Interview with Tony from Saint Vincent de Paul of Phoenix Farm and community garden (Phoenix, AZ) 7/20/2015
This post contains a video of the farm, a summary of the interview with Tony Kasowski, and a the full audio interview with transcript below the summary(with video and photos from the farm.)
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix is serving thousands of meals every week, in part with produce grown in the community garden at the Society’s urban farm. This is a summary of my interview with Resident Gardener Tony Kasowski, followed by a transcript.
The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul of Phoenix is an outstanding organization whose mission is to feed, clothe, house and heal our neighbors in need. The society serves 42,000 meals per day, which are supplemented with fresh vegetables from the Saint Vincent de Paul Urban Farm. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony, one of the founders of the farm, who shared with me how the farm is feeding and healing people, and setting up mutually beneficial relationships among the farm, its clients and key players in the community.
I asked Tony about the purpose of the farm, and I received a surprising answer.
“Healing starts with your fork, not at the doctor’s or the hospital. Really, what you’re putting in your body, it’s gonna be the most important part to living a healthy life in my opinion. And so we’re really able to shift from being homeless and maybe getting something in from a convenience store, whether it’s a hot dog or some corn chips or whatever it might be, to a kale salad. You just are gonna instantly feel better. That food is made to be eaten, not store it in a package.
And as far as the healing goes, you also have people who come out here and volunteer. And I imagine that that’s really healing the people, as well, to work in the garden. The garden is incredibly therapeutic.” Tony told me that at one of their projects, they have discovered that 80% of the people that spent more than 30 days in the garden volunteering did not return to use our services. Instead, they found and were able to keep housing and a job. Tony says, “I think there’s a lot of value to caring for something.”
Saint Vincent de Paul also utilizes the farm space for special needs groups that come in from different middle schools and high schools, who have really responded positively to working in the garden.
The garden also has a regular volunteer flow of people who keep coming back to help out. “I mean, it’s the middle of July in Phoenix and we have people that are spending their mornings out here with us for free,” Tony laughs. “They’re out here on their own and it’s just that I think that we kind of have nature deficit disorder here in the United States, especially,” Tony explains that getting in touch with nature and cultivating the earth “bring a lot more happiness than texting or iPads.”
As a non-profit agency, the farm is dependent upon donations and volunteers to make it work.
But Tony is thinking out of the box to set up win-win relationships with the community. As an example, he has plans to create a Food Truck club in which food truck entrepreneurs could grow food for their trucks at the farm in exchange for financial donations and serving a certain number of free meals to the homeless each week. The trucks would benefit from the space to grow fresh produce and from Tony’s expertise to help them out. Their customers would receive healthier and tastier food. The farm would be further supported by the donations. And the neighborhood would benefit from an increase in the number of healthy meals being served to those in need. Tony is thinking creatively about how he can keep the farm out of the red, with integrity, and keeping the focus on fulfilling the society’s mission.
Tony’s advice to people who want to grow food or start something new in their community is to “just start. Just do it and look and research and learn. And I think the main thing, whether it’s a small business or a garden or whatever you’ve got in your head, go and just do it. And you don’t have to do it to the 11th degree. Start small and move from there.”
Audio Interview with Photos and Video of the St. Vincent de Paul Urban Farm
See the transcript below the video.
Tony, I really appreciate you letting us come out this morning and see your farm and community garden. It’s incredible. It’s two acres, isn’t it?
We have about two acres total on this property plus the 10,000 square foot warehouse. We’re producing right now on about 40 to 50,000 square feet, so it’s just right around an acre in production right now.
An acre in production, okay. Well that’s a lot of space, and more space than most people in the city have to grow on.
Absolutely, absolutely, but what we’re doing is we’re taking small space gardening and just doing it over and over. So we’re just replicating that kind of small space urban organic type of agriculture.
What is the purpose of the community garden?
Well, since we are with St. Vincent de Paul here, our main purpose is just to put pounds of fresh nutrient dense vegetables into the food boxes, and into the kitchen here.
We do serve 42,000 meals a day. And again, we’ve got the food boxes that we can supplement with the fresh fruits and vegetables. Our mission here is to feed, clothe, heal, house and out of the garden, we’re obviously able to feed people, and we’re totally able to heal people as well.
Because like I was saying earlier, healing starts with your fork, not at the doctor’s or the hospital. Really, what you’re putting in your body, it’s gonna be the most important part to living a healthy life in my opinion. And so we’re really able to shift from being homeless and maybe getting something in from a convenience store, whether it’s a hot dog or some corn chips or whatever it might be, to a kale salad.
You just are gonna instantly feel better. That food is made to be eaten, not store it in a package So, beyond that, the food that we’re serving here because of the way we grow it, our nutrient density, is gonna be higher. There’s gonna be more of the good stuff in there that most everybody, if you’re not eating a really high fruit and vegetable diet, I mean, we’re all kind of lacking that, our society is kind of lacking that.
The garden is incredibly therapeutic. We have folks that were homeless. And actually one of our other projects down the street, where we have a lot more traffic from some of the Valley’s less fortunate, we actually had a statistic of 80% of the people that spent, on a regular basis, more than 30 days in our garden volunteering, helping out, did not return to use our services.
So they either found housing, a job, both, and were able to keep it and hold it down. I think there’s a lot of value to caring for something. We’re also utilizing this space for some of our special needs groups that come in from different middle schools and high schools.
And they’ve really responded positively to working in the garden. Beyond that, just kind of our regular volunteer flow, people keep on coming back. I mean, it’s the middle of July in Phoenix and we have people that are spending their mornings out here with us for free [LAUGH]. They’re out here on their own and it’s just that I think that we kind of have nature deficit disorder here in the United States, especially.
And especially urban places like Phoenix, or south Phoenix where we are here. Yeah, you can go to South Mountain (to hike,) but that’s not everybody’s daily grind. So I think kinda getting your hands in the soil, utilizing some skills that I think that are preprogrammed in us and are just really primal for us to really be producing our own food, be cultivating the earth.
These are all things that I think bring a lot more happiness than texting or iPads or whatever. I think that’s a lot more numbing and this is a lot more awakening, and bringing some consciousness to the space and to the individuals that spend their time here.
How do you keep it going financially? Will you tell us about farm funding?
[LAUGH] Well, a lot of it was donations from myself and Dave Smith to start. Most of the seeds in the garden right now is stuff that I’ve purchased.
…We’ve been priming the pump. Now we have a showcase piece where we have already a large donor base, being Saint Vincent de Paul. This is kind of becoming our centerpiece now because it is such a little gem here in south Phoenix.
So our donations have increased substantially straight to the garden from new donors. Another thing we’re going to start to be doing is developing revenue streams. So far we’ve been kind of giving some produce to some different restaurants to see if they’d like it. More friends than anything, and they would give us a donation, kind of, in exchange for that. I don’t think I can say selling it, I don’t know.
But another thing we’re gonna be doing is creating some space, some garden spaces, garden beds. Right now we’re looking at about 30 garden beds for local food trucks and restaurants to lease. There would be a startup cost for that to cover our wood and soil and things of that nature, irrigation.
And then after that, they pay a monthly donation, or a monthly fee, to have that garden. Well the benefit there is, you know, you’ve got somebody like myself, who’s gonna actually kind of walk them through it, and help them be successful. So, you know, beyond that, they’re gonna be able to take this produce and put it right onto their food truck, or right into their restaurant.
Beyond that, we’re planning to do kind of like a separate food truck St Vincent’s kind of club. And so there’s an awareness that’s being built through the interaction with the public. One more thing that we’re gonna have them do as part of their rent for the beds, and part of being a part of our group here is gonna be that the food trucks are so great, we can actually have them take food to people.
So part of their rent will be (perhaps to) serve 15 meals a week to our clients. And so we kinda know where everybody’s at, we know the riverbeds or the areas where people are hanging out as far as the homeless folks. So what we’ll do is we’ll have them take their food trucks right to the places and give out free meals.
So, our finances are working themselves out. Again, we’re blessed to have such an awesome organization where we already have fish in the pond that are gonna be interested in what we’re doing. But we all are also going to be doing corporate sponsorships. We’re going to be doing plant sales. And we plan on doing some fresh vegetable sales. We’re actually about to get 100 chickens.
Right, so we’ll probably be doing some egg sales. And the balance between impact and finance is kind of a delicate one, that we’re really trying to ride that wave with integrity. And make sure that, you know, we are fulfilling our mission, but we are still, you know, not in the red. So, and we’re learning, you know, this is new for Saint Vincent de Paul. This is new, I don’t know any food banks that are doing this on this scale.
And so it’s really an honor and a pride point for myself to be a part of such and really kind of the founder of something that’s so, I think necessary. And so we’re kind of carving it as we go. At the same time with a lot of past experience from Dave’s county manager.
My background was sales and marketing. Social media’s been huge for us. Instagram alone, we’ve just really kind of come on the scenes there. So it’s been a lot of successes and our quote, unquote failures we’ve just taken as learning experiences. Stay optimistic and keep growing.
This is an exciting community garden project.
It is, you should definitely come back, bring your gloves.
Yes, we’ll come back in the, yeah I’ll bring my gloves and we’ll come back in the peak of the growing season.
Yeah, come back in October or something, take some more pictures. Because now I’ve got just a little brown out there, but.
It’s summer, it’s Phoenix, so we all struggle through through the summer.
Yeah that sun is not, it’s definitely intense so.
Before I go, can you give tip for people who want to grow their own food. Do you have a tip for home gardeners?
Yeah I would say well my really thing to say is just start, okay? Just start and utilize the Internet and utilize forums and utilize Facebook. Some day is not a day of the week, and so people are like I’m gonna do that some day.
But just start growing something. Start simple, I would utilize as many resources as you have in your area. Like here we have the county extension office, we have the Valley Permaculture Alliance, those are both good resources. And just online, there’s some really good Facebook groups like the Desert Gardener’s in Maricopa county is really good, and I think kind of blossoms.
[LAUGH] But I think …just start. Just do it and look and research and learn. And I think the main thing for anything whether it’s a small business, a garden. Whatever you’ve got kind of in your head, go and just do it and you don’t have to do it to the 11th degree or whatever.
Start small and move from there. Learn your way that way and that’s my advice.
Are there any books that you recommend on gardening or community gardening?
Actually I would take Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway. It’s a really good one. That’s a book on home-scale permaculture.
If you wanna get technical, I would say Teeming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels. That is a very dense book, that I’ve read a couple times, and still can’t, it’s very dense, a lot of science in there. But incredibly beneficial to really teach how soil is a living organism. And I think that again is probably the most important thing is the soil in a garden or in a farm. So that’s really gonna kinda teach you the ins and outs on why it is what it is. And anything you could possibly think of that you don’t even really wanna know but you will.
And, let’s see another one, if you wanna go a bit larger scale, like you wanna do a homestead, I would say Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shephard.
All these guys are talking about systems replicating nature that are bio-regenerative.
So literally, our agriculture, industrial or conventional agriculture is depleting our Earth, okay? There’s no ifs ands or buts about that. We’re taking petrochemicals, we’re pumping them out of the ground, we’re processing them and we’re creating fertilizer.
So then we’re spraying this oil all over the fields and then we’re eating it. And, I mean I’m not I try not to. And in between there we’re taking all the soil and we’re tilling it up and we’re compacting it and we’re putting herbicides on there so certain things don’t grow.
I don’t know where we got the idea that that was a good idea, but it’s not. Okay and so, the regeneration is I think incredibly important. And all those books that I’m talking about there, are really focused on doing that in a manner that’s, it’s really not that difficult.
And we’re not doing brain surgery out here. And, yeah, you’ll lose some plants and things’ll die or whatever. Take it as a lesson, either maybe try again or don’t. And say, hey, you know what, these didn’t work for me, try something else. And talk to your peers and neighbors and other gardeners. And let’s get everybody growing in the right way.
The thing that I’m really hearing from you is that we want to set up win, win situations. Whether it’s growing things that are good for people to eat, as well as good for the environment, good for our community. Setting up financial systems that are good for the people who are using them, good for the garden here, good for the homeless population. It just sounds like everything you do is just setting up systems that are good and healthy all around.
I would say so, yeah. I think that is kinda how you have to live. I mean just like eternal optimism, and looking at kinda how things are. In our current state of society, if you turn on the news, this looks like a really bad place, okay? If you come to the garden it doesn’t and that’s kind of I feel like this a mission.
I’m a vessel and I’ve got the ability to educate, inform people and feed people. And create jobs and create revenue streams. Like you said there is just a lot of good here. And I think one thing that you could take away from this is that it kind of starts here…There are so many benefits coming from this one acre. So many possibilities that it’s, it erases all that negative in my mind. Or at least it starts to put a dent in it so and that’s what we’re doing. We’re chipping away. It’s a lot of hard work.
At the same time though people like yourself that are kind of promoting it and kind of showcasing what we’re doing. That always helps. We’ve had a lot of media out here…people are noticing. People are shifting their thinking. And I think that is really what we’ve changed, more than anything, is how people think.
And I can talk about this for hours, but kind of like how when you give somebody a piece of lettuce and it might have a little bug hole in it. There, and you’ve got to tell them, no that’s okay, okay you know like that’s okay.
Actually good. [LAUGH]
It is, that means that this is edible, okay, and so when you take even BT, I don’t use stuff like that. I don’t use, like we don’t use anything here, when you take chemicals and put it on your food like salad dressing, it just doesn’t make sense.
So you put harmful things on your food? Where do we get that? So with that being said, I think, again, it’s a good beta model. We need about 10,000 of these, at least. But it’s a good showcase, and it’s working. And people are supporting it and people get it.
And so I think it’ll continue to be successful, and it’ll continue to grow. And our goal this year is to have 50,000 pounds of fresh produce produced through not only our garden, we have the other garden. And then we’re also partnering with local farmers that have remnant crops delivering over a pallet of melons that they can’t get to the market in time.
But we have the logistics to get them out. So the next time you come back, it’ll probably be the same story, but maybe some new stuff here and who knows?