top of page

HOW IT ALL STARTED

History of Food Forest Cooperative 2017-2022

By Stefanie Albrecht and Arnim Wiek

2017: The Early Beginnings

The idea of creating a sustainable food forest cooperative in Phoenix emerged from a transatlantic collaboration in 2017. Prof. Arnim Wiek, a full professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and director of the Sustainable Food Economy Lab, and Stefanie Albrecht, a PhD-researcher on sustainable food forests at Leuphana University Lüneburg in Germany, started to collaborate that year. Since 2012, there had been an institutional partnership in research and education between Arizona State University and Leuphana University Lüneburg. Stefanie and Arnim connected through the joint research program Processes of Sustainability Transformation led by Leuphana University and funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation. Both were keen on not just building theory but on contributing to sustainable development of food systems through their research.

IMG_7954_edited.jpg

2018: Initial Research & Partnerships

Over the course of six months, Stefanie compiling an inventory of ~200 food forests, and interviewed, visited, and analyzed in detail 20 of them. The findings suggest that most food forest projects suffer from a lack of business development, rarely providing a sufficient livelihood. Only few are professionally organized and focus on food production beyond self-sufficiency. We also identified several barriers to developing food forests sustainably. From those insights, we developed the early vision of creating a sustainable food forest enterprise in central Arizona. In fall 2018, Stefanie came to Phoenix and stayed for a six-month research visit (she enjoyed staying with Angela Cazel Jahn and Robert Larson near downtown Phoenix). For the first six weeks, Arnim and Stefanie focused on identifying a suitable site and met with various stakeholders the Sustainable Food Economy Lab had contact with, including city administrators, food entrepreneurs, and NGO representatives. A team from ASU’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning supported our search for a suitable site in Tempe and Phoenix through a GIS study. Various options came up at schools, hospitals, and private properties. We systematically documented our site search, looked in detail at 16 sites, and analyzed them with respect to size, accessibility, access to water, available resources, stakeholder interest, and other relevant criteria. 

Amongst these sites was Spaces of Opportunity (Spaces, for short) in South Phoenix, which was slowly but steadily developed by a consortium of NGOs as a multi-functional food hub with a variety of programs, including an incubator farm, community gardens, a farmer’s market, and a community café. 

Together with our colleague Dr. Nigel Forrest from the Sustainable Food Economy Lab (who supported our fundraising for the food forest project at a later stage), we visited Spaces on October 1, 2018. On this unusually grey day, we met Amy Simpson, one of the Spaces-farmers, and John Wann-Ángeles, director of the Orchard Community Learning Center and co-founder of Spaces. There was an immediate connection based on shared values and a keen interest in immediately (!) starting a food forest on a 0,5-acre parcel in the southwest corner of Spaces that had only been used for storing compost and mulch.

Other members from Spaces soon joined our newly-formed food forest enterprise development team, including Darren Chapman, director of TigerMountain Foundation and co-founder of Spaces, Bruce Babcock, manager of Spaces community gardens, Krystal Harris, chef of the community-based Healthy Roots Café vis-a-vis from the Spaces site, and Sowan Thai, manager of Spaces incubator farm. We were further supported by Hanna Layton and Nick Shivka, graduate students in ASU’s School of Sustainability. (Arnim mentored Nick and Hanna in developing a training program for sustainable cooperative food business development; Hanna later founded the benefit corporation Thrive Consultancy in Phoenix that offers such a program on a regular base and Nick initiated food forests through his work at Local First Arizona.) Additional support came from one of the other PhD researchers in the program Processes of Sustainability Transformation, Sadhbh Juárez-Bourke, who visited Phoenix in fall 2018, too, and used theatre-based methods to help facilitate some of the many workshops and meetings we conducted. 

2019: Planning a Sustainable Food Forest Enterprise

A Memorandum of Understanding with shared goals and a project timeline was developed and signed by the development team in February 2019. We spent the next two months with familiarizing the development team with different types of food forests, discussing preferred characteristics, anticipating local challenges, and identifying potential collaborators. We organized field trips to Epic Yard Farm, Longevity Gardens, Mission Garden, Bean Tree Farm and the food forest at Las Milpitas Community Garden. Over the course of the following two months, we jointly created a vision for a food forest as a sustainable enterprise (very differently operating than conventional businesses – which Arnim did not get tired to emphasize), and an action plan on how to realize it. We used established research methods as well as collaborative procedures based on mindfulness and nature education for developing the vision and the action plan. We engaged the community for feedback on what to grow in the food forest, developed a first site plan, and drafted a business plan. A small grant from Sprouts ($2,000) allowed us implementing a small food forest mock-up and display site at the entrance area of Spaces. On December 2, 2019, we shared experiences and insights from our first two years of the project in a transfer workshop with local stakeholders from Arizona interested or involved in implementing food forests.Amongst these sites was Spaces of Opportunity (Spaces, for short) in South Phoenix, which was slowly but steadily developed by a consortium of NGOs as a multi-functional food hub with a variety of programs, including an incubator farm, community gardens, a farmer’s market, and a community café. 

Together with our colleague Dr. Nigel Forrest from the Sustainable Food Economy Lab (who supported our fundraising for the food forest project at a later stage), we visited Spaces on October 1, 2018. On this unusually grey day, we met Amy Simpson, one of the Spaces-farmers, and John Wann-Ángeles, director of the Orchard Community Learning Center and co-founder of Spaces. There was an immediate connection based on shared values and a keen interest in immediately (!) starting a food forest on a 0,5-acre parcel in the southwest corner of Spaces that had only been used for storing compost and mulch.

Other members from Spaces soon joined our newly-formed food forest enterprise development team, including Darren Chapman, director of TigerMountain Foundation and co-founder of Spaces, Bruce Babcock, manager of Spaces community gardens, Krystal Harris, chef of the community-based Healthy Roots Café vis-a-vis from the Spaces site, and Sowan Thai, manager of Spaces incubator farm. We were further supported by Hanna Layton and Nick Shivka, graduate students in ASU’s School of Sustainability. (Arnim mentored Nick and Hanna in developing a training program for sustainable cooperative food business development; Hanna later founded the benefit corporation Thrive Consultancy in Phoenix that offers such a program on a regular base and Nick initiated food forests through his work at Local First Arizona.) Additional support came from one of the other PhD researchers in the program Processes of Sustainability Transformation, Sadhbh Juárez-Bourke, who visited Phoenix in fall 2018, too, and used theatre-based methods to help facilitate some of the many workshops and meetings we conducted. 

Stefanie’s funded PhD-studies allowed her to lead all these activities, supported by Arnim. Stefanie had to return to Germany in late spring of 2019 to develop a second food forest in Lüneburg as part of her doctoral research project (after an unsuccessful attempt, it finally got realized, too). While in Germany, Stefanie continued to lead the team on developing a site plan and attempting to raise funds.

2020: We almost gave up – until, finally, funds flowed

Speaking of – fundraising was time-consuming and frustrating because funding agencies largely lacked awareness of this new type of business and economic development that pursues environmental, social, and economic objects in a balanced way. After more than one year and 10 unsuccessful applications to various funding agencies from the local to the national level, through the ASU Foundation, we got connected to a private donor, Lisa VanBockern, who understood and appreciated our intentions. Lisa had seen our presentation with which we unsuccessfully competing for a grant from Women & Philanthropy. We created and shared several other documents and products with her. A short promotional video was produced by Maud Dieminger, a long-time friend of Stefanie, who accompanied the project with the objective of creating a full documentary film about it. We also wrote a full business plan for the sustainable food forest enterprise. Elizabeth Ferguson, a graduate student in Landscape Architecture at ASU, through her graduate project, developed a set of professional site plans for the food forest.

After review of our material and a site visit at Spaces in February 2021, Lisa agreed to sponsor the project for the full requested amount of $100,000. This was a key milestone providing funds for earthwork, water infrastructure, plants, and, most importantly, monthly stipends for the future food forest entrepreneurs.

IMG_8003 (1)_edited.jpg

2021: Formation of the Food Forest Cooperative Team and Site Construction

A Steering Committee of the project, including Arnim, John, Darren, and Stefanie, was formed with the tasks to recruit the cooperative food entrepreneurs, to build their capacity, and to oversee responsible spending of funds according to the business plan. We then put out a call for applications seeking to recruit five food forest entrepreneurs (minimum number of entrepreneurs required for incorporating a cooperative business in Arizona) through our networks, mostly focusing on candidates who were already somehow connected to Spaces. After various rounds of recruitment and interviews, an initial entrepreneurial team with diverse skills and backgrounds formed in April 2021.

However, soon thereafter, two entrepreneurs displayed a work ethic not in line with the requirements for starting a cooperative business. There was lack of and resistance to planning upcoming tasks, taking well-informed decisions, documenting progress for other team members, tracking working hours, and so forth – all procedures critical to running a successful (cooperative) business. The Steering Committee had to take the difficult decision to part with these two entrepreneurs. We then continued with three entrepreneurs, namely, Alexis Trevizo, Maria Parra Cano, and Brian Cano. 
Under John’s leadership and with occasional assistance from Bruce, Sowan, and numerous volunteers, the team started with earthwork and building the foundation for the food forest infrastructure at the dedicated southwestern location of Spaces. Further activities included purchase of a 20-foot storage container, and the design of renderings that include additional infrastructure for onsite food processing, storage, and sales points with Selina Martinez, a local indigenous architect.

Constructing the irrigation infrastructure presented challenges on several levels. Together with a team of dedicated graduate students led by Prof. Rebecca Muenich, an assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, our team developed a hybrid irrigation system that allows both flood and drip irrigation. This irrigation system required adaptations of the planned pathways and, hence, the overall site plan. We also had to lay a pipe from the east to the west end of Spaces (~350 yards in length) to connect to the irrigation water access point of Spaces. And last but not least, prices for irrigation equipment increased drastically over the spring and summer. Instead of the planned $5,000, we had to spend 5 times as much for constructing the irrigation infrastructure for the food forest.

Since spring, the food forest entrepreneurs had been supported in not only building the physical infrastructure but also building capacity and the business itself, including the development of plans for plants, equipment, recipes, distribution, partnerships, and so forth. In fall 2021, capacity building resumed with Brian joining the sustainable cooperative food business development program offered by Thrive Consultancy and sponsored by the City of Phoenix. Through this program, he met and collaborated with Chanel “Nelli” Evans who became interested in joining the food forest project. And Ali LoPiccolo, one of Arnim’s graduate student assistants, who had supported the project since early 2021, also considered joining. This way, the critical number of five entrepreneurs was reached at the end of the year.
 


 

2022: Incorporation of the Food Forest Cooperative

IMG-1423_edited_edited.jpg

After many planning and preparatory sessions, we started planting the food forest in February 2022. The team bought plants at several nurseries, recruited volunteers, marked the site for planting, and so forth. Stefanie received a one-year stipend by the Andrea von Braun Foundation to keep supporting the food forest project and other food forests in Arizona. She was able to join the first planting sessions. Prior to planting, Maria and Brian guided us through a sweat lodge based on their ancestral wisdom. The team planted on several weekends from February to May. Planting currently resumes and is expected to be completed in early 2023.

Further grants allowed to implement shade infrastructure and planning a 7-acre food forest as part of a community-based wellness center in South Phoenix. In August 2022, the team incorporated as the first worker-owner cooperative in Arizona and one of the few cooperative businesses in the state. Hanna and her team from Thrive Consultancy provided dedicated support along the lengthy bureaucratic way.

IMG_8250_edited.jpg
bottom of page