From Solar Panels to Food Forest to Ecoscape Co-op, by JT Yu

I suppose you can say my solar journey started when I was a kid, when I learned about the universe, galaxies, and stars. This fascination propelled me into the study of Physics throughout my youth. After graduating from college, I looked for jobs in only two industries, the solar industry and the software industry. As fate would have it, I ended up in the software industry for 14 years. While I do not regret this path, a large part of me was still fascinated by the stars, that which power the universe.

When I met my wife, Lotus, I discovered that we shared this fascination with stars, though hers from a very different background. Lotus’s extensive experience in outdoor education ignited many exciting conversations about plants, biology, and ecology. Of course, the stars, especially our sun, plays a big part in nurturing the ecosystems of our planet. It powers life on earth.

Image for post
Image for post

We dreamed of building an eco-village in the woods where people can live symbiotically with each other and with nature, harnessing the sun not only to generate power, but also to grow food. We researched solar panels, solar water heater, regenerative agriculture, food forest. We read science fiction about utopias and dystopias. We went to conferences on sustainability, collective living, and community organizing.

When we got married and bought our first house in Portland, our jobs required us to still be in the city. Even though it was not exactly the eco-village that we dreamed about, our dream still played a big part in what kind of house we ended up buying.

It wasn’t the prettiest house, but it had lots of potential. Not only did it have a large south facing roof — perfect for solar panels, it also had a big yard that received full sun all day — perfect for growing a food forest. The house was blessed by the sun.

Image for post
Image for post
Our House Before Solar

After shopping around for solar panels, we ended up going with 24 panels of SolarWorld SW 300, which was known for its affordability while still offering a decent efficiency at 17.89%.

We also went with the AP systems’ YC500i micro inverters. Our neighbors had tall trees, so the micro inverters allowed each of our panels to perform to its fullest even when some of them get some shade. Plus, AP systems had a website and a phone app that we can use to monitor the health of our panels.

The entire system added up to 7.2kW, which greatly offset our electric bill, especially since we had a few housemates. We also bought a used 2011 Nissan Leaf fully electric car to complete the package. Though the normal degradation of its battery means it only has a range of 45 miles, it was still plenty for our daily commute within the city. And because it was so old, it was very affordable. This combination easily saved us $200 per month.

Next, it was time to plant a food forest.

Image for post
Image for post
Our House after Solar and Food Forest

Like a real forest, a food forest maximizes sunlight utilization to create higher yield with less land. And because it is an actual ecosystem instead of a conventional farm, It needs little watering and weeding, and no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.

Also, like a real forest, it continuously converts carbon into organic materials. It literally reverses climate change.

A food forest was something we wanted as much as solar panels because it benefits both the people and the planet. Plus the idea of stepping outside of our door into a forest for a bite just sounded so cool.

With the help of our housemate Megan, who was a regenerative ecological landscaping expert, we planted the food forest on and off for a year. It had 17 fruit trees, 5 nut trees, 4 nut shrubs, 9 berry shrubs, 3 grape vines, chickens, bees, and lots of miscellaneous herbs and vegetables.

A section of our food forest, all of which was grass lawn before. In a couple of years, it will become even more lush and productive.

While our food forest was one thriving ecosystem born out of our journey, it wasn’t the only one.

You see, Lotus and I never intended to live on our own. We bought the house to also provide affordable housing for intentional collective living — a community where people who share the same values and responsibilities for each other — a human ecosystem. And just like how a symbiotic forest makes each individual tree more resilient and productive, a symbiotic community makes each individual human more resilient and productive too.

This resiliency became even more evident one year after both the forest and the human ecosystems were born, when Covid-19 hit. Many of our housemates were laid off because of the pandemic. People were worried about making ends meet. Nothing seemed certain.

So we got together and made a plan — we were going to start our own ecoscaping business, where we design, create, and maintain regenerative ecological landscapes, such as food forest, vegetable/medicine gardens, nativescapes, butterfly/ bird gardens, woodlands, rain gardens, etc.

Utilizing our human ecosystem, we were able to assemble an effective team. Each of us had a crucial skill for the business — landscaping, web development, customer management, photography, corporate laws, bookkeeping, marketing, etc. And most importantly, we all loved to garden.

Image for post
Image for post

We chose to incorporate as a cooperative, an employee-owned company, where workers have equal voice and stake in the company. We had fair wages and good communication. We knew how to delegate and collaborate. We trusted and took care of each other.

We all shared the same vision — A vision where people come together to create natural and human ecosystems that are good for the people and the planet. This is why we named our company SymbiOp, which stands for Symbiosis Cooperative, where Symbiosis represents the natural ecosystem and Cooperative represents the human ecosystem.

Our solar panels, food forest, and SymbiOp are still going strong. My story here is coming to an end, but our collective story goes on. Our planet is in crisis, politically, economically, and ecologically. The future seems so dire and uncertain. I know my story is only about a handful of people, but I hope it will plant a seed in all of you, a seed that will reach down with strong roots to ground you through the crisis, reach up to the sun to form a canopy that will shelter your friends, your family, your fellow human beings, and with them, form a resilient forest that will thrive for generations to come.

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store