Lessons of the land: The Kirk Family

The Kirk family passes on heirloom plants
and a love of gardening
Sunday, August 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:29 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008

About five years, ago Thom and Renate Kirk made a decision that brought them closer to the land — Thom would give up his job as a registered nurse while Renate continued working in the same position. Today, the couple boasts a thriving heirloom vegetable and seed business at their home in New Bloomfield, as well as four young daughters. Thom raises the plants and the girls during the day, and on Fridays, the whole clan gets together to pick, wash and bake for market on Saturday mornings in Fulton.

Thom: I grew up in central Indiana, the oldest of eight kids, and we didn’t eat anything unless it came out of the garden, pretty much. My father was a descendent of the Great Depression. We had a huge garden, and we preserved and dried and canned everything we ate, almost.

Renate: My mom was an organic gardener. She still has all her organic manuals.

T: My dad learned his agricultural techniques living in Kentucky in the Depression. There wasn’t any such thing as chemical fertilizer or pesticides. He was a good steward of the land.

I think I’ve gardened in one way or another my entire life. Even when I was living in an apartment, people would come over and call it a jungle. I always had a houseful of herbs, and I’d have houseplants and window boxes. I don’t think there’s been a year in my life when there hasn’t been something depending on me for photosynthesis (laughs).

R: Tell her why! That in a previous life ...

T: I think in a previous life I was a dirt farmer.

R: He’s pretty sure (laughs). We’re really joking about the previous life thing.

T: No, no joke, it really fulfills something. It makes me feel connected somehow to be out here with the plants and wallowing in the dirt (laughs). It’s not something so high and mighty as spiritualism, but it’s a real deep connection to something that makes me feel good.

It’s been scary, over the years, some of the things we’ve found out about food, about meat for instance, how it’s processed and how it’s raised. The things that are allowed to be in our bread, the number of rat feces that is permitted by the USDA to be in our bread. I don’t want rat feces in my bread (laughs). We’re not freaks about it; we had a frozen pizza for lunch. But if we can decrease by 50 percent the amount of weirdness that goes into our diet, then I think we’re doing OK.

R: There are many times when we can sit down to a meal and just count that everything either came from our garden or was raised by a private individual. Probably 75 percent of the time, what is on our table, we can trace right back to where it came from.

T: We do a huge amount of drying and freezing and canning. Not everything we grow goes to the farmers market. Our prime goal is to feed ourselves, to take care of ourselves through the year. I think I’ve learned a lot of the canning from my mom. A lot of basic gardening techniques came from my dad. I’ve always loved to cook. I have hundreds of cookbooks and canning guides and preservation guides. Nothing pleases us more than to have somebody give us a recipe that belonged to their great-grandmother or something. We have things like a dill pickle recipe that was given to us by the grandmother of our old neighbor, and we do it exactly the way grandma told us to do it. One recipe we have for pickles calls for wild grape leaves to be put on the top of the jar to help preserve the crispness of the pickle.

R: That’s an heirloom tip, that’s an heirloom-type thing. People don’t do that anymore; people don’t even know why you’re supposed to do that anymore. But you know, you ask an 80-year-old lady, and she could tell you why they did that.

Thom explains how the popularity of heirloom plants is blossoming.

I’ve always just disdained most hybrids, and in particular, genetically modified organisms, for years. I’m a science fiction nut and have been since I was a little-bitty kid, and all I see are these science fiction novels coming to life, in my own time. And if you go to the store and buy a tomato, you know why I like heirloom tomatoes. Because you’re just buying this plastic, hard, tasteless thing. Heirloom plants are just not bred for portability; they’re not bred to be on a store shelf for two weeks. They’re full of flavor and appearance and color and smell and nutrition.

It varies according to who you talk to, but my definition of an heirloom plant is something that’s 30 to 50 years old, and it has to be a stable, open-pollinated seed. We have a brussel sprout which dates back to 17th-century England; we have a rhubarb which dates back probably to middle-age France; the broccoli we grow has its origins in 16th-century England. I spend a lot of hours on the Internet searching sources. I also have some real good friends in the Mennonite community who have referred me to other people and who have their own family heirlooms that they’ve passed on to me.

We have a seedhouse in England that we’ve dealt with and a seedhouse in France that we’ve dealt with, and every time I go somewhere, to a farmers market or talk to somebody, I ask them about heirloom tomatoes — if they have any. It’s amazing how many people have carried these on in their family. And these are important: The genetic diversity is just enormous. I just read recently that two-thirds of all the beans in the United States have been lost. And yet the seed-savers exchange still lists over 7,000 beans, so we’ve lost 14,000 types of beans (laughs).

The Kirks’ gardening is rubbing off on their four girls.

T: Each one of them has their own little garden around here and their own little things planted. They follow me around like puppies. They’re always with me; they’re always in the garden. They love being outside. I have a 4-year-old

R: She can name any type of vegetable. ‘That’s an artichoke and that’s a pepper and that’s a hot pepper...’

T: And they know birds, and they know trees. And they love nature. I think genetically, they have some of that yearning that I have.

One of the things that I think is really important, too, is they learn the cycles. They learn that plants come from seeds, and they learn that chickens come from eggs, and they see the birth and the death and the recycling of the earth.

Her dad was slow to warm up to the idea that I was going to stay home and take care of the kids, make a living on three acres. It takes a lot of nerve to say you can make a living on three acres of land when there are hundreds and thousands of farmers with a lot more land and a lot more smarts than me who have trouble doing it. But I think we’ve made believers of them.

Lessons of the land: Margot Ford McMillen

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