Return to our 2021 Catalog: Stories of Resilience Part 2.

Stories of Resilience

Erica Kempter is a farmer, food activist, seed breeder and managing partner of Nature and Nurture Seeds in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Seeds offered through Nature and Nurture Seeds are all heirloom and/or open pollinated varieties and are adapted to the Great Lakes Region, the Midwest and beyond. Half of the seeds sold through their catalog and online store are grown on their 122-acre certified organic farm and a percentage of their seeds are sourced directly from High Mowing.

The surge in seed orders that followed the national emergency declaration on March 13th was a difficult hurdle for this farm-based seed company. “Our seed order fulfillment department was inside of our farmhouse. At the same moment that our seed sales spiked, our staff needed to stay home to keep everyone safe. Our family unit all pitched in to fill the gaps, but it meant long hours for everyone. We are currently remodeling to create a new, larger, Covid-19 safe space for order fulfillment.”

Life on the seed farm was also forced to adapt. Managing common farm tasks while adhering to strict social distancing rules has proven tricky, though Erica has kept an open mind about the continually evolving innovations. “For our farm, from physically distanced farm lunches to the challenges of rolling out heavy hay bales while keeping 6’ apart, or keeping everyone dry during a downpour, we’ve had to complete tasks in new ways and it has forced us to be flexible, innovative and has kept us on our toes!”

The pandemic wasn’t the only issue at the core of the transformations we underwent in 2020. Erica sees the role of injustice in agriculture, historically and present day, to be a hinderance to the sustainable future of our world. “I think that people are waking up to the ways that we have damaged our human health and earth with our agriculture system and waking up to see the historic and current injustices. I think that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle – that people will continue to demand improvement until all communities have the capacity to feed themselves with sustainably grown, locally grown food.”

While these issues remain imbedded in the very foundations of agriculture in North America, Erica sees a few ways that some of these inequities could begin to change. “Expanding social programs like Double Up Food Bucks so that low income folks can afford high quality food and seeds to grow their own food. Righting historical wrongs in agriculture, including USDA support for BIPOC farmers, and supporting programs for indigenous people that help restore food sovereignty to their communities.”

Erica acknowledges that we have an incredible amount of work to do to see equity in agriculture for all communities that live in North America. She also holds a deep compassion in her heart for the current challenges we individually face as Covid-19 continues to dictate our way of life. “Acknowledging that the pandemic affects each one of us in a million ways that adds up to a lot is important. We must be kinder and more compassionate with ourselves and others during this challenging time. This includes taking more time to smell the roses or eat the berries. For Nature and Nurture Seeds, increased seed sales have given us the ability to invest in some much needed, new farm and seed company equipment and infrastructure.”

In the very core of her being, Erica believes that we each have a role to play in the healing of our modern world and if we tap into that purpose, we can do something truly great. “I believe that each of us has a purpose, a way that each of us are uniquely equipped to make a difference in our world. In carrying out this purpose, we find ourselves healthier and more joyful. To build a better, more just world, we each must find our purpose and dedicate ourselves to it, totally.”

Erica’s purpose waits for her in the seeds and plants she lovingly tends and crafts to share with the communities in her region. “I hope that through my work there will be more recognition of the importance of organic and locally-adapted seeds and food equality and justice here in the Midwest.” And as far as pessimism is concerned, Erica can’t see a place for it in building a better world. “Mindfulness training has taught me to both accept what is and to focus on positive thinking. It revealed that excessive dwelling on worst-case-scenarios can discourage and paralyze us. Each time I plant a seed, I am practicing having faith, rather than pessimism, in the future.”

Yoko Takemura owns and operates Assawaga Farm with her husband, Alex Carpenter in Putnam, Connecticut. The farm utilizes intensive organic production on ¾ of an acre, with a focus on Japanese varieties of vegetables and herbs. Produce is sold through a local farmers market, a farmstand and to local restaurants and natural food retailers. 

The couple quit their fulltime jobs and became fully invested in building a farm together. While it hasn’t been easy, Yoko can’t imagine doing anything that could satiate her curiosity more than growing plants. “Farming can be frustrating and stressful, but I really enjoy every aspect of it, from sowing to harvesting to preparing beds for another crop. Every stage of a plant’s life is so interesting to me and the weekly transformation of the fields means there’s never a dull moment. On our farm, we don’t use any tractors except to mow down some crops and cover crops, which means we’re working closely with the soil and plants. I love this because when you’re moving through the bed slowly, be it weeding or digging potatoes, you get a glimpse into the secret life of insects and soil critters. Every now and then, you’re lucky enough to witness some exciting things like a wasp catching a caterpillar, an assassin bug eating a cucumber beetle, ladybug larvae eating an aphid. That’s always exciting!”

As Covid-19 hit their farm business, Yoko and Alex adjusted to uncertainties of the marketplace and the evolving societal response to the pandemic. For Yoko, self-care was difficult to prioritize which led to some tough choices. “The biggest obstacle presented by Covid-19 I think was the possibility of burnout, given the additional restrictions at the market (bagging customer’s orders, pre-bagging produce, working with masks and gloves in 95F heat and so on). We quickly realized that our back-to-back markets were unsustainable for our bodies. It was an incredibly difficult decision but, dropping the Saturday market and opening our farmstand on Sundays, gave us the necessary time in between to get a little rest in.”

Having a sustainable farming operation not only relies on the sustainability of the growers being able to physically, mentally and emotionally manage the tasks at hand, but it stretches into the practices and relationship growers have with the Earth. Yoko has taken some inspiration from her Japanese heritage about managing their land consciously. “Some farms we’ve visited in Japan collect leaves and soil from nearby forests to add minerals and to inoculate their fields. They in turn take care of the forest by selectively cutting trees and cleaning up. It’s such a neat partnership and one where humans are part of the ecosystem which I believe is one way to be sustainable.”

Though farming is unbelievably tough, Yoko feels called to this hard work as a means of bringing value to the people who live in her region. “I’m honored to be doing the work that I consider most important in the world, which is growing food for the community. Feeding and building community around a farm is one of the most important things we could be doing, especially during these divisive times.”

Community is a source of hope for Assawaga Farm and Yoko has witnessed her customers engaging with each other in ways that have warmed her heart, even amidst the challenges we’ve faced collectively. “One thing I have been noticing this season is how some of our customers are buying our vegetables to ‘gift’ to their friends and neighbors. This reminded me of how my grandfather, who lives in a rural part of Japan, often comes home to a basket of vegetables sitting in front of his front door. I think these acts of kindness are the building blocks of a community and help to ensure everybody is getting what they need. What better way to strengthen these connections than to share delicious vegetables?” 

Kevin Gadsby is the General Manager of the Blue Hill Co-op in Blue Hill, Maine. He’s been involved in the natural foods retail and food service sector for 25 years and wakes in the morning daily with the goal to increase the local food economy with every project he’s a part of. “I’ve been in Maine 10 years growing, and establishing retail food co-op’s working in 4 of Maine’s coastal food co-op’s as Produce Associate Buyer at Rising Tide Co-op in Damariscotta, General Manager of Good Tern Co-op in Rockland and Project Manager/General Manager for both Portland Food Co-op and Blue Hill Co-op.” 

Within these 10 years of mission-oriented work, Kevin has seen the fruits of his labor making a lasting impact on the local communities he serves. “During my time working with Maine food co-op’s I have witnessed a surge in local food production in several regions of the state. There are more organic farmers, and there are more Maine-produced goods than when I first started. At Blue Hill Co-op we supply Maine-produced products in every department: Grocery, Frozen, Dairy, Eggs, Produce, Meat, Cheese, Yogurt, even Beer & Wine and Health Supplements. This makes me hopeful that continued growth of local food systems is possible.”

Covid-19 has been especially tricky to manage for essential workers in the food system. As a local, natural food retailer, the surge for demand was met with the challenges of increased regulations and restrictions and a need to keep employees safe. “We opened the new Blue Hill Co-op on July 27, 2019. It was a very successful project from fundraising, member-investment, community-engagement through to completion. Still, people were skeptical as we moved from a building 3 ½ times smaller than the new storefront. Interest grew over the next few months. But it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit us in March of 2020 that it became evident the new storefront was here to serve a greater need than we anticipated. As it is now, even some of the naysayers see the Co-op as a vital part of the community. We receive accolades daily from our members and shoppers on our care and proactive response to the current health crisis. Our presence as a trusted food source has only been strengthened during this time.

We implemented an online shopping and curbside pickup program developed through our point-of-sale system in coordination with staff and point-of-sale development team. We now have a dedicated Co-op online ordering team that process all online orders for curbside pickup. Another challenge was in finding ways to mitigate stress amongst staff and shoppers. One way I found that helped ease the transition was through weekly communication to our Co-op community which communicated clear guidelines, care for our community and hope for the future. We have been praised for our response throughout the COVID-19 crisis.”

From his personal battle with a severe case of Lyme, to the raising of his own children, Kevin sees the heaviness of our modern world and the possibilities too. Food has been a gateway for healing and just one way that he’s been able to focus his own energy into contributing to our greater world, a lesson he has impressed upon his children starting at a very young age. “When my kids were young, before moving to Maine, we loved reading to them from several Maine authors. Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius was one of their favorites. The advice given to young Miss Rumphius from her grandpa is something I’ve received as my own and it’s something I have tried to impress on my own kids:

“Afterwards, Alice would say, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.” 

“That is all very well, little Alice,” her grandpa told her one night, “but there is a third thing you must do, you must do something to make the world more beautiful.” 

Kofi Thomas is the head grower at the Goodlife Garden in Brooklyn, NYC. At the garden, bountiful harvests of fresh produce, flowers and herbs make their way to seniors, high risk communities and others in need, free of cost. Just three years ago, the garden was a dumping ground for a demolition company, a place that not many would find potential. Through Kofi’s drive and expertise, the garden is now an abundant display of resilience, right in the heart of Brooklyn. 

As we all flipped our calendars over to 2020, we couldn’t have imagined how our lives would change. Kofi faced these challenges head on, while appreciating how these trying times gave us some much-needed clarity about our troubled food system. “There has been an exponential increase in the conversation about food, the harmful nature of the food system and the inequalities it preserves. There is a history of squashing small farmers and grassroots movements. It shed more light on a malicious denial of access to healthy food options to black and brown communities. The pre-existing conditions such as obesity and diabetes that make us more vulnerable to Covid-19 are a result of generations of slow poisoning. There is a fast-food store on most corners in my neighborhood but only one farmer’s market, one day of the week.”

While it seems as though this was a powerful awakening for many, these challenges have been everyday barriers that Kofi has endured his entire life. The pandemic may have given individuals a deeper view into the systemic issues faced by BIPOC growers, but these realities are historic and far reaching. The purpose of Kofi’s work in the city hasn’t changed, it has only become more essential as a result of Covid-19. “My work is connecting and empowering people, reminding communities of who they are and what they can do as a collective. The pandemic made the work more important than ever. We need each other if we are going to survive and come out of this stronger. COVID-19 exposed many of our weaknesses as a neighborhood and we have scrambled valiantly to build networks to take care of each other as a response. A lot of people that need our garden the most are high risk and could not participate as they have in the past. Staying connected with them has been one of my biggest and saddest challenges. Checking in on elders is an honor but can also weigh heavy on the spirit when it is bad news.”

Kofi sees community as an essential building block for true resilience and sustainability, built to last. “Sustainability looks like community and compassion. If the entire community is involved, then a movement will last generations. Compassion will make us think about other people we cannot see that may be affected by our decisions within this food system.”

As individuals, Kofi believes in us. He sees our potential sprouting when we commit to the wellbeing our neighborhoods and share the bounty. “Grow food, give some to your neighbor, the rest falls into place. We are all seeds. We all have the potential to grow into something great.”

Photo by Geoff Hansen

Wendy Palthey, along with her husband Jean, own and operate Tunbridge Hill Farm in Tunbridge, Vermont. Growing produce on 5+ acres since 1991, the farm has evolved over the last 29 years, providing beautiful vegetables to the local communities of Tunbridge, South Royalton and Waitsfield. As seasoned farmers, Wendy and Jean are considered Vermont staples; their gorgeous displays of produce are a testament to their dedication to staying in one place and crafting a living through the diligent care of their land and soil.

The challenges of 2020 led to one of the farm’s toughest seasons yet. It was one of those seasons where if asked, Wendy might tell a young person interested in farming to run the other way. “Some days I literally think, ‘would I say don’t do it?’ Some days I think, ‘what else is there to do?' I think as a new grower, getting to know your market is a good place to start. It might evolve, but you should have a plan as to where you sell your first year’s produce.”

Like all growers, the hardships faced in farming are never enough to sway her passion. She finds herself starting seeds, season after season, in hopes that her life’s work will contribute to slow, steady change. "Sometimes necessary change is not recognized in one lifetime. Later, hopefully people look at their local farmers as keepers of knowledge. We learned to farm from one of the first produce folks in Vermont growing organically. If his generation of growers didn’t break the ground and start, there might have been so much more knowledge lost.  I think with the internet, the knowledge is now expanding exponentially. The young farmers of the near future will be able to hit the ground running. We were just part of holding up the tent.”

The prevalent injustices of our food system, in Wendy’s mind, are directly related to land access. She sees a more harmonious and equitable system coming from more small farmers being able to cultivate crops where they live. “Well it seems that the folks that own a lot of the growing land in this country do not live on that land. I think a higher number of small farms is a more stable and secure system of food distribution. Unfortunately, good farmland is also good development land. Looking at the sprawl around Burlington, Vermont is pretty eye opening. It would have been good planning to secure some fields for growing so that there are local food sources in the future.”

While challenges will always find those who choose to farm for the rest of their lives, every task offers its fair share of small victories and a sense of purpose grows from the harvest that follows. “Joy finds me when I lift up a row cover at 5 am to pick arugula and it has not been attacked by the flea beetles and I can pick it really fast. My alliums give me joy when they have not been attacked by the onion maggot. My kids picking the first cherry tomato or gathering various produce to make a dinner with their friends, is joyful. Also, of course, to have customers tell me the lettuce they got last week was delicious and so fresh.”

Wendy knows that hope is a seed. She sees seeds as possibility and those who keep seeds as the unsung heroes of our modern world. “Seeds are basically one of the best symbols of hope you can offer. Looking at seed catalogs in the winter is a thing that is really appreciated amongst gardeners. I think more folks might have had that experience last winter with Covid-19. A seed is basically a package of potential and as a grower by planting a seed you are being hopeful, even the most pessimistic farmer.

Seed savers are on my top list of people who are highly under appreciated. I think about all the heroes out there tending their little gardens to produce some high-quality seed that could live on generations after they are gone. I image them as introverts and unsung heroes, quietly saving the rest of humanity in ways that most folks shopping at the grocery stores may never quite appreciate. There should be statues of seed savers in their communities.”

Return to our 2021 Catalog: Stories of Resilience Part 1.