PGN: Are you from Philly?
JR: No, I grew up in Newton, Mass., which is a suburb of Boston.
PGN: Tell me about growing up in Newton.
JR: Well, I went to public school through ninth grade, and then transferred to a private school for three of my high-school years. It was a pretty typical suburban upbringing — sports, music lessons, dance lessons, etc. My parents were always supportive of all my interests.
JR: I’m the oldest of four.
PGN: What did your parents do?
JR: My mom had a variety of — well, both my parents had a variety of career changes — but she primarily works in education. And my father trained as a lawyer but he’s gotten more into investment management.
PGN: What was a favorite class in school?
JR: Let’s see. In high school, I had an English class that was nature-based writing. I loved it, which was unusual for me because typically I was stronger in math and had a harder time with English, but that was an amazing class. We read “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau and since the school was in Concord, we actually got to go to Walden Pond. We also studied Walden in science class and social studies, so it was kind of neat having so many different courses come together.
PGN: Did that prompt your interest in nature and the environment?
JR: That was part of it — coming to the realization that everything was interconnected. And my parents always took us camping and hiking, which also fostered an appreciation of the outdoors and the natural environment.
PGN: What was a favorite sports moment?
JR: I played on a woman’s ice-hockey team in high school. I was new to the school and my best friend who’d played a lot told me something I always remembered: She told me the only way to improve was to get out of my comfort zone. It worked, and that advice has always stuck with me and has been useful in a number of situations.
PGN: I didn’t know there were many girls playing ice hockey.
JR: There weren’t! It was pretty unusual back then. Now there are a lot more high-school teams. I actually still play on a team in Philly.
PGN: Did you pursue higher learning?
JR: Yeah, I went to a school in Massachusetts. Smith College.
PGN: So are only lesbians allowed at Smith?
JR: [Laughs.] No. Everybody is welcome.
PGN: But it does have a reputation, doesn’t it?
JR: Yeah, I have to admit it does.
PGN: I just recently heard the term LUG; are you familiar with it?
JR: Lesbian Until Graduation. Yeah, I have a few friends that fit into that category! Pretty funny.
PGN: What was your major?
JR: Well, I designed my own major. I called it “The Political Economy of the Environment.” It was mostly government and economics with some anthropology thrown in. But I tried to concentrate on food and agriculture.
PGN: I got your name from another environmentalist, Molly Tsongas. I loved her father, the late great Sen. Paul Tsongas, and her mother, Nicki Tsongas, who served as a U.S. Representative for Massachusetts. How do you know her?
JR: I knew her through my friend Amy, who is Molly’s partner. Molly and I were roommates for a while.
PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia?
JR: After graduation, I was working in Springfield, Mass., with local youths doing gardening on vacant lots. After it was over, I knew I wanted to keep doing that kind of work, but I didn’t know where. I’d never been to Philly but I got an AmeriCorps position working at University City High School. I figured I’d stay on the job in Philly a year or two and move back, but I fell in love with the city. I was fortunate enough to be doing work here that I loved, so I stayed.
PGN: Community service and community activism have taken a lot of hits lately. What did it mean to you?
JR: For me, AmeriCorps was a great stepping stone into a job that maybe I wasn’t qualified for straight out of college. It allowed me to get some experience under my belt. That said, because it’s stipend-based, it’s not necessarily accessible to everyone. I was privileged enough to be able to do it and still feed myself. Not everyone is able to. But if you can, they’re a great way to get involved with different organizations that do amazing work, but can’t afford to hire employees. I was very lucky that I got placed with University City High School. I got to work with the Urban Nutritionists Initiative and got to work directly with the students.
PGN: Were kids more or less knowledgeable about food than you expected?
JR: That’s hard. It varied. Some kids had never seen food growing before but on the other hand, a lot of them had gardened with grandparents or other family members or had participated in other growing projects like ours.
PGN: Any kid stick out as memorable?
JR: Not one in particular, but I’m still in touch with a great number of them. A lot of them have kids now and one of the things that’s most special to me is when they bring their kids to Mill Creek. To see the next generation get involved at an even younger age is wonderful. Most of the youth I worked with were all high-school age, and most had not had much exposure to nature, so to see them getting their kids involved, helping with the garden, eating fresh vegetables and learning about nutrition at a really young age, is pretty exciting.
PGN: What in your make-up do you think prompted you to do something to help save the environment? I think most people say they care about it, but don’t actually do much aside from choosing paper over plastic.
JR: I guess the values that my parents instilled in me around taking care of the earth, from being responsible around the house to the larger-scale social justice of taking care of the world and treating our environment and our communities with respect. I was taught that our environmental problems are an equality issue and something should be done about them. One of our value statements is that we believe healthy, affordable food is a basic human right.
PGN: How did you get started with the farm?
JR: I mentioned that I facilitated the Urban Nutrition Initiative, where I was working. My co-founder and co-director of the farm project, Jade Walker, also worked there with me. They’d decided that they were going to start a separate nonprofit, A Little Taste of Everything (ALTOE). At the same time, we heard that there was a plot of land available through the water department that was part of the storm-water management project. We’d been brainstorming about growing more foods than we could in the school garden and what we could do with a farm in the city. We also wanted other people outside the school to have access to a community garden. We proposed the idea to the water department and they liked it and helped us get started. That was in 2005, so 2006 was our first growing season and now we’re in our seventh!
PGN: What are your “open work” days?
JR: They’ve been an amazing resource for us. They are certain time slots each week where people can come help around the farm. The farm started out with just me and Jade on staff, so we needed volunteers to make the project possible. It’s been great for us and also a great way for people to get involved and learn about gardening, farming and the environment — in a real hands-on fashion.
PGN: Did you learn about it in school?
JR: Not really; I didn’t have a lot of formal agricultural training in school. But after I graduated from high school and throughout college, I worked on a lot of different farms. I learned a lot on the job. And then later, I’ve gone to different conferences, workshops and programs.
PGN: And what’s it like being part of the new queer farming movement?
JR: [Laughs.] Well I try not to make it about being gay, but just being a lesbian in the neighborhood mixes it up a little bit. I think people are more interested in having fresh organic vegetables accessible to them than worrying about my sexuality.
PGN: When did you come out?
JR: I came out to my family when I was in college, although I’d told a few close friends in high school. My family was pretty receptive. I’m so lucky because I know a lot of other people weren’t as readily accepted by their families as I was. [Laughs.] I’m sorry, there’s not a lot to that story! There wasn’t any drama.
PGN: Not a problem! It’s not always about angst. Do you have a partner now?
JR: Yes, I do.
PGN: How did you meet?
JR: We met in college, where we were just friends, and then at our two-year reunion we got involved. She’s also involved in the environmental field.
PGN: What’s a fun adventure you’ve had?
JR: Canoeing on the Schuylkill! When we first moved here, she brought her canoe and we’d almost never taken it out. One day, we got it together and decided to put it to use. We got in the river, north above the dam, paddled to the shores further up and had a little picnic. It was a nice adventure.
PGN: Which one of the “Gilligan’s Island” characters, would you be?
JR: [Laughs.] Probably Gilligan!
PGN: What game show/reality show would you want to go on?
JR: Oh, when I was a kid I loved “Double Dare.”
PGN: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done lately?
JR: I don’t know — I’ve been really boring lately! I guess it would be joining a weight-lifting class called “Body Pump,” which Molly recommended. I dove in and did it and then all week I was so weak I couldn’t move my arms. It was pretty pathetic: I couldn’t even lift my fork to my mouth!
PGN: Advice your parents gave you?
JR: They’ve both been really encouraging about doing what you love and I don’t think all parents adhere to that philosophy. I don’t know that every parent would be so proud that their child grew up to be a city farmer.
PGN: What was the title of the last self-help book you read? Did it help?
JR: “Mindfulness Meditation” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Yeah, I think it helped.
PGN: So I interviewed someone recently, Krisi Myers, who could never be a farmer because of her fear of worms. Tell our readers why you like it.
JR: Ha. I don’t mind dirt or worms. I find it satisfying the way you can plant a seed and, with a little patience and care, see the fruits of your labor. Harvesting beautiful vegetables that can feed and nourish people is very rewarding. I love getting to work with both plants and people; seeing the joy on kids’ faces when they discover something in the garden. It’s also very zen in the garden: Zoning out while weeding or something and then noticing a really interesting flower is a great feeling. Getting pleasure out of the micro.
PGN: I never even thought about the patience aspect. Especially since I tend to lean toward instant gratification. I usually get my plants already flowering and put them in already in bloom. You must be much more patient.
JR: I don’t know that I’m all that patient in general! Just with plants. I’ve learned to trust that they’ll do what I expect eventually, even if it takes a while. Outside of that, I can be impatient about other things.
PGN: Hmm, maybe it’s not so much patience but confidence that farmers have. I don’t trust my skills enough to think if I put a seed in that I will actually get something out of it.
JR: Yeah, that’s true. I’ve been doing it long enough to trust the process. Even though it’s easy to get derailed by the weather or a squirrel or something else.
PGN: What are your thoughts about climate change and our future? As an environmental person, are you terrified?
JR: I do fear all of the environmental degradation, in terms of the extremes, but I also think that there’s a lot of resilience and resistance built into the environment. I think it’s built to adapt to a certain extent. I believe that people should get involved in whatever way is meaningful for them, whether it’s lobbying for policies that protect air and water or something as simple as planting a seed in their backyard. It’s easy not to think about our impact on the environment every day, especially living in the city, but choices that we make about transportation and food and water use and other essential resources can have a big impact. There are many different levels that people can get involved on and every little bit makes a difference.
For more information on Mill Creek Farm, go to www.millcreekurbanfarm.org.
Five Earth Day tips:
1. Run your dishwasher only when it’s full. Don’t pre-rinse — tests show pre-rinsing doesn’t improve dishwasher cleaning, and you’ll save as much as 20 gallons of water per load.
2. Get off junk-mail lists. GreenDimes.com can get you started. They’ll even plant a tree for you! Go to CatalogChoice.org to put a stop to unwanted catalogs.
3. About 90 percent of the energy in your washing machine is used to heat the water. Most clothes will come clean in cold water, so switch your washing machine’s temperature setting.
4. Buy foods locally. Check out EatLocalChallenge.com, foodroutes.org or eatwellguide.org to get started.
5. Switch to recycled toilet paper. If every household in the U.S. bought just one four-pack of 260-sheet recycled bath tissue, it would eliminate 60,600 pounds of chlorine pollution, preserve 356 million gallons of fresh water and save nearly 1 million trees.
Resources: www.EPA.gov, DivineCaroline.com and TheDailyGreen.com.
To suggest a community member for “Family Portrait,” write to firstname.lastname@example.org.