Down on Nate's farm

PHOTOS: ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Nate Kleinman (top), who braved the cold with Occupy Philadelphia, shows some organic cucumbers, the fruits of his latest mission.
PHOTOS: ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Nate Kleinman (top), who braved the cold with Occupy Philadelphia, shows some organic cucumbers, the fruits of his latest mission.
Posted: July 29, 2014

ELMER, N.J. - The little dirt road that leads to Nate Kleinman's farm winds around chicken coops, past some goats and over a groundhog's home, and ends right near the teal recreational vehicle nesting in the tall grass.

The 4-acre Salem County lot doesn't look like much to the untrained eye, and Kleinman, his beard branching out like crabgrass, seems a little different from his days on the cold concrete outside Philadelphia's City Hall on Dilworth Plaza, 30 miles to the north, as an organizer with Occupy Philadelphia.

The 32-year-old Jenkintown native now sports dirt-stained shorts instead of the suits he donned as Occupy's first congressional candidate. Instead of a cardboard protest sign in his hands, he's wielding a Nejiri Kama, a sickle from Japan, to deal with all those weeds.

"I guess what's changed is, we were willing to sleep in tents back then and we're still sleeping in them now," Kleinman said with a laugh on a recent sweltering summer afternoon there.

It's still the same Nate Kleinman, though, and he and friend Dusty Hinz, 27, a Minnesota native, are using their love of rare plants and gardening to help American families and farmers find an alternative to large, corporate farms that are growing genetically modified crops treated with chemicals and pesticides, they say, and aiding them to grow products in an "experimental farm network" that could change the way people eat and how they connect and make a living off the land.

"People are growing what the corporations tell them to grow," Kleinman said. "They just need a sure thing, 'cause this is how they feed their family. We understand that and we're not angry at farmers trying to feed their family. They just need alternatives."

Alternatives are Kleinman's and Hinz's specialty, and just a few pickings from their diverse crop could make the world's most exotic vegetable soup, made of plants from places where tourists rarely venture, including Afghanistan and the Himalayas. In the mood for a purple pepper from Slovakia? The duo's got just the Zipser Turkenspitz you're looking for. Interested in some beans that may have been given to William Penn in 1682 in Penn Treaty Park? They're Black Shackamaxons, and Kleinman's growing them.

"This is a really cool sunflower, the Tarahumara sunflower from Mexico," Kleinman said, motioning to a tall stalk that's yet to bloom.

Some of the plants - the delicious golden raspberries and strawberries - are grown just so that Kleinman, Hinz and any volunteers who pop in can have breakfast, but even the rest of the crop, the mind-boggling varieties of corn and sweet potatoes they've planted, won't be sold at any farmer's market and probably won't wind up in any cafes any time soon.

Banking on seeds

Kleinman and Hinz say that it's the seeds they're after, hoping to stockpile enough to create a seed bank to kick-start the farm network.

"We went on Facebook with a post, looking for land to plant. We had about 90 flats started," Kleinman said. "I've been collecting seeds now for seven years. I have about 1,500 different seeds, different varieties."

The freshly minted farmers said their inspiration is William Woys Weaver, a food historian and author who maintains the Roughwood Seed Collection, in Devon, Pa. Weaver said via email - from Cyprus - that he was too busy to comment on the activity in Elmer because he was overseas "collecting seeds, of course." But Owen Taylor, his seed-collection manager, said that these rare, heirloom varieties contain something intangible.

"We're losing heirloom varieties that have been made and cared for sometimes for thousand of years," said Taylor, 33. "They all contain a piece of our history and our heritage. All of these varieties carry a story.

"Today, we're eating plants that travel well. We are choosing tomatoes because they can survive a 3,000-mile trip."

Thanks to a Craigslist ad that Kleinman and Hinz posted after their Facebook query, they eventually were connected this spring with a couple in Elmer, who used to farm the acreage with sweet corn and pole lima beans. The couple, who've chosen to remain anonymous, don't charge rent, Kleinman said, but Hinz tries to put a 12-pack of beer in the husband's fridge every now and then.

'Happy to have us'

"They seem pretty happy to have us here," Kleinman said. "They just want the land used again. It's been a farm off and on for many years, and they still harvest some hay and keep the chickens and goats."

Kleinman had grown familiar with deep South Jersey after spending time working with Occupy Sandy storm-relief efforts in Delaware Bay communities. Hinz, a graduate of Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, who moved to Philadelphia to be closer to his girlfriend, was doing small-scale farming in the city with Occupy Vacant Lots, turning the lots into parks and gardens. The two of them hope to buy a house in Elmer soon and to get busy building a Web page over the winter, along with organizing and saving seeds and possibly a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds.

"I got into it for a variety of reasons," Hinz said. "In large part, because I'm so concerned about food systems and how to localize and regionalize food. I'm also interested in food justice, the unequal access to healthy foods in this country."

They said that they've been living off savings, spending about six days a week there in the RV and in tents. And although they both have green thumbs, they've had a bit of a learning curve.

"It never ends. There's always something to do," Hinz said. "It's dignifying work. I've lost 23 pounds in three months."

On this day, Hinz's thumb was a gooey crimson from crushing Japanese beetles, one of the many pests that have been interested in their exotic garden, along with deer, moles, rabbits and turkeys. The two have concocted a makeshift irrigation network thanks to a solar panel, a pump and two little ponds on the property.

They've made trellises for their grapes out of old doors and fence posts, and they have an old bathtub, in which they plan to grow water chestnuts.

"The bathtub was here already," Kleinman said.

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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