Welcome friends and fans of Exile Photography to my new blog. I maintained a blog on Xanga.com from 2005 until well into 2013, which functioned as a supplement to my now defunct Exilephoto.com. The Xanga blog was begun while I was living in and traveling through China and was a visual showcase of the travel and culture photography that I did there. My hope is that Zenfolio will be a better home for Exile Photography and that this blog goes beyond the scope of a visual travelog in that it serves as a platform for all of the photography and multi-media that I produce from this point onward, including some in-depth photojournalism.
These initial posts will be a series of stories that I wrote throughout the fall of 2013 for a magazine and feature writing graduate course that I completed within the University of Florida's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. In that course, I combined creative writing with my documentary photography to produce several stories, the first few of which pertain to the community of Gainesville, Florida and the surrounding vicinity. What follows, is a profile feature on Gainesville entrepeneaur and recent University of Florida graduate Steven Kanner, whose enthusiasm for sustainable commerce, composting and utilitarian cycling, have come together to help grow Gainesville Compost into a model environmentally sustainable business endeavor.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.”
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.