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Nina's Magic Farm

 

Nina Berryman, the farm manager for the Weavers Way Farms, and her farm are a big part of the mission of the kitchen garden series. Nina and I recently sat down for a chat and Nina's thoughts remind me of what it means to be fully invested in work you love. Surprisingly, working on a farm and working in the studio have some important similarities. In fact, our conversation highlights how our favorite and least favorite things about our jobs generate comparable feelings. My job as a designer and Nina's job as a farmer are a lovely and diverse mix of tasks where we revel in the excitement of experimentation and learning, but struggle with the exhaustion of immersing ourselves fully in our work 365-24-7. I want to take a moment of gratitude to recognize the important role this farm plays in my business and introduce you to what I fondly refer to as 'Nina's magic farm'.

HB: What made you choose farming? 

NB: I initially started farming because I wanted to develop my own self sufficiency skills. After studying Environmental Studies in undergrad, I gained an appreciation for how fragile our ecological and global economic systems are. I started farming thinking it would be a good hobby and skill to be able to grow my own food. Then the more I got into it, the more examples I saw of different kinds of agriculture. I grew up in rural VT and had a realistic but narrow view of what agriculture looked like. Once I was exposed to more examples of urban farming and educational farms, I began seeing farming as more of a career option for myself. In addition to my environmental interests I was also drawn to living in an urban environment and I've always been interested in education.

HB: I notice that there are a lot of women in urban agriculture, what is it about urban agriculture in particular that attracts women?

NB: This is a question I've been asking myself, and discussing with my peers since I started working on an urban farm over a decade ago. It's difficult to wager a guess without making generalist, gendered comments, which I usually try to stay away from. Yet it is an intriguing pattern that is worth noting and celebrating. I can best reflect on my own experiences as a woman in agriculture. For me, urban agriculture presents more opportunities for exposing farming to a larger population. My interest in agriculture is very holistic, I not only want people to eat healthy, fresh food, but I also want the joys and benefits of eating local to permeate more aspects of our lives than simply consuming nutrients. Farming in an urban environment allows me to align my environmental interests with my interests in education and community building.

HB: Urban farming doesn't have the support of either a traditional small farm household or the infra-structure of agri-business, what are some of the pros and cons of this for modern urban (women) farmers?

NB: I could write a whole book on this question, but I'll try to keep it short! 
Cons: One of the joys of farming is enjoying cooking and preserving the food you grow. When farming is such a demanding job, it can be really hard to find time and energy to cook. I have a really supportive partner who takes the lead on making dinner more often than I do, but he actually is also a farmer, so it's really hard for both of us to process our own vegetables in the kitchen. While I don't pretend to assume this is easy to balance on a traditional small farm either, I see the benefit of having one person manage field production and one person manage domestic food preparation on a family farm!
It is also challenging when you aren't inheriting a family farm business and you need to start everything from scratch; and on the other end of the timeline, when you retire or want to get out of the farming business you have no collateral or assets because you don't own your farm.
It is also challenging to be working in a non-agricultural setting. Farming is a unique job and there is a steep learning curve for organizations that aren't primarily agricultural in focus, but decide to have farmers on staff. I am lucky to be part of an organization that embraces and supports having a farm as part of the business and mission of the organization. While having non farmer coworkers can be fun and helpful, it also requires extra effort at times to translate agricultural expectations, schedules and timelines to a non farming work environment.
When it comes to comparing with agri-business, my answer is short: government subsidies.
Pros: Without the support of a traditional small farm household or the infra-structure of agribusiness it is important to note where my farm does get it's support from. We rely on community support, a myriad of different organizational partnerships (including this one!), and primarily we rely on the fact that we are part of a larger organization (Weavers Way Co-op). The pros of this are that we have wide and varied support in a very financially risky business.
Another pro of farming in an urban environment is there is a great demand for the product (and experience) that we offer.

HB: What are one or two favorite/least favorite aspects of being a farmer for you?

NB: Favorite: I love the diversity of tasks involved in my job and I am always experimenting and learning new things. Growing over 60 different types of vegetables and fruit, in 4 seasons, with different people and constantly changing and improving our techniques keeps the job from EVER getting old. I love being outside every day and adjusting my list of things to do based on observations from nature.
Least favorite: The pure exhaustion. It is hard to find time for much that isn't farm related in my life. 


At the end of our interview, I asked if there was anything else important Nina felt people should know and another striking similarity between her work and mine showed up. My commitment to small batch, local textile production and sustainable design is not so different from local, organic farming. The consumption of less well-made products such as non-organic produce, means that somewhere, someone is paying, whether it be because of toxic materials, underpaid labor, or less sustainable production. Nina replies,

“… if you think local food is expensive, take the time to learn more about why it might be that way. Talk to a farmer or read a book about it. There is a lot that needs to change in our food system to better support those who can't afford it and those who grow it. Find out what role you can play to strengthen the system.”
Nina adds that it’s important to “… get to know your farmer, and tell them if you love and appreciate their product. That type of feedback keeps us going on long, hard days, and that's why we do this, to share good food that we've poured our hearts into with other people.”

 

I wholeheartedly agree. It’s through the hard work and community building efforts of people like Nina that we begin to get involved, change perception of value of goods, and strengthen local systems. I’m grateful to enjoy the food she grows, her company in the field when time allows and our mutual support of one another’s business ventures.

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How to plant a kitchen garden in small spaces

Spring is a great time to plant a kitchen garden, quarantine or no quarantine. In most areas right now in the Northern hemisphere, community gardens, nurseries and plant centers are among some of the essential businesses that are able to remain open for shopping during quarantine. Many such garden supply hubs in my community are offering online ordering and curbside pick-up so that we can all stay well and keep growing plants such as vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Here are a few tips to inspire your stay-at-home kitchen garden no matter the size of space.

Have a window ledge?

Plant a tiny herb garden!

Choose the appropriate containers. Make sure your containers will sit well on a ledge, won't get knocked around by pets, and have good drainage. Any container will work! You can choose fancy pots, simple pots, or even make your own pot by drilling or poking holes in the bottom of something the right size for your space. The pot doesn't have to be the main attraction because it's all about those plants! Don't forget to consider a tray underneath your pots to catch water.

Choose a good potting soil mix. There are several varieties out there making great organic mixes. You want something with a good balance of materials. Organic Mechanics and Fox Farm are good brands.

Choose plant starts grown in a nursery if you want immediate plant gratification or go for packets of seeds if you are feeling patient and want to watch sprouts grow. Four herbs that do well inside near a sunny window are oregano, thyme, sage, and dill. Give each plant its own container and remember most herbs like 8 hours of sunlight a day!

Have an outdoor patch of concrete or a small backyard?

Make a milk crate garden.

If you don’t have milk crates lying around, ask a local orchard or co-op or wine store if you can purchase a wooden crate. Line the crate with burlap or gardener's felt. Most local coffee roasters have extra burlap sacks, so ask your roaster if you can get some burlap sacks for pickup curbside!

Line your crate so that the fabric covers the sides and bottom then fill it with garden soil (not potting soil) from your local nursery.

If you have 6 to 8 hours of full sun, you can try growing tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squash! Squash and tomatoes like to climb, so just keep that in mind when  you are planning

Plants that like 4 to 6 hours of sun include peas, beets, radishes and beans. Peas and beans are good climbers as well.

If you have a shady spot that only gets 2 to 4 hours of sun, try luscious, low-growing greens like arugula, lettuce, mustard greens, and kale.

 

 

What's in a name?

What is a 'kitchen garden'? A garden where plants for use in the kitchen are cultivated for everyday use. I chose the name 'the kitchen garden series' because it represents a sense of place to me. Kitchen gardens are an important part of the history of the city I call home and the name connects me to the vital urban gardens and farms I strive to support. The name has come to mean so much more as I lean into new ideas and projects around my brand.
I have written about linen in other blog posts as one of our favorite material resources for the kitchen garden series products. Linen is made from the flax plant and is a naturally pest resistant, low water-use crop. When I learned that flax grows well in my region and opened a dialogue with growers like the Rust Belt Fibershed, ideas began to coalesce and spark. I now believe that flax plants have exciting possibilities if grown alongside the vegetables and herbs cultivated for use in the kitchen. As I step into this uncertain spring of 2020, I’m setting my sites on growing small plots of flax, experimenting with what it means to make local linen, and deepening my commitment to the kitchen garden series community.

Supporting small business in a pandemic and why it matters so much

Small business and resilience

Small businesses are important to our local economy because they strengthen local supply chains and are a part of keeping our communities resilient. Being able to produce goods locally and provide for basic needs means more resources are available during tough times. Small businesses also create gathering places in our communities by fostering social connections that help protect our most vulnerable members. We can also pivot business practices to meet the needs of our community quickly because we are nimble and more flexible than larger chains.

Resilience in action

I have seen this play out in so many ways in our community in the past week. From shopkeepers encouraging folks to shop directly online with makers and other boutiques, to offering curbside pickup or home delivery, to direct messaging check-ins with each other as makers supporting other makers, and even freely sharing perishable goods that cannot be sold due to suddenly having to shutter their doors. This is happening all over the country!

Shop small

We are all pivoting our small businesses online right now and shifting gears away from in-person interaction for the moment. So, please shop with us online and together we can help keep our communities resilient.

 

Here are some of my favorite sustainable brands offering creative solutions:

    • vault and vine for floral subscriptions
    • sabbatical beauty for skin care, and new line of hand sanitizer
    • Cadence Restaurant, transitioned to a fine dining farm to table take out menu!
    • Isabella Sparrow, for an online course on planting a kitchen garden and local delivery of plant starts.
    • terra luna herbals is developing online basic apothecary and gardening courses.
    • the resource exchange, is a nonprofit reuse center, diverting valuable materials from the waste stream, including many fabrics I use. Donations to them are tax deductible!

Can't shop right now? You can still help!

Here are some excellent ways to support small businesses even if you cannot shop right now. This list is cribbed from Danu Organic.

  • Leave a positive review for your favorite local and small businesses so other people can find them online.
  • Follow them on a social media channel and share their posts, photos, and videos with your friends and followers.
  • Share blog posts they write.
  • Like, comment, and use their hashtags!
  • Consider long-term ways you can shift your spending from big corporations to the local economy.
  • Watch their online events and plan to show up to their live events in the future.

How to support local food producers if the farmers markets are closed

 

Strengthening the local food supply chain has always been part of my mission here at the kitchen garden series. Local growers inspired me to begin this business and I continue to connect to their work through my business.

This is a critical time for local food producers and farmers who sell at open markets. The temporary closures and limitations put on markets due to COVID19 social distancing come at a particularly difficult time in the growing season. Through winter, many producers use their reserves from the end of last summer season to prepare for future markets. With markets now closing, those producers and farmers are left scrambling to figure out how to sell product and refill their depleted reserves.

How can you help?

  • Shop with your producers that have created online ordering systems and are making their products available either for delivery or for pick-up in local communities.
  • Check with producers if they are planning to create CSA-type (community supported agriculture) signups or ask them to add you as a CSA member.
  • Ask producers who make shelf stable items (jams, cookies, dry goods, pickles, tea, coffee, etc) if they will ship directly to your house.
  • Check the website of your farmers markets' sponsors and follow your favorite producers.
  • Check social media for news on how to purchase from them.
  • Share social media posts, photos, and videos with your friends and followers to expand their reach.
  • Share blog posts they write.
  • Like, comment, and use their hashtags!

An easy journey to a plastic-free kitchen, tips to get you started.

I’ve always been a plastic bag re-user, a choice founded in environmentalism as well as frugality. Reducing, reusing, and recycling plastic is a naturally easy mindset if you are economically concerned and interested in sustainable living. While making the most of the many plastic items that cross my doorstep is almost second nature by now, it was not until recently that I began my journey in earnest towards a plastic-free kitchen. 

Like all good things, this journey to eliminate plastic in my kitchen began with getting curious. I wondered about all the little mystery plastics I encountered like milk jug tops or other tiny plastics that are too small or weird to recycle, but were ending up in my kitchen. I did research on the origins of such plastics, specifically synthetic polymers and polyester, and wanted to know more about when plastics came into common use in the household. I discovered that it was largely a Second World War era phenomena. I asked my mother, who was born in 1939, and her peers, if they remembered what they did for food storage when they were younger before plastic was so common. They had memories of eating fresh foods stored in glass in the fridge, storing unwashed eggs on the counter top for weeks on end (most eggs have a protective membrane that keeps them fresh), keeping freshly baked breads in wooden bread boxes, and wrapping fresh produce from their mothers’ kitchen gardens in damp cloth towels.

Armed with this knowledge, I set out to try to rid my kitchen of plastic. I didn’t rush to throw everything plastic away, but I started to make conscious decisions that would eliminate additional plastic items from accumulating in the kitchen. I didn't feel it was sustainable or cost-effective to just toss my non-recyclable but still usable kitchen objects in the garbage simply to achieve an instantaneous plastic-free aesthetic. Instead, I slowly began to establish steps for a  plastic-free kitchen that worked for my lifestyle. First, I eliminated buying or acquiring single-use plastics such as produce bags and cling film. Then, I made decisions to recycle my existing multi-use plastics like resealable storage containers as they reached the end of their usefulness and to replace them with non-plastic alternatives like glass jars. Today, my kitchen is approximately 85% plastic-free. My journey, which started with questions and research, has continued steadily forward as I look for creative solutions to going completely plastic-free. Believe it or not, the process to ditch plastic can be a fun challenge! Here are ten changes I have made and that you can easily make, too.

1 - Store fresh produce in damp linen towels or bags. Did you know linen is naturally anti-microbial? When you replace your single-use plastic storage bags with linen you are not only reducing waste, you are also keeping your food fresher and cleaner!

2 - Use a ceramic plate as the lid for your bowl of leftovers. This is a simple and brilliant way to eliminate cling wrap.

3 - Store cheeses in beeswax wraps, butcher paper, or even glass jars. Store meats in waxed or butcher paper whenever possible.

4 - Bake your own bread in small batches and store it in a bread box or a linen bag. Try out a slow-rise, no-knead bread recipe because it takes so little hands-on time. Buy bread at the farmers market or bakery, ask for no plastic, and wrap bread in a linen storage bag or towel instead.

5 - Buy dry goods in bulk whenever possible. Bring your own containers for bulk goods to the store. Great solutions for containers are cotton or linen bags, re-useable glass containers, or paper bags.

6 - Shop for foods that aren't packaged in plastic. This is a tough one! Look for items that don't need packaging at all or things that are packaged in recyclable or re-useable materials like paper boxes, paper bags, cans, or glassware.

7- Use less plastic in your freezer. Invest in some re-useable glassware designed for cold storage. And did you know you can freeze leftovers in glass mason jars? Leave plenty of head room in the jar and refrigerate well before putting in the freezer. Warm up the glass slowly when you remove it to thaw so it doesn't crack.

8 - Look for stainless steel, ceramic, porcelain enamel, or cast iron pans that are more durable and not coated with plastic derivatives that make them non-stick. Choose wooden or metal utensils instead of plastic items for stirring your foods.

9 - Instead of disposable paper products or polyester fiber napkins, buy napkins that are 100% natural fiber like our linen and cotton napkins. Linen napkins dress up any table!

10 - Give up single-use plastic garbage bags. Yes, you heard me! It's easier to give up garbage bags if you use a smaller garbage bin, recycle as much as you can, buy items with less packaging waste, and find ways to compost produce waste. When you're going plastic-free, you'll already notice less packaging waste in your garbage stream and you will be making choices that decrease your waste volume, so why not use a smaller can? With smaller garbage bins, you can even re-use paper grocery bags instead of buying new plastic garbage bags. You can also choose to just set the whole garbage bin by the curb and rinse it out later instead of using a separate plastic liner! And, of course, finding a way to compost makes the garbage bag dilemma even easier because you will have less messy, wet food waste to deal with (and composting is a whole separate blog post!).


Enjoy the journey! Comment and let me know your favorite tips for going plastic-free!

 

How to reverse the plastic bag trend

 

We’ve all heard about the negative environmental impacts of single-use plastic bags. In the last fifty years, the United States has grown the use of plastic bags from zero to 372 million per day. While this an alarming reality, it also gives me great hope. It means huge changes are possible in a short period of time when we work collectively to put resources behind positive impactful choices and convince other people of the value those choices can have on the environment. Look at the plastic bag bans going into effect in major cities around the globe, for example!

As a designer, I've had to dig a little deeper to uncover the imperfections in the most obvious choices for bag materials. Single-use paper bags require deforestation and fossil fuels in their manufacture and transport before they get to us. The production and use of the now ubiquitous cotton tote has pitfalls as well as cotton is a 'dirty' crop needing a lot of water and insecticides. And let's face it, lots of  bags aren’t designed very well for repeated and long term use!

But we can do better! Join me by trying out the following four alternatives and spread the word that there are better choices than plastic.

 

Here are four ways to take action today:

1- Invest in three or four well designed linen, hemp or vintage fabric bags (like ours) that will hold a lot of groceries. Look for bags that are easily laundered, sturdy, and that will last you for years. Use your bags every time you shop. When they are no longer usable, compost them in your garden or re-purpose them as rags.

2- Use your current totes (cotton or otherwise) until they fall apart or use them for smaller bulk items or vegetables at the store. Patch them up and use them some more. Or if you really hate them or they are too small for functional carrying, cut them up and use them for other things around the house.

3- If you forget your favorite fabric bags, ask for a used cardboard box at the grocery store and use that instead of a single-use paper or plastic bag. Check with a staff member who might be stocking shelves as you shop or look for a stack of boxes designated for customer use. When you have a choice use paper bags, which you can more easily compost.

4- Make a point to pick up discarded plastic bags you might see on the street, in your yard, on the beach, or caught in the trees before they end up in the waterways or oceans. Many plastic bags can be recycled at your local stores - do some research to find out where to recycle plastic film bags in your area!

 

In a few short decades we’ll be able to say that in less than 50 years we helped reduce the use of plastic bags from 372 million per day back to zero and avoided the unintended negative environmental consequences of single-use plastics through education and thoughtful planning.

We got this!