Food Culture: GREEN PIONEERS
Straight Outta the Garden
Interviewed, written & photographed by Denà Brummer
Compton, California instantly conjures the following stereotypical images: one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Los Angeles, the birthplace of gangsta rap and a food desert lined with liquor stores. But contrary to pop culture, Compton possesses some of the richest agricultural land in Los Angeles with a long-standing agricultural legacy. Kathleen Blakistone of Moonwater Farm, has decided to leverage this land and legacy to grow people, not just plants. At her microfarm, she is devoted to teaching urban agriculture, sustainability, and wellness in emerging communities of South Los Angeles. After a 25-year career in the print and packaging industry, Kathleen and her husband Richard cashed in their 401K (U.S. employer-sponsored pension accounts) to embark on a second career as urban farmers in 2011. They originally bought the Compton property to start an aquaponics farm business, but changed their minds when they saw many around them were in need. Their personal home was transformed into an outdoor laboratory for the community to learn about farming, raising livestock, seasonal food prep and preservation. It was also an affordable hub for day retreats and pop-up dinners, summer camps and other events. On approximately half an acre of land, Kathleen has created a sanctuary for respite, contemplation and deepening a connection to nature.
What were the series of events that led to the creation of your business? KATHLEEN: I was a University of California Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener for maybe seven or eight years when my husband completed the Master Gardener training too. During his training in 2010, they introduced him to aquaponics. I was quite smitten with this idea. I thought it was fantastic that you could grow food without soil, which seems very well suited to the city environment where you don’t have lots of acreage. So I suggested, “That’s what we should do for our encore career.” Since I traveled a lot in my previous career, we wanted to do something that would allow us to spend more time together.
Around 10 years ago, it wasn’t legal to grow commercially on residential property. So we started to look for a place to set up and we landed in Compton, which is zoned residential agriculture. This was the perfect site, the house and land were quite dilapidated and matured, but my husband has the skills to repair those things and oversaw the renovations. We put the resources together to buy the land and start the business. We went all over the country to look at other operations and participated in a number of training programs, and were getting ready to set up a greenhouse that would have been about 3,500 square feet, growing lettuce, and selling it to restaurants. That was the vision in 2011.
We used our 401K money to invest in an idea rather than the market because we weren’t comfortable having money in the stock market. We thought, “Let’s put it in this house and if anything happens to the business, we can sell the land.” Incredibly, the very first evening in our remodeled house a young woman and two men on horseback knocked on the door looking for a place to lease for their horses. They wanted to know if they could lease the land in our backyard. We told them “probably not,” and that we were building a greenhouse but took their numbers. After they left, my husband and I considered that knock on the door as a message, a sign, and called them back, offering them a six-month lease, at which point we thought our funds would be in place to start the greenhouse construction. Eventually, we became quite good friends with one of the cowboys (Sidney). He conducted Boy Scouts training with other cowboys in the neighborhood in the backyard. We would occasionally help out and talk about health and nutrition. Sidney told us that not many people were talking about health and nutrition in [Compton] at the time and that the neighborhood needed more conversations like that. He got me a job teaching urban agriculture at a local middle school and ended up boarding his horses for three and a half years with us. We soon realized that it was going to be a lot more interesting growing people, than lettuce.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in the early days? KATHLEEN: The biggest challenge was cash flow at the beginning. Our programs have finally started to break even. Those first few years were very lean because it required a lot of resources to build an infrastructure. Our vision and goal is to create a cooperative-collective operation but we haven’t had the resources to compensate anyone beyond a part-time capacity. We’re still trying to figure out how we can either offer some equity in the land or the business and build a collective. And all of this takes a lot of time and conversation. We’ve been very fortunate to have folks that have walked through the door and done programming with us. But it also means people come and go.
Out of all the experiences you have had in your career, which one do you think has provided you with some of the skills that have been helpful as an entrepreneur/farmer? KATHLEEN: It is a combination of saying yes to opportunity, risk taking, and managing on very little money, like how to make money go far. I’ve always had that attitude, even when I was in a corporate environment. If I was shopping for anything like supplies or equipment, I was always sensitive to what the costs were and trying to understand the cost of goods. I was fortunate to have a very savvy boss throughout much of my packaging career, who told me it was a lot easier to save on costs than earn a dollar in sales in terms of EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization). Just being conscious of money and then how money is being spent has helped a lot so far.
Which part of your business do you enjoy the most? KATHLEEN: I would say my favorite part is programming and interacting with people and talking about ideas, what’s next and what do people want.
What is your business ethos? KATHLEEN: One problem we’re solving is a lack of access to land and nature, and kind of an urban ecology — so we are providing that access. Our ethos is really to invest in the regeneration of our health and earth through community educational programs and collaborating with partners who are also fostering social equity.
If you could give advice to your younger self about this business, what would you say? KATHLEEN: Take some accounting classes. I know it depends on the scale of your operation, but it’s a very important part of business. It’s also an expense if you don’t have the resources and can be easy to ignore which can really get you into trouble.
How is your company navigating these unpredictable times during the pandemic? KATHLEEN: We are fortunate that our space is an outdoor space, so we basically reduced the size of the classes and programs we have. But we still provide opportunities for people to come and be on the land. We did a “U-Pick” where people came one or two at a time to pick berries from our mulberry tree and we did goat visits, for people to interact with the baby goats that were born in spring. We offered refuge for people who were participating in the uprising this summer after the police shooting deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and so many more. We wanted to provide a beautiful green space for them to recharge. Finally, we were fortunate enough to be awarded a grant that provided us funds to launch a free after school program. In addition, we did virtual field trips that were well received by high school students.
So what do you have in the pipeline for 2021? KATHLEEN: Building out a collective so we eventually have an exit plan. Our dream is that we spend the next couple of years building a BIPOC-led collective that takes equity and potential ownership of this space in a collective fashion.
Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.