"This seed contains all of the genetic information that it needs to grow to its fullest potential and to perpetuate into the future."
- Jen Salinetti, Woven Roots Farm
In her powerful talk at TEDx Berkshires, community vegetable grower and educator Jen Salinetti shares the story of the growth of one seed and connects its journey to our incredible human potential as individuals connected to a larger ecosystem and part of a larger world.
Jen and and her husband Pete (both featured in A Small Good Thing) own and operate Woven Roots Farm, a vegetable CSA based in the Berkshires. In hopes of learning more about how Jen and Pete developed Woven Roots Farm, I recently spoke with Jen about her experience. In Part One of this two-part interview, Jen discusses the development of Woven Roots and the journey of finding satisfaction in her work and in her life.
A Small Good Thing: I would love to know a little bit more about your background in farming – how were you first introduced to it and has it always been a presence in your life?
Jen Salinetti: When I was in college I ended up pursuing sustainable agriculture and herbal studies, and that came out of a growing desire to understand nutrition and ultimately realizing that at the core of nutrition is quality, wholesome food and knowing where our food comes from. Prior to that, I had had no experience in agriculture. Farming was not part of my family’s upbringing. Even though I had not had any of that information, as I was growing up I always had a curiosity around it and I had a desire to be connected to the earth somehow. It wasn’t anything that was tangible to me at the time, but when I went on to pursuing nutrition and ultimately agricultural studies, I could see that was the missing link that I had been seeking out during my childhood. I remember that being a really huge “Aha!” moment – something that finally made sense even though I couldn’t have even put words to it before. Having my hands in the soil shifted my life.
ASGT: How did that interest manifest into Woven Roots Farm?
JS: Once that was ignited in me, I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go with it. Pete and I started dating when we were in college. He had had a strong upbringing with gardening and it was something that he was very familiar and comfortable with. I don’t think he realized how huge of an impact it had on me to step into his world. So that inspiration, that moment being with him in his family garden, made me feel like, “I am part of something. I want to have this someday. I want to have a family and I want to have a family garden…and lo and behold I want to do this with you.” It was a pretty fantastic feeling.
Woven Roots Farm started as our backyard garden. When we realized that we were growing more than we needed, we opened up a farm stand for our neighborhoods because we thought that it would be really fun and helpful for people to have access to this abundance of vegetables. It was an honor box system, so we weren’t having much direct connection with people, but we knew that it was going to our community and that felt really good. The Berkshire Co-Op Market encouraged us to cultivate some crops that would be beneficial for them to purchase wholesale. The next season we grew a couple of crops for them. Then we started to dive into the wholesale market through their support, which was wonderful and continues to be an amazing experience.
ASGT: And how has Woven Roots developed into what it is today?
JS: Every year we kept making our gardens bigger and bigger. We were working with restaurants and the Co-Op, and that was feeling really good in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t completely gratifying us. We determined that our goal was ultimately to provide as much wholesome, nutrient-dense food directly to the people, and so we decided to initiate a CSA program. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. People purchase a share prior to the beginning of the season and that gives them the capacity to pick up a weekly share of food during the growing season. Everything has been harvested within 24 hours; it’s incredibly fresh. It secured more of an income for us and connected us to who we were growing for. We have completed our fifth year of that, and I have to say that that has become the most enriching part of the work that we now do.
We needed to have a number of years of experience behind us to be able to build up to this, because we wanted to feel confident that we could grow delicious food for our community, understand crop successions, and have the availability of a diversity of crops. Having that direct connection with the people we’re growing our food for has been so enriching. Every week from mid-June into November, we have this weekly pick-up of food and there is this wide range of ages from newborns to people into their 80s. Every week is a celebration. Every week is this interaction and this curiosity about, “What’s available, what’s next, and where does it come from?” And people love to do the “pick your own” and experience the fields and have that feeling of having their hands in the soil. I can see that it is this visceral experience for people and I can see them connecting. It’s so special. It’s so incredibly special.
As important as it is to have people feeling connected, we also feel very strongly about the educational component of it. We want people not to just feel it, but to really understand where their food is coming from. We started offering workshops during our CSA pick-up time. We offer these little half-an-hour workshops with our CSA children and families. And then we also offer classes to the adults in our community and that is something that is growing really strongly. We have other people that are interested in teaching and we’re pursuing more collaboration with educators in the area.
ASGT: How did you make that initial jump into farming full-time with Woven Roots? What were the biggest hurdles for you?
JS: When we reached that point, both Pete and I had established a business somewhat separate from the farm. We were doing design, installation and maintenance of ornamental gardens and that was something that was initially fulfilling and certainly lucrative, but we were increasingly finding ourselves not feeling totally satisfied at the end of the day or content with our contributions to the world. Mostly because we were working for very high-end accounts and there was a distinct separation from the general mass of people and the people that we were working with. We were expending a lot of energy towards that and it was not enabling us to be able to put the time that we needed into farming. We children and as we would evaluate the quality of our time, we realized our family time was being sacrificed and our goals weren’t quite as clear or as constructive as we wanted them to be.
We made the choice to switch to full-time farming once we felt like we had enough skill in farming. Over the course of a couple of years, we completely changed our farming practices. We stepped away from anything that was machine-operated for cultivation, we started growing very intensively in a permanent bed system, and then we started focusing on the success of crop production so that there were never any areas that were being left fallow.
Once we learned about it, we started to experiment in our fields and saw instant results. By the third year, there was just a dynamic shift in the quality and the yield of our product and by that point, it became clear that we could actually do this and survive. We would have to accept a modest lifestyle, but really without that much compromise. We were looking at what we value in our life. We valued our time with each other and with our family; we valued having amazing, delicious meals that are freshly prepared with love and attention; and we valued having a positive impact on our community and creating a space that would allow people to participate in what we were doing. And so those three things far surpassed any dollar amount we could make. And it just clicked, and it was a beautiful gift. It continues to be a beautiful gift for us.
And so now, we are going into our seventh year of full-time farming. To some people this might seem like a long process (we began farming 16 years ago), but for us, we had to reach these milestones and thresholds where things were just clearly not working for us anymore, where we could envision what could work for us, and where we could step into all of it with the confidence that we could provide.
Make sure to check out Part Two of the interview, where Jen describes her sources of inspiration and gives insight into the ways that the development of Woven Roots has affected her life.