Check out the April issue of Berks County Living for a feature on Permacultivate!
Farming in the City
On the morning after a heavy snowfall,bright sunlight streamed through the windows at the City of Reading Greenhouse. Inside, urban farmer Brian Twyman turned on jazz music, creating a soothing backdrop for the volunteers who were tending to rows of crops.
Twyman, his waist-length dreads pulled into a floppy ponytail and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, walked to the back of the room to check on some of the greenhouse’s hardest workers–dozens of worms layered in a large compost container. “Eat up,” he said while dumping waste, including used coffee grounds from the Downtown Reading restaurant Mi Casa Su Casa, on top of them.
The worms’ castings will soon be used to create Reading Roots Urban Farm’s nutrient-rich potting soil, made without any pesticides, chemicals or additives. Plants, herbs and vegetables will grow in the soil, proving that farming isn’t limited to just rural parts of the map.
In less than three years, Permacultivate, the non-profit that operates the greenhouse, has taken root in Reading. Headed by Twyman (the self-described idea guy) and Eron Lloyd (the self-described policy guy), the organization is at the forefront of local urban farming and sustainable agriculture, particularly using the methods to improve the city’s economy, food infrastructure, aesthetics and community development.
“I’m so happy when I’m here,” says Twyman, vice president of Permacultivate. “I see this, and I know we’re doing something that benefits the community. We’re doing something people said couldn’t be done. But look around; it’s amazing. Plants are growing; people are getting their hands dirty; kids are helping out. Now we just need to make it work on a larger scale. We’re ready to rock.”
Urban farming was commonplace generations ago, says Lori Kaplan of Reading, a Permacultivate board member and volunteer who describes herself as “the old gardener in the group.” Families would utilize small plots of land in their back yards, or even on windowsills, to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs.
However, the craft was rarely passed down. Factor in fast food, microwave meals and technology, and we’re left with a culture in which many people, especially city dwellers, aren’t familiar with farming or how their food is produced, she says.
Aside from watching his mother bake zucchini bread with fresh ingredients from her garden, Twyman says he knew little about agriculture before he began experimenting with container gardening in 2005. He used assorted pots in his Reading back yard to grow lettuce, peppers, kale and collard greens. That led to an interest in community gardening, through which he and others turned several vacant city lots into vibrant gardens.
“Grow what you can, where you can, whenever you can,” Twyman says. “You can do it, even if you don’t have land. You can garden anywhere. It’s about turning nothing into something.”
“And utilizing existing resources,” Kaplan adds.
“Here we are in Reading, an old industrial town,” Twyman continues. “What are we going to do here? We are trying to show everyone that there are tons of things we can do, and at the same time, we can impact job creation, economic improvement, community development and food creation.”
Earth and Water
Permacultivate’s first major project is the Reading Roots Urban Farm and Learning Center, located in the City of Reading Greenhouse on the outskirts of City Park. There, two cutting-edge aquaponic systems are used to produce foods and perennial plants: a gravel-bed system, where river rock is used to support the plants’ roots, and a floating raft system, where the roots of cilantro, parsley and basil, among other plants, are suspended in water that’s fertilized by tilapia swimming in a nearby recycled tote.
“These are sustainable, low-cost, efficient systems,” Twyman explains. “We also have integrated pest management so we can keep food as fresh as possible without using harmful pesticides.”
In addition to experimenting with permaculture systems, Lloyd and Twyman pride themselves on forming partnerships with local businesses and organizations, Lloyd says. The group frequently works with the Reading Housing Authority, Junior League of Reading, Reading School District and Berks Conservancy. In addition, from June through October, the group sells just-harvested items like mint, strawberries and thyme at the Penn Street Market.“It’s not just about gardening. It has a purpose, too,” Twyman says. “Micro-businesses can be created because of urban farming and community partnerships. It keeps money local, it gives residents healthy foods and it helps the environment because we don’t have to ship produce thousands of miles.”
Hector Ruiz, chef-owner of Sofrito Gastro Pub in the historic Centre Park District of Reading, agrees. One of Reading Roots’ best customers, he buys 5 to 10 pounds of fresh-grown lettuce from the greenhouse each week and uses it to create his popular Urban Salad. “My long-term goal is to be as locally sustainable as possible,” Ruiz says. “We want to work together like businesses used to do. We need to support each other. I’m happy to promote their organization by using their product. As Permacultivate grows, we hope to grow with them.”
Grow it here, there, anywhere
Back at the greenhouse, Phil Wert of West Reading hoisted his 2-year-old daughter, Naomi, high enough to pluck a cherry tomato right off the vine. Tomato juice dripping down her fingers and shirt, she reached out for another, then another. Her dad obliged, and smiled. Naomi didn’t know it, but her mid-morning snack, grown to perfection through the greenhouse’s rock-bed aquaponic system, was literally the fruit of her father’s labor.
“For her, I want her to see that you can grow food not only locally, but also in an urban environment,” says Wert, a member of Permacultivate’s board of directors and an active volunteer at the greenhouse. “I know we’re going in the right direction. I know we’re doing what’s right. These are not new ideas. We just need to take action, and we’re doing that.”
Twyman shakes his head in agreement.
“There is no one else doing what we’re doing here. It’s another beautiful thing in the city,” he says. “We want to help change the city and make it a place where people want to come. Look at what beauty we have right here. Despite naysayers, we’re making changes for the better.”
“We’re not done,” he adds, smiling. “We want to do so much more.”
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Berks County Living
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Permacultivate volunteer Jason Brader, left, and Vice President Brian Twyman harvest lettuce in the greenhouse in City Park. The nonprofit is bringing sustainable agriculture to the city.
By Garry Lenton
An agricultural revolution of sorts is quietly taking root in a greenhouse in Berks County.
Inside, herbs, vegetables, sunflowers, tomatoes and other plants sit on a raft, their roots dangling through holes into flowing water. There is no soil, and no chemical fertilizer or pesticides.
Permacultivate member Sarah Jacobson scoops soil at the greenhouse.
But that’s not the revolutionary part. This small-scale greenhouse farm sits in the heart of Reading, where it serves as a classroom and a reminder to city dwellers of how the food they eat is produced.
“We want to show people what it takes to grow food,” said Brian Twyman, vice president and outreach coordinator for Permacultivate, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture and building healthy communities.
The group, which leases and began operating in the greenhouse in Reading’s City Park at 12th and Walnut streets last year, sells plants and produce at the Penn Street Market on Fridays, to local restaurants, and to the community on Saturdays at the greenhouse.
The group also hosts students from Reading’s 10th & Penn Elementary School a few times a year.
“We’re always cultivating, whether plants or people’s minds,” Twyman said.
The mission, he said, is to show people they don’t need 60 acres of cleared land to grow food for the table, or flowers for the doorstep.
“When I saw what they were doing I was just blown away,” said Lori Kaplan, a former member of the group dedicated to saving the greenhouse in the late 1980s, and now a member of Permacultivate’s board of directors. “This is what (the greenhouse) was meant to be.”
The group has also earned the respect of Sheila Miller, Berks County’s agriculture coordinator and de facto manager of the Penn Street Market.
“They are very serious in their mission to educate people about where food comes from,” she said.
At first glance there’s nothing special about the city greenhouse. As you step inside you feel the rise in temperature and humidity. The musty odor of the compost gently strikes the nose, and the eye takes in the rows of green plants soaking up the sunlight falling through the windowed roof.
Tilapia being grown in the greenhouse pass nutrients to the crops.
What the visitor doesn’t expect to see are the water tanks filled with tilapia, 20 of them swimming in 300-gallon plastic containers called Totes. And though the fish, grown from fingerlings, may one day be another crop for Permacultivate, for now they are the engine that drives its aquaponic system.
The same water that sustains the tilapia flows by gravity down a long trough circulating past the roots of basil, cilantro, parsley and other herbs.
The entire structure is built with recycled materials, Twyman said as he guided a visitor past the plants.
Permacultivate member Phil Wert examines the roots of a basil plant.
There’s no need for plant food. No weed killers. No pesticides.
“The fish do what they do and the nutrients pass by water to the plants,” he said.
Twyman, 39 and a lifelong resident of Reading, has no background in farming. He’s a 1991 graduate of Central Catholic High School who holds a master’s degree in social work from Marywood University.
He coaches basketball, volunteers with children’s organizations and has served as a recycling coordinator for the city and the Reading School District.
But at one time he did so-called guerrilla gardening, finding unused open spaces in the city and planning gardens. And it taught him a lesson: Agriculture, even on the tiniest scale, can be a key component to improving the health and quality of life of Reading’s residents.
“Our whole focus is in the city … and what you can do with gardens in the city,” he said.
Hector Ruiz on Thorn Street, outside of his Sofrito Gastro Pub, with his Central Park Urban Salad, also seen at left. The salad is made mostly of foods grown by Permancultivate.
Hector Ruiz, chef and owner of Sofrito Gastro Pub, at 220 Douglass St., set a goal for himself when he opened his doors last year: to use only locally grown foods in his recipes.
To do this, he shops for ingredients every day. He even went so far as unplugging his freezer. Doesn’t need it, he said.
“I think we went so far away from being locally sustained,” Ruiz said. “I shop every day of the week. I go around and find places I really like and use them constantly.”
He wants to “keep the money as close to the area as possible.”
So, when Ruiz heard what Permacultivate was doing in the city, he became a customer. His signature Central Park Urban Salad, a mixture of shaved purple onion, tomatoes, Spanish olives and roasted red peppers, comes mostly from the city greenhouse.
Hector Ruiz’s Central Park Urban Salad, made with Permacultivate’s fare.
“It’s our most popular salad,” Ruiz said.
And when Permacultivate is ready to sell tilapia, he’ll buy.
Spreading the word
Board member Kaplan said she joined the group because of its dedication to education. The former nurse and teacher, who has a passion for nutrition, said the group could have an impact on the health and outlook of city residents.
“If you can teach people to produce food in a healthy fashion, get kids’ hands in the dirt, it can’t but help the city of Reading,” she said.
The program is a little more than a year old and going slowly, she said, but it is laying a foundation through its relationship with the Reading School District.
“Believe it or not, a lot of city kids do not know where food comes from,” Kaplan said.
Second- and fifth-grade students from the 10th & Penn Elementary School visit the greenhouse as part of their science instruction. They plant seeds, pick and eat strawberries right from the plant and learn about the role worms play in composting.
“They thought it was interesting that the worms ate all the [waste] and excreted it out,” said Heidi Youndt, a fifth-grade teacher at the school.
The students have a garden at school where they grow corn, barley, white clover, peas and radishes. For most of the kids, the only experience they have with farming is what a grandparent told them, said 10th & Penn fifth-grade teacher Tara Koppenberg.
The greenhouse visits do more than teach lessons in environmental science and nutrition, the teachers said. They also introduce students to possible careers, said Youndt, whose husband is a chef.
“It’s nice to let them know it’s something they can do and it can be a profession,” she said.
Twyman said Permacultivate strives to teach the community and the children that it’s possible to live sustainably, even in the city.
“When you teach kids this,” he said, “it fills their heads with what can be.”
Contact Garry Lenton: 610-371-5025 or email@example.com.
On heels of dino days, Reading Public Museum goes wild
The Reading Public Museum hopes to keep the turnstiles turning with four new animal-themed exhibitions that open on Saturday.
Things are about to get wild at the Reading Public Museum.
Not only is a new set of exhibits opening this weekend, the museum is also participating in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Day Live! 2012 on Saturday.
The Museum Day Live! gives free entry for two to the museum on that day only, with tickets downloaded from www.smithsonianmag.com.
Once there, museum-goers will be able to see the opening day of the “RPM Goes Wild” event, which includes four different exhibits throughout the museum.
“We’ve done very well since we had the dinosaurs here,” said Michael Anderson, spokesperson for the museum.
Anderson was referring to the “Dinosaurs: T-Rex Face-to-Face” exhibition, which closed Sept. 3 after setting new museum attendance records.
“We wanted to continue that type of theme,” he said, “and come up with a handful of events that related to each other through animals and nature.”
“RPM Goes Wild” is the result of that line of thinking.
“Animal Secrets” is an interactive exhibit aimed at children 3 to 8 years old, Anderson said.
“It’s hands-on,” he added. “It’s a place where you can play and learn.”
He said there will be several work stations set up that will encourage children to work with their parents or grandparents to participate.
“They can get involved in different tasks,” he said. “There’s a cave you can go into and all sorts of buttons to push and a stream to play in.”
“Predators” exhibits more threatening animals, Anderson said, including a 15-foot great white shark with whom children can get up close and personal.
“It’s probably not for young kids,” Anderson said. “It’s got some scarier animals and might appeal to older children.”
He said that exhibit explores animals in air, land and water. Participants can visit with the shark, read about and look at examples of many animals or spend some time with activities such as classifying whales.
“Animals in Art” is an exhibit culled from the museum’s impressive inventory of works on paper and other media.
“It’s a pretty extensive exhibit,” Anderson said. “We thought initially it might appeal to adults only, but once the kids have seen the fun stuff, we think they’ll be interested in looking at the art, too.”
The exhibit includes an eclectic mix of media and history. Among the works exhibited are an engraving from 1834, a landscape from the early 20th century and an etching from 1688.
“Our curators had a lot to go through,” said Anderson of the 14,000 pieces in the works on paper collection alone. “We wanted to represent various media and various periods in history.”
Finally, “Animals in Glass” by Taylor Backes rounds out the event with an exhibit of animals created by Will Dexter of Taylor Backes Studios in Boyertown, in the Cove Gallery.
“This is a more contemporary exhibit,” Anderson said. “You may know about the beautiful bowls and pieces from Taylor Backes, but you’ve never seen anything like this. It’s in a special area, and luminous is a good word for it. It’s got fish and sea turtles.”
The exhibit opens Saturday at 10 a.m. for members, and the general public may begin touring at 11 a.m.
A public premiere of the star show “Dynamic Earth” will be shown at 11:30 a.m. in the Neag Planetarium.
During the afternoon, the museum will offer several programs and talks including presentations on raptors by staff at Hawk Mountain, sustainable landscaping with Mark Priebe of Wolf Run Landscapes and permaculture design by Eron Lloyd, Reading Mayor’s Special Assistant for Policy and Sustainability and Managing Director for Permacultivate.
The new exhibits will run through Jan. 13.
“These are all things you can do with your family,” Anderson said. “We get a lot of kids who come with their school groups, but we think it’s nice to get out and do things with your family.”
Email Tracy Rasmussen: firstname.lastname@example.org.
They passed along bowls of yellow tomatoes and lettuce strips, banana peels and carrot tops.
One student rolled them into a wrap. Another made a sandwich. But it wasn’t the Robeson Elementary Center third- and fourth-graders who were getting ready to eat.
Instead, it was all going to the worms.
“It’s kind of like a really nice salad for the worms,” said Erica Lavdanski, co-owner of B&H Organic Produce in Morgantown.
During the outdoor exercise Thursday, Lavdanski was not “Ms. Erica the Farmer,” as one parent volunteer introduced her, but a teacher at the Twin Valley School District building, leading children through workshops about composting for backyard gardens.
Every half-hour, classes took turns filling plastic jugs with the produce, newspaper clippings and 10 spritzes of water, with Lavdanski walking them through every step.
She explained that four things are needed for composting: nitrogen from plants, air, water and carbon from paper products or dry leaves.
“There’s a saying that composting happens,” she explained to teacher Julie Anderson’s fourth-graders. “You can get really fancy and really technical, but it’s the way earth recycles.”
With Robeson Elementary’s butterfly house nearby, third-grade teacher Jean McCarney said Lavdanski’s lessons fit into the science curriculum like a caterpillar in a cocoon.
In the next three months, students will watch as the worms donated by Permacultivate, a Reading nonprofit, multiply in their classroom composting bins.
Eventually, the compost will feed the school’s garden, where students learn about Pennsylvania plant and animal life. The garden beds and screened-in butterfly house were supported by donations of time and money from parents, teachers and their spouses, and Boy Scouts.
“This can’t happen with just teachers, and it can’t happen with just parents,” McCarney said.
During the composting lesson, parents Noelle Callahan and Allison Bolt took time to sniff the soil with students and remind them, only half-jokingly, not to snack.
“You know what it smells like to me?” Callahan asked one of the shyer students. “Springtime after the rain.”
Contact C. Ryan Barber: 610-371-5081 or email@example.com.
Aquaponics is a system that uses the best aspects of hydroponics (growing plants in water) and aquaculture (breeding fish). By combining these two systems, we are able to use fish waste to fertilize plants, which are grown completely in water (no soil!), and the plants send the filtered water back to the fish.
Permacultivate uses two types of systems: a gravel bed system, where river rock is used to support the plants’ roots, and a floating raft system, where the roots are suspended in water. Our two systems have over 10 tons of rock and circulate more than 4,000 gallons of water!