A woman for all seasons: An interview with Kate Lind

A woman for all seasons

Put her down at any point in history and Kate Lind would not only survive, but thrive (though in the Middle Ages they’d probably have burned her as a witch). I’ve been working for her and her husband James on their farm, Sustainable Greens, for nearly three years now, and I haven’t yet ceased to marvel at the way they manage to live — so richly on so little.

Though they farm their land more commercially now, selling produce to several restaurants in Goshen, Indiana, and at the Goshen Farmer’s Market, when they first moved to their plot south of Three Rivers, Michigan in 1976 they were simply hoping to homestead. “We got to try out lots of fun animals — Jacob sheep, goats — and we’d run next door when they were shooting the runts from the pig litters, and save as many as we could,” says Kate. We’ve both had busy weeks, and I am interviewing her while we work.

Their main cash crop now is salad mix, which means long hours twice a week spent washing the greens in three big stock tanks, and picking out all the bad leaves, weeds, and bits of tree leaf or grass root which get in with the salad when we cut it in the fields, not to mention the odd caterpillar, ant, or fly. So it’s a salad day, and it’s taking us longer than we thought, because it’s October and the lettuce isn’t growing fast enough, which means going through old rows of lettuce and cutting the usable stuff. It’s not as high-quality as the new rows, though, so it takes longer to wash and clean. But this is a perfect example of Kate’s ability to make a living out of what others might call nothing — her refusal to relinquish any bit of row where there might be some good yet. In anyone else, we might call it stinginess, but in Kate it’s almost the exact opposite — an expansive view of the world which refuses to consign any part of it to the scrap heap.

“Where did your interest in edible weeds and wild plants come from?” I ask, pulling out a bruised leaf from the mix in front of me, digging for her origin story.

She tells me about her blind Auntie Ann, who lived with her family when she was little. “She lived through the Depression,” says Kate, “and I think she was the one who taught me my favorite saying: ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.’ One of my customers made a plaque for me that says that. I put it up on my market table.”

“But what about foraging for wild food as a kid,” I ask, “did you do much of that?”

No, Kate doesn’t think so. “But we grew up knowing what stuff was. On a Girl Scout canoe trip once we caught bullfrogs and ate the legs.”

It wasn’t until college that Kate started to learn a lot about foraging and the different ways one can cook and eat plants others would regard as weeds at best, inedible or poisonous at worst. At Swarthmore she and her friends organized wild food dinners where they prepared things like acorn bread, lambsquarter, sumac lemonade, and puffball mushrooms.

She read Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and her stepfather “made little tartlets out of pokeweed berries, but I think he got cold feet in the end and didn’t end up eating them,” says Kate, a bit regretfully. Even the thought of the waste of forty-year-old food is a shame.

“Pokeberries aren’t poisonous, you know,” she says (though the seeds are), “and the greens are just delicious. You do have to boil them in two changes of water,” she hastens to add.

I know. She’s served me pokeweed for lunch before, fried up with a mess of other greens and onions. That was before I knew how ill the plant might make me, but it is a testament to Kate’s skill that to my knowledge not a single one of her workers has ever gotten sick eating lunches there. It’s a good thing, too — she’s an excellent cook.

After college, Kate worked as a counselor at Camp Treetops in the Adirondacks in New York, from 1971 to 1973. She relates a story about a survival hike she and another counselor led one summer. “We walked down the camp road and into the woods with nothing,” she says. “Oh, I guess we had some tarps to sleep under,” she adds.

“Weren’t you scared?” I ask. I would have been petrified. I imagine what it would have felt like, walking into the woods with not even a camp stove, responsible for a dozen or so children.

“Oh, yes,” says Kate, nonchalant. I don’t believe her. “We were out for two nights. We mostly ate blueberries, and I think the other counselor must have managed to catch some very small trout, although I don’t know if he had a hook, or what. We caught tadpoles and cooked them in a tin can we found on the ground.”

“Were they good?”

“No! And we were very hungry,” laughs Kate. But she says it like it’s one of her treasured memories. Hunger is a fairy-tale monster for most people in this country, but Kate knows the feeling and doesn’t fear it. That kind of courage is what you need if you’re going to live on the margins, gleaning and foraging, farming a strip of land more sand than soil (though ask Kate about the varieties of both vegetables and weeds she cultivates on their farm, and you would never guess their soil could be better).

In 1996 Kate and James’ son Matt started Sustainable Greens Farm, growing produce to sell to restaurants in Chicago, and Kate and James took it over when he got married in 2000. They sold to some of the best restaurants in Chicago, including Next, Gilt Bar, Union, and Alinea (one of only fourteen three-star Michelin restaurants in the whole U.S.).

I want to know if she had trouble selling the Chicago chefs on things like purslane or oxalis, things most gardeners would spend hours uprooting from their plots.

“Oh, no,” she says. “We had a list of available produce, and the chefs would order what they wanted each week. Grant was always asking for interesting things, and so we’d put them on the list, and the other chefs always wanted to try whatever Grant was getting.” Grant Achatz, the head chef of Alinea, is well-known for his mastery of molecular gastronomy, and the way he creates vivid sensory experiences, but to Kate, he’s the chef who “liked nostalgic smells.”

“You know that smell from when you were young and running over the grass in the summer? That really good-smelling plant?” asks Kate. And I know exactly the smell she’s talking about — not grass but a deeper, purpler scent. I remember it from childhood summers in Pennsylvania. Somehow I associate it with pine trees. “That’s gill-over-the-ground,” says Kate. “I got Grant to try that, and he served it on top of Kobe beef.”

And the customers at market? “I give them samples,” Kate says. “Purslane is good raw, and oxalis.” She relies on people’s good sense to know a good thing when they taste it, and she relishes teaching her customers how to prepare these unfamiliar plants. Even if they never buy purslane from her again, because they have a plentiful supply in their own backyard, she feels she’s done her job.

“Why do you harvest these plants that are just weeds,” I ask, “when you have a whole farm full of vegetables you’re growing?”

“Well, now I’m glad you asked me that,” says Kate, suddenly serious, “because I believe very strongly that food is sacred, and that it’s bad to waste it.”

This is also why she makes a habit of going dumpster diving at least once a week. “Whenever I’m in town I like to stop by,” she says. Gleaning the edges of society, finding the useful and nutritious just as she does at the edges of her fields — but never too much. “In Girl Scouts they taught us to never take more than a tenth of anything. You leave enough to go to seed so you can come back next year and find more.” This spring we left miner’s lettuce growing in the salad rows, and long after they should have been tilled under we let the miner’s lettuce grow and go to seed, ensuring that next spring the salad mix from Sustainable Greens will be sprinkled with those succulent round leaves.

And the fact remains that Kate and James have chosen to live on their land lightly. They do not intensively farm it, preferring to be gleaners in their own fields than to plant every square foot of ground. Given the state of organic food today, it is likely they could make a comfortable living off their farm. But they don’t want to. A decision they made a long time ago — which they still hold to — is to try not to make enough money to have to pay income tax, so that they are not paying war tax. And they’d rather wander the woods searching for blewits, daylilies, ramps, chanterelles, and juneberries than ploughing and tilling up a wild margin of unimaginable variety and deliciousness.