Jennifer Laura Palmer wants her grandfather’s asparagus back.
More specifically, she’d like to be able to grow the same asparagus that he, “a child of the Great Depression,” did when she was a little girl. The flavor was a deeper, grassier, more flavorful variation of the generic asparagus grown widely for supermarket sales today.
Thus, when Jennifer––an accomplished, 40-year-old artist and college art teacher–– joined the Wendell Berry Farming Program, it was the idea of seed preservation that became her focus.
“Just think: You could eat your parents’, your grandparents’ food,” she says.
Jennifer started out her post-secondary education on a track which included gong to law school and studying environmental law. But after graduating from Cedar Creek College in her native Pennsylvania she was drawn to art school, earning a Master of Fine Arts in painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design. During the months she was transitioning between college and graduate school her father, who sold large medical imaging equipment, was transferred to Kentucky; he and her mother bought a six-acre farm. Her mother, she says, instantly fell in love with Kentucky, and with horses.
“She loved this place so much,” Jennifer says of her mom, who died of cancer seven years ago. “Even on her deathbed, she talked about how much she loved it.” Jennifer purchased the farm from her father after he wound up moving to Georgia. “I feel her presence in this house,” she says of her mother.
For years, Jennifer had been keeping up a hectic schedule of teaching college art courses and workshops, making and exhibiting art, and caring for a crew of rescue animals –– currently two horses, seven dogs, four cats, a flock of ducklings, and a betta fish –– and falling more deeply in love with Kentucky.
The Wendell Berry Farming Program has only deepened her feelings for her adopted state.
“The program really focuses on understanding where you’re at,” she says. “You have to understand what came before, before you can move forward.”
She came to the program after seeing a Facebook post about it. “I live only 20, 30 minutes away, so I just thought I’d drive down and visit,” she says. “I was feeling like I could kind of use a break, to figure out what I want to do with my life.”
Inspired by “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” and by what she heard and saw at the Wendell Berry Farming Program, she says it was clear to her that she should apply. “Everything he talks about, I thought ‘this is how it should be,’” she says. Despite the pressures of owning her own farm, she was determined to make it work, which, she says, would have been impossible were it not for the free tuition. Even so, she had to cash out her savings. “The sacrifice is worth the reward,” she says. “I have no regrets.” Had she not attended, she says, “it would have been the big regret of my life.”
In a social media post about her decision to enroll, she referenced Wendell Berry: “To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival.” She decided to enroll, she said, to “learn how to be a better citizen of this earth for our planet and our community.”
While at the program, she was introduced to the work of Kentucky-based seed saver Bill Best; later, at an organic workshop, she heard Bevin Cohen of Small House Farm speak. Seed saving became the focus of her capstone project, and what she hopes will be her life’s work, especially using them to teach children.
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Her immediate projects involve building many garden beds –– she is using the staves of old bourbon barrels to build them –– and planting them with seeds she saved from last year’s harvest, and others that she has purchased from small heirloom seed producers. She hopes to help save seeds that are tough, drought-resistant, and resilient; seeds that can help children and beginning gardeners experience success and enjoyment, seeds that she envisions growing in “wild, organic gardens, with maybe a few weeds in them.” If all goes well, she’ll be selling a few (“to friends and family”) this year; they will be packaged with labels of her own design.
“I never used to paint flowers, and now I’m just seeing them in a new way,” she says.
On the day of her graduation she posted on Facebook: “Looking forward to combining the new sustainable agriculture degree with my art and using it to find new ways of teaching. It’s all about observation.”