NAME: Janell Kapoor
AFFILIATION: Founder, Designer and Chief Visionary of the Ashevillage Institue in Asheville, North Carolina.
BIO: Janell Kapoor is the founding director of the Ashevillage Institute and a natural builder. She has worked with people from more than 52 countries to develop natural building movements, including leading the first earthen building trainings in Thailand, Argentina and Turkey. The Ashevillage Institute is a one-acre, non-profit living learning laboratory in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. Their programs, including the new Urban Farm School, emphasize community action in developing sustainable and ecological human environments, starting with backyards, neighborhoods, schools and cities. Asheville is a thriving “green” urban community, and has recently become Bee City USA’s inaugural Bee City. The Urban Farm School offers a holistic approach to modern day farming, covering everything from soil science and permaculture to bees, mushrooms, medicinal herbs, natural building, marketing and multimedia storytelling.
What brought you to Asheville and what was in your mind when you started the Ashevillage Insitute?
I’ve been working with communities on the ground, from villages in Thailand to the city of Sao Paolo, and the big thing for me is: how do we design systems that bring humans and nature together, even in our cities. We’ve designed skyscrapers and rocket ships, so I believe we can design cities to grow food and catch water and do these really actually basic things that make for a much more secure, resilient and ultimately happy human world.
My vision heading to Asheville was to start a land based ecological and environmental learning center and demonstration site, thinking about how creative we can get with designing our cities as compact clusters of village life. When I say cities, Asheville’s kind of a midsized town of about 100,000 people. It’s different than Manhattan, but some of the same design principles and the same human patterns and needs apply. We’re very fortunate to have a general, collective ethos here in Asheville that is all about local food systems. Just about a month ago the City Council unanimously approved the creation of the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council, and we have 17 or 18 tailgate and farmers markets in a really small town. There’s massive support and awareness here and it’s just growing stronger every day.
What prompted you to set up your own farm school?
When you start talking about food, you’re talking about water, you’re talking about relationships and citizen engagement, accessibility, land use and planning, and sustainable design. There’s a lot happening here and the potential is huge. My vision, and I think it’s not just my vision it’s lots of people’s vision, is how can we go from where we are to within five years having every single neighborhood in every city across the country growing a CSA. What would it really take? And not just one CSA in a whole neighborhood, but let’s look at how many people are within a neighborhood, and how many yards or rooftops and community gardens or whatever it takes, how much food really needs to be grown to be a secure system? The farm school essentially was a response to wanting to be an active participant in creating the world that we want, and building solutions that are really trans-local and scalable at a national level.
I was talking to somebody, kind of an old school guy from the South who used to be a farmer fifty years ago, and he was describing to me how tough it is to be a farmer; and, it was right before this conversation that I had this clarity around the fact that the modern farmer, and certainly the modern urban farmer, is not someone who is isolated out on the land. It’s a very creative, cutting edge field that involves much more that agricultural science. It’s about deep level community action, and I think most successful urban farmers at this point are going to be people who have that kind of social, innovative, creative “gene” in them. It’s a different animal. And that’s what Ashevillage is all about.
How exactly will the Urban Farm School work?
The way we’ve designed the farm school is we’ve got a sort of full-season, 28 weeks, working at one site, the Ashvillage Institute, where we’re going to be designing and developing systems in mycology production, bees, forest gardens, aquaponics, etc. We’re also taking our students to 25 different sites around the city of Asheville, with 25 different urban practitioners, and to 25 rural farms. We’ve also identified 50 community food leaders who are less hands-in-the-dirt and more working on the policy and business end, the students’ potential clients, stakeholders and partners. We’ll look at what they’re doing, and what the challenges and opportunities are. Our students will also help share the story of what they’re learning, and really recognize that, if you can learn how to share the story of urban farming you’ll have a much greater chance of success.
When we started we were looking at five students, and because there’s been such an influx of interest we decided to accept ten, and now we’re looking at 16, and we’ll see how it goes. With more students, we’re looking at hiring more instructors and facilitators, and instead of just the model that I described where the main project is on my one-acre property, we’re looking at a neighborhood-mapping project. On top of that, literally right around the corner from us there’s about 11 acres of relatively flat, empty land that could be turned into a full-scale farm.
What do you expect students to be able to accomplish?
I have a couple examples of what our students are aiming to do. One woman is volunteering at an elementary school that has a community garden, and her goal is to take the Urban Farm School curriculum and turn it directly into an after school program. We also have two women who are hoping to develop a CSA-style food farm that’s also an education center and living laboratory, very similar to what we’re doing with Ashevillage. We’re also in the process of talking with the hospital here—it’s about five blocks from Ashvillage—to propose that one project be creating campus food production at the hospital. Another idea is reclaiming these four retired city buses that are going up for auction. There’s the possibility they could be donated for projects where food is grown in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, and then that food is sold out of the trucks in these neighborhoods. We also have two women who we’re looking to provide a scholarship to. They’re very active women of color who are very dedicated and involved in their communities. We’re really hoping to support them to go through the school. When we talk about those 25 urban practitioners there’s a group called Asheville Green Opportunities that does a lot of programming in low-income communities, including food projects creating green collar jobs, and we really want to find ways to also support and be available to folks in these lower income communities.