Gardeners and farmers share resources as the #CoopGardens movement gains steam.



A Growing Trend

By Aaron Salsbury

In mid-March, seed sales skyrocketed for Owen Taylor of Truelove Seeds.

“We can hardly keep up with online orders,” he says. “We are selling out of seeds that we had imagined would last several years, and so we may have a limited catalog in the next year or so.”

The situation at his seed company is not unique: larger companies are having trouble keeping up with demand, too. Burpee Seeds posted a note on its website in April that it was experiencing an “unprecedented” volume of orders. The same month, Renee’s Garden issued a note to buyers that “most orders will not ship complete” as they’d run out of stock on many varieties.

According to Google, the search term “How to start a garden” reached peak search popularity this March and April—the same timeframe COVID-19 cases began to affect much of the country.

In a short time, a majority of Americans, who have never had to consider food sovereignty or their place in the local food supply chain, have faced sudden hard truths undertaking the long-term planning of how to feed themselves. In many cases, this also extends to their loved ones and potentially their communities, all while maintaining as little contact as possible.

“COVID-19 has brought to light the level of blissful ignorance that many in our society had the pleasure to live in,” says Matt Foran of Vepo Farms, a Philadelphia organization that runs agriculture-education initiatives such as the “Staying Rooted” video series aimed at educating children and novice growers.

As we bear witness to restaurants closing, supply chains unraveling and food prices hiking, these abruptly emerging challenges echo the concerns that our current food system is broken.

“For people who have lived in impoverished areas all their lives—in food deserts—that were lucky to have bananas and apples and maybe oranges at the corner store, food insecurity is nothing new,” Foran explains. “As enthused as I am that sustainable agriculture is gaining notoriety during these unprecedented times, it is disheartening that it took a global pandemic for most people to realize that they actually have no true sense of where their food comes from, and just how lucky they may have had it.”

In this time of home isolation, could this pandemic be the very wake-up call we need to establish a healthier and more resilient future?

At the very least, it is time to plant seeds.

A Call To Action

Nate Kleinman, co-founder of the Experimental Farms Network (EFN), is eager to engage with this sudden surge of interest in growing food.

“We want to encourage more people to start growing food, to encourage traditional crop farmers to start growing more vegetables for human consumption, so that we have more local food and are less reliant on a national supply chain that is proving itself to be pretty brittle during this crisis,” he explains.

In the last few weeks, he’s formed the Cooperative Gardens Commission (CGC), a broad-based coalition of farmers, food activists, seed banks, students and volunteers designed to support the rapidly expanding movement. This community-centered and open-source effort is encouraging the free sharing of resources such as seeds, soil, labor, land and, most importantly, knowledge.

“We expect that people are already making some big lifestyle changes right now, and we see our role as supporting those changes,” Kleinman says.

Realizing that gardening and farming don’t come easy to everyone, he felt a sense of urgency to begin organizing to assist in getting the proper tools into place. Kleinman’s aim is to convert as much available land into food production sources, aka #CoopGardens, much like the gardening efforts undertaken en masse during World Wars I and II.

The commission will be focusing on communities who have needed local, healthy and reliable food sources long before this pandemic began.

The CGC’s assertion is, “the best response to disruptions within the food supply chain is a nationwide grassroots movement of communities growing their own food.”

The genesis for this idea came via a March 18 Facebook post on the EFN page in which Kleinman made an impassioned plea for a large-scale mobilization of resources, akin to the national gardens initiative for food production that once swept an imperiled America.

Written in all caps, and flanked by a 1943 World’s Finest Comics image of Superman holding vegetables was the three-word core of what he asserts we could all be doing to improve our current situation: START GROWING FOOD.

“Today EFN is launching a ‘Corona Victory Gardens’ initiative urging everyone who can to start growing food,” the post reads, “and we’re building a broad-based coalition to help. If you don’t have land, contact your school, college, church, workplace, local government, etc. (there are plenty of lawns and fields to turn into productive growing spaces).”

His lengthy post was accompanied by a simple Google survey to help identify roles in the project, along with links on how to immediately take action. The end goal is simple: form working groups, build tech tools and get as many people as possible, at home and abroad, to produce healthy food for themselves and their communities during a time of deep uncertainty and fear.

Planting season is nigh, and, at press time, Kleinman’s home state of New Jersey harbors the second-highest rate of people infected with COVID-19. With so many of us stuck at home endlessly scrolling and searching for something to do to take action, the sense of urgency in Kleinman’s call to action resonated widely and the post has since been shared hundreds of times.

Among the top resources needed: clean soil, land access, information and seeds.

“I realized this is going to very quickly become a big project, and probably bigger than anything I’ve ever organized before,” Kleinman says. “We made that post on March 18, when there were serious shortages of major items in grocery stores, including, of course, toilet paper, but also some staple food items like potatoes and onions and eggs, and a lot of these supply chain problems have continued. Now we see farmers are tilling under crops that they don’t have a market for … and you have, at the same time, miles-long lines of cars at food banks.”

Within a matter of days, Nate’s Google survey had racked up more than 800 responses—almost 50 percent with volunteer labor to offer.

“I think people realize that the systems that we thought would keep everything going as usual, even in a time of crisis like this, are not working right. And, you know, there’s a lot of questions about the … let’s say, the effectiveness of our national leadership,” Kleinman says.

Hacking Resources, Together

For many born after the 1940s, the concept of a victory garden is likely something one is familiar with only from propaganda posters in history books. One thing that’s new this time around is the technology being used to organize (and sustain) them.

On March 20, Kleinman hosted the CGC’s first national-organizing call, of more than 130 participants, with technical assistance provided by members of InterOccupy, a platform for activists and grassroots mutual-education groups with limited budgets.

The concept of “hacking” technology to gather resources and mobilize volunteers with little to no overhead isn’t new to the InterOccupy movement. In the fall of 2012, when the East Coast found itself gripped by a Category 2 hurricane, a splinter group dubbed “Occupy Sandy” launched a brilliant strategy utilizing Amazon’s online wedding registries as a backdoor for cataloging badly needed relief items.

By reprogramming its core function, the hacked registry served as a compartmentalized wish list for the needed resources to be shipped and distributed to affected areas, many of whom were missed by the official relief response. Registering the flim-flam marriage to “Mr. and Mrs. Occupy Sandy,” the “hack” raised well into six figures worth of goods by directing donors to a wide range of requested items, from batteries, blankets and hand warmers to high-ticket items like laptops, tablets, water heaters and propane tanks.

“We’re trying to organize this collective in the horizontal democratic way, so we’re making decisions collectively, and that can be challenging to do in person, and it definitely is extra challenging when you’re working with people you’ve never met before, and when you’re working remotely,” remarks Kleinman, who is also one of the founders of InterOccupy.

The Maestro teleconferencing system first utilized by InterOccupy, and now by the CGC, is laid out in such a way that more than 100 people can actually be on a call and vote on subjects democratically, without talking over one another.

Users register via a unique pin so hosts can keep track of who is on the line and requesting to address the group. Callers are unmuted when called on to speak and listeners use the keypad to communicate with moderators numerically.

“We had a really good model for it in the Occupy Sandy work … we did in New Jersey, where most of the organizers were spread out across the state, so we weren’t meeting face to face regularly, and we used the same conference-call technology … eight years ago for that effort,” says Kleinman, regarding the teleconferencing system. “And that enabled us to actually make decisions. You can take votes. We’re using Zoom and we’re using [Google] Hangouts for working group meetings and just trying to make sure that we take it slow enough that we get to know each other and build trust and, you know, build these relationships but also work fast enough to meet the urgency of the moment.”

From the first social media post to the Maestro organizing call, Kleinman estimated that only $80 had been spent on the initiative by that point, three-quarters of which went toward registering unused sites.

Employing free and donated resources like hashtags, Google Docs and the use of InterOccupy’s teleconferencing facilitation, the collective has quickly hacked together a nationwide network of interest-spanning multiple generations that could have only been dreamed of by the National War Garden Commission.

Community Resilience Through Gardening

“Community” used to mean only those in your town, your neighborhood, at your fingertips, so to spea
k; now our immediate communities can span worldwide via the devices in our hands. Thus, the working groups from the CGC knew that the first step past reaching a communally agreed-upon name for the project would be to harness the power of social-networking sites. The urgency of the crisis at hand demanded an interim tech solution that allowed them to begin matching resources to need right away.

One of the immediate priorities was voting to rebrand “Corona Victory Gardens” under the name “Cooperative Gardens.”

Leah Penniman, a member of the CGC and co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, was instrumental in the advisement of renaming the project. At Soul Fire Farm, a Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)-centered community farm in Upstate New York, the motto is “to free ourselves we must feed ourselves.”

The promotion of food sovereignty is key to their agricultural operations and the larger #CoopGardens movement, Penniman says. She explained to the team that the term “victory gardens” is linked to anti-Japanese racism during WWII.

“While victory gardens and other land-based ‘patriotic’ movements were being promoted as more ‘American’ replacements for food systems powered by BIPOC labor, many BIPOC growers developed alternative food systems to sustain their own communities in response to internment, systematic discrimination, forced migration and other forms of racialized violence and oppression,” she explains.

Leah Penniman is a co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and a member of the Cooperative Gardens Commission.credit: Jamel Mosely | Mel eMedia.

Leah Penniman is a co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and a member of the Cooperative Gardens Commission.

credit: Jamel Mosely | Mel eMedia.

She notes that BIPOC-led organizations and communities have a rich history of growing food in provision gardens and that those with fewer resources and luxuries are disproportionately affected in this pandemic.

“Grocery stores increasingly do not have surplus food to donate, as they themselves also struggle to keep up with more demand due to panic buying,” Penniman continues. “Individuals and families who are limited to WIC and SNAP-designated food purchases do not have the space and/or financial resources to stockpile food, or usually rely on schools and other currently closed institutions for meals may be experiencing more acute food insecurity.”

In addition to systems and policy change, home and community gardening can fill gaps in food access, she explains.

Post-Pandemic Planning

“We’re trying to build something lasting, something that’s going to be able to impact people’s lives well after this pandemic, because we’re trying to address problems that existed long before this pandemic,” remarks Kleinman. “Personally, I’m a farmer. I run a nonprofit, I’ve got stuff to do. This can’t be a one-person show. Thankfully, people have been stepping up all over the country and taking leadership of working groups and just doing amazing work out there.”

Core groups of volunteers who focused on outreach, technology and logistics, media relations and education initiatives immediately set out to work tackling pressing issues. They keep track of their progress and share information via Google Groups. Their calls are recorded and transcripts are available online. Updates, progress reports and important information are distributed regularly to the email addresses associated with the pin numbers required to register for conference calls.

Things can move quickly, but, more importantly, they move through a decentralized system of management that empowers each individual to co-create a collaborative, solutions-oriented community.

“We’re working all over the country,” says Kleinman. “By using the internet, we’re able to reach people anywhere, and then also tapping into existing networks.We’re able to reach people who are not on the internet also. We’ve set up a hotline so that people can call us and ask questions and get connected to folks, and even if people don’t have internet access—if they see our number on a flyer or something—they can call and get connected to people in their community, ideally, or just ask questions about gardening or farming.”

To him, this work holds a deeper significance and could potentially help humanity through more than just the pandemic.

While organizing relief for Operation Sandy and observing the hurricane-devastated farms in his own South Jersey, Kleinman realized that, unless work was done to address the source of climate change, his community would one day be under water permanently.

“In my normal work, I’m a climate activist, and the work that Experimental Farm Network is doing involves developing new crops for climate-change mitigation—perennial staple crops, grains and oil seeds,” explains Kleinman. “We grow a lot of things like canola and soybeans for oil now, but we really should be growing more perennials, like hazelnuts, that could also provide edible oil but will sequester carbon at the same time.”

He has since set out to address this issue by changing the way we farm, promoting biodiversity  with the EFN by focusing on rare and endangered seeds, planting carbon-sequestering perennial crops and engaging in agroforestry and other forms of carbon farming vital to this mission. After seven years of establishing this path with the EFN, the timely need for #CoopGardens is another in his long list of efforts to inspire young, would-be farmers to join him in his quest.

“I think a lot of people are afraid of food-supply shortages,” he says. “They’re afraid that things aren’t gonna get back to normal quick.”

The pandemic has sparked fears among many that access to food will be disrupted, which should be a huge motivator for us to make more food available at the local level.

“I think, you know, this crisis is a tragedy, but it is also an opportunity to take stock of what’s important and to build a better future.”

He hopes that people will see how clean the air has become in their cities, with fewer cars on the roads, and “think about this not just as an aberration but as a sign of what kind of changes might be required if we’re actually going to deal with the climate crisis.”

Planting For Food Sovereignty

The delicately balanced Cooperative Gardens Commission acknowledges that private grassroots organizations, local gardening clubs and more have paved the way in the fight for food sovereignty, Kleinman says.

One of the things the commission is focusing on is prioritizing communities that may have the largest food-security issues.

“The communities of color and Indigenous communities were some of the most food insecure before the pandemic, and if we’re not working now to address those long standing issues, then we’re not really addressing the problem,” Kleinman says.

The commission is donating at least half of its seeds to projects led by people of color and those that are based in communities of color, Kleinman explains.

“Our outreach working group is focusing efforts in communities where folks might not be very likely to find us on Instagram or Facebook but where the need for food and seeds is especially acute right now,” he says.

Extra effort is taken to support existing food-sovereignty projects and networks, especially in communities that were struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Penniman of Soul Fire puts it: the challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak exemplify the need for collective food sovereignty in all communities, but, as a result of our country’s systemic inequalities, some communities have more needs than others.

“Before, during and after the outbreak, food apartheid continues, and will continue, to disproportionately impact BIPOC communities, who face higher vulnerability to COVID-19 due to factors like shared housing, lack of access to health care, environmental racism, job layoffs, immigration status, employment in the wage economy without worker protections and more,” she explains. “This pandemic is presenting even more challenges to food access for our vulnerable communities.”

It’s a tall order, and with the overwhelming response to this plea gaining traction rapidly, this ecosystem of activism will need to be built conscientiously at a community level in order to truly thrive.

“We want people to get what they need to grow in their community,” Kleinman says.

One of the strategies of the Cooperative Gardens Commission is to get people to use the #CoopGardens hashtag when posting the resources they have o
n Craigslist or on Facebook to make it easy for anyone to find seeds, resources, knowledge and mentorship.

“Seeds are the thing that most people are requesting. They are also looking for soil. They’re looking for lumber. They’re looking for volunteer labor. And a lot of people are looking for knowledge and mentorship. And then, tools and equipment as well,” Kleinman says. “But without seeds, you can’t grow anything.”

The Need For Seed

As “panic planting” supplements panic shopping in depleting nursery shelves and seed suppliers worldwide, some have had to pause or outright cease operations in order to catch up with hasty commercial orders, leaving many individuals and communities who most need these resources out in the cold.

As Taylor of Truelove Seeds says: “The fact that many seed companies have shut down their websites in response to overwhelming sales should make it clear that people would be wise to start saving their own seeds this year to be sure they can grow their favorite crops in the future.”

Experiencing record sales, some suppliers have begun selling backstock they had expected to last for years, and suddenly seed saving and preservation is a hot topic for discussion.

“Saving seeds is an essential act of resilience and resistance,” Taylor explains. “Resilience because it means we adapt our crops to our local ecosystems and because we hold onto our freedom to grow the foods that we love, the foods that taste like home. Resistance because we hold onto the freedom to tell our own stories through the seeds that we choose to keep.”

At Truelove, growers in the company’s network keep seeds that were passed down from their ancestors, either directly or indirectly. They prioritize working with farmers who are doing healing and justice work in their communities, many of which have been experiencing food shortages and health crises long before this pandemic.

“We can learn a lot from Black and Brown farmers, healers and organizers working in communities experiencing food apartheid,” Taylor says. “For many of these growers, keeping seeds has long been a cornerstone to living a sovereign, holistic and healthful life.”

To address this seed-access inequality, seed donations are already pouring in from the CGC’s core of hundreds of volunteers.

Making Worlds Bookstore, a brand new collectively-owned and volunteer-run West Philadelphia bookstore shuttered by COVID-19, is now a central clearinghouse for processing, packaging and disseminating these seed donations.

“Since we have to be closed during this time, as a ‘non-essential business,’ the space is not being used and this project is completely aligned with our mission,” says Lucy Duncan, a worker-member of the co-op.

The bookstore promotes events and offerings that align with local social justice initiatives, particularly those that align with Black, Brown and indigenous traditions of liberation.

“We were totally excited about this as a way to continue to further our vision of supporting self-determined communities,” Duncan continues. “Several of us plan to start co-op gardens.”

An additional 40 seed hubs, or nodes, are in the process of being established nationwide to centralize collection and distribution for their areas, but more are needed.

Ever cognizant of the risks of COVID-19, a health-and-safety work group has created advisory guidelines that have been incorporated into the program’s official guide language.

Safe-space language was drafted in conjunction with Soul Fire Farm, who have been working with these frontline communities to address systemic inequalities before our country’s current crisis, and launched their own localized Soul Fire in the City initiative that assists members of the BIPOC community, survivors of mass incarceration, refugees, immigrant families with children, and others impacted by food apartheid.

“Much of the current language around home provisioning can be individualist and, at times, ableist,” states Penniman. The ultimate goal is that this ethically based, whole-systems design approach will help #CoopGardens continue as sustainable projects far into the post-pandemic future.

“We recognize that provision-garden initiatives must draw on community collaboration and mutual aid to support the needs and enable the participation of elders, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and other folks for whom home gardening is typically inaccessible,” Penniman explains. “This project is about community resilience and collective food sovereignty, not about acting as ‘saviors’ for our community.”

Start Growing Now

The commission knows that while food sovereignty has recently become a global problem and people are suddenly interested in urban and community gardens, the initiative will only truly work in the long term if people take the health of their communities into account as well.

“Growing your own nutritious fruits, vegetables and herbs at home or for your community instantly increases access to quality food,” says Foran of Vepo Farms. “Those who consume it will now be providing themselves with better health care, as what you eat is the first medicine that you can put in your body.”

Amping up local food production chains would create more employment opportunities, stimulate local economies and improve the environment, Foran explains.

“If everyone were to start growing a lot of the food that they consume, there would be less greenhouse gas emissions produced from industrial agricultural practices,” he says.

He thinks it might help people on a human level, too.

“I believe that you would see a world where countries now have much higher quality of life and gross national happiness scores,” he says.

What can you do?

As interest, volunteers and donations steadily roll in, the CGC begins the admirable undertaking of matching the excess to the need on a national level.

Fundraising committees have been formed. Regional seed-distribution hubs, lumber, labor and critical space to grow are all needed nationwide. Anyone with resources to share is encouraged to post using the #CoopGardens hashtag.

Volunteers are being called upon to grow seedlings for distribution. Policy and governance subgroups are working on making land accessible in parks and public spaces, rescuing shuttered school and community gardens, and reviewing policies on how to relax laws prohibiting food growing.

With so many of the workers who grow, harvest, cook and serve our food affected by this global crisis, the CGC’s Work and Livelihoods committee is hard at work generating ideas such as sourcing on-farm worker housing and creating gardening mentorships and potential paid work opportunities.

A centralized Google Voice number—a CGC hotline—has been launched, at 202-709-6225, and volunteers and expert growers are needed to staff the phone lines.

All of these ideas are being conceptualized, fleshed out and put into action in real time by this decentralized group in an ongoing communal process to get people to START GROWING FOOD.

For more information on the CGC or to join its organizing efforts—and for critical health-and-safety information to prevent the spread of the virus while gardening or sharing resources—visit www.CoopGardens.org

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