We Are Beneficial

It can be easy to think of humans as being separate from the natural world and to see our environment as something we impact as opposed to belong to. The truth is, we are both the cause of environmental and social problems and the solution. There are many aspects of our modern world that contribute to extraction, exploitation and injustice; simultaneously our world is full of individuals, organizations and communities invested in their local habitats and the people who belong to them.

Root 5 Farm and farms like it are beneficial. Ben and Danielle not only provide for 400 families living in Fairlee, Vermont, but the farm itself creates crucial habitat for a diverse assortment of essential species. Through their work, they are not acting outside of nature, but entwining themselves and their livelihoods to it. What this creates is a community that is nourished by an equally nourished landscape. It goes to show that when we open ourselves to the thriving of others, we too can thrive.

Beneficials

Photo courtesy of Truelove Seeds
Amirah Mitchell

Seed Keeper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Amirah Mitchell is a seed keeper. Her love for food and farming has roots that reach across her journey from Boston to Atlanta and now Philadelphia, and stretch far beyond into the agricultural legacy of her ancestors. This passion for foodways and seeds brought her to the City of Brotherly Love where she works with two organizations growing culturally relevant varieties of crops and saving their seeds. She teaches, she inspires, and she grows. She is involved in creating a community seed library and feels called to help build a framework of support for Black farmers in the United States.

She has been building on her intimate relationship with African foods, which has sent her down many paths. Her research has led her to investigate the seeds that came to the United States with her own family during slavery. “I found this one squash on Chef Michael Twitty’s blog, the Green Striped Cushaw Squash, that was often grown in the Carolinas by African Americans since slavery. Knowing that my grandmother on my father’s side was from the Carolinas, I thought that maybe this squash is something that my great, great grandparents ate; maybe this squash was connected to my own family history in some way. I decided to start growing this squash and it was the first crop that I ever grew as a seed crop.

Later that year, my grandmother passed away. She would make the best food, and she cooked with so much love and was this link between me and my family in the South. Her funeral was the first time I had seen a lot of my relatives in a while that still lived in Virginia and the Carolinas. I ended up talking with my great aunt about the Green Striped Cushaw Squash and learned that it was actually a vegetable that my great grandfather grew in his garden.

It was a moment that really hit me. The heirloom seeds that I was growing were a part of me. This variety was closer to me than I had initially realized. The following Thanksgiving, I made a pie with the squash that I had grown, and my great aunt knew what it was before I had told anyone what I had made it with. Bringing this variety back to my family showed me a deeper importance in seed work that goes beyond the conceptual. This is personal. This is personal for my family. This is the kind of memory that brought tears to the eyes of my elders.

It made me realize how much I wanted other people to experience that. To experience the food that speaks to us individually and to our communities and nourishes so much more than just our bellies. It was a realization that made me very deeply committed to this work—I wanted more people in my community and other communities to learn about the power of seed keeping.”

You can support Amirah Mitchell's newest Venture Sistah Seeds by donating towards her GoFundMe Campaign. "Sisah Seeds will be a seed production farm focused on African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean heirloom vegetable seeds. Additionally, the farm will serve as an educational site for community members interested in learning how to grow and save their own seed crops."

 

Photo courtesy of photographer Caleb Kenna
Chief Donald Stevens

Leader of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation in the Unceded Territory of Northeastern Vermont

Chief Donald Stevens is the leader of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation. The traditional homelands of the Abenaki, called N'dakinna, include Vermont, New Hampshire, parts of Canada, Maine, and Massachusetts. Today, Chief Donald Stevens works to protect the rights and preserve the heritage of his people. The Abenaki have had to overcome incredible challenges since the colonization of their territories and Chief Donald understands just how important seeds have been for their survival.

“We look at seeds in a different way. When I teach our students, I will give them a corn seed and ask them, 'what do you see?' They’ll answer ‘food, life, potential,' which is all true. Most of that in our view, however, is superficial. How we look at seeds is much different. Our corn mother story is a great example: the corn mother gave her life in order to feed her children. At some point, she had to sacrifice something to give her children that nourishment. The creator gave our ancestors a finite amount of seed each season. Someone had to plant it, take care of it, harvest it, keep it from the critters eating it all winter or it going moldy or spoiling, only to replant it again the following spring. This was done year after year until their life was over and the seed was now with someone else.

When I hold a seed in my hand, not only am I connecting to creation itself and the gift that was given to our ancestors, but also the thousands of ancestors that cared for it. If any one of those people had given up saving the seed or thrown it away, I wouldn’t have it in my hand today. When I teach, I ask them, 'what would you do with this responsibility? Will you break the chain of custody and lose this gift forever? Or will you do something with it to ensure it is passed on to the next generation?' It is a chain that connects us to each other and to the creator.”

Chief Donald takes his leadership very seriously. In 2012, he helped the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe acquire 65 acres of land. He has worked with the State of Vermont to secure hunting and fishing rights for his people and started the Nulhegan Food Security Program which includes a community garden project, The Beef and Bison Project, and The Abenaki Landlink Project.

“Part of what I am working on is bringing back some of our ancient seeds. Fred Wiseman, with the Seeds of Renewal Program, had the same interest, specifically in regaining the genetic purity of our ancient seeds. I saw the importance of that, of course, but I was very motivated by the need to feed our people. Fred Wiseman started working on genetic testing and breeding projects to regain the purity of our seeds with the help of Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont. We started working with Sterling College to try and create a seedbank for the Abenaki people.

We went about this effort as a means of feeding the people; providing free, culturally relevant seeds; and educating about growing and seed saving. The reality was, we as a nation don’t have the labor, resources or land to grow out these varieties ourselves. Sterling College agreed to be the first group to grow out our seeds and build the seed bank. They agreed to feed our people from the harvests.”

In the second year, Chief Donald also worked with Middlebury College and by the third year, with both Sterling and Middlebury Colleges and with the UVM Horticultural Farm. At this time, NOFA Vermont joined the effort, connecting Chief Donald to Vermont growers who wanted to grow crops and share the seeds. Chief Donald’s efforts with these institutions have resulted in relationships with the three colleges and now 40 growers through NOFA Vermont. Because of this community collaboration, food distribution centers in Holland, VT, Shelburne, VT, and Contoocook, NH, are providing culturally relevant food to the Abenaki community.

You can support the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation through the donations page on their website. "Your contributions will enable us to meet our goals, specifically by supporting Abenaki Helping Abenaki, Inc. Click here for more information about AHA, Inc."

 

Root 5 CSA Farm

Danielle Allen and Benner Dana, co-owners of Root 5 Farm in Fairlee, Vermont

Danielle and Ben, owners of Root 5 Farm, have been farming organic vegetables since 2001. In the late 90’s, they found their separate ways to the University of Vermont where Ben studied forestry and Danielle majored in political science. They didn’t meet until years later when they each independently discovered a love of farming. Eventually, Ben and Danielle crossed paths when Danielle began working at the Intervale Community Farm in 2003. Danielle was intrigued by Ben’s unusual hat collection; Ben thought Danielle had a nice smile. And the rest is history.

A devastating flood caused by tropical storm Irene in August 2011 at Arethusa Farm, their shared farm project at the Intervale, intensified Ben and Danielle’s search for farmland to call their own. In March of 2013, they purchased a farm in Fairlee, Vermont. They moved to Fairlee just in time to get started seeding in the greenhouse and working the land for the 2013 season. Today, they grow over 100 varieties of vegetables on 38 acres of terraced bottom land along the Connecticut River. Danielle notes, “We're involved in almost all aspects of our food system. We are producers, we grow organic vegetables on 38 acres of river bottom land. We have scaled our farm to fit with nature and to fit with our community. We actively build our soils by growing cover crops on more than half of our cultivated land every growing season.

We're aggregators, sourcing products like milk, cheese, meat, and fruit from neighboring organic farms and then distributing them together with our vegetables directly to consumers through 400 CSA shares. We're also processors, using many of the vegetables we grow to make sauerkraut, kimchi, salsa, hot sauce, pesto and more. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we're consumers. We need to eat nutritious food in order to stay healthy and have the energy to do all of this producing, soil building, aggregating, and processing.”

Danielle sees nature and ecosystem diversity as being central to the success of her work at Root 5 Farm. “To quote author Anne Biklé, ‘We are what our food eats.’ We strive to grow food in really healthy soil, soil that is alive with microorganisms and mycelium and has a balance of nutrients and organic matter. This brings the best possible health and vitality to the people who eat the food we grow. This helps us sit more comfortably with the complexity and messiness of farm life. We're always learning from our surroundings. We don't have all the answers, we make mistakes, we welcome feedback, we adjust and adapt, always striving for continual improvement.”

This interconnectedness and willingness to be flexible and adapt, in Danielle’s view, should not be limited to our relationship to natural systems. She sees collaboration and diversity as being an essential piece of a prosperous future for human communities, as well. “My hope for the future is that the organic farming movement will inspire more small diversified organic farms, more consumers demanding healthy food grown in healthy soil, more innovative farmers growing a wide array of foods for their local communities, and more home gardeners fulfilling some portion of their food needs right from their own backyards.”

Local Fairlee, Vermont residents can support Root 5 Farm by learning more about their CSA Program and visiting the restaurants and stores that sell their produce. You can support your local food economy in your own hometown by learning about the farms in your region and what programs they offer. "Your Root 5 Farm CSA membership gives you a direct connection to the people growing your food, and helps support our regional food system in the Upper Valley."

 

Mycorrhizal Fungi

Mycorrhiza is a term used to describe the oftentimes mutually symbiotic relationship between soil fungi and plants. Endomycorrhiza, also known as Arbuscular mycorrhiza, are a group of fungi that have evolved over 400 hundred million years to thrive in partnership with 85% of the world’s terrestrial plants. These fungi existed before terrestrial plants, and the partnership between Mycorrhizae and the plants' roots are what allowed early plants to colonize dry land.

The hyphae of Endomycorrhizal fungi penetrate the cell membrane of plant roots; they then share water and nutrients sourced from their extensive network of mycelia in the soil with their host plants in exchange for sugars produced by the plant through photosynthesis. While this relationship is by nature invasive as the fungal hyphae enter the cell membrane of the plant’s roots, the resulting symbiotic mutualism benefits both the fungi and the plants equally, enhancing both the plant and the fungi’s chances at higher overall performance and survival.

This partnership is initiated by three different sources: spores deposited in the soil; colonized root fragments of other plants; and vegetative hyphae living in the soil. Once the plant begins to release root exudates (the sugars produced through photosynthesis) into the soil, this signals locally positioned fungal matter to colonize the compatible plant roots. As the plant grows and the roots extend deeper into the soil, the thread-like mycelia of the fungi continue to grow as well, drastically increasing the surface area and reach of the plant in the soil, allowing for greater acquisition of macro-and micronutrients and what would be otherwise unavailable sources of water.

The partnership results in crops that are more resilient to drought and other environmental stressors due to their additional access to water sources and higher micronutrient uptake. To encourage Mycorrhizae in our gardens and farms we can do a few things:

PLANT COVER CROPS. Cover cropping between plantings of vegetable crops will help stimulate these essential relationships in your soil and build mycorrhizal communities that will, in turn, support your future planted crops.

AVOID OVER-FERTILIZATION OF THE SOIL. Too much fertilizer, especially applications heavy in nitrogen and phosphorus can minimize mycorrhizal root colonization. When in doubt, take a soil test to assess your nutrient levels.

MINIMIZE SOIL TILLAGE. Mycorrhizae fungi are made up of threadlike mycelia that stretch through the soil, much like plant roots. Heavy tillage can cut through threads and kill off populations that have developed with your plants.

Continue to part 2 of our 2022 catalog series: beneficials.