Ingrid Kirst picks me up for the garden tour.
It’s the last warm autumn day in a long stretch of warm autumn days.
Ingrid is driving an old Subaru wagon, heading east on P Street for our first stop.
Most days, she’d be pedaling to her office in the shadow of the West A bridge, finishing up her tenure as executive director of Community Crops -- the nonprofit that offers plots of land to backyard farmers who don’t have backyards.
They do more than that, of course. A farmer training program east of town. Gardening spaces at eight schools so students can learn about growing and cooking their own food. A veggie van that brings produce to low-income shoppers, preceded by years of selling produce at farmers’ markets.
A green and growing public presence spanning the city, creating communities.
It wasn’t always like this.
In the beginning, there was Ingrid and an intern and a budget of $50,000.
“There was no office; we were operating out of my kitchen.”
That was 2005. Community Crops had been around for two growing seasons with four community plots, the two people who started it all (Andy Witkowski and Kim Matthews) and a committed core of volunteers.
Ingrid was one of them. You could find her at the 28th and U streets women’s garden, where residents of Fresh Start Home had a place to grow vegetables on their way to becoming self-sufficient.
“We met every Sunday night. It was a smaller garden, very collaborative. Sometimes the neighbor kids would come by and you got to know them.”
As for Ingrid, the Lincoln native had a degree in computer science and a passion for fresh vegetables and community-building. She’d been working for Lincoln Action Program, running its computer lab, writing grants, balancing budgets and supervising a staff.
But she was ready for change. She’d grown up gardening and had become a master gardener, transforming the yard of the home she shared then (and now) with her husband and two cats.
“I no longer have a lawn,” she says. “I have a garden.”
So when the opportunity to lead Community Crops presented itself, she grabbed it.
“It was my dream job, totally.”
Ingrid is 41 now. She’s leaving crops to pursue other dreams.
Ingrid is quiet and thoughtful. Slim with short flapper hair. A reader and a traveler and the backbone of Community Crops, according to its new executive director.
“There would be no Community Crops without Ingrid,” says Ben McShane-Jewell. “She’s not here because it’s a paycheck, she believes in what we do and she’s given a huge chunk of her life to it.”
Ingrid spent November training Ben, who spent three years as the nonprofit’s gardens manager.
She’s confident in the future, not afraid to let her baby go.
“We have a great staff, a strong board. I told Ben, ‘I’m your employee now.’”
* * *
When Ingrid became the first official director of Community Crops, she visited the Cooper Foundation looking for grant money.
Art Thompson took notes.
“Crops will do best with a person who is a good systems builder,” he wrote, “and Ingrid is that.”
Back then, Crops was a good idea with good intentions, but it didn’t have a solid plan or sound financial structure, the foundation president said last week.
But three years into her tenure, there were five new plots and the first graduates from the farming program. Donations were up 37 percent. They’d just received their first federal grant.
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Ingrid is the “ideal” nonprofit leader, Art said. Hiring great people, mentoring them, reaching out into the community and changing it. And backing the work up with numbers -- a dozen community gardens, fresh produce for 290 families, a budget of $400,000 and 12 full and part-time employees.
“Ingrid has managed to take Community Crops from a tiny grassroots agency to now, when we have community gardens all over town,” says Susan Ugai, Community Crops Board president. “She is really the face of local food in the community.”
John Doran has known Ingrid from her early days in the women’s garden, when Crops was just figuring out what it wanted to be.
“Ingrid came around just at the right time. She really had the wherewithal to pull it together.”
The retired professor calls her amazing. Someone he admires “a heckuva lot” for her quiet leadership.
“Still waters run deep and she’s created quite a few oases in Lincoln.”
* * *
From the driver’s seat of the Subaru, Ingrid takes me to the Antelope Garden on Sumner Street and Normal Boulevard, one of the original gardens, where the compost bins are full and stands of spiky kale still soldier on, tended by a United Nations of families.
It’s one of the things Ingrid loves about Crops.
“Food is such a great connector, but for me it’s always been about more than the food. It’s this opportunity to come together and connect to the natural world and across cultures.”
She takes me to 40th and Old Cheney behind Southern Heights Presbyterian Church, where Community Crops’ raised beds are brimming with lettuce and spinach, bordered by an outdoor children’s classroom and a food forest -- planted with nut and fruit trees and edible berries.
She loves this space, proud of all the work by so many to make it happen.
She takes me across town to Mickle Middle School, home of Community Crops’ first school garden. Pumpkins grow in one corner and the hoop house is full of beets and herbs and purple mustard greens as big as dinner plates and as beautiful as a still life painting.
She snaps photos on her phone. “Something for the Facebook page, maybe.”
She’s happy to set her eyes on this plot and see it thriving. “Everybody always says, ‘Oh, you must get lots of time in the gardens...’”
Her job keeps her in the office most days, supervising staff, making sure grants are filed and budgets are made, organizing fundraising, the million small details that keep a non-profit afloat.
She’s a detail person, Ingrid says, not a visionary. But she does have one, big, pie-in-the-sky wish.
“I want everyone in Lincoln to be growing some of their own food.”
* * *
After our garden tour, Ingrid is heading home to clean out her own garden for winter. She might wash some windows.
She has a bulletin board from work in the Subaru’s back seat, an artifact from her office, covered in postcards. “I’m slowly cleaning things out.”
She’ll give her final speech as executive director in a few hours -- Evening with a Scientist at Morrill Hall -- talking about local food, the benefits of growing it, buying it, eating it.
She planned to stay away from saying anything too scientific, she says.
“In case there are any actual scientists in the audience.”
Ingrid will be at Community Crops a little longer, helping with the transition. She’ll stay connected to volunteer and donate.
She has a three month vacation coming up. A wedding to attend in India, bookended by visits to Burma and Germany, where she has relatives and friends.
She’ll be back in Lincoln by spring where her roots grow deep to start contemplating her next move.
“I want to do something else that makes a difference in our community,” she says. “I don’t know what that is yet.”