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Saturday, June 22, 2019

Success is not static: evolution is required to create and sustain regeneration

With Elemental Impact's (Ei) ten-year history of living the original tagline, Sustainability in ACTION, and more recently the renewed tagline, Regeneration in ACTION, substantial relationships evolved into valuable industry assets. With intentions to broaden environmental, humanitarian, and societal impact, Ei often facilitates powerful introductions within its extensive network. The Ei Connects page documents prominent introductions.

On June 17, Ei orchestrated introductions for long-time comrade in sustainability Georgia Institute of Technology (Ga Tech) to Kennesaw State University (KSU) Hickory Grove Farm (HGF) and KSU Dining Services. Ga Tech Director of Waste & Recycling Cindy Jackson was joined by Sustainability Coordinator Sarah Neville and Senior Sustainability Manager Malte Weiland. KSU Sustainability Manager Jennifer Wilson joined the tour and meeting; KSU Dining Service Culinary Director Brian Jones hosted the introductory meeting at The Commons campus-dining hall.

As Ei segued from the Era of Recycling Refinement into the Era of Regeneration, a close relationship developed with HGF via the first farm tour in June 2017 for Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA) and EPA, Region 4 associates.

Based on the inaugural tour, Ei Founder Holly Elmore wrote the Fall 2017 Southern Farm & Garden seven-page, multiple-article feature, An Icon in Sustainability and Hickory Grove Farm: Regenerative Agriculture Revives Soils & Local Ecosystems. The article gives an overview of KSU's stellar sustainability commitment at the Michael A. Leven School of Culinary Sustainability & Hospitality, The Commons (KSU’s Gold LEED-certified dining hall), and HGF. Holly's photography enhanced the article.

Ga Tech | Ei
The powerful Ga Tech | Ei relationship dates back to the Zero Waste Zones 2009 launch. Over the years, Cindy attended the Annual Ei Partner Meetings and joined the 2014 Atlanta Ei Partner Tours.

In industry circles, Holly refers to Cindy as the AMAZING Cindy Jackson!

The Lorax recycling center
There are many layers to the AMAZING aspect of Cindy Jackson, each indicative of Ga Tech's profound sustainability commitment and award-winning accomplishments. Thus, in essence, the reference is to the AMAZING Ga Tech facilities department management.

As a recycling-industry pioneer, Ga Tech received early national awards: American Forest & Paper Association 2008 University Recycling Award and the National Recycling Coalition 2008 Best Overall Recycling, Outstanding College or University Program Award.

Most importantly from a recycling perspective, the Ga Tech Solid Waste & Recycling Department never succumbed to single-stream recycling. Though it increases "diversion rates," single-stream recycling decreases actual recycling due to contaminated material streams. Diversion rates most often refer to the first stop after collection versus the material's final destination.

Supported by in-depth research, industry reports state single-stream recycling generally results in 25%+ of collected material destined for the landfill | incinerator due to contamination.

Clean, student-separated
plastic-recycling stream
Under Cindy's oversight, Ga Tech boasts incredibly clean, source-separated streams; clean material equates to valuable material sold in local markets as manufacturing raw material. Ga Tech students take their recycling seriously and source-separate items in accordance with the clear bin signage.

On October 24, 2017 Ga Tech hosted the first annual Facilities Sustainability Forum to an enthusiastic audience from the university and beyond. At Cindy's invitation, Holly was the featured speaker. The ZWA Blog article, Collaboration + Culture = Sustainability Success, is a forum overview featuring Holly’s presentation as well as the Building Services, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Landscape Service department sessions.

Hickory Grove Farm - History 
In 2013 the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) leased the 26-acre tract of land to KSU for farm use. Formally, the site was the GDOT cement-mixing site for nearby I-75 construction. Though not toxic, the soil was severely compacted and devoid of necessary minerals to sustain a healthy soil ecosystem. In addition, stormwater flowed off the property, rather than hydrate the "dead soil."

The Hydroponics Lab
Due to the deteriorated state of the soil, one of the first structures built at HGF was the Hydroponics Lab. In addition to not requiring soil for healthy crops, hydroponic agriculture systems save tremendous water. According to a University of Arizona Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science 2011 article:
A hydroponic lettuce system could use only 10 percent of the water needed compared to field-grown lettuce. Arizona uses about 70 percent of its water for agriculture.Theoretically, about 90 percent of all that water could be saved if every farm converted to hydroponics.
As the Hydroponics Lab is an enclosed structure, plant pests (insects, disease or other) are non-existent. Thus, creative pest control free of toxic chemicals is not necessary.

With patience, tenacity and a strategic plan, KSU restored the land through regenerative-agriculture practices. Simple, effective stormwater-management techniques retain water on the property, including a vibrant natural retention pond. A pair of mallard ducks, frogs, a variety of native plants, and abundant insects thrive within the pond and its shoreline.

HGF retention pond
Soil restoration is a partnership with the land; continued nurturing through compost use, crop rotation and other regenerative applications are necessary to maintain and improve soil health. HGF Manager Michael Blackwell ultized his extensive regenerative-agriculture wisdom to restore the soils into rich, dynamic ecosystems where crops thrived. 

Within a mere four years HGF supplied The Commons with nearly 25 percent of its produce, approximately 20,000 pounds of produce annually, and often 100 percent of its eggs. The Commons campus-dining hall serves 6,000-plus students, faculty, and guests per day during the active school year.

Back in 2017, HGF served as as a laboratory for The Michael A. Leven School of Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality (CSH) with an active class schedule. To prepare the students with the necessary skills to evolve into valuable culinary and hospitality-industry employees, the CSH required 400 hours of work experience and 200 volunteer hours for program graduation. Thus, HGF was the recipient of a significant number of student-volunteer hours for farm work.

CSH student  on the farm
The main farm structures in 2017 included the Propagation Lab, the Hydroponics Lab, one open-air high tunnel, a large chicken coop, a  tool shed, and the administration trailer.

The Hydroponics Lab housed a state-of-the-art vertical hydroponic system that watered each plant individually. The periodic dry time emulated nature and prevented root rot often prevalent in hydroponic systems. Within the lab, the tomato, cucumber, and various peppers-crop yields were impressive. Planting was timed to generate crops within the KSU-class rhythm.

HGF's fifteen honey-bee hive apiary served as a hands-on laboratory for the CSH Organic Agriculture and Beginning Apiary course. In addition to honey bees, the farm installed native-bee hives in the maturing apple orchard. Though they do not produce honey, native bees are far superior pollinators to honey bees, which are an introduced species.

In early 2017, the Honeybee Conservancy granted funds to The Siegel Institute for Leadership, Ethics, and Character to support collaborative efforts with KSU for raising Georgia’s bee population. Designated for the construction of a new apiary, grant funds allowed HGF to add mason and leafcutter bees to their original bee population.

Germinated seeds in soil blocks
ready for planting
For plastic-free seed planting, Michael uses stamped soil blocks to germinate seeds for planting in the high-tunnel. As another plastic-free measure, Michael grows saplings for new orchards in repurposed #10 cans from KSU Dining Services.

In October 2017, KSU announced the CSH would be phased out by spring of 2021 and was no longer accepting new students. Thus, HGF lost their steady stream of student-volunteer hours and the budget for farm labor other than Michael. It was time to step back and evolve the farm's strategic-operations plan.

Hickory Grove Farm - Evolution
With limited farm labor, Michael immediately assessed how he could maintain crop production. As they require seven-days per week attendance, finding homes for the 100-farm chickens was one of the first action points. Michael confirmed the chickens literally went to homes and not for chicken-broth production. 

Hydroponic lettuce ready for harvest
A second top priority was replacing the the original vertical-hydroponics system with a table-top system to focus on lettuce and reduce required labor. With the Hydroponics Lab's new system, lettuce grows from seeds to ready-for-harvest in six weeks, broken down into three, two-week stages.

HGF can easily produce 400 pounds of lettuce per week, more than KSU Dining uses, even when at  full capacity feeding 6,000 students per day. Thus, Michael is experimenting with growing herbs and other produce in the hydroponics lab.

Built in the last year, a second high tunnel is in the midst of its first growing season. To prevent moths and other insects from laying eggs on the crops, the new high tunnel is completely enclosed. Additionally, pollinator insects are not present and the monecious squash crop must be hand pollinated.

Monoecious plants, such as corn, birches, and squashes, produce individual male and female flowers; pollen from the male stamen must touch the female stigma for fertilization to occur. Once fertilized, the female ovary swells as it grows into a fruit or vegetable. When insect pollination is not an option, hand-pollinating squash blossoms is a common gardening practice.

Hand pollinating squash flowers
HGF staff hand-pollinate squash blossoms each morning. According to Michael the hand-pollination process is simple and takes approximately 30 minutes. By the abundant yellow squash nearing harvest, the hand pollination is successful at the farm.

Over the dormant winter months, Michael built a produce washroom complete with a bubble washer and a walk-in cooler. With an "extension service for the small farmer" mentality, Michael built the room with grass-roots economics. 

The bubble washer is used to clean lettuce and other produce while an industrial spinner dries the lettuce prior to bagging for storage. Michael used a simple jacuzzi pump to craft the inexpensive bubble washer.

Hand-crafted walk-in cooler
Rather than purchase one for $12,000, Michael hand-built the walk-in cooler for $600. A CoolBot (walk-in cooler controller) was used to transform a standard-window air-conditioner unit into a refrigeration-cooling system.

It is incredibly impressive to witness Michael's ingenuity and commitment to supporting urban ag and small rural-farm systems.

Though HGF composted farm waste in the past, fall KSU campus leaves are now brought to the farm for composting versus their prior landfill destination. Michael completed the Master Composter Certification offered by the UGA Athens-Clarke County Extension Service. Per the county website:
Established in 2011 as a partnership between Athens-Clarke County Extension and the Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department, the Georgia Master Composter Program is an adult education course and Extension Volunteer program.  Master Composters complete a nine-week training course that covers all aspects of the composting process.  Classes are taught by UGA faculty, Athens-Clarke County and US Forest Service staff, and small and commercial business owners. Topics include the chemistry and microbiology of composting, types of and reasons for composting, composting techniques and teaching tools.  As Extension volunteers, Master Composters then use this information to share composting basics with their family, friends and the community.  
The KSU Sustainability Department is ready to explore the possibility of transporting KSU Dining Services food waste to HGF for compost.

HGF will continue to evolve as various KSU departments realize the value of a nearby organic farm. With plenty of available land, the farm is ripe for an array of research and other projects.

American Chestnut
The HGF land is bound on the south and north sides with old-growth forest. While exploring the north forest, Michael discovered two healthy shoots from former magnificent American chestnuts killed by the chestnut blight. It is estimated 3 - 4 billion American chestnuts were killed by the blight in the first half of the 20th century. Though healthy in appearance, the shoots remain vulnerable to the blight.

Michael gazes at one of the
American chestnut trees
Based on submitted leaves and twigs, the American Chestnut Foundation confirmed the saplings are pure American chestnuts. If the elder sapling is free of the blight parasite, Michael is hopeful HGF may submit healthy seeds for the national efforts to revive the magnificent native trees.

Before humans developed North America, the American chestnut was the predominant tree from the Eastern seaboard to the Mississippi River. Legend says a squirrel could run through American chestnut tree branches from the East Coast to the Mississippi without touching the ground. Though urban development diminished the prominent population, the chestnut blight removed the magnificent trees from North American landscapes.

The only two verified pure American chestnut trees outside of the mountain region are on HGF. With the high honor comes a responsibility for species stewardship. 

KSU Dining Services
In alignment with its sustainability commitment, KSU opened The Commons Gold-LEED Certified dining facility in 2010. The Commons was awarded #2 Best College Dining Hall in 2016 by

The Commons entrance
KSU Dining Services Culinary Director Brian Jones oversees the in-house campus-foodservice operations. Brian uses his extensive fine-dining expertise to serve superior cuisine to the students, faculty and guests who dine at KSU facilities. An industry powerhouse, Brian recently won the National Association of College and University Food Service Southern Regional Culinary Challenge, earning a berth in the organization’s national competition in July.

In addition to an impressive healthy-dining commitment, including ample vegetarian and vegan-culinary options, KSU Dining Services adheres to best sustainable-operating practices. In 2018, 292 tons of source-separated food waste was collected for compost. At The Commons, back-of-the-house employees separate the food waste and trash from the reusable plates, flatware and cups. The employee-driven system aids in collecting a clean post-consumer food-waste stream for compost collection.

Committed to food-waste reduction, KSU Dining Services is trayless and uses moderate-sized plates and cups. At most of the stations, food is portioned by staff rather than permitting diners to overflow plates with student-sized appetite portions.

Pickled carrots
Prior to the one-month summer closing, Brian and his team scoured the kitchen for remaining perishable food and preserved the food in a variety of methods. Thus, pickled carrots provide lovely decor at the dining-hall stations.

Excess food is donated to Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Services. Founded in May 2013, CARE is a single point-of-access to services and resources, both on and off campus, for KSU students with issues surrounding homelessness, food insecurity, and foster care.

According to an April 2019 article Bills in California and Washington Address Homeless College Students:
Of university students, 36 percent said they had experienced some form of housing insecurity and 9 percent reported being homeless in the past year. Among community college students, 46 percent reported housing insecurity and 12 percent reported homelessness
With an innate community spirit, KSU Dining Services staff pre-packages excess food in single-service containers to aid in effective distribution to individuals.

As previously stated, KSU Dining Services uses reusable plates, flatware and cups to minimize waste generated in the dining halls. Beyond "straws available upon request," straws are not available at KSU dining halls. For to-go orders, KSU Dining Services provides reusable containers within a system designed for container return.

Synergies Abound
On June 17 the Ga Tech team arrived at HGF in the morning for a detailed farm tour hosted by Michael and joined by Jennifer. The Ga Tech folks were beyond impressed with the land's transformation from a cement-mixing site to a dynamic farm as well as Michael's ingenuity and innate passion for living by example.

Ga Tech | KSU sustainability meeting
After the farm tour, the group convened at The Commons dining hall for a KSU | Ga Tech sustainability introductory meeting. Cindy gave a thorough overview of Ga Tech's impressive recycling practices along with challenges addressed. In the midst of a shift to Aramark as their contracted foodservice operator, Sarah recapped the current Ga Tech-dining scenario.

Brian followed with the history of KSU Dining along with details of his extraordinary culinary operations. Wrapping up the meeting, Jennifer gave an overview of KSU's sustainability commitment. As Brian said farewell, the group enjoyed an amazing lunch.

Synergies abounded during the tour and meeting between Ga Tech and KSU. While Ga Tech excels in its waste & recycling program as well as grounds-maintenance practices, KSU is an industry hero in sustainable dining. An open-ended action point was scheduling a KSU visit to Ga Tech's campus. By working together the two state-owned universities may propel their respective operations into new sustainability realms.

An Ei FB album, Ei Connects, section is a pictorial recap of the meeting and tour from an Ei-Connects perspective; a Holly Elmore Images FB album, KSU Hickory Grove Farm, section includes images from Holly's pre-tour photo shoot as well as tour images.

Beyond Sustainability
Over the past decade, significant strides were made in zero-waste practices, renewable-energy technology, and reduced carbon | water footprints. Yet the glaciers continue to melt, the ocean acidification levels are increasing, and desertification is escalating.

Is sustainability / resilience enough to stave off the building crisis of the diminishing food and oxygen supply?

The RiA Magazine article, Beyond Sustainability: Regenerative Solutions, establishes sustainability | resilience is not enough to prevent the building crisis. Yet solutions abound in regenerating our soils by overhauling common agriculture, landscape and land-use practices.

Hickory Grove Farm is a stellar example of "farming done right" and how regenerative agriculture is a solution that produces abundant, healthy food and draws down significant carbon from the atmosphere into the soils. It takes commitment and tenacity of spirit to create and maintain a regenerative farm. Farm Manager Michael Blackwell knows success is not static and evolution is required to create and sustain regeneration.

Ei was honored to facilitate the empowering introduction of Kennesaw State University and Georgia Institute of Technology sustainability associates. May the magic flow within the respective universities so their strong sustainability commitments evolve into regenerative commitments.

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