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.