Blog interview series: Hannah Coots

Hannah CHannah Coots, lead farmer for Growing Places Indy, was born and raised in central Indiana. She moved around quite a bit with her parents, so there were some big challenges like regular change, often being "the new girl," losing friends because of moving away, and feeling like she never "belonged."

A love of hiking, tree-climbing and snake-catching was a constant, though. Her mom raised her and my siblings with a deep love of nature, and her dad made sure they were never glued to a TV or any other mindless thing, which, she's sure, contributed to the fact that she tends to embrace change, go crazy indoors and not conform.

After high school, Hannah went to Indiana University where she studied biology and french, but she left before receiving her degree. She felt like she was just spinning her wheels, treading water and wasting her time. She did not at all feel like she was living in a way that met her values, so she left and almost immediately started volunteering on a farm, which within a month turned into a job.

When she was in high school, Hannah took one of those career assessment tests that help guide you in your studies and goals, and remembers more than once receiving "farmer" as the result. She thought that was a little ridiculous, because at that time her knowledge of what a farmer was was severely limited. But her first day on the farm, she knew she'd found something that aligned with all of her values. She'd found work worth doing. 

She's had the pleasure of working with Harvestland Farm, Full Hand Farm, South Circle and Big City Farms, as well as a few others. She currently lives on the Eastside of Indianapolis with her husband, a lovely dog they're fostering, and - at least for the moment - a farm cat turned house cat. All of her immediate family members still live in Indiana and she feels fortunate that they are close and supportive of one another.

How long have you lived in Indy?

I have lived in Indy since June 2015. I moved here after farming in Hawai'i for a few months, because I felt there had to be an opportunity for me here. I actually barely knew Indianapolis. Growing up, I only visited Indianapolis a handful of times, so this was mostly a hunch based on what I'd seen around when I was delivering vegetables and working farmers markets in the city my first couple of years farming. I was happy to find a community of like-minded people very quickly, and within six or seven months of living here find myself in a solid farm job again.

Why have you focused on using your skills in the nonprofit sector?

I am working with a nonprofit farm by chance, so I don't know that I can respond to this questions as if I chose this or sought out a nonprofit position.

However, I can answer from the perspective of choosing to continue working with this kind of an organization. I'm focusing on working with a nonprofit urban farm because of the community it forms. The first few years of my farming career were spent primarily on rural, production-focused farms, where I learned how to be a good grower. Now I can add to my production goals a new purpose, which is to create relationships and improve lives through showing how to grow food and eat good food.

Working with a nonprofit allows me the space to work with people, whether they have come to volunteer, they're at the farmers 26904409_1152987654737710_6866767235583373268_n.jpgmarket or the farm stand, or they're just passing by on the sidewalk. That exposure to growing food is what changes lives, and right now, that's where I want to be. I want to be in places where I can teach people, young and old, about how easy it is to grow a head of lettuce or a tomato plant, and how they don't need much room to do so. I want to be in places where kids can learn what a beet is and taste it, and where they are shocked to see how carrots grow. Working in proximity to people to teach them how to grow and eat differently will not only change their lives, but it's what needs to happen if we want to save the planet.

Some people are afraid of various apocalyptic futures, but what they really need to be afraid of is climate change, and they need to arm themselves with the knowledge of how to grow food. If you start growing some of your own food, this will slow the rate of change in the global climate and give you greater security in the future. I cross paths with a lot of people working with a nonprofit farm in the city, and this is a big message I want to get across.

My second reason for focusing on nonprofit work, I'll say, is that this organization makes all of us at Growing Places Indy feel like family! Our team is so supportive and happy to work together and eager to achieve goals. It's energizing to be around the people I get to be around at work. I often don't feel that it's work at all. It's something I want to do, and I get to do it alongside people who are my friends.

How did you find your current position?

I met the farm's director during the summer of 2015 at a Purdue Extension event, and then bumped into him about six months later at the Indy Winter Farmers Market, where he told me a couple of other farmers in town were looking for help for the next season. He put me in touch with them, I started working with them, and that first day he called me up needing help. There was an urgent need for some part-time help, and someone to focus on, improve and manage the microgreens production at the farm. I was available and happy to step into the role. So the farm director at Growing Places Indy found me the job with South Circle and Big City Farms, and then hired me to work with his organization, and I feel so fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and to have found such a great employer and great opportunity.

My first season with Growing Places Indy was part-time, and I joined them full-time at the end of that season. After my first couple of years farming, I was in farm jobs where I was able to work hard at something I loved, but my input wasn't needed or requested. When I stepped into my current role in Growing Places Indy, I was really allowed to give this farm my all. The farm was at a point where great change could be made, and I was allowed to step up and offer my experience and my suggestions.

I enjoy being a workhorse, but my director really lets me share the reins with him when it comes to improving and planning things on the farm. I get to spread compost and pull weeds, but I also get to do so much more, like make decisions concerning crops, work alongside new farmers and manage sites. I love that the work environment on our farm allows for everyone to contribute and also to learn.

13770386_1570193713283099_917953312682513069_n.jpgWhat would you say to another young professional considering a nonprofit job?

I would say know your strengths and be prepared to offer all of those up to be used for the benefit of your organization. From my experience with a nonprofit, I see that in a way it can ask a lot of you and feel demanding, but on the other hand it allows you to step up and really be yourself.

If you know what you're good at and how you're valuable to the world around you, a nonprofit job can allow you to fill more than one role. It allows for a lot of creativity and change, so be prepared for that!

If you could learn a brand new skill, what would it be?

This is rather broad, but I want to be handier. That isn't a skill that I've had the opportunity to develop. I want to have a basic understanding of building and repairing things. I hope to build my own house and run my own farm one day, and handiness is a skill I'd love to have!

If you were an inanimate object, what would you be and why?

This has been the hardest question to answer!

Perhaps I would be a raised bed or pot for a plant. It's a container in which there should be healthy soil, full of biological activity, that will enable a plant to live its life. The container is just there to enable and support the conditions and the process; simply provide a basic need. I think especially as a farmer I am only like a raised bed. I do my best to provide a foundation for plant growth, but ultimately there are many variables that I cannot control or don't understand.

And personally I am like the raised bed because in the world around me I want to encourage health, diversity and growth. I want to do the best that I can and accept what I cannot do. And ultimately, like the wood in the bed, one day I will rot and decay and hopefully be turned into compost to continue to feed life in a different way. (I'm serious, please let me be compost when I die.)

What do you hope to accomplish that you haven’t yet?

I would like to live and work abroad. Whether it be farming or teaching English, I want to be engaged in something meaningful outside of this country. After that, I hope to own and operate a market garden and permaculture homestead with my husband.

I've still never made pesto, and I haven't achieved enlightenment. This could get out of hand.

Share a little-known treasure of Indianapolis with us.

The whole of Indianapolis feels so up-and-coming to me, and though there are many treasures, few things feel like "hidden gems" so I'll offer a few options hoping that at least one of them is new.

The Kile Oak in Irvington is a really impressive sight to behold. Any season of the year, this is a great spot to just sit and look at the scale of this tree. It's a great place to have a picnic. It's quiet, beautiful, and the presence of such an old tree is awe-inspiring.

My second suggestion is the Garfield Park Conservatory. This place is the perfect cure for the winter blues, and it is a lovely thing to do year-round. Taking a slow stroll through here and sitting on the bench near the koi pond is a very good way to feel more peaceful.

My last suggestion is the restaurant Tlaolli on East Washington Street. This little place makes such fresh, delicious tacos, tamales, molletes.... Simple, fresh ingredients, and vegetarian/vegan friendly places always get my attention, and this is a place you need to check out.

Most important question: As lead farmer, you cultivate lots of beautiful, exciting and tasty things each year. What areharvesting_dandelion_greens_mohala.jpg three underappreciated veggies or fruits that we need to put on our plates right now?

The first one that comes to mind is rutabaga. Go to the farmers market to get some fresh rutabaga, and take it home, boil it and mash it with an equal amount of potatoes. Add cream, butter, salt, pepper, whatever you normally do to your mashed potatoes, and then enjoy yourself some mashed potatabaga. Throwing rutabaga in with roasted veggies is good, too, but nothing like mashed potatabaga. That stuff is magic.

Secondly, I might say cabbage. A sweet, winter cabbage I can just slice up and eat raw by itself. (Granted, that's not saying much. I'll eat any good vegetable that way.) Cabbage is so versatile. You can braise it, stuff it, saute it, make slaw and kraut, and it gives broth such a nice flavor. Plus, it will store for months in your refrigerator if you can't use the whole cabbage at once.

Underappreciated veggie number three is a little more out of season and it's a group of veggies, but I think Asian greens need to make this list. Things like mustard greens, poc choi, tatsoi, choi sum, and gai lan can so easily be added to salads or lightly sauteed in oil with garlic or soy sauce, and my goodness, there is so much flavor! We all need to eat more greens, and these are far from boring.

Want to support Hannah's work?

gpi.pngFrom spring to summer on the farm, roughly April to early October, they host a farm stand every Thursday evening from 4-6:30pm. There's a wide variety of freshly harvested vegetables, of course, all from of their farm sites, and this season they're hoping to have a few other producers partner with them so they can have things like coffee, eggs, jams and flowers available. Last year, Coat Check Coffee came to the farm stand and sold their cold brew, addicting freshly baked cookies and lemonades and ginger beers. With all of that, music playing and people just happy to walk through the farm and take home some veggies, the atmosphere was electric. The GPI Farm Stand is the place to be on a Thursday evening. The biggest selling point, though, is that because you are going to them, they can offer vegetables at a lower price than you'll find them at the farmers market or grocery store. Plus, they accept SNAP. More bang for your buck!

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