An interview with Ben Saunders, founder of Wabi Sabi Farm, Granger, IA.
WABI SABI FARM IS A UNIQUE NAME FOR A VEGETABLE FARM! WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THAT NAME?
A: I first learned of the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi from an old Mother Earth News magazine nine or ten years ago. What really stuck with me was the emphasis it placed on the natural cycles of growth and decay and an appreciation for the “imperfect” beauty of nature.
These two ideas resonate with me when thinking about local and seasonal eating. When eating with the seasons, different fruits, veggies and herbs are available in cycles depending on the time of year. Heirloom tomatoes, for example, may appear “ugly” to some folks but they are beautiful to others.
WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO BECOMING A FRUIT AND VEGETABLE FARMER?
A: When I was 16, I worked for a very innovative organic farm, before the National Organic Program was around, outside of Iowa City (my hometown). From that experience I felt like farming was always going to be part of my life!
Like many 18 year olds I wanted to leave my hometown, so I spent a lot of time traveling around the country, taking college classes every so often and working on farms along the way. The last place I lived was outside Asheville, North Carolina, working for a permaculture-ish/medicinal herb farm in the Sandy Mush Valley. My grandpa, a very influential person in my life, was getting ready to pass away so I came back to Iowa to spend time with him.
At 25, I decided to finally pursue a degree in Horticulture from Iowa State University. My advisor, Gail Nonnecke, knew my passion for organic farming and knew Angela of Turtle Farm was looking for someone to take over her farm. Gail introduced us, and a few months after I graduated from ISU with a Horticulture degree I began working for Angela. I just turned 41 last November and have been growing on this ground for a total of thirteen years.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE GROWTH OF WABI SABI OVER THE YEARS?
A: Wabi Sabi Farm began on the farm ground that was once known as Turtle Farm. I worked alongside Angela Tedesco (Turtle Farm owner) eventually running the day to day operations of her farm for three years. Angela wanted to retire from actively farming and gratiously offered to rent me the ground for the 2013 growing season. Thus Wabi Sabi Farm was born! My first season I increased transplant sales in the spring and added microgreens into the early spring offerings. Over the years transplant sales have steadily increased (both retail and wholesale), I’ve continued the CSA program and also added farmers’ markets. The last four years I’ve been slowly adding more wholesale sales to restaurants and grocers like Wheatsfield.
WHAT ARE YOUR GROWING PRACTICES? DO YOU GROW ORGANICALLY?
A: The Farm ground has been certified organic since 2002. Being certified organic is a value very important to me! So much so that I am serving my 2nd term on the Iowa Organic Advisory Council for the state.
HOW MANY FARM WORKERS DO YOU EMPLOY?
A: I’m the owner/operator of Wabi Sabi Farm. Kate Solko joined the farm in 2017. We usually hire 2-3 full-time seasonal workers. Then there are the countless other folks that help out each season in many different ways!
FAVORITE VEGETABLE TO GROW? MOST UNIQUE?
A: My favorite vegetable to grow, along with eat, is Brussels Sprouts. The plant, in my opinion, is absolutely beautiful looking like a miniature palm tree with tiny looking cabbages growing up the stalk.
The most unique thing I grow is probably different varieties of basil. Last year I grew seven different types of basil, with all different sorts of flavors from anise-like (Thai) to bubblegum-like (Sacred).