Alejandra Okie, PIC.tv producer, interviewed Carolyn Rose-Seed—a mom, farmer and unemployed computer programmer.
Please tell us a little bit about Mama Springs.
MamaSprings is a small CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] in Durham, North Carolina. We offer both paying and working shares. We grow a variety of local produce, including: lettuce mixes, leafy greens, carrots, beets, turnips, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, okra, potatoes, pears, cantaloupe, green beans, field peas, cut flowers, and fresh herbs.
What is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)?
Basically, a CSA is a community of people who pay for shares of an upcoming season’s harvest upfront and directly to one farmer. In exchange for the upfront payment, customers receive one basket of food per week for the duration of the growing season.
The benefit of the CSA model is that the farmer knows she has ‘x’ number of guaranteed folks to grow food for, her marketing is done early in the season when time is more plentiful, she has the money up front to get the farm going for the season, and she gets to know her customers personally.
The benefit of the CSA model for the consumers is that they know their farmer (and her growing practices) and their food is as fresh and local as it can get. In addition, many CSA customers feel that local food and preserving agrarian pockets in an urban area is crucial for food security and ecological health. By supporting farming in such an intimate way, they are part of what is right with food consumption in this country. Many of MamaSprings’ customers have, at some point, actually worked alongside us on our farm. One of the things we cherish most about this model is the community that it builds.
Why did you decide to start Mama Springs?
It wasn’t really a decision to start MamaSprings. It evolved. I have always loved growing things and dreamed of gardening on a large scale.
In 2007 I learned the part-time programming work I’d been doing from home was going to be outsourced and I was going to be laid off. I ended up having a year’s notice that my job would end and plenty of time to plan. At that point, we purchased a lot of our food from natural food markets and/or farmer’s markets. And we had a 6-year-old and a 3 year-old. We were very dedicated to having a parent at home until the youngest child went to school. But the budget with just one income was going to be tight. One area where we could really cut expenses was the grocery budget. So I started seriously growing food. And canning, and freezing. My friends saw what I was doing and how much produce I had and they wanted in. So I started selling excess produce.
The plan had always been for me to go back to work when our youngest entered Kindergarten. Then the economy went belly-up and my belly went out: I got pregnant again. From that point on, I’ve been very serious about increasing my food production each year and expanding into what is now a small CSA.
How has your life changed going from working part time as a programmer to being a full-time gardener and mom?
I would say my life is more centered and less compartmentalized now. Programming is very cerebral work. To work from home with one kid underfoot was challenging. Adding the second kid to the mix made it extremely challenging. Programming is not the easiest job to do with kids around. I ended up working into the wee hours most nights or getting up super early. I was constantly working and/or constantly stressed about what I wasn’t getting done. I was not the easiest person to live with.
I probably work more hours per week now, but what I do is the kind of thing our kids can be included in. We have kid-sized tools and our toddler, now 2, knows how to use them. Our older kids, now 10 and 7, know how to harvest and love making row labels and other signage. The garden is pretty as a result of their art. The garden area has multiple kid play zones throughout. Most of our working shares are moms just like me, so our work time doubles as play dates. And the garden has become our second living room…on a weekend you’ll find all of us hanging out there. The grandparents, aunts, and uncles get involved, too.
What have you learned in the process of starting and running a gardening business?
I’ve learned that nobody is going to get rich (in the conventional sense) growing food. I’ve learned to look at what I’m contributing to my family in broader terms: all the fresh produce we eat three seasons a year, the wholesome food I am able to store away for winter consumption, the benefit of not needing childcare to go to work, the pure health benefit of hard physical labor, the values it is modeling for our kids. I’ve learned to network and scavenge: never buy new when you can find it used and maybe even free. I’ve learned to barter. I’ve learned to accept and give gifts of free labor, advice, tool sharing, etc.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
Many! Deer, squash bugs, potato bugs, Japanese beetles, Mexican beetles, too much rain, too little rain, summer temperatures in the spring, unexpected frosts …. I could go on, but I won’t. Farming is all about challenge and unpredictability. But there are lessons in every failure.
Are there things you wish you had known about before you started your gardening business?
I am constantly learning more about the actual process of growing food and soil health. So there have been many mistakes I could have avoided if I’d just read this book, or heard that talk earlier. But I think that is going to be the case 20 years from now as well. There is so much to learn. In business terms, in retrospect, I wish I had started out pricing my product at market value. I sold too cheaply for many years because I was dealing with friends and because I lacked confidence that I actually knew what I was doing. So in that sense, to newbies I would say: know market pricing and sell accordingly. Don’t give your product away.
Recently, many more folks who live in urban areas have become interested in gardening. Do you have any tips you can share with them on how they can get started?
Just start! Like I mentioned before, I’m learning more all the time; you have to start that learning process at whatever level of knowledge you currently have. Check out your local library….they’ll have shelves full of how-to books. The Internet is a great resource. As is your local Ag office. Until you start getting your own hands dirty, though, that knowledge isn’t going to grow except in the theoretical sense. There is nothing sweeter than sitting down to dine on something you grew yourself.