Late last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Jeanne Nolan, Founder & President of The Organic Gardener, regarding her company’s new Indoor Farming service, which is available now. Read on to see what she had to say about the history of her company, the potential benefits of a healthy diet, and much more.
AD: When I heard about it, I thought that your new Indoor Farming service is just such a wonderful concept that I wanted to share it with our readers. First, however, I was wondering if — for those who may not be familiar with your company — you could talk a little bit about what The Organic Gardener does and how it got its start.
JN: Well, in 1986 — when I was 18 years old — I was very upset about the fact that human beings were destroying our planet, and I became a young environmentalist without really knowing it. As I came of age, and I started to look around at what was going on in the world at the time, it became obvious to me that forests were being clearcut, the air and water were being polluted, and it didn’t many any sense to me. I was young, and I thought it was wrong and I wanted to do something about it. That’s when I found out about organic food and that there were these people who were organic farmers. I thought that was fascinating and, on some instinctual level, that made sense to me as an action to take to contribute to doing something positive to take care of the earth. So, I took an apprenticeship in organic farming in California when I was 18, and then I spent the next 17 years of my life as a food grower on an organic farm that was also a communal group. The focus of the commune was on living a lifestyle that was radically environmentally focused. So, I lived very simply with a group of people who were trying to figure out a more sensible, and more elegant, way for humans to live on the earth. Some things about those 17 years on the commune worked really well, and I learned an enormous set of values, skills and a sort of life-guiding philosophy that I’ve carried forward and that has really worked and has become the basis for our company, The Organic Gardener. Then, there were some things about it that weren’t so good. That’s part of why I wrote a memoir, From the Ground Up, that really tells that story in-depth.
AD: So, it sounds like it’s that experience that really led you to start your company.
JN: Right. So, after these 17 years spent farming — and of living very much outside of mainstream society — I moved back to my childhood suburb and began the next phase of my life. I took these skills and the approach that I learned over those years of complete focus on trying to take care of the planet and of trying to figure out a better way to live. It was like ‘What can I take from those years and now put them to use and share what I learned with others? How can I possibly move the needle, in this area where I had grown up, to help people incorporate what they can into urban and suburban life so they can be more thoughtful, intentional and responsible, so that they can be better stewards of the planet?’ My approach to doing that was to create a business to grow food with families, with children, and to bring a bit of organic farming right here — into mainstream society.
AD: And now — in 2018, at least — it seems to have caught on. I think that now, perhaps more than at any other time in recent years, people are thinking about how their food is sourced and about what that means for both themselves and for the planet. It feels like there are more people who are more aware of the importance of knowing what you are eating, of knowing where it comes from, where it was grown, by whom it was grown and how.
JN: I completely agree. At the time, I was just following my own interests as a young woman. I had no idea that the timing was right. Whereas, before, I felt very isolated from society because of my interests, now I am in the thick of it. It’s fantastic. I’m part of a global movement and it’s rewarding and it’s fun and exciting, and I think that’s part of why the momentum and interest in the services our business has offered thus far is so positive. We’re always thinking about how we can expand — in what other ways can we help people connect to nature and eat healthy food? That’s where this evolution to indoor faming came from . You know, we were thinking about whether we can help people increase the pollinators on their property. I think that, in the future, we will be helping people set up hives for honeybees — but also there are other types of bees that are really important — and we’re preparing to be able to offer that as a service. We’re thinking about backyard chickens and helping people get a great set-up for that. So, our team at The Organic Gardener — it’s not just me, but there are a lot of us — is really excited and enthusiastic and they love working with people and love doing these things. So, that’s kind of how the indoor farming evolved.
The other part of the indoor farming story is that we work very closely with a company called Arborsmith. They’re a husband-and-wife team who specialize in caring for trees. They’re wonderful people and dear friends. We do their vegetable garden and they take care of our trees. Leslie, the wife in this husband-wife business, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and so one of the things they did was look into how they could eat cleaner and better. They went to a health retreat where they focused on helping cure disease through diet. One of they things that they started to do is to eat a lot of micro greens and sprouts there, and when they came home, they set up an indoor farm in their basement so they could keep eating these healthy foods. It was part of their cancer fighting regime. I make no claims that this prevents or cures cancer, but they wanted to have all of these fresh micro greens and sprouts to keep this healthy diet going and they set this up in their basement and showed us. We thought ‘That’s cool. We’d love to help people do that.’ I love it. I had it in my house all winter and it’s amazing. You can really grow a lot of food. I didn’t even buy lettuce or spinach. We were doing all of our salads from the micro greens.
AD: It sounds as though there is a very practical aspect to it as well and, when you think about it, it really is such an easy way to ensure you have access to organic, healthy, nutritious options year-round. And, as I said, it’s good to see people seem to be coming around and are beginning to realize that there is value in knowing where their food comes from, how it is grown, and in buying organic. For a long time, it seems as though people may not really have seen the connection between environmental health and personal health. It was this more abstract thing, and I think that there really is this demonstrable link between the two and that there really is this awareness of that.
JN: Right. I think there are so many things point people towards an understanding of the impact of where our food is sources from and what we’re putting into our bodies. I watched an interview with Serena Williams, and I found it fascinating, because she said her strength and endurance have increased significantly since she has added greens to her diet. I thought that was really interesting, because she’s an amazing athlete who pushes her body beyond what any of us do, and she noticed a real boost from increasing the amount of spinach, kale, greens and micro greens and all of that kind of stuff that she’s been eating.
AD: And while nobody can plausibly make the claim that if you eat these particular foods or those particular foods, then you’ll never get cancer or diabetes or whatever else it may be, or that it is a cure for those — or any other diseases — if you look at a lot of the data that is out there, it does seem that there is real evidence that they can reduce your risk for developing various conditions.
JN: One thing I wanted to add is that I have been working with the NorthShore University HealthSystem — with a wonderful doctor there. Her name is Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark, and we’ve designed a Food as Medicine Garden for them. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I attended a lecture and I’ve got some really powerful data that she shared about food as medicine. It’s basically about how lifestyle interventions can either prevent or treat 80 percent of disease.
AD: That sounds wonderful. I think it’s really great how not only has the general public seemingly caught on to the link between diet and the potential for the prevention of certain diseases, but that medicine is also becoming more open-minded. I mean, I think that many doctors have long known that there is a link between what you eat and your health, and have long shared that information with their patients, but I don’t necessarily think that as many doctors were as open to the idea of food as medicine as they are today. I’m obviously not a physician and I don’t claim to be an expert, but it does seem that, at least for a time there, many were much more likely to turn to conventional medicine — by which I am really referring to things like pharmaceuticals — than perhaps to anything else. Getting to the new Indoor Farming service, specifically, how does that work?
JN: First, we work with a potential client to decide on what size unit they need. We bring you a light cart, which is this tiered cart on wheels. It’s attractive and it fits in your kitchen. Once we decide on the size of the cart, we deliver it and set it up for you. It comes with a timer that plugs into an outlet, and that timer controls when the grow lights go on and off. Next, we talk with the client about what kinds of micro greens, shoots and sprouts they would like to grow and decide upon the frequency with which we will be coming to provide service. We have a variety of greens [radish, kale, cabbage, broccoli, arugula and tatsoi] shoots [sunflower shoots, pea shoots], and herbs [basil, dill, cilantro, celery, parsley]. With some people, we come once a week. With others who are perhaps a little more do-it-yourself, it gets a little messier. Once a week keeps it just perfect. On the day we set your cart up, we bring trays that have already been started at our headquarters. So, we bring you some trays that are ready-to-eat, and those go on the top level of the cart. Then, on the bottom level, we put the trays that are seeded but will be ready to eat either in a few days or in a week. This way, you get to start eating, but you also get the experience of watching the growth from seed to food, and ultimately see it make its way onto your table, and that is part of what is so fun. The system we supply is also self-watering, so there are trays with water that will wick up into the greens. You don’t have to worry much about watering, but we do also give you this cute little watering can with it, because — on occasion — the herbs we bring will need watering.
AD: That sounds like a great way of getting people involved in the growing of their own food — especially in urban and suburban areas, where one is not ordinarily closely involved at all.
JN: Right. Absolutely. It’s hard to explain, but especially in the winter, it’s nice to have something alive and fresh and growing in your home that you can harvest. It could also work well for someone who doesn’t have space for a garden. It definitely gives that happy pleasure that gardening gives you. It’s a little indoor farm.
AD: Right. If, for instance, you are in an apartment or a condo, as so many urban dwellers are, and there isn’t this expansive amount of space in which to grow things, this can also be an excellent way of doing that.
JN: And it’s also an interactive experience. Children can be involved and people can learn. It’s not just a delivery service. I should also note that while this [service] is a new thing we’re starting, this is actually our 14th year of designing, building and maintaining vegetable gardens. We work with people at their homes, but we also create gardens at schools, with non-profit organizations, businesses and corporations. Our mission is to connect people to their food and to nature. We currently operate about 200 gardens in the midwest, primarily in the Chicago area and along the North Shore. Our demonstration farm is located in Northbrook on four-and-a-half acres, and we have a large garden, an orchard and barn with some animals, some chickens and bees. This is our third season, but we’re really just now getting the farm up and running. That is where we kind of try all of these different things and then we bring them to the public.
Jeanne Nolan is the Founder & President of The Organic Gardener, Ltd., as well as a well-known educator, consultant and the author of From the Ground Up (Spiegel & Grau, 2013). For more information regarding The Organic Gardener, please visit their website or find them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.