Blog: Amanda Edmonds

Thorny social issues are what perpetuate inequitable access to farm-fresh products. This week Amanda Edmonds, executive director of Growing Hope, talks about the ways in which her non-profit empowers communities to grow and eat heathy food. Ground zero: a seed squadron.

Post 2: Good Deeds = Good Seeds

Our approach at Growing Hope is about win-wins.  And, when we're lucky, they may even go three ways -- win-win-win, we call it.  Win-win is about getting and giving in both directions, so that everyone comes out ahead -- it's one of those core values I talk about.  Let me describe with an example and then pontificate a bit after.

Last year we were faced with a challenge.   We needed seedlings-- and specifically a way to grow a lot of them.  For non-gardeners out there, in February, March, and April green thumbs and brown thumbs fill every egg carton and peat pot and yogurt cup with a growing medium, stick seeds in that soil, and find the lightest spot to help them grow.  That way when it's time to plant later in the spring we're all set.  Growing Hope grows seedlings to plant at the Growing Hope Center, to donate to partner families and gardens, and to sell at our spring plant sale and at our Downtown Ypsi Farmers' Market.  Early spring seedling production needs to happen in heated space, and ideally under artificial lights (a south-facing window might work, but may still not be quite enough).  Our seedling needs began to far exceed available space.  Heated space with lights became a limiting factor.

We also know from experience that the physical and mental barriers to getting growing are things that limits people growing their own food.  Every tried to hand a jankity shoplight from the back of a chair or balance those seedlings on top of the fridge, only to have the family pet or toddler knock it all down?  Or, the seedlings that grew well at first but because of the drafty window and cloudy days became leggy and limp?  If you've started seeds you've probably had this sort of experience.  We looked to the commercial marketplace at seed-starting light stand set ups, and price is a huge barrier-- easily $150 to fit just 1-2 trays of plants.  

Our enterprising spirit kicked in -- in fact, it was our social enterprising spirit.  With volunteers and partners from the Washtenaw Community College Residential Construction Program, we made it up.  We designed a simple wooden light stand structure with an A-frame that fits two standard four-foot shop lamps.  There's room underneath for four flats, which generally hold 192 seedlings.  We wanted to create something simple and sturdy with materials anyone could buy at the store.   For about $45, when all is said and done (wood, bolts, screws, two 4-ft shop lamps, four bulbs), we birthed a light stand for seed starting.  We don't have shop drawings for it (we hope to eventually), but you can see photos here.

Then came the Seed Starting Squad.  This was our way to organize people using these stands to help us and help themselves grow seedlings.  We put out the call and people applied to be a part of the Squad.  Have you ever met a gardener or a garden-wanna-be in February?  Eager describes all of them, and 75 overwhelmed us with applications to participate.  We only have so much time and space to cut and assemble wood, so we were able to accommodate 45 households that year.  A Squad household could buy the light stand on a sliding scale (we really like these and trust people to pay where they can) from $50-$100.  Or, if that wasn't affordable, you could borrow the light stand, making the personal investment just about free.  To be in the Squad, you agreed to come pick up your stand and grow two flats of seedlings for us, leaving space under the lights for two flats for yourself.  Everyone wins.  When your seedlings have grown up, you drop them off and we put them into the mix in our plant sales, giveaways, or into the ground.  In year 1, about 3,500 viable seedlings were returned to us.  This year, the participation rate and numbers were even higher. 

It's a win-win-win: Families have learned or honed a great skill, resulting in seedlings for their own gardens, and have overcome the barrier of getting started inexpensively; Growing Hope has seedlings for sale, planting, and donation; the light stand is a replicable, scaleable model we can share with others, and the borrowed light stands are a resource we can lend or sell to future participants, share with schools, etc.... and, our community has a way to engage early in the season, participating in something that's satisfying -- and, as confirmed by our evaluation of the program this year, is making people more likely to grow their own fruits and vegetables.

We budget that this program breaks even in terms of material costs (volunteer labor not included in the calculation).  We consider this a social enterprise because it both furthers our mission and brings in revenue.  The Seed Starting Squad is structured to be affordable and accessible, transparent and replicable, not require any prior knowledge (we plan for some loss in our calculations), be family-friendly, use volunteer support, and a vehicle for community engagement.  As Growing Hope has assessed what social enterprise opportunities to pursue, these are all important qualities.  In fact, we made a matrix by which we judge mission-related earned revenue opportunities, weighing both traditional business planning considerations (start up costs, ROI, et al) with these and other principles (VALUES) that are important to all that we do.  

Other enterprises we've taken on also further our mission but are designed to earn more revenue to support programs or areas of our work that don't bring in funds.  Our raised bed kits, for example, which we sell in the spring (and we'll tell you how much we paid for materials and how much the mark-up is,  and we'll train you to build it yourself) are simple and affordable, yet our profit margin can still support our free Raised Bed Installation program for low-income and no-income families.  In fact, for every six raised bed kits we sell, we can fund the materials for one family's raised bed garden installation.  Again, it's a win-win-- an affordable solution for people in their homes that directly supports subsidizing for those without any.  (Note: our Raised Bed Installation program was modeled after one in Olympia, Wash. at a rockin' organization called GruB which was so open and willing to share their best practices with us).  And, while they haven't all come from us, you may have seen (particularly in Ypsi) more and more four-by-four-foot raised beds popping up all around town.  Our "what can you grow in a square" message has taken ground, literally, as the interest in local, healthy food and gardening has skyrocketed in the last few seasons.

My own advice to nonprofits and for profits working to better the community while also earning revenue -- think hard about win-wins.    Whether we've strategized or stumbled into them, when we've hit upon something that just really works from so many angles, it's been amazing to feel how the impact radiates throughout Growing Hope, and throughout our communities.