ve been growing…multiple pounds of tomatoes, burgundy okra, squash, cucumbers, kale, papayas, lemongrass, greens, and nopales, just to name a few.

The fact is, this South Los Angeles food hub will not be thwarted! Our success at the farmers market tells us so. People appreciate and long for local, fresh food options. So, we are in the farmers market. Not only are we in, we are rocking it!

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.

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