2014 LIA HEITZMAN BABITCH
SEED GARDEN MANAGER, TURTLE TREE SEED
Not all farm work is idyllic, but Lia’s story sure makes it seems so. Her memories of growing up on a community farm make it easy to see how her current agricultural role was not only the perfect fit, it was her destiny. To learn about Turtle Tree Seed, or other Camphill communities where adults with disabilities work together to care for the Earth, visit CamphillVillage.org
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I grew up on a 432 acre biodynamic and organic farm in Southeastern Pennsylvania, which included a dairy farm, field crops such as corn, fodder beets and (most exciting to me at the time) strawberries, an extensive vegetable garden, herb garden and woods for foraging and fort-building. The farm was and is a community which especially includes adults with developmental disabilities in life-sharing, which means that my house growing up included not just my parents and siblings but also adults with developmental disabilities and a string of yearly volunteers who came to live and work with us. There were about 18 such houses on the farm, with everyone finding meaningful work, and each household sharing three meals a day together. From when I was 8 and my sister was 11, we became responsible for Sunday brunch at our house, cooking for the 10-12 people living there. I delighted in making salads out of unusual edibles foraged from the gardens and fields, such as nasturiums, violets, lamb’s quarters, wild black raspberries, and in keeping tabs on when the first strawberry would ripen in the strawberry field, watching the first blossoms and small green fruit develop. I would get up early on summer mornings to go milking, sometimes what seemed like hours before the 5 am start, to make sure I didn’t miss it. In other words, my love affair with food and food production goes back as far as I can remember.
How did you get your current good food job?
In 2009 I came back to the US from England, where I had completed a two year biodynamic apprenticeship. I knew I wanted to be a farmer, and started looking at a very broad variety of options from school gardens to CSAs. On the Biodynamic Association website, I found an ad looking for someone to help at Turtle Tree. The founders had both been volunteers in the community where I grew up, one of whom had been my first gardening teacher when she offered small vegetable plots to the village children one summer. Turtle Tree is located in a similar community in the Hudson Valley of New York. The founders, Beth and Nathan Corymb, were looking to move on to Beth’s family farm in Nebraska, and needed to hand on their seed-growing knowledge and the business. The challenge was to find someone who was excited to live and work with people with developmental disabilities, and could both organize a team to grow vegetable herb and flower seeds, and take on aspects of running the business. It seemed like a perfect fit for me.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
Working with people with developmental disabilities has always seemed natural to me, and also organizing various people to help in gardens. My senior project in high school was to grow biodynamic veggies in a greenhouse over the winter and early spring months. In college a friend and I re-worked the then-languishing student garden into a functional, productive garden, built retaining walls and raised beds, and got students into the garden with work days, potlucks and seasonal celebrations. After exploring some other fields after college, I returned to my farming and food interests by participating in a Biodynamic apprenticeship in Southwestern England on a very diversified farm, which included extensive vegetable production, orchards with apples, plums, pears and a variety of berries, extensive flower gardens, an herb garden, as well as dairy, beef, chickens and sheep. This farm also grew 8 varieties of seed crops for an English biodynamic seed company, Stormy Hall. This, along with a weekend intensive on seed growing which was included in the apprenticeship program, was my first introduction to seed growing and the many complex issues which we face around seeds worldwide. Because of my passion for food, saving varieties of vegetables which are wonderful, but are perhaps not well known seemed imperative.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
There are a lot of difficult and challenging things going on in the world right now around seeds, from patenting of varieties to loss of diversity in critical crop origin hotspots, but those world problems are a motivation for me rather than an obstacle. Of course, there are many challenges with living in a community, because everything is a give and take. Needing to work through things with each other, both at work and at home can take a lot of energy. When a human challenge, weather or crop challenge and a business challenge all come up in the same week, sometimes my partner and I joke about moving to Australia (or anywhere far, far away). But the thing is, I love what I do. Even on the really tough days, I’d rather be here doing this than anywhere else I can imagine.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
I think the greatest opportunities are in working together—farmers working with chefs, schools working with gardeners, the growth of farmer’s markets and CSA’s and Urban gardens, and in the awareness that is growing so vigorously, that real food is not only important, but is amazing and wonderful, a thing to be celebrated, loved, shared, cherished and protected. This growing awareness is our greatest opportunity.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Actually, I am compensated with something other than money. The community of which I am a part supports me and my partner with a home which we share with 5 adults with developmental disabilities, great, healthy food, healthcare, and covers some other things (such as clothing, support for vacations or time away, incidental expenses, etc.) All this, plus the daily support, challenges and joy of living and working together.