Marked by a variety of characteristics, innovation can be found in multiple disciplines. But all innovators set out in front of the pack, bushwhacking a trail where none exists. Innovative organizations and projects bring outside-the-box thinking to problems or present a refreshing take on the status quo.
Xpress sought to find those clearing the path for our community’s future and put out a call for the public to nominate innovators. We received a total of 41 nominations and, through a process of several in-house jury deliberations, arrived at the eight we profile in this special issue. It wasn’t easy. And the runners-up made us deliberate if we should even feature more.
Xpress is proud to present Asheville’s Innovators. We hope their actions inspire you to innovate in your corner of Western North Carolina.
— Xpress Asheville Innovator jury: Edwin Arnaudin, Jeff Fobes, Dan Hesse, Max Hunt, Carolyn Morrisroe, Tracy Rose and Gina Smith
Patchwork Urban Farms
Sunil Patel, founder/farmer
Describe your organization/project.
PUF is a cooperative, multiplot farm in the city of Asheville. We grow and produce eggs, herbs, flowers and perennial food crops. Our aim is to integrate land, landowners, farmers, workers and consumers to re-vision and re-establish a vibrant, village-scale food economy. We are three farmers farming on 15 patches in the city limits, and we distribute to residents in the city through a CSA program, pop-up farm stand, online store and farmers market. We also do a small amount of restaurant sales.
Why is this needed in the Asheville area, and how does it make a difference?
Our connection with the land we live on is lost. We have huge disparities in food access in our city. The ability of farmers to make a living feeding the community they live in is difficult, and the groundwork for a citywide food system needs to be established for us to find food security.
How does it make a difference? By having farming out in the open, where people can experience it on a daily and seasonal basis (just by seeing it happen in their neighborhood) will in a subtle but powerful way shift how we relate to the land we live on and the food we eat. This personal reconnection with the land and the people in our neighborhoods is essential for us to create a sustenance food system in the city. We have taken on Ujamaa Freedom Market (a food distribution cooperative) and will relaunch the project as a distribution, education and food access arm of Patchwork (relaunch scheduled for 2018).
Through a sliding-scale pricing system, mobile food market and food education, we hope to affect the imbalances we see in the ability for all residents to have access to fresh, healthful food. At the same time, the economics of food and farming make it challenging to provide a secure livelihood for farmers while still responsibly farming, feeding regular residents (not high-end markets) and affecting food access in low-income communities. By becoming a cooperative, we hope to create structures that mobilize landless farmers and future farmers (through incubation, shared infrastructure, distribution and marketing) and connect already established city and regional farmers in order to start coordinating ourselves to do the work of truly feeding our city. Shared food systems infrastructure and networked farmers will allow for better planning and implementation when we look to create a sustenance food system. It is a lofty vision, but through partnership with the Bountiful Cities project, we feel strong in this lofty vision.
What was your epiphany/eureka moment for this organization/project?
The vision formed as I was lead coordinator for an Urban Farm School program at the Ashevillage Institute in 2014. Through that, the process of deeply thinking about the idea of a citywide food system that actually feeds us, I formed some visions.
What was the inspiration that made you take the leap from cool, cutting-edge idea to implementing it?
We believe we all feel some level of the notion that there is a mandate to regenerate land, reconnect ourselves with it and find equity and security in that process. The urgency became very apparent to me a long time ago. There was a drive for real action now, which kick-started the development of a few relationships with landowners in the city in 2014. Support in many forms has allowed Sunil to carry it through and has allowed for Teddy Pitsiokos and Gabi White to join the cooperative and help found the structures we operate by and move the vision forward.
What do you think makes it innovative?
The end goal is that we all own our food system. Our aim is to incorporate landowners, workers, consumers and partnering food system enterprises into the cooperative to make a cohesive, empowered population in our city: to actually redesign and redefine our food economy. By making exchange-based relationships happen more and building trust and obligation between ourselves, we are taking the first essential step in creating what we are aiming for.
How is it working now?
Summer 2017 saw the first real transition into forming the growers cooperative of Patchwork. This is just the first step in our vision. Since 2014, we have laid an amazing foundation for the development of the various pieces in the vision. We are highly confident in our ability to put out an amazing product through our CSA program, online store and market venues. There is still a whole lot to do going forward, but we are at a point where the biggest need is to get our product more well-known as the quality product it is and create a profitable backbone for this project.
What are your goals for the project in the future?
The zoomed-out vision is: Hundreds (if not thousands) are making livelihoods in our citywide/regional food economy, all involved own the food system, and we are empowered to have the values we share in the food we eat.
How is what you’re doing different from what others (people, organizations) are doing to solve this problem?
There is a large movement and many organizations involved with the local food movement, but through our multifaceted approach, we see what we do as based in a reality where the scale, magnitude and foundational sustenance food systems infrastructure (physical and social) needs to be rebuilt from scratch in order for meaningful change to occur. Our focus is on that foundation more than anything else. We believe that what we’re creating now is going to allow for the scale and magnitude of a citywide food system. And we also understand that we are still in the very, very first steps in the process.
What advice do you have for people trying to use innovation to foster change in the community?
It is important that we do not fear trying something. Fostering change in a community usually means we are re-establishing what has been lost (community resilience). We must understand that just as it took thousands of generations to create optimal community resilience, it’s going to take us thousands of iterations to rebuild that. We must start and try now so we can churn through all the iterations we need to get through to reach our ideals.