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Seeding Galveston: Growing Community, Culture, and Economy

It’s a warm Thursday morning as I pull up to Seeding Galveston on 33rd and N Avenue. The sun hasn’t fully come out yet; Seeding Galveston co-founder Debby, who will be giving me a tour of the farm, warned me to come by before it gets too hot. I’m excited to see the turkeys, goats, and chickens that live there, but I’m a little nervous about the tour. I don’t know the first thing about gardening, farming, or what composting even really is. I’m a city girl, and it shows.

I approach Debby, who is bent over a garden bed she tells me is home to a melon plant. I’ve never seen a melon plant before. Then I meet John, who is also co-founder of the program and who, like Debby, can be found working on the farm to talking to folks about the garden.

“These are the turkeys,” Debby says, leading me over to a pen. “Standard brawns,” John adds. “The most popular commercial turkey until 1840. It’s a very hearty bird, but commercially it was just eclipsed by the broad-breasted turkey.” He explains how certain breeds of chickens and turkeys became more widely used because of excess meat and higher egg-laying rates.

We walk over to three large piles of compost. One has recently been added to, with pineapples, carrots, and melon peels resting on the surface. “Here are various stages of our compost system,” John says. He walks me through the composting process--what he calls the “lasagna method”-- which involves alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials, turning the pile, and once it reaches a certain temperature and level of decomposition, sifting it and using it as soil. “There are different schools of thought on the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen,” John explains. “Basically, green is nitrogen and brown is carbon. Hay and leaves are the carbon. If the pile is all nitrogen [material], it just sits there and gets really putrid. I’m not a chemist, so I mostly just go by the feel of it.” Put simply, a successful compost system allows microorganisms to break down waste materials and produce a nutrient-rich “humus.” These microorganisms emit carbon dioxide and heat during a process known as aerobic respiration. “Turning” the compost pile gives the microorganisms the oxygen and moisture they need to survive.

John and Debby gather compost materials from a variety of sources here on the island, including from the farm itself. “Right now, the majority of the compost materials are coming from UTMB’s food service Morrison,” John says. He points to the stacks and stacks of buckets sitting nearby the compost piles. “All of these buckets that we just poured on here we got last night. We pick up [from UTMB] on Wednesdays and Fridays.” Debby adds, “We get between 35 and 50 or more [buckets] a week. And we have a lot of locals who drop off compost too, as well as Central Methodist Church. They have a program on Sundays where they provide us with compost materials.” In addition, plant material pulled from the beds on the farm are added to the compost system. “Almost everything that is pulled--the vines and stalks and stems--will be put into the compost,” John tells me. “It’s almost a closed system in a way, except the only part that’s not closed is that we don’t seed-save a lot here.”

John and Debby walk me through the basics, like what the difference between raised beds and non-raised beds is, and the meaning of “seed-saving.” My relative ignorance about farming, gardening, and sustainability only confirms the lack of interest and knowledge about these things, especially amongst younger generations, that Debby and John are trying to change.

“As we move more into our technological spiral, we’re finding people want to do things on the computer more and less with their hands,” John says with a sigh. “It’s really becoming a challenge to interest young people in actually physically farming and gardening. John and Debby are trying to encourage people just like me to forge connections with where their food is coming from, how it is produced, and who is producing it. They formed Seeding Galveston for those of us who don’t know the first thing about urban farming or eating locally, who need a place to get their questions answered.

John explains the mission of Seeding Galveston, which he says consists of three pillars: economy, community, and culture. “We want to develop an economy, a real one you can make money from and spend that money,” he says, “and community. We’re already seeing the benefits of that aspect. Friends and contacts are being made through this process: through eating, through the market, through gardening. Culture is our third pillar. Getting people thinking and talking about food--food grown on the island, how they grow it themselves. We want conversations happening at the bar or a ball game or after church, where people ask each other, ‘What are you growing?’ and ‘Have you tasted this?’ We want to change the food culture; to make it relevant.”

Success for John and Debby (and everyone else involved in Seeding Galveston) looks like new micro-farms popping up all over the island, people eating locally, and the community growing through conversations about food. The best ways for residents to get involved and support Seeding Galveston are to come to markets at the farm (held weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays), volunteer, donate to the program, and set up gardens themselves. Debby and John urge anyone new to gardening and farming to visit them for assistance. “We never turn anybody down for anything we can offer,” John explains. “Whether people need compost, seedlings, information, or support - that’s why we’re here.”

Debby and John want to create a lasting impact on the island long after Seeding Galveston is gone. “When we’re run out of business by other farms that we’ve produced or inspired, then we’ve done our job,” they tell me. “And hopefully it will be within the next ten years. That’s what our goal really is. This isn’t for our retirement fund. As a matter of fact, it costs money to run this place. In the end, we’ve accomplished our mission if there are three hundred garden beds around the island, if there’s a dozen small market farms just in backyards that are represented at the farmer’s market or little stands that people open up on their block once a month.”


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