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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