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What is an ECOFARM?

ECOFARM is an acronym for Ecological and Community Oriented Farming and Resource Management, which is essentially an integrated community compost farm that is deeply rooted in ecological design and increasing community access (to healthy food, healthy soil, and other resources) and connection. It is a model some friends and I have worked on developing in recent years, and we have officially launched 2 pilot projects so far.

There are many important aspects of this model, making it multi-dimensional in nature. I would not say one aspect is emphasized over the other, though it depends on the community members involved in executing the model. In which case, that depends on the skills, resources, and inherent biases of that community.

In this model, community input is integrated into the design so that it serves the immediate needs of the neighboring community. The whole site is designed under ecological principles, which can include any number of garden elements, such as vegetable beds, food forest, composting, medicinal and herb gardens, native and pollinator gardens, community gathering areas, beehives, a seed library, water infiltration basins and swales, ponds, flowers, etc. Generally when we ask the community, they are interested in having all of these things.

The composting aspect is intended to be a fully fledged organic waste processing program, which receives food waste from the community, and composts it with farm trimmings, manure, and wood chips. Thus, there should be some kind of food waste collection program, whether that’s a drop-off program, or a hauling collections program.

My personal mission is to manage these compost piles very well, so there are no odors or pests, and the composting part is pleasant, inspiring, and welcoming. I do this by ensuring the compost reaches hot temperatures, meeting EPA standards for killing off human pathogens like Salmonella and E. Coli. This is done by ensuring a good initial compost recipe, so our site managers are trained to build piles in this way. In this way, our collections programs can accept meat, dairy, bones, and other plate waste.

One of the reasons I am interested in the ecological design of a compost project is that the increased biodiversity and ecological health and function of the space all help to minimize pests and pathogens around the compost. The compost can be used immediately on site to improve the land right there.

Principles of ecological garden design look to wild systems for inspiration on how best to facilitate ecological health under human-managed vegetable cultivation. Increasing biodiversity, increasing wildlife and native pollinator habitat, native pollinator habitat, integrating trees, and developing erosion mitigation and soil building strategies. So we are not just growing food or growing soil, but we are growing whole ecologies.

And that extends to human ecologies too. Low-income neighborhoods lack access to fresh healthy food, so it’s important for this food and medicine that is grown on these sites to contribute to the livelihoods of disadvantaged folks. Accessibility is about distance, affordability, and cultural appropriateness of the food.

The farm is managed collectively. There are some paid staff in charge of running the farm and coordinating volunteers. The paid farmer organizes the tasks for the day, and works with volunteers to accomplish all of these tasks. Community volunteers get to take a share of the harvest home with them. This is different from the conventional community garden where each individual manages their own plot as well (or not) as they want to.

The idea is that everyone has a voice, and as a community we can integrate as much of everyone’s individual desires as much as possible. So if there is something you want to grow, we can grow it. The benefit of collective management is that you can be there tending to your favorite spots, and it’s okay for you to be busy too, the community is still caring for your favorite parts of the garden. There will still be food and medicine waiting for you when you return.

Ecologically, the site has a better chance to develop as a whole ecosystem, which increases its efficiency and function and overall health. Issues around pests and pathogens can be troubleshooted as a whole ecosystem issue, rather than an isolated issue that relates to your personal skill and ability as a gardener.

One of the great shifts in perspective that this type of collective management brings is the idea of stewarding common resources – acknowledging our commonality, and choosing to collaborate and work together to manage those resources responsibly and equitably.

Beyond that, I personally just want to have fun. So creating spaces for educational events, creative opportunities, and community gatherings are an integral part of these projects. It is magical to bring people together over a farm to table dinner, with fresh flowers, juices, fruits, and just harvested garden salads.

It takes a lot of work, labor, and resources to install a fully featured ECOFARM like this, especially when it is taking a new spin on community gardening. Because it integrates community decision making processes, things often happen on a slower time scale. More people feel included in the process, which improves the relationships within the community, and people are less likely to feel undervalued. However, it does mean that one person can’t just blaze on and create the whole thing, which might give you a beautiful overnight garden, but doesn’t have the community trust built in behind it.

There is more education and communication that is necessary for this model to work. Some perspectives on community gardens are that they are better served as an organizing tool for community members to come together and empower themselves to advocate for better services and resources. The ECOFARM model can also work in this way.

I am working with some friends to formalize this model and house it under a 501c3 non-profit organization that is utilizing cooperative leadership structures. So yes, if you want to fund us, we’ll be happy to take your money. We have leads for more opportunities to implement this model, so your money will always go towards expanding ECOFARM. You can donate to ECOFARM using the Donate button on the right, or Click Here to Donate.

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Spontaneous Vegetation with Nance Klehm

I was interviewed by compost artist Nance Klehm on her live podcast series, Spontaneous Vegetation. We talk about what got me into composting, the ECOFARM model, death as the source of life, environmental justice, remediation, challenges in permitting + policy, microbes, and Soilify! my new online class series. Listen to it here.

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Soilify! Soil + Compost Ecology Online Course

I am super stoked to announce the launch of Soilify! an online course series on Soil + Compost Ecology for Creative Activists, Community Composters, and Small-Scale Farmers. It is a series of 8 classes on soil, society, health, justice, compost, lab testing, ecological site design, and fungal ecology. Take your soil stewardship to the next level by rooting it firmly in ecology, justice, and creative culture.

Click Here to learn more about the class and register.

I am kicking off the series with a free class on Composting for Environmental Justice, happening Tuesday, June 25, 2019, at 11am PST. I will be talking about the metaphorical aspects of compost, introducing concepts in environmental justice, community-based composting models, and principles of starting your own community compost project. We’ll finish off with a poetry reading. Register for the free class:

All future announcements about the class will happen on the Soilify! email list, sign up here:

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Transcending Cultural Identities for Community Healing

We are at a threshold moment of climate crisis right now. Our science is great and it hasn’t been able to move the political and economic machine to stop global warming. Words from environmental leaders such as David Korten and Joanna Macy have also expressed the limitations of science and technology, calling for a spiritual transformation.

I believe this to be true, that the real shift we need for environmental regeneration is one rooted in values and culture, as well as political economy. But I wish Gus Speth didn’t say, “We scientists don’t know how to do that,” because it so incredibly limits the purview of scientists, and locks them in to an intellectual box where they can only be valued for their technical expertise, and cannot be seen as whole, nuanced, complex human beings with emotional values, creative instincts, and transformative life experiences.

Holding onto these cultural identities too tightly ultimately limits our collective potential. The idea that because you are a scientist, you cannot be a good artist, leader, facilitator, activist, or community organizer. Or if you are an artist, you cannot be a good scientist. If you are a city person, you cannot possibly know anything about soil and plants. If you are a country person, you cannot know anything about fine art and culture.

Art and writing have been my blood and bone since I was born. I grew up in urban areas on Windows 32 and Super Nintendo games. I have a master’s in compost biology, and I am taking this knowledge and scholarly skill and applying it to my work in the field, in developing urban-scale, community-based integrated ecological compost farm and garden systems.

The thing about this work is that it is ultimately about community well-being on all levels – mental, emotional, physical. People come to the garden to heal – from depression, grief, loss, chronic illness, and the simple isolation that runs rampant in our world today. So these spaces we are creating are not just about ecological regeneration and sustainability, but they are also about facilitating meaningful connections and providing healing sanctuaries for the people that need them.

In this work, all hands are on deck. All of your skills, resources, talents, gifts are wanted, necessary, important. Your whole self, with all of its broken bits and hurting bits and shining bits, are wanted at the table. It doesn’t matter what your professional identity is, we are here to heal whole communities. And that means the personal is professional, and the professional is personal.

There are really no limits to the human potential. To think that because you a technical person you cannot have the capacity to understand values transformations in people is incredibly limiting and disempowering.

The calls for a spiritual transformation by these environmental leaders have inspired my journey to embrace my creativity and explore earth-based spiritual practices. To always have my whole self along for the ride in pursuit of a career in soil making and community healing. To always pair my intellectual exploration of the ecology with a reverence and respect for the land and its communities.

Part of the challenge with science education is that it doesn’t engage people who are not naturally inclined to be technical thinkers. For a creative person, thinking technically could possibly be a great challenge. Why should they expend the effort to understand the material? Why is important for them to dig in deeper? Addressing these deeper why’s help to facilitate the scientific learning experience. This is what inspired me to begin opening my soil and compost ecology classes with art, poetry, and history, as a way to create connection and generate cultural context for the deep dive into technical knowledge. When we feel inspired, when we understand why this is important on a visceral, body level, then it is easier to do the hard work of understanding scientific information.

The article contains an interview of Gus Speth’s life and career at the nexus of race, environment, and politics. He talks about how he got started with the NRDC and the environmental movement during the civil rights era because they were inspired by the black community. He said they did not work to include the black civil rights movement into their environmental work, and he considers that a great failure of theirs. He goes on to say that the source of the ills affecting black communities and the environmental movement are the same – the political economy and inequitable power dynamics of capitalism.

This is where the work of racial equity is not any different than other types of non-profit or community transformation work. It is the work. Environmental justice is the movement that brings both pieces together, acknowledging the intimate relationship between the two. Working in marginalized communities alleviates their burden. Engaging in social and restorative justice is environmentalism. Empowering disadvantaged communities is environmentalism.

Sometimes it can be easy to think that to call yourself an “environmentalist” you have to have a zero waste farm to table off grid lifestyle, and leave the smallest footprint possible. But focusing on lifestyle has its limitations. For one thing, it can continue to feed into an isolationist, competition-driven mindset that is more about cultural status than real community transformation.

It is harmful to engage in competitive comparison of who is more green, and we squabble over plastic bags and plastic straws. The real issue at play though, is a messed up system of design, production, and distribution that generates plastic waste. These are controlled by powerful corporations. The real issue at play is inequitable power dynamics. Corporations have too much power – we the people can do very little to sway their design and production decisions.

We the people need to discover our inherent power, we need to learn how to trust each other, love each other, connect, collaborate, organize, and otherwise work together to build the structures and systems that truly benefit us and the environment. Our professional culture does not require such things as love and trust, but these are the things we need to do this work. They are the real roots of the work. Otherwise, we continually end up in the same grooves of oppressive hierarchies leading to power inequity.

Understanding power and leadership as a lens of love and trust is part of the transformation that needs to happen. Power and leadership are a means of facilitating and stewarding the vision of ecological regeneration and community healing. In that sense, they are not characteristics unique to an individual, but rather they arise in relationship with community.

When people ask me what my advice is for them to do their part in saving the planet, I tell them to go out into the community and do their work there – build collaborative relationships and work together to make your community a better place for everyone. Because if we have strong collaborative relationships in the community, we can do so much more for each other than just using metal straws. We can organize and advocate for better policies, we can develop community programs that teach zero waste practices as a communal responsibility, provide opportunities for composting and growing chemical-free food, as well as safe spaces for all members of the community to visit and gather.

And so I work with science and spirit hand in hand, empowering everyday people with ecological knowledge, with loving encouragement for them to grow and be their best selves, so that we can work together better and collectively create more powerful transformations. When I teach science, I want laypeople to know that this knowledge is for them too, and it’s not just about science – it’s about love, healing, equity, justice, and empowerment.