From Gardener to Farmer: A Story for Seedling Season

Reader Contribution by Jodi Kushins and Over The Fence Urban Farm
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My daughter helping me label plants for last year’s plant sale at Over the Fence Urban Farm (Columbus, OH)  

Seedlings for Self-Sufficiency and Community

It’s seedling season in Central Ohio! Last week I purchased a pallet of potting soil with a few farmer friends and we’re off to the races. It wasn’t long ago that the notion of buying 60 bags of growing medium in one pop would have seemed like a far out idea. It wasn’t that long ago that I was buying all my seedlings at other people’s plant sales. This year I’ll be hosting my 4th Annual Pollinator Lover’s Plant Sale, aimed at getting more people to plant native perennials to provide habitat for bees and other pollen movers. (As an aside, 2020 marks the first  Ohio Native Plant Month, brought about through OH HB 59, signed July 2019).

I remember when, as a still relatively novice gardener and younger mother interested in showing my kids where our food comes from, I tried to grow my own seedlings. I laugh now at the single spinach plants I housed in four-inch pots and the leggy tomatoes I grew on the floor of our three-season porch. We learned so much. And, I had so much more to learn.

Early seedling experiments.

In the years since, I have developed my own system, systems really, for growing thousands of seedlings for transplant each season. I use a range of methods, indoors and out. There are a lot of articles and posts already on MOTHER EARTH NEWS that highlight how to set up a grow system indoors as well as how to use a cold frame in the yard. I encourage you to search and read if you aren’t already familiar. Rather than clog the system with more ‘how to’ options, I’m reflecting here on the role seedlings played in my transition from thinking about myself as a backyard gardener to a backyard farmer.

Finding Myself in A Sea of Seedlings

A few years ago, I took part in a conversation of women involved in agriculture across Ohio about how we identified ourselves. “How do you view your title? Are you an urban farmer, homesteader, grower, livestock farmer, gardener, or something other?” I was going into my 3rd season operating an urban backyard CSA and while I named the project Over the Fence Urban Farm from the onset, I always felt a bit of imposter syndrome about whether or not I was really a “farmer.”

As the conversation unfolded in an online forum, I realized that more important than the titles we claimed, were the reasons behind our choices. Reading responses from other women helped me clarify my own self-consciousness. I wrote about this at the time on my blog for Over the Fence Urban Farm. In Jodi Kushins, Urban Farmer (March 10, 2016), as the title suggests, I took hold of that title. And for me, the decision lay, in part, in my seedlings.

Finding myself in lots of lettuce.

One day around this time, as I was reflecting on my peers’ responses and contemplating my own, I was transplanting about one hundred lettuce seedlings, then starting a hundred more. How could any one person or family (read: gardener, homesteader, or community gardener) eat that much lettuce? And then things clicked for me. In growing for others, and taking money in return for produce, I became a farmer.

It’s seems somewhat ironic in retrospect that I found my identity as a grower in a sea of lettuce. I’m a big fan of raw salads and access to fresh greens was a major driver in my initial gardening efforts. After I tasted kale, spinach, and mustard straight from the backyard I couldn’t go back. The seed catalogues opened a whole new world of options to me and as I farmer I get to share those with others: tatsoi, cabbages, and chard  to name a few. When people new to gardening or season extension ask me what to grow first, the answer is always greens.

I still wrestle with the idea of calling myself a farmer, especially when I am around folks with acres of land to steward. But, it’s up to us all to do the best we can with what we have to work with. It will take many, many more gardeners, growers, and farmers to feed the world as the population grows in the coming decades. What are you waiting for? Go out and plant something!

Jodi Kushinsowns and operatesOver the Fence Urban Farm, a cooperatively maintained, community-supported agricultural project located in Columbus, Ohio. The farm, founded in 2013, is an experiment in creative placemaking, an outgrowth of Jodi’s training as an artist, teacher, and researcher. Connect with Jodi on FacebookandInstagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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