Family lore has it that the first word Kirsten Clemente uttered was “cucumber.” Growing up in a rural farming community in northwestern Ohio, Clemente gardened with her dad, so while growing food may be in her DNA, her educational background wouldn’t necessarily suggest a farming trajectory.
“I have a bachelor of philosophy (degree) from Miami (of Ohio) University, which, it turns out, is a good fit for someone going into agriculture, partly because I didn’t have preconceived ideas about how things should be done,” says Clemente, who oversees DeLano Farms, the working educational farm of the Kalamazoo Nature Center.
“I love science and learning how things work. A minor in botany helped me understand how plants grow, the structure of soil, and so on. I thought I would go further, but it was hard for me to sit still in class. I found a summer farm apprenticeship in Seattle, then came back to Ohio and managed small-scale farms for several years, including our own in Cleveland.”
Clemente, with her husband and three children, moved to Kalamazoo three years ago from Cleveland. She directs farm-related activities at the homestead founded by the DeLano family in the mid-1800s. The grounds occupy the western portion of the Nature Center’s 1,100 acres. This working farm has goats and chickens, learning gardens, a gardening internship program and weekly summer vegetable shares through its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
How did you end up at DeLano Farms?
Just after moving here, my husband and I were biking the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail and we rode past the Nature Center. I didn’t know we had a place like this in the area. After the ride, I discovered there was an opening for a farm field attendant. I had no idea what that was, but it seemed like something I could learn to do. I applied and got the job.
Over time, I’ve been able to grow into my current role. I have the privilege of working with a team committed to science- and research-based education. We have several community partnerships and a growing gardening internship program. This work is my passion, and I get to do it with a great team of people that give me so much help and support.
What is DeLano Farms’ community-supported agriculture program?
The concept is that shareholders invest by paying up front before the growing season begins. This gives the farmer a funding boost for seeds, materials, soil amendments, etc. In return, the shareholder gets a weekly supply of whatever the CSA specializes in. Our 16-week shares typically include a wide variety of veggies and fresh herbs. A CSA is a risk-sharing agreement. A crop might fail. Raccoons might get the sweet corn. When that happens, we compensate with other crops.
There are so many benefits. CSA members are more in tune with the seasonality of food than if they shop solely at the supermarket, where most foods are available year-round. We encourage U-pick, which our customers love and we do too, because it’s an opportunity to teach harvesting skills, answer questions and interact on a deep level about the food we grow for them. However, we are currently rethinking this feature of our CSA due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Seed companies and gardening organizations are experiencing explosive growth in their products and services.
What is driving people to be more interested in growing their own food?
I think the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that our food and other systems are fragile. We are so dependent on other countries for goods such as PPEs (personal protective equipment) and global businesses for our meat and food. The pandemic has made it clear that we have to be more self-sufficient in our communities.
The other thing is that many people have had more time through the quarantine and they love to garden. Whether it’s a pot of basil on their back patio or container tomatoes, it’s so rewarding to plant something, watch it grow and then eat it. I’ve had more calls this spring — probably three times as many as in the past — from people with questions about starting a garden, like “Do I need a border around my garden bed?” (no) and “Can I plant edibles in my flower bed?” (yes).
What advice do you give to those new to gardening?
Start small! Containers are good. So many things can be grown in a container. A 4-foot-by-8-foot space with sunlight of six hours or more (per day) is plenty big. Choose crops that are easy, such as tomatoes and peppers. Perennial herbs, meaning they grow back every year, like oregano and thyme, are easy to grow. Lavender is good for crafts, and it’s a perennial too. Many vendors at local farmers’ markets offer seedlings, or “starts,” that can go right into your bed. Mulch to keep weeds down.
What do you do when you’re not growing food?
I love to cook, ride my bike and read science fiction, especially Ursula Le Guin. I’m rereading all the Harry Potter books. And my kids will tell you I can whittle and build a catapult.
— Interviewed by Donna McClurkan