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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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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. 

Go vote!

A little bit more

This Labor Day season, I am considering how the hard work of many has shaped the American nation and how we as consumers and business owners in the American economy might better consider how we distribute our hard earned money. Spending a little bit more for products made in America is not a new idea, but recently it’s started to gain some traction with many of us as we try to return to a more conscientiously driven economy. As a consumer, I don’t mind paying ‘a little bit more’ if I know that my money goes to insure that my neighbors are paid a living wage, have food and home security, access to healthcare and nutrition, and can give back to municipal services like schools and food banks. 


While I applaud the idea of “made in America” as a marketing tool that supports businesses in our communities and reclaims something vital to our nation, it is easy to assume that something American made is sustainably and ethically produced. Currently, claiming that something is “made in America” does nothing to insure that products are responsibly made. There are many American factories that do not care for the value of their workforce or their impact on the environment. There are industries in America that continue to violate safety standards, pay low wages without benefits, and perpetuate a corporate culture of exploitation, while they pollute the environment. Even with our complex history of labor laws and fair trade and environmental protection, there are popular American businesses that are still cutting corners on environmental safety regulations and exploiting the workforce in order to reduce prices to consumers.


Like many other small businesses right now, I am thinking a lot about economics, climate change, and financial security as we inch closer to the end of the year. I am also thinking about how asking shoppers to pay ‘a little bit more’ for something that is made in America isn’t enough. I believe that the value of fair wages, supporting a local and sustainable economy, and compensation for labor should be part of a transparent “made in America” marketing plan if we are to shift to a more ethical system. Using my business as an example, our human resources workforce includes myself, two cut-and-sew businesses, three individual independent contractors who support different aspects of the business, and an independently contracted marketing firm. Every individual that works for me lives here in America and is paid a living wage. I run the business out of my home and try to produce ethically, recycle goods, design for zero waste, and invest in my community. I think about where my materials are produced and how aspects of the business might impact my local environment. But, as the business owner, I am the only one regularly compensated at or below minimum wage, which is a sacrifice I make to grow the business and my equity in it. I take less compensation because I want to help produce items that reflect the value of labor, the importance of environmentally friendly materials, and a thoughtful and transparent approach to running a business. 


And what bearing does any of this have on the cost of goods sold? It takes more effort for American businesses like mine to make ethical choices, but the payoff is better in the long run when you consider fair wages, environmentally friendly practices, and lowering the carbon footprint. Let’s take a look at how this adds up to the prices of my products. I’ll use my linen market bag as an example because it most closely mirrors my averages. 

With this tiny profit margin, I can’t justify wholesaling my products and still remain committed to slow growth and to the health and wealth of my community, but I want to do a little bit more by structuring my textile business as a way to truly celebrate items that are ethically made in America and good for the environment. I want to support a better, more sustainable economic system by giving consumers access to products made from heirloom quality textiles that cost a little bit more, but will last a lot longer and maybe mean a lot more when we say they are “made in America”. 

It's a marathon! Tips to stay the pace.

It's a marathon!

This pandemic has turned out to be a marathon instead of the sprint we were all hoping for! Like many of you, the thrill of all this extra time at home is fading for me and we're all looking for positive ways to make the old homestead feel a little bit new again or maybe just looking for some distractions.

Kick plastic out of your kitchen

Maybe you've noticed how much more plastic waste is in your kitchen as you spend more time social distancing at home. Our essential kitchen collection will keep you moving towards a plastic-free kitchen even in these difficult times. With the great combination of our three best selling kitchen textiles, you can leave the plastic bags behind, keep your produce fresh longer, never run out of coffee filters again, and ditch the paper towels!

Discover the secret powers of linen

If you start going down the plastic waste rabbit hole, you might notice that polyester is just another plastic derivative. Linen is a great all natural plant-based fabric and a better alternative to polyester based fabrics. Did you know that linen has antibacterial properties? It's one of my favorite textiles. Our linen produce bags will keep your veggies and fruit fresher longer. Even bread stored in linen stays fresh longer and will resist mold. Linen is also 20% more absorbent than cotton, making the messes at home easier to clean up. Learn more about why we use linen here.

 

Support local small businesses

I have also been thinking more about the importance of supporting local, small businesses like my own as I spend time closer to home. Just like me, many small businesses pivoted quickly online and shifted gears away from in-person interaction. Things you can easily do from home to support the local economy and keep the community resilient: shop directly online with makers, order for curbside pickup or home delivery, direct message your favorite boutiques and ask if they will ship your favorite products (usually, they will!), or buy gift certificates for later dates. 

Here are some of my favorite things from my favorite businesses:

  • Good books from Uncle Bobbies Coffee & Books
  • Best undies ever from Danu Organics
  • Potion cups from Clarissa Eck
  • Cotton towels from Cuttalossa
  • New rain boots from Harvey Oak Mercantile (technically not in my house ... but oh so good!)

beautiful • sustainable • practical 

With the changing seasons upon us and our minds on long term security, it’s a good time to make some small home refreshes while still keeping an eye towards sustainability. As you spend more time in your kitchens and home spaces, take more time with your favorite objects and consider long-term ways you can shift your spending from big corporations to the local economy.

designing beyond plastic

The designs for the kitchen garden series collection and my personal journey to reduce waste and give up the plastic habit, developed together. My products grew from my curiosity about both the past before plastic was used everywhere and the possibility of a future beyond plastic. The business began with a mission of reducing textile waste by upcycling textiles and designing durable goods to replace plastics and single-use disposables. I mined my early family memories of my grandmother’s kitchen to dig into a time before plastics became ubiquitous. I asked myself, what were the most common materials before plastic existed? I considered the needs of contemporary life and adapted some of those remembered goods to fit into today's kitchens and living spaces. I realized that if I find great joy in placing my hands on things made from linen, glass jars, and paper bags that feel beautiful to touch, other people might feel the same.

 

The challenges along the road of growing this business made me curious about reducing waste in my entire supply chain. Again, I looked to the past to see how it was done before carbon and petroleum fueled every aspect of production. That's how I landed on growing small flax plots to revitalize linen production at a more local level. Emma and I are digging deeply into the old ways of fiber production with our knee-high flax field this year as we wait patiently for the flax to be ready to be made into cloth. And we are also looking to the future towards a time beyond a carbon economy that includes exploring the possibilities of large scale regenerative fiber farming and a regional scutch mill. We are dreaming of regional and national flax-to-linen networks and we’ve found fellow travelers at rustbelt_fibershed, PNW_fibershed, All Together Now PA  and others, who are thinking similarly. I’m excited to see how this endeavor can help my business reduce waste and I look forward to seeing what beauty we can make as we work towards sustainable economic models. My personal journey towards eliminating plastic in my own kitchen turned out to be about surrounding myself with an abundance of simple, but elegant objects. Now, I am starting to see how the whole of my business can support other people's joy in a renewable and better supply chain that brings people objects made from materials that are better for the environment than plastic.

designs that honor the cloth

The process of getting linen from flax is an arduous one. Yet, I’ve found beauty and satisfaction in the toil it takes to produce a piece of cloth without the use of industrial equipment and/or the exploitation of labor and resources. As Emma so perfectly said it, "it has led to a reverence for and connection to the cloth." This deepened bond between myself as a designer, Emma as a farmer helping me harvest flax, and the earth's bounty serves to remind me how important zero waste design is to the kitchen garden series.

Zero waste design is about taking the time to see beauty in every inch of cloth in front of me. My designs are inspired by the shapes I find in the world, with all of their swirling lines, sensuous shapes, and organic colors. I bring these ideas to my work table and experiment until the contours are organized and laid out on the materials before me. Then I look again at the spaces in between, those empty areas that remain among the contours, and find more inspiration, until all that is left of the fabric I laid out is just the tiniest bit of scrap to become worm food and decompose into earth again. 

The challenge of minimizing waste for any given piece is to not compromise important construction details or the elegance of the drape. For example, when I designed my cross back aprons, perfecting the form and function led to unexpected ways to use all the linen . I chose to add a side seam and to make the strap and the facing one long piece from the back hemline all the way over the shoulder with only one point of attachment at the front. Not the easiest method or the most efficient use of fabric, but I chose it because it hangs more elegantly on different bodies and is ultimately more durable and long wearing. As I figured out the apron design, I let the spaces left behind from my cuts, inspire more designs for other products. My minimalist tea towels emerged from the remaining edges, where I can cut right up to the raw edge and embrace its unfinished beauty. The fabric left behind from cutting the straps yields the perfect rectangle to attach to a shirtsleeve for our signature towels. Lastly, before sweeping the remaining scraps into the compost bin, I can make a handful of tea bags. The small leftover pieces will ultimately break down in the compost and regenerate the soil for the next crop of flax for linen.

Great design is about form and function, and zero waste is about re-imagining our place in relationship to materials. By working more carefully with the resources we have on hand, we can acknowledge all of the efforts taken by the planet and people to bring products we love into the world. When we place our goods into this vigilant perspective, something awakens in us. We are called to find beauty in the whole of what we can hold in our hands, to waste nothing, to respect everything, and to work to be part of the solution.

A Linen Love Story (linen + regenerative agriculture)

I am more devoted to linen than most other fabrics. I fell in love with linen for its classic look and its refined feel as a material. And when I first discovered the connection between linen and regenerative agriculture, I thought my heart would burst! My love for linen has only deepened as I delve into its place in regenerative agriculture. In my products, I experiment with linen's antimicrobial qualities, test its durability, and unearth its amazing history. As I research growing flax for linen in my region at our small plot on Kneehigh Farm, I see how linen fits perfectly at the intersection of food and fabric.

 

Regenerative farming is a system of diversified principles, where organic, no-till farming methods, cover-cropping, and rotational grazing produce nutritionally dense foods. Regenerative systems, like those at Kneehigh and other organic farms in the area, help rebuild valuable topsoil, increase biodiversity, and improve watersheds. All of these practices combine to improve crop yields, raise soil vitality, and mitigate climate change. Fiber flax, as a bast (or plant-stem) fiber plant fits nicely into crop rotation on a diversified farm. A fiber flax crop can be sown at different times for a variety of uses. Fiber flax’s high seeding rate suppresses weeds, and once pulled for harvest, leaves a clean field for the next crop without the use of any additional herbicides. A flax crop also needs very little water to grow, which means less irrigation and stress on water resources.

 

I stand at Kneehigh Farm these days and I keep watch over a small 1/8 acre of fiber flax we are growing. I watch it sprout, I weed a little, and urge it to get ready for harvest. There is magic in how this flax crop grows. I watch the beauty of the plants as they wave in the wind, and I think about how linen is made. I want my linen to be ethically grown right here in my backyard, and I want the objects I make to be part of the solution. I want to grow this flax as part of a regenerative agricultural system that mitigates climate change. I want my designs to reflect this regenerative process. I want the textiles I produce to be used and loved for a long time, and when they finally wear out, I want them to go back to that same farm as compost and begin again as a new flax crop. Most importantly, I want to show everyone how linen folds itself at the junction where food and fabric intermingle, just like the kitchen garden series.

And I want to fall in love with linen all over again