Tyler Jones Photography: Blog https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog en-us Tyler Jones (Tyler Jones Photography) Sun, 10 Mar 2024 17:24:00 GMT Sun, 10 Mar 2024 17:24:00 GMT https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/img/s/v-12/u664549096-o288566765-50.jpg Tyler Jones Photography: Blog https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog 80 120 Best of iAGRI https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog/2014/4/best-of-iagri      My time with the Innovative Agricultural Research Institute (iAGRI) in Tanzania has drawn to a close.  iAGRI is a USAID/Feed the Future-funded capacity building initiative that works to make Tanzania more food secure by training and funding advanced degree scholarships for Tanzanian agricultural professionals and bright student researchers.  Aside from receiving professional training throughout their experience, accepted scholars are sent to study abroad at one of six leading consortium universities in the United States, led by Ohio State University, as well as agricultural universities throughout Africa, India and China.  

     From February 3rd through April 25th, I served as iAGRI's writer and photographer, living at Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania and traveling around the country to meet with, interview and write personal stories of each scholar's iAGRI experience.  With 120 total scholars to be funded in iAGRI's initial five years, I could only cover a fraction of them in my time there, but did what I could, often working long days and through most weekends to get a visual, narrative-based website up and running, thereby building a foundation that future iAGRI writer/photographers can add to.

     I'm extremely proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to such a worthwhile development project and to have gotten to work with the extremely dedicated Tanzanian and American staff that keep iAGRI running.  The brilliant and ambitious students I covered became friends and I appreciate them being gracious enough for me to document their research as it was taking place in the villages throughout Tanzania.  It's been a privilege to have had been able to get my feet wet with aid and development work through iAGRI and I'm looking forward to more such opportunities in the future.

     Below are select images from a few of my favorite stories that I wrote and documented during my time in Tanzania.  Please be sure to click on the links below each image in order to visit the iAGRI story-telling website so that you can see more images and read about what exceptional students the iAGRI scholarship recipients are.

Two mothers assist Glory by transferring some of the cooked uji from the kettle to a smaller serving container. Some of the mothers traveled from area villages by bicycle to be part of Glory's research. Following the feeding and education session, they got back on their bikes to ride home. Michigan State's Glory Mhalu took me to a village in central Tanzania to document her nutrition intervention research, where she taught young mothers how to make a nutrient-enhanced form of traditional porridge so that instances of malnutrition can be reduced.  You can read about Glory's story here.

Ntirankiza Misibo, an iAGRI-sponsored Sokoine University master's scholar in agricultural education and extension, conducts a survey with a farm family outside of their home in the village of Kimamba, central Tanzania. Ntirankiza (right), surveys a woman about her smallholder farming practices. Ntirankiza Misibo is a master's scholar at Sokoine University whose research intends to improve agricultural extension work so that smallholder farmers can improve their productivity and reduce post-harvest losses.  Read about Ntirankiza's research here.

Chacha inspects a handful of maize that a farmer stored with traditional bags. The kernels are coated in a fungi that accumulates when grains are stored in traditional containers such as jut bags. A participating smallholder farmer show Chacha (left), a sample of her stored maize, while he collects responses to his research survey. Chacha Nyangi, also of Sokoine University is conducting research that investigates the effectiveness of improved grain storage bags so that farmers can reduce post-harvest losses due to pest infestation as well as reduce levels of potentially harmful mycotoxins that are often present when grains are stored by traditional means.  Read Chacha's story here.

Neema Shosho (right), an iAGRI-sponsored scholar from Tuskegee University, takes a blood sample from a young boy while conducting nutrition intervention education as part of her master's research in the village of Peapea in Tanzania's Kilosa district. An overwhelmed participant cries as Neema pricks her finger to take a blood sample. Neema (middle) and a research volunteer take the height measurement of a child. Neema Shosho of Tuskegee University conducts research to educate young Tanzanian mothers on improved methods of complementary feeding practices.  Neema utilizes alternative education approaches such as role playing and traditional African dance to enhance the effectiveness of her nutrition intervention.  Neema's story can been be read in full here.

(Tyler Jones Photography) https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog/2014/4/best-of-iagri Mon, 28 Apr 2014 21:14:23 GMT
Deceptively Clear: North Florida springs offer a shimmering beacon of peril https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog/2014/1/deceptively-clear-north-florida-springs-offer-a-shimmering-beacon-of-peril      Continuing with my series of stories written for my fall 2013 magazine and feature writing course at the University of Florida, what follows is a color news feature concerning the health of natural freshwater spring ecosystems in Florida.


Deceptively Clear: North Florida springs offer a shimmering beacon of peril

     Ploop, ploop, one after the other, I plunge my two feet into the refreshingly cool water.  From my vantage point upon the submerged step of the canoe launch at the Ichetucknee River’s northernmost park, I survey the morning scene before me.  

     With the mid-morning sun not yet overhead enough to penetrate straight down into the tight, circular opening of overhanging oak trees and aquatic vegetation, shafts of light angled through the canopy, backlit foliage created intense, almost exaggerated arrays of glowing greens, while illuminating the deep reds of the abundant cardinal flowers that lined the banks, transforming them into flickering, fiery tips, like candles along the periphery of nature’s divine sanctuary.

     The shocking clarity of the deep spring pool immediately before me is as captivating as the tranquil surroundings.  Long, vibrantly green and brown blades of river grass sway back and forth in rhythm with the gentle current, broken up only by a patch of barren, rock and shell strewn limestone, a scar indicating where a fallen tree or large organic debris had once rested on an otherwise unblemished face.

     From this sanctuary, I and four others launch our canoes and kayaks and set out behind our guide, 57-year-old Lars Andersen, a Gainesville native, lifetime paddler, professional guide, writer and, all too recently, activist.

     As ideal as our surroundings seem, they have appeared healthier.  While the causes of record low spring flow and the decline in fish and fauna species that has taken place over the course of the last few decades is hotly contested, recent poor health is generally attributed to over-pumping of the Florida aquifer and pollution leaching into the waters, two problems exasperated by a prolonged drought.  

     Such circumstances have vaulted individuals like Lars to the front lines of the ongoing conflict over fresh water rights in Florida.  Along with water scientists and dedicated citizens, “Water War II,” as labeled by Florida Springs Institute founder Robert Knight is dependent upon individuals such as Lars, men and women who have gained an intimate understanding of spring ecosystems through their years of recreational or professional experience within them.

     Over the course of years paddling and guiding on the Ichetucknee, Lars has experienced first hand the abrupt decline in plant and wildlife species.

     “Twenty years ago, we would have had a lot more diversity in this river.  There would be the grass that you see now, but there have always been a lot of smaller leaf things, mainly five or six species.  But they are a lot more sensitive to pollution, so now even though this looks good, it’s much more of a monoculture.  So as nice as this looks, it’s deceptively unhealthy.”   

A crisp and clear fall morning at Ichetucknee River State Park near High Springs, Florida.    

     Despite his knowledge that things are not what they seem, Lars is in high spirits as we set out to paddle the Ichetucknee that morning.  “It never gets old,” he murmurs to himself just under his breath as he passes my kayak, his gaze slowly swiveling back and forth to survey the scene.  In jeans, and a gray shirt, and a weathered leather fedora hat that appears as if it has seen as many springs as its owner, Lars’ long gray canoe silently slithers south on the Ichetucknee.

     Stroke left, stroke right, glide and then repeat.  This is the routine paddling out of the narrow, meandering origins of the spring run, the dense oaks and cardinal flowers gradually giving way to a slightly different ecosystem, this one containing a wider stretch of river, the flowers and lush aquatic vegetation replaced by an abundance of native wild rice.  The sounds of crickets are a constant, interrupted sporadically by a woodpecker pecking away at an unseen tree, the high pitched call of a bird, or a mullet fish exploding out of the water and landing several feet forward in an audible splash.  

    We pass a trio of chattering otters, their heads emerging briefly, glancing around, then submerging, as if they were engaged in a playful game of Marco Polo.  All the while, our kayaks glide silently over a perfectly visible aquarium full of mullet, turtles and grass, the shadows of our boats so clearly discernable as we pass overhead, the sensation more like piloting a glider over a beautiful but unfamiliar world than paddling a boat.

     Shortly thereafter, Lars leads us up the short spring run to Devil’s Eye.  Here, the hardwood canopy opens up to a circular pool about 40 yards in diameter and maybe 15 feet deep.  At the bottom there’s a limestone fissure, from which, the crystal clear contents of the aquifer escape their subterranean confines.  

     From the banks of the spring, a single forking oak tree branch extends outward just inches above the surface of the water, ending in a Y shape almost directly over the spring’s source, nature’s divining rod pointing me to the most ideal spring paradise that I can imagine.  The impression is that of hovering silently above an aquarium of fish maneuvering in tight synchronous patterns, while a surrounding chorus of birds, crickets and gently rustling tree leaves remind us that we’re in a wild and primal setting.  

     Devil’s Eye is a spring that showcases the symptoms of declining spring health.  We don’t have to imagine the abundance of green grass that should be covering all but the deep blue vent in the center because its transformation from a lush underwater ecosystem flush with life to a barren and sometimes algae-coated pool has been well documented in a series of photographs by Florida nature photographer John Moran, creator of the Springs Eternal photography exhibit.  

     In a particularly striking set of images, both taken 11 years apart, the dramatic degradation of the spring is apparent.  Each image is taken from a perspective of the vent, looking up and out toward the surface of the water, the encircling canopy and the patch of sky beyond.  In the 1995 image, a blanket of lush grass grows from the vent and fills most of the image frame, while the 2006 photograph, all of the grass is gone, replaced by the now barren and algae-coated limestone bedrock that we can so clearly see below our kayaks.

My kayak silently slithering through the headwaters of the Ichetucknee River.  

      Making a wide, circular gesture to indicate the entirety of the spring, Lars recalls, “It used to be solid vegetation all through there.  It’s amazing how fast it’s happened.”

     “It’s still powerful,” responds a paddler on the tour.  

     Over-pumping of the aquifer, which is Florida’s underlying artery of fresh water supplying the springs, is a causal factor for spring health decline that has received a significant amount of attention lately.  The Adena Springs Ranch controversy and the pending decision to grant or deny the proposed grass fed beef operation a permit to pump millions of gallons per day in Marion County, has been a particularly volatile case that springs protection advocates have rallied around.  In a county that has already witnessed Silver Springs, arguably Florida’s crown jewel of spring attractions, decline so rapidly that a state-funded $3.5 million restoration is currently underway, fresh water rights and well permitting has become a hotly contested issue with the fate of the springs potentially at stake.          

     Florida nature photographer John Moran is no stranger to the Adena case.  John lives in a cozy, airy, pale yellow two-story house down a dusty drive not far from the swampy, cypress stumped banks of Newnans Lake.  It’s a fitting homestead for a photographer who has spent decades trudging through such locales, using his cameras and remarkable instincts to show Floridians the often overlooked majesty of our state.  Two years ago, however, those objectives changed.

     “I finally woke up a few years ago and realized that my pretty pictures really weren’t doing any good.  I realized that I had an ethical obligation to show the truth as I see it.  The truth is that I see a state of water in Florida in which 19 million residents, each of us acting in our own enlightened self interests, think nothing of depleting and defiling a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that doing so is injurious to all of our long-term interests.  That is what I see.”

     On a mid-Friday afternoon, I’m standing in John’s kitchen and a creeping westward sun streams light into the window above his white enamel double sink.  John picks up a small mason jar, the kind that have the image of a berry or a variety of fruit embossed on the outside, from a set of several that are sitting on the beige countertop to the right of the sink.  He turns on the faucet and fills the jar nearly to the top with water.  He holds it up before me, sunlight catching the lip of the jar and creating a tiny gleam of light as he tilts it.  

     “The attorney for Adena Springs Ranch was saying that there’s plenty of water in the aquifer, that we’re just talking about a fraction of an inch of what feeds Silver Springs.  But understand this,” John’s voice raises in excitement, “if this glass which is nine tenths full represents the aquifer, then that’s true, there is plenty of water in there, but what you see is when the rain falls and goes into the aquifer,” as he places the glass back beneath the faucet and fills it till it is overflowing, “it is the water that seeps out of the aquifer that supplies the flow to the springs.”  

Lifetime paddler, Ichetucknee River guide and advocate for the preservation of Florida springs, Lars Andersen, identifies an archeological site where a Spanish mission once stood near the banks of the river during the earliest era of European settlement.    

      “That is the spring water coming out right there,” pointing to the steady overflow pouring over the lip of the glass.  

     “What happens is that when it doesn’t rain and you’re left with a situation like that,” now holding a nearly full glass before me, “oh there is a lot of water in the aquifer and you can still stick pumps and wells down there to suck it out to feed your cow ranch in Marion County, but in the meantime our springs have gone bone dry.  The water is there, but what have we lost?”   

     “I’m not used to seeing springs dry up.  This is a fairly recent phenomenon we’re seeing now.  So what I believe we’re seeing is drought exacerbated by over-pumping is what is killing our springs.”  

     “I have given my heart to the springs, and I see that I am in a unique and powerful position to be an effective voice for the springs.  Pictures have a way of reaching people that words alone cannot, and I see that I am uniquely positioned to leverage the power of the image.  In my case, the power of a collection dating back 30 years, and put those to good use in service to the cause of clean water in Florida.”  

     John is currently devoting his talents to telling the story of our springs through the Springs Eternal project, which features a Florida Museum of Natural History exhibition of John’s spring photography.  In addition to the exhibition, Lesley Gamble, a University of Florida professor of art history, has launched the Urban Aquifer initiative, which enlarges and wraps some of John’s photographs on city buses, a literal moving representation of our aquifer flowing through city streets and avenues.   

Sprigs of hydrilla drape over my paddle in an area of the Ichetucknee where invasive aquatic plant life has thrived and obscured the surface.

     The Springs Eternal exhibit functions as a living document depicting the change that has occurred over a brief amount of time to the springs.  In some images, where there were once teens diving from platforms into aqua blue pools in the late 1990s, by the late 2000s, those same platforms stand empty with shallow, dark and murky waters below.  In others we see tubers on the Ichetucknee floating by a dense sludge of bright-green algae that resembles matted clumps of wet hair.  Still in others, spring vents lie barren, where only a decade prior, healthy thickets of underwater vegetation thrived.

     “Lawyers and those representing the polluters will talk your damn ear off and at the end of the day, look at the pictures I’m making and you tell me the difference.  They’re years apart.  Whatever it is you’re doing clearly is not working,” exclaims John, in exasperation.

     Back on the Ichetucknee, the wide-open spaces and fields of wild rice have given way to the river’s third and final distinctive eco-system.  Here, cypress trees, some whose diameters are the size of a compact car, tower from swampy banks, pinning us into a narrow canyon of woods and clear water.  During the height of the summer, families, couples, college students and packs of teenage friends clog this portion of the river, human flotillas relaxing and enjoying a leisurely float.  On this particular Saturday in late September, the human obstacles are few and far between as Lars gently guides us around a mother and her two young sons, the oldest of which can’t be more than 8.  Perched precariously atop his tube, he strains to get the highest vantage point possible so that his blue eyes, wide in wonder and awe, can view the aquatic world sliding by beneath him.   

     We pass a fenced off swampy nook along a bend in the river and Lars points out that it is the final protected habitat of a rare snail species.  He recounts a recent tour of the river that he gave to state officials.   

Hovering over the limestone substrate of the Devil's Eye spring along the Ichetucknee run, it's easy to become enchanted by the crystalline depths and beautiful surroundings. However, in less than twenty years, a spring habitat that was once carpeted with lush green river grass has transformed into a barren, stone strewn aquatic moonscape, devoid of the biodiversity that once thrived below the water's surface.

     “The state people said, ‘Well, there is plenty of water going by there.  The snails should be fine.’  You know, if that were the case, their range would be out in the river.  But there is something about that specific water that they like obviously.  If that spring loses its flow, that species is basically gone,” he warns.  

     With our tour completed and the kayaks put away, Lars and I sit at a picnic table on a perch overlooking the source of the Ichetucknee River.  From this deep blue, circular pool, hemmed in on all sides by a ring of oaks, seep the crystalline waters that meander south to the Santa Fe, then into the Suwannee and ultimately, to the Gulf of Mexico.  The noon-day sun hangs high overhead now, every detail of the spring’s limestone bottom spotlighted and visible in full relief.  A father swims with a laughing daughter on his back, her arms clasped tightly around his neck.  

     Looking off into the distance, Lars recalls the enchantment that his very first spring experiences had over him.

     “Blue Spring at the time was just this remote place that you had to go down these dirt roads to get to it, and then there was this little floating platform in the middle of it, up on barrels of some kind.  That was an early memory, probably the early 1960s and that was just this fantastic memory.  I always looked for this place in my later years.  Where was that place I used to go with my family?  My parents had died, so I wasn’t sure, but I remembered it was called Blue Spring.  I kind of kept an eye out for it as I grew up.  Finally one day, after I had this business, we’re talking 30 or 40 years later, I was picking some people up from Blue Spring and just saw it from one angle and said, ‘this is it!’”  

     He recalls fondly as if lost in a distant memory, “that clarity, that amazing blue water under your boat, and all those fish, just like you’re in an aquarium.”

Along the southern stretch of the Ichetucknee River, where towering cypress create the sense of being in green canyon, Lars Andersen discusses the declining health of the springs to a couple of paddlers who have hired him to guide them down the river.

     With a hint of longing and sadness, Lars adds,  “This has happened so fast that, even in my more aware lifetime, I’ve seen big changes in all these spring runs.  Silver River is just like ugh,” he remembers, dropping his head in visible exasperation.  “It’s happening so fast on Silver River you can almost just sit there and watch it.  It’s horrifying how much it’s changing and how fast it’s changing.  The algae mattes we see on top of the vegetation and such, we saw very little of that in the early day of me doing these tours, which isn’t that long.  I mean, 17 years is nothing.”

     It’s not as common as it once was, but on occasion, Lars still witnesses the visible enchantment that he had as a boy visiting Blue Spring, sweep over his adult clients.  

     “One time I had a senior with me.  I was filming her, she was in front of my boat and we were paddling down the river, and she was looking around,” he describes, more animatedly as if her enthusiasm was now flowing through him.  “And her lips started to quiver and you could just see this tear coming down and she said, ‘Oh, Lars.’  You know, she was just looking.  She was there.  She was feeling it.”

     “The challenge is you’re kind of showing them things that they are not seeing normally, but you have to let them know the perspective of what that thing is or that behavior is, if they don’t have some background information to see what they are looking at.  To know what they are looking at, it makes a big difference.  So, just like we talked about the plants looking so green and healthy, without someone telling them that there are supposed to be five or six different species in there instead of those one or two, then it looks fine,” says Lars, speaking to the challenge of giving clients an accurate frame of reference for what the springs should look like.

     Lars’s guided tours give paddlers that perspective, as do John Moran’s then and now images that fill the mobile panels and wall spaces in the Springs Eternal exhibit.  

     Regarding the ultimate power and potential of those images, John comments, “It’s a wonderful feeling to come back with a picture that I can hold up and invite the people of Florida to see what I’ve seen, to feel what I felt, and to appreciate that the glue that binds us all is the gift we share in calling Florida home.”

     As a boy and young man growing up in North Florida, I’ve fully appreciated that gift and have relied on my memories of it to take me home when I’m a world away.  My recollection of the springs remains so distinct, so vivid each and every time I choose to visit it.  Whether it is Blue, Juniper, Ginnie, Manatee or any of the other countless springs that I’ve experienced in my lifetime, if I close my eyes, I can re-take those first two steps into the spring.  I can feel that perfect coolness of the water on my feet and ankles.  I can smell the slight sweetness of the water.  I can see the vivid greens of the swaying vegetation above and below the water, the mature, majestic overhanging oaks, and I can see that clear blue vent before me.  The exciting feeling of anticipation of exploring this cool aquatic world is overpowering.

A shaft of sunlight streaming between the cypress canopy high overhead illuminates a spot of appearant health, where vibrant rivergrass bends and sways gently in a lazy current.

(Tyler Jones Photography) https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog/2014/1/deceptively-clear-north-florida-springs-offer-a-shimmering-beacon-of-peril Sat, 11 Jan 2014 04:21:21 GMT
Pedaling Toward a Greener Gainesville https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog/2014/1/pedaling-toward-a-greener-gainesville Pedaling Toward a Greener Gainesville

     By 6pm on a scorching Wednesday afternoon, a summer deluge has sent patrons of the Gainesville Downtown Farmer’s Market scrambling for cover beneath vendor awnings.  The rain is thick and relentless, and one blue awning in particular is waging a losing battle, its surrender evident by the pools of rainwater sagging ever deeper at its edges.  

     Next to the awning, a brown mountain bike is lying on its side and hitched to it is a 6-foot long by 2-foot wide painted yellow steel and plywood Gainesville Compost trailer.  Its bed is loaded with stacked, empty white buckets, raindrops assaulting their lids to form a steady, hollow drum cadence.  

     As rivulets of a muddy mulch mixture flow around his clipless pedal bike shoes, Steven Kanner bides his time alternating between emptying the collecting rainwater from the awning and educating shelter-seeking shoppers about the buckets of black, fine-grained, Gainesville Compost soil that are on the folding display table before him.  

     Looking every bit the part of a young, environmentally conscious entrepreneur, Steven is wearing his long dreadlocks tied back behind his head and his ride ready outfit consisting of a short-sleeved shirt, baggy outdoor athletic shorts and cycling shoes is entirely appropriate for the task of collecting and hauling food waste from collected from clients at the market.

     Steven takes a handful of the finished compost mixture, the excess slipping between his fingers as he holds it above the bucket so that I can get a closer look.  He’s showing me their final product, what they sell at the market to clients for use in their gardens.  

A full bucket of Gainesville Compost sits upon a custom made Kanner Kart, ready for delivery to one of Gainesville's residential or commercial clients.


     Only weeks prior that compost product was food waste awaiting pickup from Gainesville restaurants and startups.  Through technical ingenuity, refinements of a multi-phase composting process and a lot of miles transporting heavy loads on his custom bike trailers, Steven and Gainesville Compost founder and business partner Chris Cano have established a viable business in re-routing Gainesville food waste and transforming it into a soil that can be used to grow more food, all while satisfying Steven’s ideals of advancing local bicycle commerce and sustainability.

     A couple who appear to be in their 20’s duck under the tent to escape the torrents of rain and Chris Cano begins to explain their “waste to food,” business model.  

     “Food waste is turned back into soil amendments which can then grow more food that can go back to the producer.  The initial idea was to not only take restaurant waste and produce compost out of it, but to let the restaurants use the compost to produce more food,” explains Chris as he too shows the curious couple a handful of their finished product.  

     During much the week, Steven and his trailer will be common sights around town, picking up, transporting and processing food waste and/or partially finished compost product throughout downtown Gainesville, as he maneuvers within a strategically planned, decentralized network of compost processing sites.

     While Gainesville Compost existed for a year prior to Steven’s involvement, it was his custom made trailers that inspired Chris to partner with him in hopes of facilitating more efficient food waste and compost transport.  

     “I met him here at the market and he was showing off his trailers,” Chris recalled.  “At the time, I was hauling compost on cheap trailers.  I thought we should work together, and he had been thinking the same.  Hauling compost was a good way to start testing his trailers.  So, we were both working on these projects and they tied really well together.”

     It’s a bleak and dreary early Friday evening when I stop my bike at a warehouse on SE 4th St. while overhead, silvery-grey clouds swirl, churn and spit a light drizzle as they smother the urban industrial landscape.  The weather seems so close that it blends almost seamlessly with the grey corrugated metal structure that houses Kanner Karts, Steven’s bicycle cart fabrication business he founded in early 2013.  

     I meet Steven out front and from there we go through a sliding door and up a steep ramp, emerging in a cavernous space that is cluttered with ladders, wood debris and the miscellaneous remnants of past tenants.  There, in the middle of the space, surrounded by tools he brought from home, as well as welding equipment, grinders and a collection of bike wheels, tires and various gauges of steel, Steven designs and builds custom bicycle trailers for local businesses.  


Spare bike parts, excess steel tubing, and welding equipment clutter Steven Kanner's southeast Gainesville shop where he fabricates custom bike trailers.

     “I can tell you exactly how many it took.  I’ve refined my designs and practices through eight trailers,” says Steven between placing a series of bead welds that he grinds smooth amidst a shower of sparks.  On this particular evening he’s assembling the frame of a custom trailer he’s fabricating for Sweetwater Coffee.  

     Steven’s first forays into utilitarian cycling occurred years before, while growing up in Boca Raton, Fla.  “I’ve cycled my whole life, but I used to be into fishing when I was younger and I would strap boxes to my bike so that I could carry fishing rods and coolers and stuff on it.  I had a lot of friends whose parents had boats, and if I could get to the boat I could go fishing with them, so I’d strap the crates to my bike and do that kind of stuff.”

     Steven hopes to inspire Gainesville residents and merchants to become as enthusiastic about the potential for bike commerce as he is.  “The bike is empowerment to go anywhere.  People might see it as a way to move your body around but I see it as a utilitarian vehicle.  When people see me moving a trailer around, hopefully I can motivate them to not be so uni-functionalist, but to consider that things have multiple purposes.” 


Steven grinds smooth a weld on a trailer that is in production for a local coffee merchant.

     Steven recently built a custom trailer for Travis Mitchell and Florida Organic Growers so that they could transport freshly harvested produce from the Porter’s Neighborhood Community Garden to their client restaurants, homeless shelters, and the farmer’s market.

     Travis characterizes Steven as, “energized, excited, and thrilled to collaborate on positive issues,” and that he is, “full of great ideas that he’ll follow through on.  When I was working with him to design our trailer, Steven had all these suggestions and ideas for how to haul our tools and coolers.”

     Travis adds, “Steven has a lot of technical knowledge, an ability to find the practical solutions to the technical problems that always arise.”

     Steven is largely self-taught when it comes to acquiring the skills to pursue his interests.  His curiosity drives him to gain an understanding of how everything works, be it a pivoting joint in one of his trailers or how compost transforms from raw food waste to a highly refined fertile soil.  

In the middle of his pickup and delivery route in downtown Gainesville, Steven swaps refined compost product for buckets of food waste left to be picked up behind participating Gainesville eateries.

     University of Florida professor Ann Wilkie has witnessed Steven’s curiosity and ingenuity first hand.  Ann met Steven when he was a junior at UF participating in the Bioenergy and Sustainable Technology Society, and acted as Steven’s mentor during a summer 2013 internship in her biogas research program.  She admired Steven for his determination to understand the microbial process that was occurring in his compost practices.  

     “Steven was able to do it but he didn’t know why scientifically.  What I admire about them was that they didn’t have any experience.”  

     Ann recalls that Steven’s greatest value to the internship program was that he could quickly engineer technical solutions to complicated problems.  “He is very adept at working with tools.  When we had to create a kitchen scale digester, he could throw that together in thirty minutes.”

     Steven has always worked or had a source of income that was dependent upon his skills and ingenuity, a trait that continues to manifest itself in his collaboration with Gainesville Compost.  While rinsing out a couple of buckets that had been used to transport compost, Steven states that, “I generate my own skills through doing a lot of research online.  When I want to know something I learn it, then I know how to do it.  That is my interest, not working for anyone but myself when I don’t have to.”

A pile of colorful raw food waste sits upon a pile of compost in a bin behind Tempo Bistro, one of Gainesville Compost's participating clients and site of one of their composting centers, where food waste is deposited and churned to create the a refined compost product.

     Environmental and business initiatives often seem juxtaposed to one another, but making those ideals symbiotic is the task that Steven and Chris have before them in growing Gainesville Compost into a viable for profit business model. Since their partnership, Steven and Chris have worked closely to develop a business model that includes steadfast contracts, economic incentives for client compliance, as well as value added services for clients beyond simple waste pickup.  

     Regarding longer term Gainesville Compost business objectives, Steven says that, “We have goals in terms of what our core service should be, what we should charge for it, and how many clients we need by a certain date, and creating economies of scale.”

     In collaborating with a number of like-minded local partners, many of them startups with limited resources, Steven recognizes the need for flexibility within their business model.

      “Flexibility is key in any business or there will be a demise at some point.  For instance, if a business is wavering or ambivalent, I say okay, let’s take off this amount or you throw in one date night for my girlfriend and I, little things like that.”  

     As Ann Wilkie stated in regards to Steven’s business sense, “He’s a business man, not an idiot.  He’s not going to give it away for free.”  

     On a hot, cloudless Saturday in early September, in the garden behind Tempo Bistro, Steven heaps shovel-full after shovel-full of partially processed compost from one bin into another.  

Steven shovels partially finished compost from one bin to another behind Tempo Bistro, the site of one of Gainesville Compost's network of decentralized composting stations.

     Shhhlt thud, shhhlt thud, can be heard over and over as Steven’s shovel slides between the compost and the bottom of the wood pallet enclosure, before each shovel-full is lifted and dumped over the side of the next bin and impacts audibly with the pile of compost that is already there.  It’s part of the three phase process of food waste decomposition that Steven and Chris have devised in their refinement process and by shoveling out what has partially decomposed in the first bin, Steven makes room for the few hundred pounds of fresh food waste that he has just picked up and pedaled several miles to this site.  

     “I don’t even smell it anymore,” says Steven in reference to the intense earthy smell of decaying food waste and organic matter that has been stirred up by each successive shovel-full of compost.

     He’s been shoveling compost, carrying and dumping heavy buckets back and forth from the trailer incessantly for about 20 minutes when he finally leans on the shovel handle to take a breather.  It’s hot, dirty and smelly work but for a young man who has always relished the unconventional fitness that outdoor recreation such as biking and rock climbing can provide, this workout is ideal.  

     “Doing this physical exertion each day, I don’t have to exercise,” says Steven, a little breathless and leaning on his shovel’s handle.  “Exercise should come from your daily activities.  What I’m doing now is composting, but it’s exercise and it’s my job.  I don’t go to the gym and I stay perfectly fit just by what I do.”  

     Steven hopes that the combination of cycling, lifting, and shoveling and the cardio and strength building benefits that the routine provides will appeal to the potential volunteers that are needed if Gainesville Compost is to grow.  

     “We want to sell that benefit of exercise so that they can view their time as having a duel efficiency.  They’re working and exercising at the same time, so maybe they don’t have to come home and go to the gym, they can go out with their friends instead.”

With all compost delivered and a trailer full of empty buckets, Steven rides down southwest 2nd Avenue towards the Porter's Neighborhood Garden where his day's route had begun.

     During any given week, Steven will spend hours in his shop designing, welding, sawing and building trailers.  Miles will be biked around town, picking up food waste and refining compost for sale, all of which will be sold with the satisfaction that it will be used to create more edible or organic matter that will go back into the waste to food model that sustains their business.  

     Steven has adapted a livelihood that advances the ideal of sustainability and bicycle commerce and he’s optimistic about the potential for teaching others how to do the same.

     “I see it as simple because there is no barrier to entry.  If you have a bucket and piece of land, you can compost.  It doesn’t take money really or any kind of engineering,” claims Steven in regards to the accessibility of composting food waste.

     “It’s the same thing with the cycling.  You have to purchase a trailer or adapt your bike but the bike to me is a simple machine.  So the two methods of sustainability that I pursue, bicycle power and composting to me seems simple, easy to teach, gets the point across.  If you have a bike I can put a trailer on it, and if you have a shovel, I can teach you how to compost.  It’s just so simple,” says Steven as he cleans up the composting site behind Tempo Bistro.

     All of the buckets that Steven hauled to Tempo Bistro are now empty and carefully secured on his trailer for the journey back across town, where they’ll be stored at the Porter’s Community garden.  Those buckets won’t stay empty for long.  Around downtown Gainesville, a growing number of participating clients are diverting their food waste from the landfill, to these same Gainesville Compost buckets, to ultimately, a composting site.  Eventually, that waste will may return to the Tempo Bistro garden, a community garden, a small farmer, or any number of potential growers, in the form of the rich, black soil that Steven and Chris distribute at the weekly farmer’s market.

     With a day’s work finished, Steven snaps closed the chin strap of his blue and white helmet, straddles his bike and stands on the pedals to get the necessary momentum to put the bike, and the now considerably lighter trailer, in motion.  At a leisurely pace, Steven takes a series of back roads and side streets in a stair step pattern, heading southeast toward Porter’s.  At some point along SW 2nd St. I fall back and watch Steven pedal away to the east, a prominent Gainesville Compost label adorning a black trash container at the rear of the trailer, gradually fades into the distance.  

(Tyler Jones Photography) https://www.tylerjonesphotography.com/blog/2014/1/pedaling-toward-a-greener-gainesville Sat, 11 Jan 2014 03:07:44 GMT