- Kristen Miale and the Good Shepherd Food bank
- Nate Kleinman and the Cooperative Garden Commission
- Katharine Gaillard and the Land in Common Community Land Trust
- Seed Keeper Rowen White and the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network
- Atiya Wells from BLISS Meadows Urban Farm
- Remembering the late Jon Spero, seedsman extraordinaire
Winona LaDuke, in her virtual keynote address at this year’s Common Ground Fair, kept stressing the need to scale up local infrastructure in order to take care of our wider communities. Nikos was inspired to ask MOFGA’s executive director about such possibilities here in Maine, which led her to Kristen Miale, president of Good Shepherd Food Bank.
Good Shepherd has been striving to eliminate hunger in Maine for 35 years, mostly by supplying food pantries throughout the state, but also working with schools, hospitals and homeless shelters. They have a goal that by 2025 all Mainers will have access to the healthy food they need to thrive. Last year Good Shepherd distributed 35 million pounds of food, and have a goal of reaching the 50 million pounds they see as the true need.
The bottleneck to this goal quickly becomes apparent in a state where the season for fresh produce is short and the winters long. “We’re at our capacity for distributing fresh food and come February we rely mostly on potatoes, carrots and apples, which can store, to provide fresh food,” Kristen says. In 2017 the gears started turning toward a bigger vision.
“Seventy percent of our food is donated, primarily from retailers, 20% comes from the USDA, and we purchase 10%,” she says. “That purchased amount is 2 million pounds of food, locally produced by about 75 farmers. We could buy more at the height of the season if we had the ability to process it for longer shelf life, which would provide a low or no cost opportunity for the food producers, most of whom could increase capacity to meet the increase in market.”
What would that process look like? “We found freezing is the most cost-effective method and we looked to partner with a processor in New England but there were none operating at a scale to take a tractor trailer load at a time.” Maximum efficiency occurs at “2 million pounds a year whereas we were at a couple hundred thousand pounds. It’s then that we crossed paths with Wyman’s, the blueberry producers [in Washington County, ME] who have a facility, the biggest in New England, that does individual quick freeze at a rate of 10,000 pounds per hour. The facility was mostly unused for most of the year.”
An alliance was launched. “The difference between freezing blueberries and vegetables is that the vegetables need to be blanched,” Kristen says. “To buy that piece of equipment would cost a fraction of starting from scratch.” In addition, Wyman’s had the expertise and met the regulations for food safety. The food bank would invest in the equipment; Wyman’s would be a co-packer. A new for-profit subsidiary, Harvesting Good, was formed to oversee and develop the brand, which would serve the food bank, dining service provider Sodexo, and eventually the retail market, providing local food at an affordable price.
They intended to start processing broccoli this fall, but Covid-19 delayed the opening for another year. “We need to raise $3 million to get moving in earnest, which is hard to do in a pandemic,” she says. “But the pandemic has also exposed the weaknesses in the global supply chain.”
Kristen is unfazed by the delay and excited by the possibilities: “New market channels for farmers, year-round jobs in the poorest county in Maine and meaningful investment in the Maine economy long-term.” The Henry P. Kendall Foundation awarded their Food Vision Prize to this project, which they describe as “transformational.”
Nikos caught up with Nate Kleinman at his farm in upstate New York on a rainy fall morning. Almost the first words out of his mouth: “It’s been an interesting year, that’s for sure.”
Co-founder of the Experimental Farm Network, Nate was instrumental in getting the Cooperative Gardens Commission up and running in March 2020 with a network post that led to a couple hundred people showing up for the first conference call. That first post read, in part:
“We urge people who can to establish ‘Cooperative Gardens’ to grow as much food this year as they possibly can. We hope this effort will help people across the country (and potentially in other countries as well) to provide themselves and their communities with healthy fresh food, reduce our reliance on the faltering industrial food system (which is terrible for the environment and human health even when fully functioning), and make it easier for folks to stay in their communities and avoid further transmission of the virus. We hope people in cities will take over defunct community gardens and vacant lots and fill them with life once more. We hope people in towns and suburbs who normally work hard to keep their lawns green will instead rip up grass and plant vegetable gardens. And we hope rural farmers who normally grow big fields of commodity crops—folks who know how to farm and have a great capacity to produce lots of food—will set aside at least a portion of their land and labor to grow fruits and vegetables for their neighbors and for those in need in nearby communities (especially in cities, where people are likely to suffer greatly in the event of major supply chain disruptions).”
Nate remembers back: “It came about in an organic way (no pun intended) as a simple urging to encourage more people to grow food this year. The pandemic lockdown in March was the perfect timing to start gardening and get people thinking about food security. There was lots of initial energy to do work like this and folks are still doing it.”
Originally framed as a modern-day Victory Garden Commission, the organizers wanted to evoke a different mission with different language (especially in consideration of the way the “victory garden” evokes historical trauma to Japanese-Americans). They aimed for something more inclusive (with an early commitment to BIPOC communities), more grassroots and more sustained. Thus evolved the Cooperative Gardens Commission.
“It became clear early on that seeds would be a focus, especially with seed companies shutting down amidst the panic buying of seeds, leaving many people outside [the supply chain],” Nate says. “With lots of seed company people involved …having those people in the network…made it an easy thing to do.”
Free seed distribution was swiftly set in motion, with a seed hub in Philadelphia where seeds were sent, repacked and distributed to other sites. “By the end, almost everyone who applied got seeds,” he says. “We had 250 distribution sites in 41 states, which we estimate reached 10,000 gardeners, maybe more.”
Whew! All this was accomplished in time to get plants in the ground! The all-volunteer group organized efficiently with large-group video conferencing, rotating leadership, and sub-committees to work on various details and needs as they surfaced. At present there are about 50 core people and around 400–500 who are somehow in the loop. The Commission did a smaller fall seed distribution and are gearing up for a bigger distribution in late winter.
A secondary focus that is gaining traction is to “share resources: skills, tools, land…anything from seeds, soil, plant starts, knowledge.” A resource-sharing map found at coopgardens.com is easy to navigate. “You can find people in your community to get-together and share,” Nate says. “Right now there are about 240 people, more in the East and West Coasts and Upper Midwest, but in almost every state.”
This is a movement that’s growing. Please consider supporting the Cooperative Gardens Commission. To get involved, or to donate, visit Cooperative Gardens Commission website.
Earlier this year, Katharine Gaillard made a posting that caught Nikos’s attention about sharing farming resources: everything from canning supplies to harvesting equipment, land, mentorship, storage facilities, a tractor and a food dehydrator. The canning supplies alone were a most generous offer in a year when scarcely a spare lid was to be found anywhere! Nikos was impressed by such a outpouring when so many others are pulling in. She caught up with Katharine, who came in at sunset from her work in the field to talk via Zoom.
Katharine is a board member of Maine’s Land in Common Community Land Trust, incorporated in 2008. Its founders were asking prescient questions about what it means to own land as a commodity, bought and traded for profit, and withheld from those without money. They committed to reparation and decolonization. Katharine and about eight other core members carry this work forward within a democratically run cooperative structure.
What does this look like on the ground? The pandemic “put us into hyper mode,” she says. “Inequities are highlighted by those who are most affected by the pandemic. We are supporting those communities, the ones that have been traditionally excluded. In Maine that means the Indigenous, the elderly, immigrants and people of color. One way is through Land in Common’s Maine Land Share Project: creating a network of land seekers to partner up with people willing to share their land. We facilitate that.”
This year they brokered eleven partnerships and had another four affiliated projects where “the people found land themselves and we share resources such as knowledge, seed, tools.” Nikos joked that it sounded a little like matchmaking and Katharine laughed. But these matches are intended just for the season “although at least a couple are excited to continue the relationship.”
The organization also works to introduce people to their mission, “reaching out to talk about land in historically grounded ways to facilitate conversation and understanding.”
Right now they have an informal waiting list of land seekers. They invite participation through a sliding-scale membership, intended both for those who live or work on land held by Land in Common and also for those from the wider community who believe in the vision and values of the organization. To learn more and to get involved, visit Land in Common Community Land Trust.
When I caught up with Rowen White by phone, it was raining here in Maine while wildfires still threatened her farm in California. Rowen was gracious enough to take time out of her busy life to talk about what has changed since we spoke in 2019. Rowen is a Seed Keeper, storyteller and activist for seed sovereignty. A member of the Mohawk Nation, she is educational director for two organizations: the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network and Sierra Seeds; as well as Chair of the Board at Seed Savers Exchange. When we talked, she had been up late the night before working on a grant for an inter-tribal growers’ coop of 25 communities in the Upper Midwest.
“We start with seed census work,” she explained “How much seed does it take to feed our community? We don’t know how much seed is out there. We don’t know which culturally relevant seed is available. Then we take that information, that snapshot, to help inform how people invest in scaling up …seed equipment, Winnow Wizards, for example, while continuing to train people and support seed growers for increased distribution. But we’re also engaged in a process beyond the current assessment: looking at the context of the historical past and then dreaming ahead.”
Dreaming ahead—what she calls ‘thought leadership’: “I’ve been at this 20 years and 15 years ago it was like trying to start a fire with really damp kindling. But now seed rematriation is taking on a life of its own. This is how it’s supposed to go. I’ve been thinking of my work in the world as the life cycle of a seed. Someone told me ‘Look at all those seeds you’ve planted growing in inspiring ways.’ …Now it’s time for succession. How are we making room for those coming up under us? The stories we’re creating are not for the people now; they’re for those way beyond now. It centers the importance of it and not to get swept up into the busy busy, go go.”
I had to ask where Covid fits into all this. “For Native communities this is not the first go-round,” she said. “There’s a blood memory of responding to crisis, which is still close. The world we live in now is post-apocalyptic.
“It’s a beautiful thing to bear witness to a world with us in it…relying on our relationship to each other, the earth, the bundle of ancestral ways—without capitalism and industrial structures. The large societal reaction is fear, disconnection and chaos—more easily seeing the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But we have the agency to chose a path with us in it. Then how important to plant a garden, seeds at hand, teaching the children, amidst uncertainty and rapid change…having the courage to still plant seeds into the winds of an unknown future. Lean into each other and hold on tight, close to the earth. We’re more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.”
Like the seeds.
– Nikos Kavanya
Atiya Wells, pediatric nurse turned nature mentor and urban farmer, had a vision for a public green space for nature connection, education and community farming in her Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Frankford. Baltimore, she explains, is a very segregated city, and her neighborhood “has all the markings of disinvestment: vacant lots, abandoned buildings, etc. Frankford is the largest neighborhood in Baltimore City, we have over 23,000 residents, and only one viable grocery store.”
In 2019, with community participation and investment, she acquired an abandoned house on half an acre, along with an adjacent 2.5 acre abandoned lot and 7 acre park. Atiya, along with a core group of organizers, started BLISS Meadows Farm (Baltimore Living In Sustainable Simplicity) as a project of their nonprofit Backyard Basecamp, Inc.
“Our soil quality is really good,” Atiya says; not what you often hear from urban farmers on newly acquired vacant lots. The previous owner let tree companies dump wood chips on the site for about 6 years, “so we have about 12–18 inches of pure organic matter from the decomposing material. After testing, we plant directly into that and cover, which retains our water as well.
“Community members are invited to come out for volunteer days, and also to hang out with our chickens and goats,” she says. “We also have 2 ponds on the property that the community is invited to come and sit around. Right now we are growing leafy greens as well as taking part in a collard green trial for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Through multiple partnerships, this year, we have been able to feed over 600 families, at no cost.”
She continues, “Potatoes fit into our food system because they provide substance to a meal. Our farm manager is passionate about root crops.”
Jordan Bethea, farm manager, understands what it takes to feed people in areas where accessing healthy food is a challenge. Reflecting on growing food during the pandemic, he says, “Potatoes for me are a core to a healthy food system. As we well know, food systems across the nation have seen a shake up in how supply chains move food from one region to another. And while growers and distributors are settling into a new normal, the average citizen still may be concerned with how to feed themselves and their families… Above all, I want what I grow to fill plates and bellies, and I can’t think of many vegetables that can grow as satisfying as a potato.”For the future of urban farming, Atiya envisions a diversified rotation of crops within neighborhoods, “where one site doesn’t grow every crop, but someone up the street grows tomatoes, and someone around the corner grows leafy greens. This type of community co-op model where we are surrounded by growers, herbalists, and builders, and we know exactly where to go to get what we need.” With focus on city policy changes and community greening, she emphasizes that “communities will need to feel empowered to be self-reliant and sustainable.”
“I think the children give us hope,” she says. “Watching the kids on the farm, whether they are helping or just playing, fills everyone with joy. To know that we are establishing a love of the land in them, and teaching them viable tools to be successful in their futures.”
Check out and support their project at backyardbasecamp.org
We were saddened this spring to learn of the untimely death of Jonathan Spero, one of our longtime seed growers. We will miss seeing him at the West Coast conferences, collaborating on maintaining access to plant genetics, and getting swept up in his enthusiasm for new breeding endeavors.
Jonathan grew his first seed for Fedco in 2004, the squashes Green Hokkaido and Ponca. Within four years he began selecting for us a superior strain of Winter Luxury pumpkin and added in a few tomatoes. Then came his breeding work, scattered throughout our catalog: Siber Frills Kale, Solstice Broccoli and Tuxana Corn—all the while maintaining “our” Winter Luxury.
His passion shone through in all he did. Politically active from a young age, he was a founding member of the Open Source Seed Initiative . A frequent speaker at conferences, he generously shared his knowledge and experience.
He farmed till the end, dying peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep. The memorial was postponed until July, held in the garden when the corn was ripe. Quite fitting. His legacy lives on in the seeds.