Only a Job--A Brief History of SEEDS by Ryan Koch

Christine helps some SEEDS participants get into some freshly harvested vegetables!

Christine helps some SEEDS participants get into some freshly harvested vegetables!

This is only a song; it won’t change the world. -Ben Sollee

With Fayette County Public Schools concluding for the summer last week, our staff is eager to jump right into summer. June and July keep us busy with SEEDS–our youth development program for middle school aged youth. This 8-week program has changed over the past 10 summers based on our ongoing dialogue with our neighbors.

The SEEDS program came to be in 2008 when the coordinator of a local Kids Cafe site (okay–my wife, Jodie Koch) heard from several children who needed a bit of help staying out of trouble that summer. And I should note, it was the youth themselves who requested this help. The program had a number of activities lined up, only one of which was getting in a garden with Seedleaf. But that summer was an education for me. I saw the power of work, and how it can cultivate group development. I watched young, unskilled laborers make a difference on one small piece of land over the course of those summer weeks. This small group of young people had an opportunity to contribute to the health and beautification of their own neighborhood. That sustained effort, and the longing to make a contribution, and to belong, have become the core of our SEEDS program. In 2019, the job description for our our SEEDS group includes the following:

  • caring for 4 different community gardens.

  • installing small gardens at the homes of nearby neighbors.

  • harvesting lots of what they grow for use at home, or to share with their neighbors.

  • cooking some of what they harvest.

  • going on a great field trip (more on that to come!)

When Seedleaf began to grow gardens in 2007, and to share greens and beets and tomatoes, these gifts were well-received, and our good intentions tolerated by kind neighbors. But we were also informed that community members were looking for work. For some, this had to do with real responsibility in a garden, a steady role, even if it was voluntary. I recall one neighbor on Elm Tree Lane serving in this way, faithfully watering a garden near her home. The garden thrived under her care, and our neighbor felt good about joining this work, and sharing from the abundance she cultivated. Our offering turned into her offering (and a service-recipient became a service-provider).

A job is not the same as work. A job is a transaction. I trade my time and attention for money at a job. But work has a wider, more creative connotation. Work can be rewarded with money, or with meaning, or with connection. Work is something one is compelled to do. For many entrepreneurs, work is not financially rewarded for quite some time.

This year 24 children will participate in our SEEDS program. We will also have work for two high school aged youth through the Summer Youth Employment Program, and two practicum students from the University of Kentucky. I don’t mean to take too much pride in these jobs we have created—there is so much to do!—but this is a source of delight each summer. While our 13 free u-pick community gardens are getting cared for, this is still a work in progress. We would love to become more efficient. And we are still in need of more financial support. Our SEEDS kids work hard through the summer and earn every bit of their $200 gift card. What is so hard to quantify, though, is that moment when one of us gets caught up in a much bigger story of the gift economy, the connection economy. We see nature healing itself on a piece of land on Whitney Avenue, or we hear gratitude from a neighbor for the greens she picked last week. And we remember that meaningful work is a gift in itself.

This is only a job, and for some, it is only seasonal, part-time manual labor. It won’t change the world, but it has a good chance of changing one little part of the earth for the better. And it will inevitably change the one doing the work in ways that challenge our imagination, and defy compensation.

Seedleaf relies on grants, donations, and the services we provide to support our gardening and youth development programs. Please consider becoming a monthly donor and help us keep up this good work by clicking this link. Thank you!

Our Early Days by Ryan Koch

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I was asked by a friend to submit a reflection on our work for a newsletter put out by the Center for Crop Diversification at the University of Kentucky. This is a slightly longer reflection (without the benefit of a word count.)

Seedleaf was born in the spring of 2007. I was part of a small faith community that was offered the use of a sunny lawn with access to water and, with the help of a few volunteers, we cared for a garden that may have been 1/6th of an acre. The whole endeavor was quite an education. I recall a visit from extension agent Tim Woods. He offered encouragement at our progress, and brought some transplants to tuck in—broccoli and some other leafy greens. Then he asked me a question I did not have a great answer for: What will you do with all of this produce?

It is a question that stumped me because I was very much new to gardening. I knew we had made a decent start, but I did not anticipate how much food would be coming up. In the growing seasons that followed, we field tested several models of urban farming and community gardening: market gardening; creating individual plots; harvesting food and handing it to neighbors. Some models have worked better than others. We seem to do our best work when we work with neighbors and volunteers to grow a beautiful garden and then invite anyone who has need, or interest, to harvest what their household can use. We do not insist that those using our 13 free u-pick community gardens be poor, only that they appreciate food. Most gardeners, we have observed, like to eat. 

That first summer I learned how abundant our Kentucky soils can be with our soaking rains, a few good volunteers, and some timely weeding. I came to see harvesting as part of maintenance—the most fun part! I realized that this work itself was a joy to me, and that other neighbors and volunteers were likely to enjoy access to some physical labor, meaningful work that would generate food. I observed how integrated I felt in body, heart and mind after hoeing a row of potatoes, or weeding the onions. I longed to share this widely. That’s how Seedleaf came to be responsible for so many gardens in Lexington.

It has been a long journey of growing and sharing food, of sharing work, and growing in connection with neighbors. I love eating well. And I am glad for a chance to share this privilege. But it is sharing the work of caring for a place on earth that makes me eager to continue for another decade. 

Coda
The broccoli plants that Tim brought us did not grow according to plan. They become very leggy in late May. I wondered if I had set them in an overly shaded area. Then my farming mentor, David Wagoner, showed me the small cabbage-like buds in the armpits of these plants: we had a lovely row of brussel sprouts! And honestly, I have never been able to grow a row of brussel sprouts as strong as the one we grew that first spring. Just one of our many early happy accidents!

Help Is On the Way, Sort Of by Ryan Koch

Here’s the truckster moving coffee chaff from Magic Beans to our compost piles.

Here’s the truckster moving coffee chaff from Magic Beans to our compost piles.

I was recently asked to submit an opinion piece to the Lexington Herald Leader in response to the city’s (Division of Waste Management) decision to stop taking paper waste in our recycling bins. Here is an expanded version of what I submitted.

I need to start by saying that Seedleaf cannot offer free pick-ups of all of the paper waste that the Division of Waste Management (LFUCG) is temporarily not picking up. We are more than glad to be part of the conversation of how to help our city become more environmentally responsible, but we cannot offer an easy and convenient rescue plan at this time. 

I am somewhat glad, though, that this announcement came when it did, because, Lexington, we need to talk. In the recovery community, health is precipitated by honesty. Truth cultivates growth. My training is not in agriculture, or in waste management, but in mental health. I started Seedleaf because I wanted my neighbors to enjoy healthy food, and to build life-giving connections with each other and with our earth. We have observed that growing gardens and building soil together through composting has been instrumental in knitting participants together. And since 2009, we have been busy picking up food waste at 35 area restaurants and kitchens, tackling a small part of the food waste component of our city’s waste stream. (Compostables account for 29% of our community’s waste stream, according to a 2008 waste audit!)

Truth-telling is important because, honestly, our community has not done a great job prioritizing or supporting the city’s recycling efforts. Many of us engage in “wish-cycling.” This is the phenomenon wherein a person thinks:

    1. I am a basically good person.

    2. And I live in an enlightened town.

    3. Therefore, anything I put in our blue recycle bin will not end up in a landfill.

Have you done this? I know I have. Such wishful thinking severely taxes the Municipal Recycling Facility (MRF) as they sift out all those items for which there is no market: old garden hoses; plastic shopping bags; etc. Taxpayers pay for this sifting, and over 20% of what we send to the MRF ends up at the landfill by way of this scenic route. Wish-cyclers like me would do better just to set those yogurt cups and plastic berry clamshells directly into the solid waste bins.

This is not a problem because we are wishful, or particularly terrible, people. We simply prize convenience. And shipping all sorts of plastic and paper products to other countries has been the easy button upon which we have relied for quite some time. Now we have to be honest about the new reality of the global demand for America’s trash: there is no global demand for our trash. It is a good thing to reckon honestly with what this means for our community. I appreciate the Division of Waste Management’s announcement that there is now no outlet for our paper waste. Here is our next wake-up call. What we have been doing is not working. We need to take responsibility and change our behavior.

So we at Seedleaf are glad to propose a few things. These are local solutions that occur on a small scale. They are simple, but not easy. They will be inconvenient and they will require some sacrifice. But they, like any bit of bad news, may help us draw together as we draft solutions. 

    1. Compost at home. Anyone with the privilege of a yard can likely spare 10-20 square feet for a simple compost bin to process your home kitchen waste. You can spend a lot on a fancy container, or you can invest $20 and some time and make one yourself. There are loads of tips online, or you can learn with Seedleaf at an upcoming Compost 101 near you.

    2. Compost with neighbors. We can set up simple 3-bin systems where folks can process their own food waste and paper products. In fact, we currently care for two such drop off points and they seem to be working great. Email seedleafinfo@gmail.com to get a list of he materials we do and don’t accept, and to find out where these drop-offs are located. 

    3. Subscribe to the Compost Carpool. We are now accepting a range of paper products from home composters. You can sign up for a monthly, bi-monthly, or weekly pickup service, depending on your household’s need. Visit seedleaf.org to get started today. 

    4. Buy less stuff. This is the first R in the old Reduce-Reuse-Recycle mantra. Reduce, like prevention, carries way more bang for the buck than does Recycle. We need to let our grocers know that we don’t need a big plastic net baggie of potatoes, or any one-use plastic (or now paper) thing. That’s our buying power at work. 

Seedleaf’s composting program is not the solution to our city’s recycling woes. It is unfair to the nonprofit community to continue to rush in to vacuums created when municipalities abdicate responsibility for critical services. But I think we do have a contribution to make. Like any non-profit leader, I have to anticipate a day when Seedleaf’s work here in Lexington is completed. On that day everyone who wants to will have access to fresh local produce. Anyone who wants to will have access to the land they need to grow their own food, for their own use, or for market. And anyone who wants to will be able to compost their home food waste, including whatever paper products people are still using. It is my hope that this recent bad news from the Division of Waste Management inspires a reckoning, part a shift towards a more sustainable and responsible future.

Learn more about composting at home, or taking the lead in your neighborhood by attending an upcoming Compost 101 (see our Upcoming Events page on this website).

Cultivating Neighborliness by Ryan Koch

Cee harvests compost on a spring day.

Cee harvests compost on a spring day.

I was asked to write a reflection on composting and what I see it doing in our community for the Good Foods Coop website. Here’s what I came up with.

Fifteen years ago I was studying to become a clinical therapist. I also spent a lot of time each week scanning groceries at Good Foods. I was fairly new in town and this job helped me to meet a lot of people. I felt like I came to know a lot of the regulars through our short conversations. And by scanning their groceries I felt like I was learning something else about them, not just their taste preferences, but their priorities, their values. In my classwork I was learning the therapeutic value of nonjudgmental listening. I applied this receptivity to my customer service, and I always appreciated what our customers were sharing through our brief exchanges.

Since that time I have started and managed a nonprofit called Seedleaf, whose mission is to nourish communities by growing and sharing food. One of our most critical efforts is focused on food waste. Seedleaf began composting in 2009 in an effort to enrich the soils in our 13 free u-pick community gardens. We have since come to learn that much of Fayette County’s waste stream (nearly 30%) could be composted if more folks were knowledgable about this simple process.

I have also observed the way composting with neighbors can strengthen one more layer of connection among households. At my home near Castlewood Park, I am welcoming neighbors to bring their food waste to our bins as they need to. Sometimes I will see a neighbor carrying a bowl of rinds and peels and coffee grounds up our driveway. I am reminded of those times scanning groceries, enjoying what was shared through conversation, or through a purchase. Here is another thing being incidentally shared. I am grateful for my neighbors’ contribution to our soil’s fertility, glad for the way this natural process can hold our hands in our home economies, slowing us down into more thoughtful consumption. 

There are so very many ways, it turns out, to be neighborly! We can share food, share work, share stories, share food waste. I hope you will join us for an upcoming Compost 101 and learn how to take responsibility for your part of our community’s waste stream. On average, each Fayette County resident sends a ton of solid waste to the landfill each year. We can do better than that. And as we learn how to do better, we will find ourselves more deeply connected to the soil, our food, and the folks living right next door.