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Interviewing super cool farmer Jahsh Banks

We talk about food sovereignty, why weeds aren't real, and how to get your compost hot.

A couple weeks ago, I got a cool message from a stranger asking about his compost. He was a young farmer in North Carolina and he, like many who reach out to me, could not figure out why his compost wasn’t getting hot. A little detective work later, I realized that the issue was the frequency with which he was turning the pile—every other day, or so—and how that was interfering with the build up of a microbial population that would generate solid heat for him.

“Oh, you need to be way lazier!” I told him, which is the kind of advice that anybody would love to hear.

We talked a bit more after that, and I discovered that Jahsh was both an amazing musician and a new farmer, currently enrolled at Urban Farm School with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Forsyth County. In the course of our conversation, it emerged that he is deeply passionate about food sovereignty and also the land—so I asked if he would be up to share his compost with readers of The Rot.

Lucky for me (and us), he was.

Hi Jahsh! First, can you tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Jahsh Banks. I’m a gardener/musician from New Jersey. I spent some time in Los Angeles, working on music and fruit trees, and now I’m in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, helping manage a couple gardens. One of the gardens I work closely with is MICDC, which stands for Memorial Industrial Community Development Corporation. The farm’s location is a formal historic black orphanage that was open from 1928 to 1972 and is now repurposed as an incubator farm to help the community. Doc, my elder was actually a resident at the orphanage so there’s a true connection to the land. Our goal is to help the community get a better grasp on growing their own food and a focus on education. Just experimenting and trying new things and ways of growing.

The other garden is Simon’s Green Acre Community Garden at Winston-Salem State University. Kind of the same thing. We rent out beds to the community. We also do events, teaching kids and even all the way up to seniors, on the basics of farming. Just trying to get more people involved with knowing where food comes from and how to grow your own food. That’s really my goal overall. To make growing your own food and food sovereignty more common knowledge.

So cool. You are managing these two great gardens that also seem to be important pillars of community education. Do you have compost at each location?

No, only one of them! I would like to start composting at the other, and I’m currently advocating to get that started. I guess something happened in the past where people were just putting anything in the compost bin, and they’re a little nervous to start it again. But I’m telling them, “Hey, this is an opportunity to teach people!” There’s also a stigma about putting weeds in the compost bin. It’s frustrating. The term “weeds” is made up. There is no such thing as weeds, first of all. If you go in the forest and walk around, you’re not going to see any “weeds”—you’re just going to see life. There are invasive plants, but “weeds”—no. Weeds are just plants that you don’t want in your garden. So they have this whole system set up where they put “weeds” in a pile and somebody comes and picks it up, and I’m like: “Man, that is so much wasted time and energy.” Whatever truck is picking them up is probably throwing up so much gas and pollution. So I want to just get this compost going. I love compost. It’s all about recycling and not wasting stuff. Because that compost is going to come back as fertilizer for us. Why would we waste that?

So, to make a short answer long or vice versa—no, I only compost at one spot. But soon to be both.

Editor’s Note: I agree big-time with Jahsh and have written about this before.

What’s the compost set up at the one garden?

I actually inherited a 3-bin system made out of pallets. The first day at the garden, I actually had a pretty good idea of what compost was. My buddy Chris Lynch, of band Gardens & Villa, helped me out understanding the process and how to make compost and what was actually going on. I basically understood it as recycled organic matter turned into gold. It’s like alchemy in a way. Chris was big on vermicompost, so that was my first understanding of compost. I just knew it was a bunch of stuff being eaten and shat out and broken down by microbes and worms and microbial fungi and all that cool stuff.

I’m so curious how your relationship to the bins has changed as you’ve worked them over time. So, two questions in that: How long have you been working that compost? How has your relationship to the compost changed as you’ve taken care of it?

I started at the end of March this year, so it’s been almost two months. I used to be hella anal about it. At first, I was turning it every two days or so. Over time, though, I just started turning less and less. At first, I wanted to turn it as much as possible to heat it up. I thought the more I turned, the better it would be.

I loved your advice.

It was kinda my style. Lazy gardener, drunken ninja style. You told me to cool out on turning it every week, which I didn’t know. Then I started learning about the inputs and the ratios, and just because something is “green” doesn’t mean it’s the same amount of nitrogen, and keeping it moist, and I just geeked out on YouTube videos and asking homies.

Now I turn every other week or so and it’s been cool.

Also, I’m still figuring it out. Because I haven’t gotten the temperature as high as I want to, but I think it has to do with a lack of nitrogen. I used to check the temperature every day, too, but now I’m just way more relaxed about it. Pretty soon I’m going to send it out to get tested, because I’m just interested in what’s going on in there at a microscopic level.

What temperature is your pile at now? And where do you want to get it to?

Okay, I’m gonna be honest. My temperature is trash right now. It’s not where I want it to be. The highest I got was 125° and that was in the beginning. I had a couple trips and days away and I just kinda let it be. But it looks great! The peak was like 125°, though. Lately it’s only been hitting like 100-110°F. My big goal was hot-hot like 160°F because I want to kill all the bad guys, but I’d be cool with 130°F or 140°F. That’d be chill.

What types of stuff are you putting into the pile on a day-to-day basis?

This was my first time doing a 3-bin system, so I’ve just been learning as I go. But I’ve been putting a lot of kitchen scraps and old veggies, like tomatoes, and clippings from the garden, a bunch of tomato clippings and greens, and any weeds** that aren’t seeding. Before I was just throwing in any weeds, but now I’m just doing weeds that aren’t seeding. Because obviously it isn’t hot enough to kill the seeds, so I’m trying to be more careful about that.

Also, I put in aged manure and wood chips. At first, I was just putting in cardboard and a bunch of shredded paper because I didn’t have any browns. I was literally shredding up a bunch of paper and putting it in because we didn’t have any mulch at the farm, but now we have wood chip mulch, so I’ve been adding that. I have some farmer homies down the road that are supposed to bring me manure, but they’ve been slackin’! So I’m like: “Bro, y’all messing up my system! I need that poop! I need that hot shit, let me get that shit!” Laughs.

There’s one more thing I wanted to ask you more about. You mentioned your interest in/the importance of food sovereignty —would you be open to speaking a bit more on that? I’d love to exPanD pEople’S minds a little.

I’m really into bringing awareness to food sovereignty. I grew up in places like New Jersey and just witnessed a lot of different places where there were food deserts — I forget the technical definition, but places where there isn’t a grocery store within six miles or something. Not even just grocery stores. There’s a lot of places where there just isn’t access to healthy food. If you look in the hood, if you look around, in these places… a lot of the time, it’s people of color.

There’s no access to healthy food.

There’s a bunch of McDonalds, there’s a Popeyes, there’s a Bojangles. There’s all these crappy foods, even liquor stores. There are more liquor stores than there are healthy food shops or herb shops.

Growing your own food and bringing up small gardens and teaching people how to go about feeding themselves and feeding their families and people around them, I want that to be more common. For one, we won’t have to be so dependent on other people giving us food. And crappy food at that—food that’s actually killing us. It’s causing us to get sick. And that goes generations deep.

So this whole thing is about community healing and generational healing, for me. That’s why I want to promote food sovereignty and cure these deserts. And bring more life. Because everything starts with what we eat. People think that our brains do most of the work, which has some truth to it, but it starts in the stomach. Your stomach fuels your brain. You can’t go about your day without eating.

One more thing I want to say, a lot of these places… they feed your hunger, but they don’t feed you nutrients. And nutrients are what you need to keep you going, so you can go do great things.

**Jahsh wanted me to point out that even he used the word “weeds” in this conversation, even after talking about how weeds aren’t real—so we’re all humans, we’re all learning, we’re all good.

This issue proof read by Jahsh Banks!!! (Many typos caught.)

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