It’s Monday morning and the spring sun hasn’t yet begun to turn things steamy at Jessica’s Organic Farm. Don Hall bends down to grab a handful of the slightly past-prime collard greens and curly kale that grows higher than his knees, avoiding the sporadic stinging nettles that have begun to fill in between the thick, overgrown rows.
“Go for the smaller, newer leaves and don’t bother with the ones with holes,” he instructs the two dozen volunteers who have assembled to help “glean” the field and supply All Faith’s Food Bank’s customers with fresh produce. “We want it to be appealing enough that people will be willing to try it and still not let much go to waste.”
For Hall, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Transition Sarasota, building a sustainable community starts, literally, from the ground up. The thousands of pounds of produce these volunteers will gather in two hours is just one example of how Hall is promoting an interconnectedness that can benefit the environment and the local economy.
“Talking about how bad climate change is going to be is not a very inspiring way to reach people,” says the 34-year old, who has a scruffy beard, an easy smile and an unflappable demeanor. “There’s a different way of environmentalism and it’s all about people coming together at the local level and building the future we want to see now. Not yelling at the government and begging business to do it for us. But coming together as a community and doing it ourselves.”
A career as a community and environmental activist is something Hall envisioned during his early years growing up outside Boston, as the only child of parents who were “not outdoorsy.” He’d never been camping when he embarked on an Outward Bound course - 22 days of sailing, backpacking and canoeing - at age 15 that turned his life around “180 degrees.”
“It was like a whole new world of possibilities opened up to me,” he says.
After graduating from NYU with a degree in literature - “I fancied myself a bit of a poet” - Hall returned to Outward Bound as an instructor for at-risk teens. The payoff for “the toughest job I ever had” was seeing young lives turned around, but it didn’t fill the urge for the grass-roots activism he’d experienced in college as a member of Students for a Free Tibet.
Hall returned to Sarasota, where his family had moved when he was in high school and where his mother chose to remain after his father’s death, at 62, of a heart attack. Opting for a change, he became a farm laborer at Jessica’s and joined the Sarasota Network for Climate Action, a group that was lobbying local government to adopt the U.S. mayors climate protection agreement.
“I felt more and more that environmental issues were the most pressing issues affecting the most people,” Halls says. “We don’t really lack in any technology to create a truly sustainable society, all the pieces are there. But the leadership hasn’t kept pace with the technology. I saw how limited an impact I could have on my own and wondered how I could spend more time doing this. It was calling to me.”
So Hall returned to school in Colorado, earning a degree in environmental leadership and joining Transition Boulder County, part of a network of sustainability activists that began in the United Kingdom. On a trip home to Florida to see his mother over the holidays in 2009, he discovered there was interest in starting a Transition group in Sarasota.
“There was such a different reception here,” he said. “There was a freshness and enthusiasm; people seemed hungry for it. And I’d been thinking of going out on my own and had lots of ideas.”
So in 2010, Hall returned to Florida to found and direct Transition Sarasota, which has become “a megaphone for the local food movement.” The gleaning project, which has donated nearly 100 tons of produce over the past six years, is the most well-known of a dozen initiatives. (That may be because anyone who volunteers gets to take home a free sack of vegetables.) But he also arranges screenings of environmental documentaries, partners on workshops that cover everything from how to make biodiesel from vegetable oil to how to keep chickens, and promotes eating local with a resource guide and the annual “Eat Local Week” every October. Transition Sarasota is also a presence once a month at the downtown Farmers Market.
Hall sees Sarasota as at a turning point, with people recognizing development must be balanced with quality of life. He sees the local food movement as a way to “grow in quality rather than quantity” and at the same time, to become an economic driver.
“It’s not about ceasing to grow, but growing in a way where we’re replacing stuff we normally input,” he says. “You could think about local food as growing the economy outward from the farmer’s fields.
“There are some really promising directions that are not crazy, liberal ideas, but common sense. Things like a car sharing service or tiny houses. If there aren’t compelling reasons not to, we should let these creative ideas develop and flourish here. But we need more people to do things like what I’m doing.”