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Carey Thornton
Community Educator
Tilth Alliance
June 20, 2017

When did you know that you wanted to work in food?

It definitely has been a journey for me to get to my current job of teaching workshops on organic gardening, permaculture, food preservation and other related skills. My first food job was right out of college. I couldn't find a paying gig in my field of study so I got a job at a local catering company. I grew up cooking with my mom and so it seemed pretty natural to be in a kitchen for most of my day. I worked in the restaurant industry around Seattle for 5 or 6 years and then found my love for gardening. When I realized that I could make food come out of the ground (for free!), it was amazing. I'm still amazed by it every day. My job is to show people how incredible it is to grow food. It's pretty empowering to put a seed in the ground, water it for thirty days, and then pull out a radish.

How did you get your current good food job?

I was originally a volunteer with the organization I currently work for. It's a really good idea, I think, if you are trying to get a job at a nonprofit to volunteer with them. You get to meet a bunch of awesome people - I mean networking with employees - but also volunteering with other great people that enjoy that same thing you enjoy. You get the inside scoop on how the organization works and if it's a good fit for you. And of course, getting your foot in the door. A lot of volunteers I work with are awesome, and I definitely keep them in the loop when new jobs get posted.

How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?

Cooking in restaurants gave me an appreciation for all types of food and especially fresh, local vegetables. Although I did not tend a garden growing up, the seasonality of the the food plants came naturally to me. When it was time for me to leave the kitchen behind and find my next chapter in the garden, it seemed like an easy transition. I ended up joining Americorps and working in a school garden teaching elementary school aged kids about growing plants. Digging potatoes with a group of kindergartners is pretty much the most fun you will ever have.

My time with Americorps changed my life in a lot of ways. As a "professional volunteer", working full time and receiving a stipend changed how I viewed monetary reward. I wasn't paid based on how hard I worked, I was given living expenses and did a really cool job and worked my hardest. After that, working at a nonprofit doing work that I loved was really my only option.

I always thought it was weird that I spend so much time in the garden and showing people about how great plants and soil can be when I spent most of my childhood in the city, indoors reading and watching tv. Looking back on that, I thought it was a strange turn of events, but my mom reminded me that when we would visit my grandparents I would spend hours out in their garden. They had a really incredible backyard with fruit trees and food just popping out of the ground. I remember picking fern shoots after the rain and bringing them into my grandmother's kitchen. Most people these days spend a lot of their time indoors and when I get to show them how nice it feels to pick fresh food after a rain, I remember that same sense of wonder I had as a kid at my grandma's house.

What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?

Being an educator was a challenge for me because I am not naturally an outgoing person. Public speaking made me so nervous and I had to get over that pretty fast. I remember standing in front of a class of adults trying to give a lecture and just feeling my face get hot. Later, out in the garden showing them plants and telling them stories about each one, touching and tasting them, I felt so much more comfortable. One of my students later came up to me and said she noticed how nervous I was in the classroom, but out in the garden all that changed. She recommended putting a handful of soil in my pocket to touch while teaching in a classroom setting! I don't think I ever actually did that, but it did make me realize that my strength was in showing people the plants and not necessarily talking in a classroom. That really helped me to embrace a more experiential style of education. Of course now I'm more comfortable talking in front of classes and sometimes its hard to get me to stop!

Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate? 

I worked for a while at a program called Lettuce Link, part of an anti-poverty organization called Solid Ground. One of the things I did was help steward a large giving garden - a farm, really - that grew food for the neighborhood food bank. The farm manager, Sue, was such an amazing person. I consider her my mentor as she taught me everything I know about growing food and really about being a good human being. What really struck me was that she used to always introduce me to people as "the Amazing Carey Thornton". I remember thinking "What's so amazing about me? She knows everything and everyone and has been doing this amazing work forever. I just got here and am trying my best to keep up!" I don't see her very often anymore, but when I do, she still introduces me that way. And I think she introduces all her coworkers, interns and volunteers that way. It's just the way she is, to appreciate everything about a person. That really stuck with me. I had never had anyone so honestly celebrate me in that way before. I keep that with me and really just try to see everyone as amazing in their particular way.

What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now? 

We need more people growing food. Our food system is really owned by corporations more than anything now and so we need more people to break out of that. We need more organic farmers, more organic seed growers, more permaculturists growing food forests, more regular folks growing their own foods in their backyards, and people sharing the old skills - skills that we have forgotten, but that used to keep us alive, like cultivating plants, keeping animals, foraging for wild food and medicines, cooking at home and putting food by. I don't know if there are job opportunities in there, but there are definitely opportunities for making life better for everyone.

If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be? 

Skills. I'm always up for learning something new and luckily my job supports me with professional development opportunities. Right now I am taking an amazing ethnobotany and traditional skills course with Heidi Bohan. I am learning how to carve a spoon out of a chunk of alder wood and just finished making a basket out of cedar bark!

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