How the Hettlers Embody Organic Principles (and Are Good at Growing Farmers)
Finding my way to Pilgrims’ Produce in the fall of 2009, when I wanted to learn how to garden, ended up changing my life. It sounds dramatic; however, witnessing and experiencing the ways in which Robert and Kathryn engage with the world impacted me in subtle ways, over time. Over a decade later, and with a more nuanced relationship with organics, I can see more fully how the Hettlers embody organic principles.
Not only have Robert and Kathryn stewarded the land they lived on, and with, for the past 30 years, using a combination of responsibility and innovation, they have done so with future generations in mind. One of the first things I remember Kathryn describing was how important it was to her and Robert to be growing good food for their family, friends, and wider community. The farm has been a special gathering space for the extended Hettler clan, serving as a central meeting point for children and grandchildren who are now dispersed around the world. So many incredible memories and feasts have been celebrated at Pilgrims’ Produce over the years!
Their thoughtful appreciation for people showed up in attentive conversations, as in really listening and asking pointed questions, as well as in random moments walking from one section of the farm to another. This caring way of being was reciprocated by many employees who would return to work at Pilgrims’ Produce year after year and, eventually, launch into their own farming with a solid base of learning and mentoring to draw from. Not to mention always feeling welcome to give Rob a call with questions or stop in for a visit that inevitably would include ‘shop talk.’
Employees who went on to create their own farms include Kate Murphy at Lakehead & Beyond Produce Society, Mark Uher at Mara Valley Produce, and Joel Hayhoe and Tessa Wetherill at Our Open Farm. Through the Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Program, Rob mentored Emily Jubenvill at Enderberry Farm. Folks who returned to or joined family farms include Eva-Lena Lang at Cedarstein Farm and me at Golden Ears Farm.
Many of these names are probably familiar to you because they have also engaged in actions that serve the organic community, or agriculture more broadly, through participation in Agriculture Advisory Committees, land matching, certifying body boards and committees, expanding food systems networks, and even in the role of Executive Director of COABC! This community involvement mirrors the years and years of Robert and Kathryn’s contributions and dedication to building the organic movement.
Working at Pilgrims’ Produce was a beautiful mix of hard work, a buzz of activity—particularly in June, when you would see the quad and trailers bringing in the harvest on top of a steady interchange of vehicles belonging to the folks flocking in for u-pick strawberries—and the most amazing staff lunches (thank you, Kathryn!).
Pilgrims’ Produce was also a site for events like Shoots ‘n Blooms, CSA strawberry socials, and inter-farm potlucks. The importance of relationships and creating the time and space to nurture them was affirmed by example and reassuring words: “Take the time you need to visit your family. Not to worry, the weeds will be here when you get back.”
On March 31st, 2021, a sizeable group of people who have been impacted by Robert and Kathryn gathered over Zoom to share memories and stories of what the farm means to them. It served as both a celebration of Rob and Kathryn’s organic farming and community building and the transfer of the farm to Dan and Kat Saxton 30 years—to the day—after the Hettlers moved in!
Many named the beauty of the land, its healing capacity, and the generous-in-spirit nature of Robert and Kathryn as influencing them. Kate Murphy aptly described how Robert and Kathryn have been growing more than food, they have been growing farmers.
We love you Robert and Kathryn and are so pleased that you have kindred spirits in Dan and Kat to carry on the legacy of Pilgrims’ Produce. A legacy of care, stewardship, good food, and growing farmers!
We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it.
And to take good care of it, we have to know it.
And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.
~ Wendell Berry
Michelle Tsutsumi grows food on the unceded land of Secwépemcul’ecw and, in doing so, acknowledges the tension inherent in the practice of agriculture and Indigenous-settler relations. As a communicator, she engages in difficult conversations around dominant cultural mindsets and structures so that we can transform them into a more just and equitable way of being.
Feature image: Farm families – Robert and Kathryn Hettler smiling with Dan and Kat Saxton and their children—the next stewards of Pilgrim’s Produce. Credit: Pilgrims’ Produce.