In With the Old, Out With the New

In With the Old, Out With the New

The following blog post was written by 2018 Northeast Sustainable Systems Team: Erin Boehme, Mike Salzl, Natalie Dusek, Andy Angel, Jahir Aquino & Gabe Cayetano.

In With the Old, Out With the New: Reducing Waste By Reusing Gardening Supplies

Our Northeast Sustainable Systems Team at Spark-Y is working with three public schools in the Northeast Minneapolis area: Pillsbury Elementary, Northeast Middle School, and Edison High School. Our main focus at these locations is to work on repairing and optimizing the current sustainable systems at these schools, which consist of aquaponic systems at all three locations, as well as a community garden at the Edison location. These systems are used to introduce the students to the topic of sustainability in an engaging, hands-on manner; to provide the student body with the ability to learn more about both science in general and the skills needed for growing and farming; and finally to supply fresh, nutritious food to the school cafeterias.

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Recycling is a concept near and dear to every environmentally conscious individual’s heart. But how is it used in the garden? We used recycling in two primary ways: composting and aquaponics. Composting is a way that we can take nutrients from unwanted or unneeded sources, such as weeds or dead leaves, and turn it into a treatment to better our soil. An aquaponics system also serves to recycle nutrients in an indoor environment. As the fish excrete Ammonium and Nitrate through their waste and gills, the plants uptake the nutrients and filter the water for the fish.

It is important to remember that recycling is only one of the “Three R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. This phrase, repeated to us over and over again, seems to have lost its meaning. Many Americans focus almost solely on the recycling aspect of this mantra, when the practices of reducing and reusing are equally, if not more, important. All three are incredibly important when working towards sustainability in our nation, but it should be emphasized that these three actions are listed in order of focus. In other words, you should attempt to reduce the amount of materials you use as well as look to reuse those items, and only then recycle them once the former two paths have been exhausted.

In addition to recycling, the Northeast Sustainable Systems Team has been able to effectively use the other two vital principles of reducing and reusing in aspects of all of our projects’ systems, with our main focus in these first few weeks on Edison High School. For example, when we first started working in the Edison High School garden we noticed that there were many items left by the previous year’s gardeners. These materials were then utilized to further support the garden’s structure and to aid plant growth, amongst other tasks. We have identified five main ways in which we reused the materials already present in our gardening space, thereby reducing the number of supplies we had to purchase and diverting useful items from the landfill.

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Spark-Y Plants

Rather than purchasing all of our plants from a garden store, we decided to bring some plants to our on-site locations from the Spark -Y headquarters, specifically from the Urban Agriculture Lab, or UAL. The UAL was almost overflowing with unused plants, and the Spark-Y staff were more than happy to unload some onto us. We then transferred our newly-acquired army of tomatoes, peppers, chives, and longevity spinach to the Edison High School aquaponics system and outdoor garden.

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Wire Mesh

After planting in the garden, we noticed some sheets of wire mesh which had been left on the outside of the fence. We decided to use this material to support the growth of our tomato plants. The wire mesh was bent into a circle and inserted into the soil around each tomato plant, allowing the stems to cling onto the wire and grow upward, rather than outward. This not only allowed the tomato plants to thrive, but also prevented them from spreading along the ground and overcrowding one another.

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Garden Rocks

While digging up one of the empty beds, we discovered several large rocks that had been hidden under the soil. What at first seemed to be only a few rocks later turned out to be a very large number, and we soon amassed a large collection. We elected to lay them out as a border for the garden’s gravel path, keeping the smaller rock gravel from moving into the open soil and vice versa. Not only did this have a practical use, but it also increased the overall visual appeal of the garden.

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Letter "E" Sign

After cleaning up some trash around the perimeter of the fence, we found a very odd bit of litter: a large piece of metal, shaped into the letter E. One side of the E was painted white, and therefore we have speculated that it had been a part of a sign once spelling “Edison.” More importantly, however, the other side of the structure made the perfect space to plant flowers. Thus, the giant letter was reused as a lovely planter for some yellow marigold flowers, representing one of Edison’s school colors.   

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Pea Plant Stakes

One of the plant varieties that we decided to grow in the garden were pea plants. These were placed around the inside edge of the fence and in some terraced, elevated planters. The seedlings by the fence would be able to wrap themselves around the slots in the fence, but the seedlings in the planters had no such support. In order to allow them to grow properly, we decided to stretch string down from an upper row of horizontal yarn. Then, taking some branches from a dead tree in our compost pile, we stuck some stakes into the planters’ soil and wrapped the string around them, pulling it taut enough to give support to the future pea tendrils. 

Sustainable practices can be implemented not only at Spark-Y, but in all aspects of our lives. As we attempt to go about our day to day lives in a way that respects the planet, it should be remembered that even little acts can make a difference, and that we can all work towards a greener Earth

Michael Salzl --- “At my college house at the University of St. Thomas I recycle recyclables and compost my organics waste. I also reuse glass jars for storage and as cups, and I have greatly reduced, if not stopped, my consumption of meat and single use plastics.”

Jahir Aquino Moran --- “The way I use the Three Rs in my life is when I’m reusing old or full PC parts for my current PC . For example if there is no more space in it i would look for a old and full hard drive and delete any thing that was in it and use it also with cooling systems.”

Andy Angel --- “The way I use one or all three R’s, Reduce Reuse and Recycle is when we use old boxes and plastic bins from food for other forms of storage for other food instead of buying new plastic stuff. We save money and prevent from using a ton of new plastic.”

Erin Boehme --- “I have been a vegetarian for two years, and so have a reduced reliance on livestock agriculture: something that produces a great amount of carbon-dioxide and methane (contributing to climate change) and uses a mind-boggling percentage of the world’s freshwater supply. I have also recently been trying to reduce the waste I produce by bringing reusable bags with me when shopping, and using tupperware to transport food instead of plastic wrap and plastic bags.”

Natalie Dusek --- “In my own life, I try to reduce, reuse, and recycle in many ways. In my house we use a compost bin daily to recycle food scraps, using them to create compost, which newly growing plants can use for nutrients. Additionally, I have made many personal daily changes in my life to reduce waste. For example, one of my friends and I created DIY bee wrap to wrap food instead of using plastic wrap or plastic bags. These are just a few examples of the many ways I try to reduce, reuse, and recycle in my own life!”

Gabriel Cayetano --- “I am a part-time vegetarian when I am at my mom’s house because she is vegetarian. We also have a compost bin that we use. I have also salvaged and reused computer parts that still function.  

RUF Squad Seniors Leave Lasting Impression

RUF Squad Seniors Leave Lasting Impression

The following blog post was written by Zachary Bigaouette,
Spark-Y Education Facilitator & Green Corps Member.

Background: Spark-Y Roosevelt High School program serves grades 9 - 12. Students learn about science, agriculture, and more through hands-on curriculum rooted in sustainability. This is one of two Spark-Y schools participating in garden-to-cafeteria programming

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With the school year coming to a close there is a bittersweet aroma in the air as we are forced to say goodbye to the Senior members of the Roosevelt Urban Farming Squad (or RUF Squad for short). Although we are happy to see them graduate and move on to their next chapters in life we are sad to see them leave the farm that they have made their own. However, the senior RUF squad members are not leaving the school without leaving a lasting impression; this year Roosevelt’s campus has truly been transformed by the RUF squad through the various projects and sustainable systems or structures they have built.

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At the start of the 2017-18 school year the RUF squad wasted no time and hit the ground running, immediately going to work on their outdoor farm and greenhouse, harvesting produce in the farm and selling it back to the school to be used in the school lunches through their Garden-to-Cafeteria program. The students in the RUF squad were also simultaneously learning about and taking care of their aquaponics system, truly exemplifying the hands-on learning experience that Spark-Y is all about! Needless to say the students appeared to have their hands pretty full, but it seems as if that wasn’t quite enough for the RUF squad because they continued to look forward and began to strive towards making their school’s campus even more sustainable. The RUF squad then built not one but TWO vermicomposting systems both complete with two vermicomposting bins adding up to a grand total of four bins filled with happy and hungry worms (more fondly known by the students at Roosevelt as red wigglers).

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RUF Squad Seniors care for the

 

tiered vermicompost bins.

Building two vermicomposting systems to help reduce waste from the waste stream at Roosevelt is already a major accomplishment but still the RUF squad pressed onward, pausing only briefly to admire their work.  The list of projects and tasks that the students worked on after this goes on and on, ranging from designing a rain garden to researching vining plants native to Minnesota to cover the turtle sculpture created by artist Christopher Lutter-Gardella (they landed on vitis riparia, more commonly known as frost grapes). The school year seemed to fly by and end, but in a final act of altruism by the seniors of the RUF squad they left behind their farm complete with seedlings for next year’s incoming RUF squad to harvest in the fall, setting them up for another successful school year.

With all of the projects and hard work behind them the RUF squad finally had time to take a breath and reflect on their past school year. Seeing all of the amazing work and effort they put into their farm this year, it was no surprise that they would put the same amount of effort into reflecting on the school year. Here’s just a handful of stunning reviews which would give Roger Ebert a run for his money!

Junior Aidan says: “This year in Urban Farming I enjoyed learning about our aquaponics system. I would like to get my own someday! It’s fun to watch the plants grow and to take care of the fish. There were also far fewer lessons and much more hands-on work than most other classes which is what I really prefer.” 5/5 White Tilapia

Senior Aaron comments on vermicomposting stating: “Vermicompost as an idea is pretty far fetched. The heightened nutrient-rich soil from red wiggler worm castings seems wild at first, but the hands-on experience helped me a lot to see for myself just how it worked. Not to mention the extra details I learned about what to feed and not to feed the worms. Overall, Spark-Y introduced me to this concept and helped me understand it in different ways throughout the school year.” 12/12 Red Wigglers

Junior Angel comments: “I really enjoyed this class because it was very hands-on and went more in-depth into how to plant in and care for our garden. It also provided me with the skills I need and the responsibility of taking care of our garden.” 2 Green thumbs WAY up

Here’s looking forward to next year’s RUF Squad, the bar was set high this year but I have complete faith that they will go above and beyond it.

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Leading the Charge for Women in Urban Ag

Leading the Charge for Women in Urban Ag

The following blog post profiles Urban Farm Manager, Caitlin Barnhart,
as a part of our Spark-Y Staff Spotlight Series.

The backbone of Spark-Y is sustainability and entrepreneurship, two practices embodied in the staff the organization employs. In the instance of one staff member, another story can be told: the rise of women in urban agriculture.

Just before giving a tour to a group of students through the Urban Agriculture Lab, Caitlin Barnhart, Spark-Y Urban Farm Manager sat down to share her experiences as a staff member and her journey into urban agriculture.

“Especially when younger girls come in [to the Urban Agriculture Lab] I think they see that as a cool thing. It’s really not traditional that they see a female in this role. And a lot of the time, I think they are more willing to ask a question, are excited about what I do, and are more willing to say: ‘Hey! I want to do that too!’”

That wasn’t necessarily the case for Barnhart, who questioned whether there were role for women in this field. Fresh out of college, she noticed the majority of roles held in agriculture were held by men.

Graduate of the University of Minnesota in Food Systems, with a minor in Sustainable Agriculture, Barnhart was paired with Spark-Y as a community partnership experience in one of her capstone classes. Following her experience, she signed up for Spark-Y’s Summer Internship program in 2015 and was hired at a Spark-Y Education Facilitator while still in school.

It was a month before Barnhart was to graduate when she sat down with Nick Phelps, professor and mentor. He asked her questions about what she was passionate about and what she saw herself doing post-graduation. “I think my direct quote was I want Sam Menzies’ job at Spark-Y,” says Barnhart. Sam Menzies was Operations Manager at Spark-Y and had played a critical role in designing and building the organization’s 1,300 square foot indoor urban farm in South Minneapolis. Phelps encouraged Barnhart to pursue the position.

Spark-Y Urban Ag Lab:

Post-graduation Barnhart accepted a full-time Education Facilitator position at Spark-Y, where her role was teaching sustainability and entrepreneurship to youth in classrooms through hands-on sustainable systems. “While I loved that experience, I also realized that my passion is more on the farming and the hands-on side of things,” reflected Barnhart. This prompted Barnhart to look to other areas of the organization that held greater interest for her, culminating in a 14-page proposal focused on what she could contribute towards the urban agriculture arm of the organization. She presented her plan to Zach Robinson, Spark-Y Executive Director. “He said, ‘Yeah, I love that. Your energy is great and you’re going to do that.’ And today I am pretty much doing all of those things.”

Urban Farm Manager at Spark-Y since September of 2017, Barnhart did in-fact gain Sam Menzies job. Today, Menzies works as Operations Director for Spark-Y overseeing sustainable systems at the Urban Agriculture Lab and in the classrooms.

Working with a small, dedicated team, the Urban Agriculture Lab has seem more than a few changes since Barnhart came aboard, including a partnership with Gentleman Forager to sell microgreens to local restaurants, indoor growing expansions such as hydroponic growing towers, fish breeding tanks, and a soil lab completed with the help of a 2017 internship team.  Menzies and Barnhart also developed and executed a Spark-Y Plant Sale in 2017 and 2018, adding another revenue stream to the organization’s mission of youth empowerment.

“Caitlin’s passion for urban farming has contributed to the Urban Ag Lab’s highest revenue in a season to-date,” says Menzies. “And with a young staff, empowerment within our organization is critical. We encourage our staff to be creative, take risks, and bring their visions to life. Caitlin embodies this philosophy.”

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Spark-Y Microgreens

 

 

Barnhart feels that she has found her place within the organization. “I’m roughly fresh out of college, and not a lot of people get the level of freedom or responsibility that I get in this role - and that’s what I really enjoy about Spark-Y,” she adds.

There have been some defining moments for Barnhart along the way, including a Spark-Y partner calling to ask if she would be willing to give a tour to another young female interested in the field of agriculture or a group of fourth graders that enjoyed aquaponically-grown red veined sorrel after she told them it tastes like Sour Patch Kids candy. She thinks that youth having the opportunity to tour a growing facility at a young age makes a difference, noting that she did not become aware of sustainability or urban farming until a class in college.

 Barnhart adding "worm juice" from vermicompost systems to aquaponic-grown red veined sorrel.

Barnhart adding "worm juice" from vermicompost systems to aquaponic-grown red veined sorrel.

Today, Barnhart recalls just how important it is to find something you are passionate about and stick with it. A passion that is easily displayed in Barnhart’s contributions to the Urban Agriculture Lab and the way she speaks about her position: “I love the smell of dirt, the feeling of nature, you know, that feeling you get when you walk outside on a dewy morning is the same feeling you get when you walk into this lab and it’s 20-degrees outside. It’s a loving, nurturing feeling and you just don’t find that anywhere else.” A far cry from a young college graduate wondering if there was a place for her in urban agriculture.

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April Showers Bring… Snow Plowers?

April Showers Bring… Snow Plowers?

The following blog post was written by Sarah Pilato, 
Spark-Y Education Facilitator.

Students in Edison High School’s EASYpro (Edible Agricultural School Yard Professionals) class are facing quite an interesting challenge this spring.  How do they establish and maintain a successful garden when it seems like this winter will never end?

This has so far been a very exciting and busy year for EASYpro students.  The 2017-18 school year marks Edison High School’s pilot year as part of Minneapolis Public School’s Garden to Cafeteria program.  Being involved in this program means that any food that is grown at Edison can be sold to the school’s cafeteria and served to students during lunch.  Edison has several different agricultural components on their campus that are serving a huge purpose in this program. The Edison farm consists of a campus garden, a greenhouse, and an aquaponics system that the students care for throughout the year.

FALL PROGRAMMING, A SUCCESSFUL START

This year’s class dove right into the program with an incredible amount of enthusiasm.  After completing their two week food safety training, the class participated in their first official harvest!  

With the help of last year’s spring 2017 class and Spark-Y summer interns planting and maintaining the garden, there was plenty to be harvested in the fall.  This first harvest included a basket full of delicious cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and chives, and some pumpkins.

The initiative taken by the students was a meaningful experience. Students harvested, delivered, and even washed produce with the staff - chatting about new potential recipes they could make from their harvest. After this first experience, it was impossible to keep students out of the garden! (Not that we would want to.)

SPRING PROGRAMMING GONE AWRY

After being cooped up inside for several months during the bitter Minnesota winter, everyone has been getting quite antsy to be outside in the garden again.  The class was just gearing up to prepare the garden space by cleaning out the beds, tilling the soil, and building some new trellises, but wouldn’t you know it, winter decided to make another comeback.

A  surprise snow storm that hit over this past weekend left some parts of Minneapolis covered in as much as 15 inches of snow (yikes!).  All that snow threw a bit of a wrench in the garden planning process. The class quickly learned from this experience that nature doesn’t always stick to the schedule you want it to.

Ever the resilient bunch, EASYpro students are not letting this obstacle slow them down.  A few students still got out there this last week to problem solve and make decisions about moving forward.  Some resourceful thinkers on the team decided to utilize extra space in the aquaponics system to continue growing seedlings that can be transplanted once the snow clears.  This kind of adaptability is what is making Edison High School truly successful in this endeavor!

Thanks to their hard work, the aquaponics system is growing more than it ever has.  The class even hopes to make a harvest of spinach and chard from this system that they can deliver to the cafeteria very soon!

Let’s hope that this was the LAST of winter for this year so we can all start moving forward with garden season!

 Anthony working on the aquaponics system

Anthony working on the aquaponics system

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Swiss Chard

Beautiful & healthy growing in our aquaponics system.

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Edison's Aquaponics System

Just after construction and not yet planted.