Monday, May 18, 2015

Examining Cuba's Radically Different Food System

Sprouting Hope's Program Coordinator, Jason Von Kundra, visited Cuba in November 2013 as part of a delegation studying organic agriculture and cooperatives organized by Via Organica, the Center for Global Justice, and the Center for Martin Luther King, Jr. in Havana. Here Jason shares his experience and vision for a healthy community.
Written on the wall at a cattle farm just outside Havana is "Las Ideas Pueden Mas Que Las Armas," or "Ideas Are Greater Than Weapons." With a long history of conflict between the US and Cuba, it may seem an unlikely place for the United States to turn to for ideas but Cuba could hold the key to solving our broken food system. While the US makes unhealthy, processed foods affordable through a complex system of food subsidies and large-scale distribution, Cuba does the exact opposite by making fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs the most affordable, leaving the unhealthy processed food a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. But how?
The US blockade effectively prevented any foreign corporation who did business in the United States from doing business in Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost access to fossil fuels and many other goods. No oil meant no food and very little options for imports. Cuba went through the Special Period, a difficult time when the average Cuban lost about twenty pounds due to food shortages.
Out of necessity, they pulled together to start growing their own food without fossil fuels. Former state-owned sugar farms that were used for exports quickly transitioned to UBPCs (Basic Units of Cooperative Production) which are autonomous agricultural cooperatives that helped feed the country through small scale local food systems. With this history, Cuba places great value in food sovereignty and organic agriculture today.
Cuba's two currency system is also largely responsible for why produce is affordable and processed foods are expensive. The peso nacional is used to purchase necessities and other standard goods that are primarily produced domestically through a planned economy. The Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is used to buy imports and for the tourist economy. Most Cubans get all the food they need at Farmers Market paying very affordable prices with the peso nacional. At Supermarkets, processed food may be purchased with the more expensive CUC. The average Cuban working on a state salary makes about 20 CUCs a month and a can of Pringles costs 4.50 CUCs!
The US food system is the opposite. According to the Washington Post "taxpayers heavily subsidize corn and soy, two crops that facilitate the meat and processed food we’re supposed to eat less of, and do almost nothing for the fruits and vegetables we’re supposed to eat more of. If there’s any obligation to spend the public’s money in a way that’s consistent with that same public’s health, shouldn’t it be the other way around?"

In my previous blog I discussed the importance of involving poor communities. With our current food system, the poor are affected the most by expensive healthy food and cheap processed food. Now that Cuban-US relations are thawing, we can look to Cuba as an example for a food system prioritizing public health and a better future.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Funding a Second Hoop House

Sprouting Hope is building two hoop houses (a low cost style of greenhouse) this year starting with the first build this Saturday! An enormous thanks for a generous donation from United Way of Southwest Virginia and a grant from So Delicious Dairy Free which each cover the cost of the building materials for one hoop house. Grow Appalachia is providing technical support and additional costs including irrigation and fencing. Without the generous support of all three organizations, this expansion would simply not be possible.
We are incredibly blessed to be able to move forward with our season extension plans this year to significantly increase our productivity. The hoop houses will extend our growing season by an additional three months to allow us to grow lettuce and other crops year round. We plan to grow tomatoes in both hoop houses on a three year rotation to benefit from the warmth and protect from disease. Grow Appalachia partner, the Laurel County African American Heritage Center, grew a whopping 1,200 pounds of tomatoes last year in a hoop house with the same design.

Join us this Saturday, May 16th starting at 9am to build our first hoop house with the help of Mark and Holly from Grow Appalachia. Learn about their tried and true hoop house design that is ideal for small farms, homesteads, and large home gardens. Volunteers will be needed throughout the day!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Developing a Regional Strategy for a Robust Food System

"The more organized we are, the more effective we will be" was a theme of today's meeting to build resource capacity and develop a regional strategic plan for Eastern Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. The scope of the discussion was as extensive as our complex food system: nutrition education, local food hubs, community gardens, food access, community service, food pantries, healthcare and more.

More than thirty people participated, representing a diversity of actors in the food system. Through a partnership of the Central Appalachian Network and the Appalachian Funders' Network, the Food System Working Group was formed bringing together Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), Rural Resources and Appalachian RC&D (ARC&D) to help lead the efforts. Now the project is funded by a grant from the Rural Community Development Initiative. Several Grow Appalachia partners sites were there including Sprouting Hope, ASD, Rural Resources, and Build it Up Tennessee. Other groups included the Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Harvest of Hope, Rural Development, Healthy Kingsport, and the USDA Farm Service Agency.

By building a strong network involving a diversity of stakeholders, investors will be more attracted to our region and to support our collaborative efforts. The more efficient we are, the greater our impact, and funders understand that.

Some collaborative projects that were highlighted during the meeting:
  • Local Food Promotion Program is a partnership between ARC&D, ASD and JBO to help farmers gain access to markets and increase consumer demand for local foods.
  • Veggie Rx is a successful program idea from Wholesome Wave that we hope to bring to provide resources for healthcare providers to prescribe fresh fruits and vegetables to patients with diet-related illnesses.
  • Healthy Kingsport provides free nutritional education, health care diagnostics and preventative care.
  • The Smyth County Virginia Nutrition Action Network's Family Fitness Challenge provides medical diagnostics, fitness programming, nutritional education, and gardening classes for children and their parents in rural areas of the county.
The next step is a visioning meeting in the near future to further develop several working groups that will concentrate on specific components of the food system. Please email Jason at if you would like to participate in the upcoming visioning meeting.

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Spring Garden Tour

Spring has officially arrived with warm days, cool nights, and plenty of rain. Thanks to our dedicated volunteers who have come out for our three work days so far this year, we are kicking it into high gear. Here's a quick tour of what has been going on in the garden and what we have planted!
Honey Bees
Honey Bees
Thanks to Chris Stevens, with the Hungry Mother Lutheran Retreat Center, we now have two hives out at the garden this year to increase productivity of our vegetables and help fund the garden with honey sales. Chris will be maintaining the hives and look forward to some bee keeping lessons at the garden this year!
Donated Greenhouse
Donated Greenhouse
Also new this year, Helen and Pete Conley have donated their pop-up greenhouse for us to grow squash, cucumber, and other starts.
The garden has 72 annual beds that are about three feet wide and twenty feet long. We have about a quarter of the garden planted now for spring crops.
Overwintered Kale
Overwintered Kale
Overwintered Spinach
Overwintered Spinach
With the help of row cover, we were able to keep Spinach, Collards, Kale and a few other greens through the winter for early spring harvesting.
Black Seeded Simpson
Black Seeded Simpson Lettuce
Head Lettuce from transplants
Head Lettuce from transplants
We just transplanted five beds of broccoli and cabbage!
Young Beets
Young Beets
Our blueberries, raspberries, and asparagus are part of a memorial perennial section of the garden in honor of Reverend Bowman and others in the community who have passed but live on through our community through their persisting impact.
Thornless Raspberries
A couple new rows of raspberries planted in April.
Second year asparagus bed
Looking forward, we have plowed and tilled the soil where our hoop house will be built on May 16th!
Future site of Hoop House
Future site of Hoop House

Monday, May 4, 2015

Spreading Out Your Harvest

Well spaced harvests throughout the year is crucial for market gardeners selling at weekly Farmers' Markets, CSAs and community gardens like ours. Volunteers at Sprouting Hope are invited to share in the harvest and having something to share is important to keep volunteers coming. This year we harvested turnips, spinach, kale, and collards at our first volunteer day of the season on March 14th using season extension techniques. We plan to utilize succession planting throughout the season to avoid gluts and shortages. Lets look at these practices more in depth.

Extending your season into the cold months involves the right choice of vegetables and material covers. Root vegetables such as beets, turnips, and Jerusalem artichokes can be grown during the cool fall season and harvested in the winter. Just like greens, these root vegetables sweeten with the freezing weather and store well in the ground throughout even January and February. Some of the most cold hardy greens such as spinach, tat soi, and other Asian greens can survive without cover through winter if established in the late fall. As spring begins, growth picks back up after winter dormancy allowing for early harvesting in March and April. Using row cover, cold frames, hoop houses and other material covers allows for more crops to overwinter such as lettuces and brassicas.

Succession planting is a technique of spreading out your seeding and transplanting to spread out your harvests. A few different strategies are consistent time spacing, following plant indicators, using growing degree days, and making a site specific calendar. The simplest way is to consistently space out the timing of plantings by a few weeks, with a shorter duration for plants with a short harvest window and a longer duration for plants with a long harvest window.

Listening to your plants is another method. Some gardeners wait until they see the first set of true leaves on their bean plants to start the next succession.

A third method is using growing degree days. Degree days is a tool that measures cumulative temperatures throughout the growing season. Check out the Growing Degree Days app by Farm Progress to track growing degree days in your area.

The last and I believe most effective method is making a site specific calendar. The days to harvest listed on seed packets are determined by a spring planting with average to ideal conditions. Earlier plantings will typically have longer windows to harvest and later plantings will have shorter windows to harvest. Therefore if you want to spread out your first harvest date for your crop of beans by two weeks, you may plant three weeks apart in the beginning of the season and one week apart late in the season. By keeping records of planting dates and first harvest dates, try plotting this with your planting date on the x axis and first harvest date on the y axis. Plot points from year to year to increase accuracy and make a line of best fit with these points to determine the best time to plant to harvest on a certain day. Using these techniques can help spread out your harvests to provide consistent production and happy customers and volunteers.