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What a garden can mean–when you need it most

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

JERRY MERCURY:  And she brought two jars of lilacs. Drink made of lilacs. So, she brought also cups, and everybody could try it. It was really something like a miracle for me, because I have never thought that it could be drank in this way.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, a story about a community garden in Tallinn, Estonia. We talk with Jerry Mercury, a political immigrant from Russia, whose encounter with the garden was transformative. And later in the show, we have a recipe for quick, garden fresh pickles, plus stories from Harvest Public Media about composting efforts in mid-western cities, and federal investments in farm to school programs. That's all just ahead. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young.

KAYTE YOUNG:  On a show about food and farming, we talk a lot about gardens. We talk about the thrill of growing your own food, about how growing food is harder than you might think. About the educational value of gardens in schools, and I'm sure we've talked about gardens and community. That's what I want to focus on today. My guest is Jerry Mercury. He's currently living in Estonia after fleeing Russia at the start of the war with Ukraine. I wanted to talk with Jerry about the power of community gardens in times of crisis.

JERRY MERCURY:  My name is Jerry Mercury. I am a political immigrant here in Estonia. I'm transgender, I use pronoun he. Before fleeing here, I was in Russia doing self-advocacy as a neurodivergent person.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Jerry Mercury is also an artist and a filmmaker. His films have screened her on the IU campus. Jerry is currently living in Tallinn after spending time in a refugee camp and staying with various friends in Estonia. Jerry left Russia shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine and the war began in the spring of 2020. Jerry is opposed to the war, and as a transgender and neurodivergent person it can be dangerous for him to stay in Russia.

JERRY MERCURY:  I didn't feel safe there in a way, because I was never sure what the next day will bring.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In case you're not familiar with this part of the world, Estonia is a country in Northern Europe bordering the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland. Formally part of the Soviet Union, Estonia also shares a border with Russia.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Why did you go to Estonia in particular? You said you had some friends that you were able to stay with at first, or?

JERRY MERCURY:  Yes, that was one of the reasons, but mainly because I didn't have any other choice, because this place was the easiest for me to receive the visa to. So, by the time I had a person who could give me this visa, so he gave me this visa and I went here. Otherwise, I don't know. Maybe I would still be in Russia.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I see. So, I wanted to talk to you today because you have encountered a community garden project where you are, and I understand that you've interviewed people and you've written about it, and maybe made a video project about it. And I wanted to hear from you about this project, and what it has meant to you.

JERRY MERCURY:  When I came here, first a friend of mine introduced me to this community garden because she lives just near it, and she plants things there. Like there is her flower bed in this garden, and I was told that any person can basically pay ten Euros for a flower bed and grow anything there. Well, anything legal. [LAUGHS] And also that they don't use pesticides and chemicals, so it's environmentally friendly.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Is it in the city, in Tallinn?


KAYTE YOUNG:  And I guess I was wondering if at some point you could tell the story of how you first saw it, or when you first responded to it?

JERRY MERCURY:  So, it was not a very linear story, because first when I came to Estonia I spent some days there with my friend. And the neighbor of my friend just showed me this community garden. She said "Do you want to have a look?" And I said Okay, yes." And I came there, but at that time I didn't really get interested because I was still in this state of trauma. I was not sure what to do.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The visa that Jerry had obtained was only good for 90 days, so he was understandably preoccupied with figuring out the next steps.

JERRY MERCURY:  Should I apply to this asylum seeking program? And so, this garden was just a fact for me. But then, I had a very difficult year. So, as I mentioned that I was in the refugee camp, then I moved from there also because the situation was rather unsettling there. And I moved to a more horrible place, even, if one can imagine so.

KAYTE YOUNG:  At the recommendation of a relative, Jerry had rented a place from some people in another town. It turned out to be a terrible situation, and an additional trauma for Jerry. So, he returned to Tallinn where he lives now, and where the community garden is located. It's time to take a quick break. I'm speaking with Jerry Mercury about his experience with a community garden in Tallinn, Estonia, and the effect it had on him during a time of crisis. When we return, we'll talk with Jerry about what happened when he showed up at a garden gathering with curiosity and a camera. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats. My guest is Jerry Mercury, a political immigrant from Russia currently living in Estonia. We're talking with Jerry about a transformative encounter with a community garden in the city of Tallinn. Jerry is a writer, and he decided to build a portfolio of stories in pursuit of a career in journalism. The community garden had an event coming up and Jerry thought this might make an interesting story, so he showed up with a camera and a plan to talk with the people involved.

JERRY MERCURY:  Just to ask local people what is it? This community garden culture. And to ask some questions about the event, because I started realizing that this event and this project is very unusual for me as a person from Russia. Because in Russia, there is nothing like this. In Russia, people just grow their plants and flowers and vegetables in their own yards, in the countryside. They have summer houses they do it, otherwise in the city they might grow something under their windows. Something also for their personal use, I don't know.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, the idea of a community garden is something that you had not seen in Russia?

JERRY MERCURY:  Yeah. So, that's why I got interested in this. Then, I was invited for another event there, and this event was dedicated to something like garden therapy. So, in the middle of the event was the person, who was invited. Her name was Ella, and she is an occupational therapist. One of the things that she's keen on is this idea of gardening and connecting with nature in order to live a more holistic life. And so, I also took an interview from her.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, can you describe the garden for me? Where in the city it's situated, and what it's like? What it looks like?

JERRY MERCURY:  Kadriorg is a huge park in the city, which is not really in the center, but let's say some bus stations from the center. This huge park is not far from the sea, but this park is not exactly where the community garden is, because the community garden is situated in a small yard between common houses. There are city type houses and there's one wooden house. I think this wooden house, it gives water to the water tank that is used for watering the plants there. This place is not in the center, it's not in some touristic place. It's just a common place.



KAYTE YOUNG:  Like in a neighborhood or something?

JERRY MERCURY:  Yeah, yeah. There are some flower beds, they have square shapes. I think each of them has two levels, a bigger level and a smaller level. And people grow some edible plants there, and the flowers and some berries, I think. So, each person or each family, I don't know, has their own flower bed that they're renting. And also, there are some common flower beds. And so, during this second event that I visited, I was lucky to put some seeds in the soil myself in the common flower bed. There are some benches, also, and during the interview I heard that some people sometimes gather there with probably alcohol or something. And that is sort of okay, so nobody leaves any rubbish. Nobody vandalizes, as I understood. So, there were not any acts of huge vandalism.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And so, there's no fence around it or anything? It's just open to anyone?

JERRY MERCURY:  No. Yes, exactly. So, people really trust each other, and that also would grab my attention. That I couldn't imagine anything of this kind in Russia.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Because you don't experience that attitude of trust?

JERRY MERCURY:  Yes, definitely. I mean, I'm not idealizing Estonia as a country, because I have encountered here really bad things. But, I understand that the general level of trust here is much better than in Russia anyway. [LAUGHS] So, it's not the only community garden, because there are 30 of them as I was told, around the city. And none of them are fenced, so it's just everybody can walk there.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And are the 30 of them connected in any way? Is there sort of a group of folks who are interested in starting these around? Or is it just spontaneous, as the community in that neighborhood decides to do them themselves?

JERRY MERCURY:  Well, as I was told, this movement started four or five years ago from two community gardens. Local people from those places started this, and then they received support from the government, and also as I was told, they help with probably keeping this territory clean. And then the movement started becoming wider, so it's spread all over the city. Honestly I don't know where exactly it started originally in Estonia, because I also heard that this phenomenon is also widely spread in other cities like Tartu and some smaller cities. As I understand, it's a western phenomenon to me.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, I would really like to hear more about how you experienced the gardens. Or, the garden that you encountered, and what it has meant to you. I know you said it was an interesting topic for you, but I also got the sense from what I read and from communication with you that it also had an emotional impact on you. Just where you were at in your life, and the things that you'd been through recently.

JERRY MERCURY:  I need to say that when I came with my camera to this event, people really greeted me in a very welcoming way, and I was surprised. I don't know, maybe because I had a camera or something. I was really warmly welcomed, and that was a really interesting experience for me, given what I really experience daily. I think that what I really liked, that it's still related with nature, because where I live now, it's a very industrial place. Unfortunately I cannot show you, but just here, what I see from my window is a huge metallic wall of some building. All what I have around is asphalt, and there is a huge highway which is very noisy.

 There are many, many buildings of some industrial content. Behind here, there are some tractors and some special cars for some special purposes, and so, this is the area where I live. And the garden is still something that relates to nature and that is meant to keep this connection between human beings and nature. For me, I really miss nature.

KAYTE YOUNG:  How did it feel for you that day when you you had the chance to plant seeds?

JERRY MERCURY:  It was a new experience for me. I felt connected with the people. So, before that, we made a circle and everybody had to say their name and introduce themselves to the other people around. It was really those managers of the movement, that they decided to speak English so that I could understand, because they all speak Estonian. But I felt connected with those people, and that time, my friend also came. And we were choosing together the seeds that we wanted to plant there, and also the names of the seeds were in Estonian. And I asked for the translation, and there were many small packages of seeds with poppies. The poppy flower, of different sorts and kinds, of different colors.

 And at some point I said let's choose something just simple, because we cannot plant everything here. So, I think we chose some kind of poppies and also this cornflower. Yes, the blue one. And this cornflower is one of the symbols of Estonia, by the way. Since then I think I visited some other event, and sometimes I just come there and watch what has grown up from those seeds. There are no flowers, still, but some greenery is visible. And I recognize the poppy leaves. Yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, by getting a chance to plant some seeds yourself, did it feel like you were a part of the community garden?

JERRY MERCURY:  I felt that I was not excluded. That, I think, was important. Because it's so hard here to be, not included, but at least not excluded from any kind of group, as I find it. And there, it was simple, because there is some common thing to do. Common task. And nothing special is required. One doesn't need to have some special set of mind or ideas. Some ideology. Just to enjoy putting the seeds in the soil, and that's it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Do you have any experience gardening any other time? In your life growing food, or growing flowers?

JERRY MERCURY:  Probably, yeah. I think it was when my mom and I had a dacha back in Russia. When I was a teenager, there was a garden, and I think we planted some strawberries. Yeah, I remember strawberries, I think. I remember that all the neighbors had also their gardens there, and it was a common thing. I think that was the time when I felt really close to nature, but since then I don't think I had much of an experience. From taking care of the plants in my house, back in St Petersburg, which I enjoyed a lot, I think. I like changing the soil, putting more soil into the pot. I remember that the plants grew very well when I was there, and my mom even told me that I have a green thumb or something like this.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Jerry was talking about a time with his mother in a country home in Russia, also known as a dacha. Right now, he doesn't have any plants in the apartment where he's staying in Tallinn. He doesn't know how long he'll be here or what will happen next, so he's decided not to take on the responsibility of keeping plants. Having something growing at the community garden nearby fills that desire to connect with living plants.

JERRY MERCURY:  One of the people I was interviewing, they said that this is a simply garden. A bit like a grandma's garden. So, it's not polished or something. There is not luxury there, just flower beds and flowers. Everything is very democratic, and that's why also I like it. Yes, that anybody can walk there and sit on the bench, and nobody will say anything. I hope. [LAUGHS]

KAYTE YOUNG:  And like you said, it's not landscaped. It's really just people planting stuff in these beds.

JERRY MERCURY:  Yes, exactly. Those community gardens, they look a bit different. One garden from another. For example, for this video that I'm making now, I also took the footage of the community garden in the old town, and it looks a bit different because it probably is bigger. And the beds are a bit wider and longer. And of course, different people grow different plants and different flowers, so there is variety. I think no two identical gardens are in the city.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, when I think of community gardens I usually think of them being about growing food. That it's a place where you can grow some food for your household even if you don't have a place in your own yard. You know, like you live in an apartment, or don't have access to land. They usually do have flowers as well because those attract pollinators and they really make the space more beautiful, but I always think of them more as a place for food. But it sounds like that's not necessarily the case in these gardens?

JERRY MERCURY:  Well, I think it's also the case because for example, my friend grows salad there. And also some other edible plants, like peppermint for example. She also gave me some of those plants to eat, and for me it's also unusual because many years past the point where, as I mentioned, I had in my childhood some garden near the summer house. Where there were strawberries, and maybe there was something else that I don't remember. Maybe there was salad, actually. Maybe even something else. But I don't remember, because time went on, and now when I pick those leaves from the flower bed, I have to adjust to it because I'm not used to it.

 I'm used to buying things from the shop, and when it grows like this, it's difficult to make my head around this. People there in the community garden say that it's very healthy. It's much better than in the shops, and I believe them. And I was also really fascinated when there was the second event, which I told you about, where this person came. Her name was Ella, and she brought two jars of lilacs. Drink made of lilacs.


JERRY MERCURY:  Do you understand what I mean?

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, like a tea?

JERRY MERCURY:  Yeah. And it's a bit sweet. She brought also cups, and everybody could try it. So, it was really something like a miracle for me, because I have never thought that it could be drank in this way. And during the interview that Ella gave me, she mentioned that she has a passion for using for food, natural plants. Natural plants, flowers, that people have already forgot how to use them, and forgot that they are actually edible and drinkable.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It sounds like this experience of connecting with these plants and this gardening movement, it's a really new experience for you.

JERRY MERCURY:  Yeah. It's new, and also this context that people grow it together, it's also new for me, because I was aware of growing something for private purposes, but not collectively. I think the fact that it's collective and that it's so spontaneous, that really fascinates me.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Jerry also learned about other events at the garden featuring Ella as the instructor. Workshops about making things with plants.

JERRY MERCURY:  For example, one can collect some pigments from the flowers and paint a watercolor technique, as I understood. And that there will be a workshop, and there will be some other educational events of this kind. I was told that there was some workshop, how to grow the plants from a culture way. This term is also new for me, and so they are not only growing things but they are educating people how to do this.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, and bringing people together in community.

JERRY MERCURY:  Yes, exactly. And it turns out that those places are social hubs, and that this community garden thing is just one of them. Because one of the people from there told me that she has just organized a children flea market, and the next day I came to the children flea market and it was also very simple, democratic and just as a matter of fact.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Just as a matter of fact, talking to Jerry about his community garden experience in Estonia, reminded me of what we learned about garden education when I worked at Mother Hubbard's Cupboard here in Bloomington. Known locally as the Hub, it's a food pantry that also serves as a community food resource center, offering gardening and cooking classes as well as advocacy organizing around issues facing people in poverty. The idea of the garden workshops was to share skills about growing food so that folks could maybe raise food themselves in a move towards self-sufficiency. What we learned in doing the garden workshops was that, first of all, the idea of self-sufficiency was a myth. Perhaps even a harmful one. No one is self-sufficient, and in fact, we know now that one of the mitigating factors in how well folks manage with low incomes and generational poverty, is that isolation contributes to worse outcomes.

 Community connections make a huge difference in access to resources and support, and contribute to a higher quality of life. So, we learned in these garden workshops, what was happening when people gathered in a garden and worked together outdoors with plants is that folks weren't necessarily learning how to grow their own food. What they were doing was building community. We were connecting with each other over a shared task, and experiencing all of the benefits that come from being outside in nature, moving our bodies, talking and sharing food. I think this might be similar to what Jerry is describing in his encounter with a community garden movement in Estonia. A garden is more than a beautiful place. It's more than a source of fresh food. It can be a refuge and a respite in times of crisis, turmoil and everyday challenges and frustrations.

 It's a place where we can sometimes find each other, and find ourselves.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Jerry Mercury is awaiting news about his immigration status in Estonia. You can find his article about the community garden called When Grassroots Not Only Sprout, published on the ARR news site in Estonia. We have a link on our website. You can also find a link to a video that Jerry Mercury made about the community garden project. You can find our website at

 After a short break, we'll talk about how the abundance of a vegetable garden can lead to spontaneous interactions with neighbors. Plus, a recipe for crisp refrigerator pickles. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You're listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young. When I think about the ways that gardens can connect people, this year's cucumber harvest comes to mind. I'm talking about my own garden. I always plant mind a bit late, once the peas are finished. That way I can reuse the same trellis for the vines to climb on. I only planted a few this year, but I still ended up with a bumper crop, and so I've been handed them out to unsuspecting neighbors walking by, bringing bags of them to work, and yesterday I set up a wooden chair in the yard next to the sidewalk with a row of freshly picked cucumbers and a sign reading free cucumbers. When I returned after work, they were gone. I love sharing food from my garden with friends and with strangers. The garden's abundance sparks generosity.

 This next recipe only requires a few cucumbers, but if you find yourself drowning in them you could always make extra batches and take jars of pickles to your neighbor's porch.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Today, we're going to make fridge pickles. Pickles are one of my favorite things to do with cucumbers. It's really the reason that I grow them. Cucumbers, like so many summer vegetables, tend to all get ripe and ready to pick around the same time. This is why people are always dropping off squash and tomatoes and cucumbers on their neighbor's porches, because you just get kind of overrun with them all at once. And then, when the season is over, you don't have any more cucumbers. Well, I really enjoy cucumbers and pickles. And I really, really like fridge pickles. The first time I made pickles I canned them and I was very unhappy with the results. The canning process took away from the texture, they didn't have that crunch that I enjoy in a pickle. Solution? Make fridge pickles. They keep just as well, you just have to find a place to store them in your fridge, and they taste great. And most importantly, they retain that crunch.

 My favorite kind of pickle is the bread and butter pickle. The recipe that I'm going to use is not exactly a bread and butter pickle, but it reminds me of it. It's not quite as sweet.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This is a recipe that comes from Alton Brown, and it's called Alton Brown's Kinda Sorta Sours. And that's a pretty good description, but I also just tend to refer to them as bread and butter pickles, because that's what the flavor really reminds me of. They're very simple to prepare. The ingredients, one half onion, two medium cucumbers, a cup of water, a cup of apple cider vinegar, a half cup of wine vinegar, a half cup of sugar, a little more than two tablespoons of kosher salt, a teaspoon of mustard seed, a quarter teaspoon of ground turmeric, one teaspoon of celery seed, one teaspoon of pickling spice, four whole garlic cloves, and that's it. You'll also need a quart size jar, maybe more. You might need two quart size jars. We'll see how far we get, or maybe a quart and a pint. But we'll see what fits.

 So, the first thing that we're going to need to do, I've assembled all of the ingredients and equipment, and we're going to need to slice our cucumbers and our onion. And I'm just going to slice these into thin rounds. Not super thin, because again, you want to retain that crunch. If they get too thin they tend to get a little flimsy when they're in the brine. So, I'm cutting these about a quarter inch thick. My cucumbers are home grown, and the kind of cucumbers that I grow are pickling cucumbers. They tend to be smaller, a little bit bumpy. I really love the flavor of these, so this is the kind that I always grow, but it also means that the calculations of what two cucumbers is can be a little off, so I try to think about a typical cucumber that I might buy in the grocery store, and then I try to make sure I have about the same amount in my smaller pickling cucumbers.

 And as you're slicing these cucumbers, you're just going to want to put them directly into the jar.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I learned in food preservation school that you definitely do not want to include the blossom end of your cucumber. Apparently that can cause problems for your pickles down the road. So, just make sure you cut off the ends and don't include that in your pickle jar. The next ingredient to prepare is the onion. This adds a lot of flavor to the brine but it's also pretty tasty as a pickle thing, too. If you like pickled onions. And these, you do want to thinly slice. Just half an onion.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Try not to cry. And then just stuff those onion slices into the jar with your cucumbers. Once you have your pickles and your onion sliced and placed in your jar, then it's time to combine all of the other ingredients into a saucepan. And that saucepan needs to be stainless steel or enamel lined or something. You can't use cast iron or aluminum. You want what's called a non-reactive metal pan. Stainless steel is fine. That's basically gonna be the vinegar, the water and the spices.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, one cup of water.

KAYTE YOUNG:  One cup of apple cider vinegar, and a half cup of wine vinegar. Alton Brown calls for champagne vinegar. I don't have that, but I do have some red wine vinegar. I don't have quite enough, so I'm just adding a little extra apple cider vinegar. One half cup sugar.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Two tablespoons plus two teaspoons of kosher salt. One teaspoon of mustard seed, a quarter teaspoon of turmeric, and that's what gives it that nice golden color, which is signature of the bread and butter pickle.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Teaspoon of celery seed, and a teaspoon of pickling spice. If you don't have pickling spice you can probably dig around through your spice cabinet and maybe find all of the ingredients. Let's see what it's got. It's got bay leaf, coriander, mustard, dill, what else? This one has a lot of all spice, which I'm not crazy about so I try to avoid that, because I don't really want it to get too sweet. I don't really want those warming spices. This one also likes it has some red pepper flakes in it. Okay, I said it had dill seed but I'm actually not seeing any in this, so I'm not entirely sure. I might add a little dill seed to mine. I really don't want to make pickles without dill. Plus, I have so much fresh dill seed in my garden right now. It would be a shame not to use some of it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Okay, so that is everything but the garlic, and we're going to add the garlic at the end. So, now we want to take this mixture of the spices, the vinegar and the water and we're going to heat that up on the stove just barely to boiling. While you're waiting for that water to hear up you can get your garlic ready, so just peel it, and then just smash it with the side of your knife or with your fist, whatever. Just smash the garlic and then put it in the jar. Just place it into the jar with the other vegetables.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Once your pickle brine comes to a boil, then you can pour it into your jars. You want to do this very slowly so it doesn't spill. A canning funnel comes in handy, but it's not necessary. Just be careful. And that's it. Once you get the brine, pour it over the cucumbers and the onions and the garlic. You want to make sure they're totally submerged in that liquid, in that brine. And then you just let that cool on your counter top. Once they're fully cool, you can put a lid on it and stick it in your fridge. You probably don't want to taste them for a couple of days. They're going to taste a lot better in two or three days. And then you can enjoy your home grown cucumbers well into the fall. I wanted to say you can enjoy them through the winter, but ours never last that long.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You can find this recipe on our website,, and if you are a visual learner, you can watch me walk through the steps of this simple pickle recipe on our Earth Eats YouTube channel. You can find that just by searching for Earth Eats on YouTube, you'll find us, and it's the bread and butter pickles. You can also find this recipe written on our website,

KAYTE YOUNG:  Food waste is the largest category of trash going to landfills, according to an estimate from the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2018. Community composting operations are popping up in cities across the country, hoping to keep that waste out of landfills and return nutrients to the soil. But not all cities are welcoming them, especially when neighbors complain about bad smells and pests. Harvest Public Media's Eva Tesfaye reports on how cities in the mid-west are handling these new operations.

EVA TESFAYE:  On the urban farm Urbivore in Kansas City, Missouri, Brooke Salvaggio and Daniel Heryer hold a scoop of what they call black gold.

BROOKE SALVAGGIO:  If you smell it, it just smells like fertility, you know? [LAUGHS]

DANIEL HERYER:  It just smells like really rich soil, and when we put it out on the fields it becomes really rich soil. [LAUGHS]

EVA TESFAYE:  But not all their neighbors agree about the smell. While Salvaggio says the compost is improving Herbivore's yields, neighbors complain to the city about it being a nuisance. The city now says the operation requires a special use permit. Heryer says they checked with the city before expanding back in 2021 and he says the city should be working with them, not against them, to manage food waste sustainably.

DANIEL HERYER:  I want to create more compost hubs like this around the city and the Metro area, and the cities and other municipalities around this area, but certainly the city of Kansas City should be helping us do that.

EVA TESFAYE:  Food waste takes up space in landfills and produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Sending less food waste to landfills can save municipalities money and reduce climate impacts, says Brenda Platt of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. But she says community composting can be a challenge for municipalities and cities.

BRENDA PLATT:  Local governments can either say oh, you've got a problem, or they can help these operations that support their communities to overcome the obstacles.

EVA TESFAYE:  Platt says cities don't have updated zoning rules that address composting specifically. The mid-west is especially behind when it comes to supporting composting, says Jennifer Trent, a program manager at the Iowa Waste Reduction Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

JENNIFER TRENT:  A lot of times it's a pre-conceived idea or notion that compost sites are foul places, and that they won't be beneficial to the community.

EVA TESFAYE:  She says composting doesn't have to be a nuisance when done right, but she warned that one operation doing it wrong can ruin the practice for an entire region.

JENNIFER TRENT:  If you have a compost site that's not complying with the regulations, enforce those laws. Don't allow them to continue until it's fixed.

EVA TESFAYE:  The US Composting Council says having good zoning laws, enforcing them and educating residents about composting helps make sure everything runs smoothly. When Ben Stanger wanted to start his business, Green Box Compost in Wisconsin, a lot of municipalities told him no. But he says Sun Prairie just outside of Madison was willing to change a zoning code for his business.

BEN STANGER:  It just happened to be that Sun Prairie really rolled out the welcome mat and helped us work through this.

EVA TESFAYE:  Stanger is composting indoors with containers and using a slightly more technological approach to prevent problems like smells and pests, but this city is also doing its part by educating residents, says Jake King, the city's Communications and Diversity Strategist.

JAKE KING:  We really try to look at that public outreach and engagement so people know what we're doing, but most importantly know why we're doing it.

EVA TESFAYE:  Back in Kansas City, Urbivore is appealing its violations and hoping that will result in larger changes to city rules. Assistant City Manager Melissa Kozakiewicz says that city leadership is currently in discussions with Urbivore on how it can better support composting and urban farming.

MELISSA KOZAKIEWICZ:  Kansas City and every other city in America has an opportunity to think about how it manages its waste in a different way.

EVA TESFAYE:  The challenge for cities is figuring out how to not only support composters but also how to regulate them before the problems start. For Harvest Public Media, I'm Eva Tesfaye.

KAYTE YOUNG:  More and more schools are offering students fresh, locally grown food in their cafeterias. It's the big idea behind the farm to school movement, and there's a lot of federal investment behind it. As Harvest Public Media contributor Rae Solomon reports, those dollars aim to reshape school lunch menus and strengthen local farm communities.

RAE SOLOMON:  Derek Hoffman is poking around a dense row of bushy tomato plants on his 100 acre farm on the outskirts of Greeley in Northern Colorado. He's filling a white plastic bucket with ripe cherry tomatoes that he's already sold to the local school district.

DEREK HOFFMAN:  These will go to Greeley-Evans school district here just down the road. [LAUGHS] We're about five miles from their warehouse.

RAE SOLOMON:  In about a week kids will be snacking on them in nearby school cafeterias. Hoffman's tomatoes are part of a growing farm to school movement revolutionizing the humble school lunch. When farm to school programming works as designed, kids fill their plates with fresh, nutritious food, and local farm economies get a major boost. Hoffman's farm to school contracts brought enough financial stability that he was able to quit his off-the-farm job.

DEREK HOFFMAN:  It's allowed us to grow. It's allowed us to do what we're doing.

RAE SOLOMON:  It seems like such a simple idea that benefits everyone involved, but while Hoffman and the schools he works with represent the best outcome of farm to school programs, they are hardly the norm. Getting local food into schools has proven frustratingly complicated.

CINDY LONG:  We often hear that schools and producers initially don't talk the same language.

RAE SOLOMON:  Cindy Long administers the farm to school program at the United States Department of Agriculture.

CINDY LONG:  Schools think about oh, I need 7,500 servings of this. And farmers think in terms of bushels or crates.

RAE SOLOMON:  Long's agency has been funding farm to school efforts at the federal level for more than a decade. She says the challenges have included the cost of local food, training cafeteria staff, and an admittedly bureaucratic purchasing system. To get past those challenges it takes solutions that are flexible, specific, and above all, local.

CINDY LONG:  Schools and producers really just needed an ongoing source of support to help take folks from interest to actually being able to execute.

RAE SOLOMON:  Recent policy changes at the federal level make providing that support a new priority. Last year, the USDA started funneling unprecedented amounts of money to states, specifically to get more local food into schools. At least $260,000,000 directly fund local food purchases and related farm to school infrastructure.

SUNNY BAKER:  We have been describing it as trying to drink out of a fire hose because there's just so much money coming down from the USDA.

RAE SOLOMON:  Sunny Baker, with the national farm to school network, says all the money coming from the USDA is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give school lunch a head to toe makeover and integrate it into local food systems.

SUNNY BAKER:  One of the best things that can come out of this massive influx of money is going to be that we're developing really incredible examples of how this can work, and learning what's possible.

RAE SOLOMON:  In northern Iowa, for instance, those investments trickle down to the Clear Lake school district in the form of $8,000 grants to buy farm fresh food through a new network of regional food hubs that made local purchasing a breeze for Food Services Director Julie Udelhofen.

JULIE UDELHOFEN:  As I saw that product come in, the freshness, the color, the flavor. It just made it all worth it.

RAE SOLOMON:  Udelhofen was always interested in farm to school programs, but without support the process was just too burdensome. Now that she's got a taste of it, she does not want to go back to business as usual.

JULIE UDELHOFEN:  As long as my budget looks good and I can support it, I'm going to get that food in front of the kids.

RAE SOLOMON:  There's just one catch. That fire hose of extra funding is not permanent. It runs out at the end of this school year. Udelhofen is hoping her local food service can outlive the money. For Harvest Public Media, I am Rae Solomon.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Harvest Public Media is a collaboration of public media news rooms in the mid-west and great plains. Find more at


KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time. The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenauer, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Special thanks this week to Jerry Mercury, and to Sarah Phillips for connecting us. Earth Eats is produced and edited by me, Kayte Young, our theme music is composed by Aaron Toby, and performed by Aaron and Matt Toby. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

white tulips in bloom in wooden, bi-level garden bed with lawn and more garden beds in background

The community garden in Tallinn, Estonia is situated in a part of the Kadriog park that is near a residential area. Spring flowers bloom before all of the beds get planted for the season. (Jerry Mercury)

“And she brought two jars of lilacs, like [a] drink made of lilacs. She brought also cups and everybody could try it. It was really something like a miracle for me because I have never thought that it could be drunk in this way.”   

This week on the show, a story about a community garden in Tallinn, Estonia. We talk with Jerry Mercury, a political immigrant from Russia whose encounter with the garden was transformative. 

And later in the show we have a recipe for quick, garden-fresh pickles, plus stories from Harvest Public Media about composting efforts in Midwestern cities and Federal investments in farm-to-school programs.

Jerry Mercury is a writer and artist currently living in Tallinn, Estonia. You can find his story about the community garden here and a profile of Ella Marie Merle Kari, the workshop instructor he mentions here. Jerry also has a documentary about the community garden project which you can find on YouTube. You can follow Jerry Mercury's work on Facebook.


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Music on this Episode:

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

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