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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A second pandemic Mother's Day

As an American business woman, I’m constantly aware of the inequities faced by my gender in the American business world. The pandemic year has been particularly hard on women in business. The losses falling disproportionately on working mothers and hardest on those who are BIPOC. I am not a Mother, and yet the kitchen garden series wouldn’t exist without the many professional women with children in my network. My financial advisor is a working mother, as is my accountant, some of my marketing consultants, many shop owners that stock my wares, the artists I collaborate with and the production manager of the shop that sews for me as well as a large number of the amazing seamstresses there.

A year ago I wrote a blog about my bright spots under quarantine. One of them I called “knowing the essentials”. I wrote “As a consequence of sheltering in place, I've had a great opportunity to notice what's essential to my well being. I can choose what's vital to my mental health and I can use the skills I've gained to re-examine my choices from time to time. “ At the end of this long year, I realize that my work is essential to my well being. It is one of the things that has gotten me through this pandemic, keeping my mind engaged and my hands busy and it contributes to my sense of self worth, giving meaning to my days, weeks, months. I’m proud to have kept my business afloat and continued to help the professional women with children in my network keep their businesses afloat.

Mother’s day is coming and, whether or not you get Mom a gift, take the time to let her know you see her struggle. According to the US department of labor, since the start of the pandemic, over 2 million women nationwide have dropped out of the workforce. Most of them Mothers who made the sacrifice in the face of school closures.

Here are a couple of ways you can help Professional Women with children regain some of what the pandemic took from them.

  • If you are in business, join me in making a commitment to working business to business with woman owned companies and making sure 30% of those are BIPOC.
  • If you are not in business, spend your dollars with woman owned companies and choose those who do business with 30% BIPOC and woman owned companies.

 

So, if your mother has been lusting after one of our Mothers day sets, by all means get it for her! She deserves it and you can confidently tell her that you got it from a company that is committed to women and BIPOC in business. If a handmade card is what you’re planning, that’s perfect too! Either way, start the conversation with Mom and everyone else about gender and racial equity in business. If we are to regain the equity lost during this pandemic and progress beyond pre-pandemic equity, the numbers matter!

renewing and reweaving

As the world around us unravels in ways most of us never imagined, I’m encouraged by the space being created for those who have been working to build alternatives to the destructive path we’ve been on for so long. In my business community, there is a great sense of renewal. 

I’ve had the good fortune to meet so many brilliant business people, farmers, shoe makers, researchers, administrators, financial advisors, fashion designers, glass blowers, wood workers. All of us are drawn together by the solutions we’re pursuing with our work. The good news is that we already have the tools to build community self-reliance through best business practices. Great change is happening. At the Kitchen Garden Series, our flax project is a significant step towards renewal of a local regenerative textile supply chain. The ⅛ acre of flax for linen we grew with Emma at Kneehigh Farm in 2020 was just the first thread connecting us to a network of people working to revitalize the production of flax into linen in our region and beyond. Now, almost a year later, we have teamed up with community organizers and enthusiasts in Philadelphia and the surrounding region. A group of us are contracting the consultation services of Fibrevolution, a similar group located in the Pacific Northwest, that is eight years into achieving the same goals in Oregon. We are forging relationships with hemp farmers, learning and exploring the similarities for processing the flax and hemp into fiber, and working on a three-year plan to have an operational mill in our region. We are weaving together our business plan, meeting with people interested in crop research and development, developing regional seed varieties, opening a mill,  and seeking brands ready to commit to using our PA linen- when we can finally make it! The strands of a toxic system are loosening and we are spinning them into solutions that are mindful of social justice and community self-reliance.

Being small business owners is challenging at best these days, but we are struggling with a renewed sense of purpose. We have great hope that the increased focus on local business, social justice, mitigating climate catastrophe and local self-reliance are permanent. We look forward to doing our part in improving our communities. We’re collaborating, pooling resources, cross promoting and feeling the energy of this collective effort to build a more equitable world.

I understand that it isn’t always the most convenient option to choose small ethical businesses to meet your daily needs. I appreciate every dollar you spend, and your patronage and support are crucial threads that intertwine to weave a stunning new fabric of society.

winter solstice and textiles from the earth

The Winter Solstice is a time to enjoy the cozy silence of the year's longest night and to set intentions for the lengthening days ahead. I like to take this time to reflect on the growth patterns I’ve set and groundwork I’ve prepared in previous seasons and to start planning for the future. Looking back at the year’s hard work helps me see and re-see that the path forward can be one of regeneration. 

At the kitchen garden series, I’ve always been focused on supporting urban agriculture, reducing waste at the manufacturing level, hiring locally and using natural fibers. Over the years, my mission has come to include designing products that reduce the use of single-use and plastic disposables in homes and restaurants. I think a lot about the idea that all textiles come from the earth, whether they are made from plant-based fibers, fibers from animal wools or furs, or synthetics derived from petroleum drawn from the deep cores of the planet. The systems for getting textiles into our hands can be systems of renewal or systems of destruction. I want to build a business community that works to make renewal the norm. I want to help create better systems that enrich and connect thriving local living economies that are part of healing the planet. To this end, in the coming year, I’ll deepen my commitment to local growers, and continue making sustainable textiles more accessible. 

One project in particular has helped me see through how to build better systems of textile regeneration. The flax growing project I started this year in collaboration with Emma Cunniff from Kneehigh Farm in my little corner of the world has been transformative. I am proud that I aspired to start cultivating a plant-based fiber supply chain on a diversified organic vegetable farm. Come spring of 2021, our Flax Project will be growing and growing and growing! Before we know it we will be able to offer locally grown and manufactured textiles! I’m excited to be sharing news about the flax project and other online offerings in 2021! Look for some special workbooks and more DIY projects soon and keep an eye out for seasonal surprises! 

Thank you for following along and helping me grow the kitchen garden series. I’m looking forward to staying connected to all of you through this work of renewal in the year ahead. Happy Solstice, may you enjoy all the bright blessings of the holiday season!

The Gift of Giving

Gift giving has long been a way to connect us to one another, allowing us to express our feelings through tokens of affection and helping strengthen relationships. Sending a beautiful thoughtfully chosen or carefully crafted physical object to a friend or loved one is a lovely way to bring worlds a little closer. My favorite gifts are part of my daily rituals like a mug that brings memories of a dear friend into my morning coffee routine, a woolen scarf that keeps me warm on a frosty winter morning, or a beautiful vase I fill with celebratory flowers. I love to include food in my rituals, too! I relish giving and receiving holiday gifts that taste good and help me feel a personal connection to the maker. Some of my favorite food gifts are simple things like fragrant local honey, bread from my favorite bakery, or canned goods from the local farm.

In the spirit of the giving season, share some joy in giving gifts from the heart that will be used in your loved ones’ daily kitchen culinary rituals. Try pairing some of our lovely textiles with a local food item to make a gift extra delicious! Make a gift a bit more personal and use our linens as an elegant alternative to wrapping paper. Wrap up some flavored vinegars from the market in our tea towels or fill a produce bag with homemade treats from a local candy shoppe. Combine some of our cocktail napkins with some artisanal infused spirits or give your favorite baker one of our aprons! You can even shop one of our holiday gift bundles for an all inclusive combo of beautiful linens highlighting good food and homemade kitchen delights. 

Whether you buy napkins from us or decide you need to support us in other ways this year, we want to let you know that we appreciate all that you do. We know gift giving is not just about the material goods. We built our business on the belief that being kind and generous to our fellow beings is a force for social good. We understand that this time of year can be difficult for many and it might be hard to feel generous. When you refer your friends to us or share our blog posts or share posts on social media not only are you supporting our small business, know that you are also giving back to a larger community. Your interest and referrals help us create opportunities for others. Your investment in our work helps us collaborate with other local makers and expand our revitalization of a local textile industry through our flax project. Your purchases mean that we can continue our annual support to urban farms in our city by donating 10% of our annual profits to local growers. Thank you for helping us grow a reciprocal relationship to our local community through the ancient art of giving. 

Make the Most of Every Morsel

At the kitchen garden series we’re thinking about how to honor the systems that feed us, and what we can do to make the most of every morsel as the holiday season approaches and the harvest brings a cornucopia of produce into our homes. 

Throughout the year, up to one-third of all food produced in America ends up in the garbage. Sometimes a farm had a great growing season and underestimated demand, so they have too much of a good thing. Sometimes food is dumped when the farmer has a crop that is slightly irregular or imperfect looking. Some food gets thrown out between the farm and the grocery store in transport. More food is discarded at the grocery store when certain foods don’t sell well. And more food is wasted in our homes because we forgot it in the refrigerator or it was hidden behind something in the crisper drawer. 

To reduce food waste in your kitchen this season, you can start by making some simple changes in your daily food purchasing cycle. For an easy change, try out a CSA group (community supported agriculture) in your area for some ‘ugly’ vegetables or shop for your groceries at local farm stands and farmers markets. Plan your menu to use every part of the goods you bring home from the market. Eat the beet greens with local cheese baked in a tart, make carrot top pesto with backyard walnuts, enjoy some radish green soup, or just make a big pot of vegetable stock with your food scraps. And of course, think about how to better store your food wisely to keep it fresher longer. 

 Our linen produce bags, bread bags, and tea towels are great for all sorts of food storage and can help kickstart your holiday food mindfulness journey. Our linens can help you set a sustainable table this holiday season, honor the natural resources used to produce your food, and send gratitude to the people who labored to bring it to your tables. Let us help your food stay fresher and give you something to feel good about during big holiday feasts. 

Finding Equilibrium

On every equinox, night and day are approximately equal in duration as the sun centers directly over the earth's equator. This ancient symmetry of our rotating planet reminds us that we must find new ways to restore balance as we move from season to season.

The 2020 spring equinox occurred on March 19 when the pandemic shifted our everyday lives out of sync and rapidly brought major halts to people's structures all over the globe. Disruptions have continued through the summer as life and death continues to hang in the balance. Changes are arriving not just from the pandemic, but from climate disasters and social-justice revolution, and these changes have begun challenging our priorities, forcing us to find new methods to work, reorganizing how we play, learn and stay connected. Some of the changes have been exhilarating as we elevate what is important and necessary and discard what is no longer needed. Some of the changes have been devastating as we have seen lives lost, families fractured, and large parts of our environment destroyed by floods and fires. Balance has definitely been scarce!

I know we’re all exhausted by the many challenges of the last six months. The upcoming autumn equinox reminds us there is much work to be done to restore equilibrium to our communities and to the natural world. For me, the upcoming fall equinox signals an invitation to appreciate the relative quiet of nature as I notice the sensation of the evening lengthening to meet the day. I find myself looking for simple ways to restore serenity in my daily routines like enjoying a new warming tea blend at my mid-day break or shifting my daily schedule to take advantage of the shortening daylight hours. I am getting reacquainted with my favorite recipes for the season, savoring the flavors of the fall crops. I skip the fall garden clean up, leaving the perennial seeds and leaf litter for the birds to enjoy as the nights get colder. I step outside more often to notice color changes in the leaves and take note of my garden's changes. I take time to rest so I can prepare myself for what comes next because there is still much on the horizon. The equinox nudges me to remember symmetry and to find grace by inviting more calm into the chaos. 

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