Putting down roots

Organic growing

By Margi Lenga Kahn

The Jewish farmer.

Sounds odd, at least to some of us. Which, if you think about it, is odd that it sounds odd. After all, farming is part of our Jewish heritage, both in the Bible and throughout the birth and development of modern Israel.  Even in the United States, there is an historical link between Jews and farming dating back to the 1800s, when Jewish immigrants from Russia farmed land in the Connecticut River Valley.  By the early 1900s, the Federation of Jewish Farmers of America was providing support for these farmers.  Later, a second organization, the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, was formed.

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Who knew? Still, how many Jewish farmers have you heard of? You’d be surprised. Consider the owners of these national organic farming companies: Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Yogurt, Sam Kahn of Cascade Farms, and Drew and Myra Goodman of Earthbound Farm.

And here’s the story of a local Jewish-American farming family: the Abrahams.

Lee and Ingrid Abraham, along with their daughter Lena, own and operate Berger Bluff Farm, which is about 65 miles west of St. Louis in Berger, Mo. If you have been to the Maplewood Farmer’s Market, or some years back to the Clayton Farmer’s Market, you may already know them and have even enjoyed the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.  I had the pleasure of talking to them and learning how a passion for working the land became a way of life.

Neither Lee nor Ingrid grew up on a farm. Lee, born in St. Louis and a graduate of John Burroughs, received his B.F.A. in Fine Arts from United States International University, based in Nairobi, Kenya in 1976. Thereafter, he held a variety of jobs, which included driving a newspaper delivery truck, providing home health care to the elderly, doing construction, selling records in the record department at an E.J. Korvette store, and working as a fish monger.

“I always had an interest in manual labor,” Lee explained.  “I also had an interest in rural life. In Boulder, Colo., I had a friend who was teaching horticulture. He asked whether I would be interested in helping.  Working with soil was very appealing to me.  Given that food has always been an important part of my life – my mother was an avid gardener and an adventurous cook – combined with my travels to Mexico, where I was exposed to farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, it is not all that unusual that I would end up as a farmer.”

Ingrid’s family was the only Jewish family in a New Mexican town of 7,000.  While earning her bachelors degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz, she worked with other students on the university’s organic farm.

“I always knew I would do something with plants,” Ingrid said. ” I enjoyed it but never thought I would farm for a living.” She chuckled. “That didn’t become a reality until I met Lee.”  

Ingrid said that her mother grew up in Holland and was hidden on a dairy farm during the Nazi occupation.

“My mother told me how much she admired the Dutch family’s hard work and commitment to their farm,” Ingrid said.  “Growing up, I saw the enjoyment she got from gardening when I helped her with the flower beds. Those childhood experiences, combined with my mother’s stories of her years in Holland, probably contributed to my appreciation for and enjoyment of the farming life.”

Before leaping into a life that they admired but had no experience with, Lee and Ingrid did a three-year apprenticeship on the 400-acre Gasconade Farm in Vienna, Mo. It was there that they learned about sustainable agriculture. After taking a winter off to travel, they spent the next two years operating Stoneledge Farm in Dutzow, a small town just outside of Washington, Mo. Together they built the farm’s first irrigation system and later started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) where individuals could buy shares of the farm’s fresh produce.

Twenty years ago, they bought the land that is now Berger Bluff Farm. While their farm is not certified organic, they are members of the Missouri Organic Association.  They follow organic practices and consider themselves organic growers. They credit their educational backgrounds for motivating them to farm organically.

“Had I grown up on a farm that used chemicals, it might have been different,” Lee said. “But I had a general awareness of the environment and wanted to at least try the organic methods.”

Initially, Lee and Ingrid worked all aspects of the farm together. More recently, they divide the labor: Ingrid sows plants from seeds in the greenhouse, and Lee handles the mechanical work involved in directly sowing seeds into the soil.  They both weed and harvest, and usually have two other full-time helpers during the season, which runs from April through October.

Their daughter Lena, who attended public school in the Hermann School District, will be leaving the farm this fall for the big city, where she will be a freshman at New York University.  I asked Ingrid whether she thought Lena would miss farm life: “Lena never took to working in the fields,” Ingrid said, “but from the time she was eight-years-old she has always done the farmer’s market with us.  She knows all the vendors and they know her. “

Each year, the Abrahams try a few new crops and drop the ones that were less successful. This season’s crops include lettuces, greens, salad mixes, radishes, turnips, beets, onions, kohlrabi, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, potatoes, garlic, broccoli rabe, Asian greens, sprouts, and blackberries.

In addition to the Maplewood Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays between 4 and 7 pm., the Abrahams grow for Fair Shares, a combined CSA that collects, organizes and distributes local, sustainably produced foods. They also sell to St. Louis University’s Fresh Gatherings cafeteria and to a variety of local restaurants.

“The biggest change has come in restaurants,” Ingrid said. “They are more willing to adapt their menus based on what is in season, and have taken an interest in purchasing local as a means to support area farmers.”

I was curious to know how the Abrahams spend their time during the off- season.

“We once took a growing season sabbatical,” Lee said. “In retrospect, the Bible commands that the land should lie fallow every seven years. It is actually a good practice to rotate your crops and not grow things in the same place, ideally taking your land out of production for a year.  It allows the ground to rest and recuperate. The sabbatical acknowledges that none of this is really yours. You are simply borrowing it and need to give back.”

“We do some traveling during the offseason,” Ingrid said. “One year we went to Spain.  Most of the time, though, we come into St. Louis on weekends and go to the movies, read, sleep, and have friends over. Having not grown up on farms, the way we spend our downtime may be different from families who have farmed through generations. December is our most relaxed month.”

This off-season, the Abraham’s will be building a “high tunnel” with a grant they received from the government.  Ingrid explained that a “high tunnel” is a type of greenhouse that allows you to have more control over the elements. The structure is covered with plastic or fabric, and the end walls and the sides can open.  The high-tunnel will allow them to extend their season on both ends.

The Abraham’s will tell you that the work is hard but satisfying.  “I would miss not caring for the land,” Ingrid told me. “I could be happy with a small piece of land somewhere. There are moments when I walk around the farm and think to myself, this is amazing that I live here and that we’ve created this life for ourselves.”

 

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected] .