Elise Pickett, the creator and owner of The Urban Harvest, sat down with FLFPC Board Member Dell deChant and FLFPC Administrative Assistant Kyndra Love for a conversation on her work developing The Urban Harvest, successes and challenges, current initiatives in the local community, and recommendations for policy moving forward.
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Or read a shortened transcript with highlights from the dialogue below.
Dell: We are lucky to have with us today Elise Pickett from The Urban Harvest. We are going to turn over the opening part of a program to Elise so that she can tell us a little bit about herself and get us set up for the dialogue that will follow.
Elise: Hello everybody! My name is Elise Pickett and I am the owner/founder of The Urban Harvest. I started doing this back in 2014 and I wanted to help people learn how to vegetable garden. I think it's a really important thing to grow your own food and there’s a huge knowledge gap in today’s society. It’s just not something that many of us have been brought up with and raised around. So, I wanted to kind of fill that knowledge gap and be there for people if they have those questions and kind of help overcome the hurdles in the beginning, learn the seasons and the pests, specific to Florida. That’s definitely my specialty. That’s where I was born and raised. That’s where I’ve gardened since I was a child. You mentioned food renaissance and growing your own food—I couldn’t agree more. Especially this past year, I've really been branching out even beyond Florida and really just trying to help anybody and everybody with the basics of vegetable gardening.
Dell: Remind us again of just how long you’ve been doing it; and maybe tell us a little bit about the growth process in your project, how you got The Urban Harvest started and then a couple of the turning points or major events that led you to where you are today.
Elise: I started this as an official business in 2014, so I've been doing it for six years now officially. But I kind of decided to start doing this because I had a lot of friends and family members that were coming to me asking me questions all the time. And it's because they saw what I was doing—they saw me harvesting and producing food, and they were intrigued and wanted to know more. So, I helped them.
I’m lucky enough I do it full time now. For about the last year and a half, almost two years, I’ve been full time but it was not like that for a long time. I would say that was one of the biggest things to be patient. But I kept doing it because I knew it was needed and now that I get to do it full-time it’s really evolved. Everything was local in the beginning. I knew St. Pete I knew the businesses around here. I’d network, I’d go to the local farmers markets, stuff like that. My sister actually encouraged me to share my knowledge on YouTube but I didn’t want anything to do with that. It was not my scene. But she kept pushing and I finally decided I’d do it and it’s been amazing because now I’m not just meeting face to face with people in St. Pete, I’ve been able to help more people by branching out into that online format. So that was kind of a big turning point. Now I’m able to help a huge amount of people.
Dell: So, you started in 2014 and you are a for-profit organization. The most common questions that come up are kind of the technical aspects and the business aspects of getting started with a project like yours. Many growers work for either not-for-profit or are in some way aligned with the State government. How does The Urban Harvest fit in with that?
Elise: So I am an LLC and I strongly believe that, not necessarily for my business model but for a lot of the education and food policy movement, there are places and absolutely time for the grants and not-for-profits, but I also believe that to keep things sustainable long-term and to not have to rely on outside resources if budgets start to get cut or if a business closes down, I want to be able to be independent of that so that I am still able to carry on my mission regardless of outside input. So, it was really important to me to build a for-profit model. I also think that not just with educators but also with farmers and growers and food in general, there is a misconception of what goes into growing our food and putting it on the shelves. I think the true value of food is something that's often overlooked, and being a for-profit model, I hope to show that time is something. Whether you're growing food or teaching people, I think there is value in people's time.
Dell: Your project then, as you've described it so far, is supplying food for people. You mentioned farmers market and that presumably is working through you doing Harvest on a weekly basis and taking the fresh produce to the local market?
Elise: I actually did that for a short while. I got into this wanting to teach people but my thought initially was that education is not something people will pay for, so I needed to have a product, ie. food, that I would sell and then my education, which is my passion, would be what the food paid for. So, I did do small-scale farming. I mostly did microgreens, leafy greens, and salad mixes, and I sold to some of the restaurants and produce stands. Farmers markets I did for a brief while but they are very hit and miss. I actually transitioned away from growing commercially. As I was teaching, I realized that even though it would take longer to grow, I was able to do it part-time. I can still grow an abundance of food for myself and family and friends, but I transitioned outside of the commercial side of things and no longer distribute, but I'm still able to support my work.
Dell: So, is the support largely coming from the educational endeavors now?
Elise: So, I do classes and workshops in person, before everything going on now, but now I do classes online a lot. I use YouTube which allows me to offer free content but I'm able to generate revenue from my ads. So, even though viewers are not having to pay for it, I am generating revenue from that. Doing things like Amazon Associates where, if people come to me and are looking for the books that I learned from, I generate revenue from that. And I also have a vegetable seed club, which does help support my income and it is one of the things I'm most excited about. I just started this a year ago and it was something that people kept asking for. So, I send out seeds very specific to Florida, broken down into the regions of Florida: what to plant, when to plant, and the varieties. I sent three varieties of seeds to their door each month so that they have a continual harvest; and it also gets people to grow in seasons that they might skip over like summer.
Dell: I'm excited about this and your project and that to my mind, from a food system standpoint, what you're doing is answering or responding to a deficiency in the Florida system and really in the food system in general, and that's locally sourced seeds…I do want to stress, and this is for everyone that may be listening to this, is save your seeds. Save your local seeds and replant them again and save them again in the next season and the next season the next season. That's what we're losing on a massive scale. We can be good ecologists, good environmentalists, good organic growers…but the key to going forward is developing the local network, the local farms, the local growers, and the local seed stock.
Elise: I'm a firm believer in everything you just said and that was something that was really striking in COVID. Everybody panicked and they went and bought a bunch of seeds. Well the seed companies ran out of seed. What do you do? And I had serious discussions with people in our area and we were trying to meet that demand as best we could, sharing seeds getting it out there. That's also something with the seed club that I do. It's not just to give them seed, I teach them how to start seed because so many people rely on plants, but also how to save seed. And I really agree that that is almost, not more important, but it's just as important as learning to grow the food itself.
Dell: It is, and again we want to underscore that, and frankly it's not talked about that much. There's not enough communication that's being done on the importance of seed saving…Let's build up the local seed systems because, as Elise mentioned, and this is and I underscore this as well, when the COVID crisis hit, a lot of people wanted to start growing and so they did buy out the seed companies. Large-scale commercial money-making operations but also the not-for-profit seed sources seed savers ran out of seeds...If we had a robust local system then that challenge would not have occurred, or it would not have been as severe, because we would have had those local seeds…But let's, as we're developing local seeds, I think it's also great if we can develop a kind of a local seedling operation as well for folks that just want to get their seedlings that are acclimated to the area.
Elise: That was something we just started doing a couple of months ago. We actually, due to COVID, the demand was there. And I just saw so many people not knowing what they were doing and going and buying stuff that's never going to grow here, and they were taking that seed from somebody who could potentially grow it where it could work. So that was kind of frustrating. So, me and three other growers in the area are growing out seedlings. We're not exclusively using our own saved seed for all of it. Some of it we do but just making the right plants available at the right time of year.
Dell: What we're talking about, these kinds of projects, tie in with really an idea and a cultural movement that's Agrarianism. The work of Wendell Berry, the great American agrarian, kind of celebrates the ideal of agrarianism and is working still to this day to try to establish that. Elise are you familiar with agrarianism as a concept? I see what you're doing directly related to Agrarianism, The Urban Harvest is really an urban agrarian kind of operation. But did you have any engagement with Agrarianism as a movement or have you given any thought to how your work directly relates to that?
Elise: I do think that it's kind of like a modern day take on Agrarianism, maybe. My role, I think, or where at least I'm feeling people's needs at this point, is sparking the interest and that slight bit of knowledge. I just encourage anybody and everybody I can to grow something, and I think that that is slowly tying or closing that gap that we have from maybe true Agrarianism. But I think that a lot of people have limiting beliefs about growing in the city or because they haven't grown food in the past that you have to be a full-time farmer to be able to support your own family. So, in my role right now, I'm really just trying to lead by example.
Dell: I want to switch gears a little bit and use that as a bridge to kind of a reflection on food insecurity, and how what you're doing is a response to food insecurity. And this is still true to this day there are tens of thousands probably a hundred thousand or more people that are relying on food banks right now for food. And you've seen the images of the miles and miles of cars backed up at food distribution points. Every one of those persons in those cars is food insecure. If not in fact just downright hungry…So I see, in a little bit that I know about your work, there's a direct response to that. But I'm looking if you could share anything further about how you consciously envision your work in the context of this crisis?
Elise: I think that this crisis was a wake-up call for a lot of people, and it showed just how finely balanced, I mean on a thread, our food system is. It also brought to light how many insecure families there are. When a kid can go to school and get their breakfast and get their lunch, maybe they don't get dinner but they got their meals and then that got taken away, what about all those children? So even though this has been an issue the entire time, having to change how they were getting their food brought it to light for a lot of people and showed them just how many people there were. And it's not even just food insecure, there are hungry people in our country. We think we're first world and we don't have those kinds of problems and that is not the case at all. Right here in St. Pete we have food deserts.
Dell: I think many of us in the Florida Food Policy Council, as well as folks that are engaged in trying to improve the Florida food waste and the Florida food system in general, are right on the same page with you…Wendell Berry, to go back to the great agrarian again, has a famous quote. He said, “This culture has had the costly luxury of living two generations ignorant of the sources of our existence.” Meaning, where does our food come from, where does our water come from, where does our substance come from, where does our clothing come from, where do all the elements that are most necessary for us come from? We don't know those sources. We've lost them; and by losing them then we've lost touch with the natural environment to be sure, but we've also lost touch with our predecessors and our ancestors, the people that have come before us that were the source of this knowledge. It just all kind of cut off. It all ended in the 1950s and 1960s. And folks like you and I are kind of in a position now where it's all come into our generation, our time on Earth to try to re-familiarize and re-educate folks about these systems about how to grow, how to cook, what's necessary to be involved. At the same time that we're faced with this tidal wave, this tsunami of industrial food and an industrial system that has programmed the consciousness the way people think about food. So in a way we're really up against it, but the work that you're doing, the work that many in the Florida Food Policy Council are doing, the work that we're doing at USF with the urban food sovereignty group, and many of the other groups and individuals, we're all doing bits and pieces to try to make this better.
The question before us is, how do we make that transition from what many of us are doing individually and on a small scale either as an LLC, a for-profit operation, or a not-for-profit organization or something that's going on through a school or just through somebody doing backyard gardening. What do you see as the steps that are necessary to move from these kind of small and diverse operations to something that can literally turn the tide that can stem the tide of our reliance on an industrial food system that's just swamping the entire culture as well as in certain extent overwhelming our efforts to try to restore a sustainable food system?
Elise: I think that it's important to acknowledge that until they're ready to accept the information, we can give them all of the material that they need to succeed but until they choose to act on it, it's probably not going to happen. With that being said, I do think that the need is not going to be a choice much longer. I think that we are getting to a point in society where our health and the food system as a whole is not going to last much longer…But until that is forced upon them, they are going to have to choose to take on this knowledge and take on a role in this food system and in our local food systems.
I'd also say that from a business perspective, I think that putting as much information out there online as possible is really big. I took it as a personal thing for me when I started doing the YouTube channel. I didn't want to do it. I resisted it and I resisted it, and I realized that it's not about me. It doesn't matter if I’m not comfortable sitting on a computer and talking to people I’ve never seen before. I need to do it because the information is worth sharing. So, if you have an operation, if you have knowledge to share, I think that you need to try to get it out there to as many people and oftentimes that's you know doing Zoom classes or sharing on social media or doing something on YouTube. Those are all free tools that you can use to reach more people. So I think that is something that's an important tool for us as we try to branch out and reach more people. You know, one person only has so much time, so many classrooms they can teach in, but when you take it to that next element you can reach so many more people.
Dell: I agree. I want to also put out there in our conversation and also for the listeners the importance of getting started where you are with the tools that you have whatever they may be. Even if it's small scale, even if it's just growing one plant, even if it's only going to the farmers market to get locally grown food, take that step. Come on! Get involved! Take that step. One person doing one thing is at least a step in the right direction…So I want to encourage everyone to take that first step and then be ready to take the next step; and there will be people ready to help you that will send a hand to you—Elise, the Florida food forum, the Florida Food policy council, the Urban Sovereignty group, all of the many groups as many individuals we're out there we're here and we can affect the change. We can't bring about the change the more of us that are involved and the more links we have, the more connections we have with what's going on, the stronger the work will be.
Those that may be listening to our broadcast are also encouraged to check the Florida Food Policy Council website to find organizations and groups in your area that you can get involved in. Some of them are active growers, some of them are educators, some of them are civic activists that are working to change policy and engage in statewide, county-wide, municipal activities to actually change policies so it's easier to get done the sorts of things that Elise and others are doing. Other folks can get you in touch with farmers markets where you can go and support the local farmers that are doing this work. Others can get you in touch with small-scale markets that have a commitment to local agriculture here in our community.
Dell: Elise, just as a matter of record and just so people know a little bit more about you and your work, you are a graduate of the University of Florida. In school, what was your degree in and what did you study before you became an urban horticulturist and food Celebrant?
Elise: My degree was in wildlife ecology and conservation with a minor in Zoology. I was in college of Agricultural and Life Sciences, but I was not directly in ag, which honestly, I’m kind of happy about because I was able to take my own perspective on the food system and not have somebody tell me or train me in that way. So, I kind of learned more like grassroots methods. But it definitely gave me the ecological understanding of soil and animals in relation to plants, and all of the foundational knowledge that's really important as a gardener.
Dell: What are your thoughts about, or what is your experience with IFAS and the local extension office?
Elise: I think that they can provide some pretty valuable resources to people especially when you're first starting out. The soil test there is a quick way to judge how your soil is doing and whether you take the amendments they recommend or not. It at least gives you a starting point to work with. I get my compost tested every couple of years just to make sure things are still fine-tuned. That's a nice resource and it's very reasonably priced…I also think that it can be helpful if you buy a new house and you're trying to identify what you want to keep what you want to get rid of, you can send in pictures of pests and trees that you can't identify, of a fungus that's on your plants; and if you're not plugged into somebody locally or if you're not in a gardening club or a gardening group and you don't know who to ask, ask them. That's what they're there for.
Kyndra: I'm curious when you first started if you came upon any policy challenges, or as you've been doing your work, if there are any policy recommendations or some things that you would like to see that might help you in the future do what you do better?
Elise: Currently, I think that one of the biggest frustrations I see is in the food waste. It's like 40 percent of our food is wasted; and some of it is lying fallow in the fields, especially after COVID. They were turning their fields under. There were people hungry but they were turning their fields under because they're used to selling to restaurants and distributing through these mass products. I really focus a lot on composting and building soil and I've started collecting. So, there's a local food bank and they take the stuff from the grocery store and they give it to people in need in our community—they can't give it away quick enough, so then I take it. I feed it to my chickens. I'll salvage it. I don't care if there's some bumps and bruises. I'll eat what I can and then what's left I compost and I turn into soil instead of it going to a landfill and turning into emissions. It's just that there's got to be a way to close the loop on that system. Ultimately, ideally of course, would be to reduce the food waste, but also to create more efficient uses for that product.
Dell: Excellent policy recommendation. There are parts of the country that actually have curbside composting, San Francisco is one that I know of and I know there's others. When you put out your garbage and you put out your recycling, you put out your food waste. There's a container for it, they pick it up and then they compost it. So that's a public policy that more cities should have. We should all have that.
Well it was great having you on! We celebrate your work, we commend you, and we applaud you as we always do. We do want to remind everyone that's listening that you can find out more about Elise at work and you can acquire materials from her website. So please support Elise and all of our local growers and local food activists. It makes a difference and it's how we change the world and how we make a better food system.
The Urban Harvest:
Guest Bio: Elise Pickett has been gardening since she was a child with her father. She received her B.S. from the University of Florida in Wildlife Ecology & Conservation with a minor in Zoology. Elise has taken classes across the nation on urban agriculture, composting, vermicomposting, aquaponics, and small commercial production. She has traveled South America with WWOOF to learn more traditional farming techniques. In 2014, she started The Urban Harvest to help teach people the basics of home vegetable gardening, especially in Florida.
The Urban Harvest’s mission is “to help people learn the basics of sustainable vegetable gardening so that they can lead healthier, happier lives and have a positive impact on our planet that leaves a legacy our children to be proud of. We firmly believe that ‘living green’ can be more than just an idea – it is not a fad but a reality! As people become aware of the implications of our current industrial food system, most realize that making changes are necessary and inevitable. By voting with our personal choices and our dollars we can start to shift the unsustainable food system that is currently in place to one that will support a viable future for our growing world. It all starts from the ground up and we are here to help by providing the educational resources necessary to empower people to start making these changes.”
Disclaimer: The views of the speakers do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.