Getting to Know Women In Ag

For Women’s History Month we interviewed two local, hardworking, awesome women farmers that specialize in plant starts.

Keerti Freeman runs Crow Song Farm and does contract-seeding for local farms, is a graduate of many of Sierra Harvest’s Farm Institute programs like Farm Biz and Organic Certification, as well as our mentorship program connecting burgeoning farmers with experienced farmers in our area.

Randi Pratini runs Fresh Starts Organic Farm and has been connected to many community, food, and farming related endeavors in Nevada County from Sierra Harvest and beyond.  When not gardening or dancing, Randi also moderates the Local Food Coalition, an important hub and information resource for local farmers, ranchers, and gardeners. 

How did your farm name come to be?  Does it have significance to you?

Keerti Freeman, Crow Song Farms – When I first came to this piece of land after my mother had purchased it, my brother and I were beginning a treehouse project for my two children. I needed a place for them to hang out so that I could get farm work done. As we walked out on that beautiful March morning, the wind was blowing and the sky was crisp and clear, with puffy white clouds wafting in the distance. All was silent except for a gentle clicking, warbling, complex song. It was a pair of crows singing to one another. Thus “Crow Song Farms” was born.

Randi Pratini, Fresh Starts Organic Farm – There was a lot of mulling over different name options. I wanted the name to represent both what I do and that the starts are of quality, therefore fresh!

No particular significance other than what I said above.

Why did you become a farmer?

Keerti – I’ve been attracted to working outside in nature since I was a little girl growing up in Placer County. I started working on farms in my twenties, but it’s been a long road to get here. Before becoming a farmer, I worked for non-profits doing education and outreach, conservation, habitat restoration, and ultimately worked with women and children in India.  After I became a single mom, I needed to find a way I could work from home while still working to help mother nature. Farming was the clearest path I could see to give my children a life of stability, beauty, and the opportunity to give back to the planet, all while still being fully present for them.

Randi – In a way, I fell into it. I had lost a job and needed a next step.

My growing background was not extensive. It consisted of buying and planting a few herbs and tomatoes into wooden box beds on a NYC rooftop and then, creating a brand new in-the-ground bed, resulting in total garden failure. Too long a story for here but I learned a couple of things!

A friend invited me to work with her doing landscaping work; another friend invited me to garden with her on her property. These two opportunities got my hands in the dirt as well as opened doors to something I hadn’t done much of before. With the garden, we always had too many starts and would have several plant sales in the spring. Eventually I realized that no one else in the area (that I knew of) was growing starts commercially and I decided to give it a shot.

Tell us about your farm?

Keerti – In simplest terms, we specialize in contract seeding for farmers (growing plant starts to order), and are adding cut flowers to the farm this season.  Our 6-acre farm sits on a southeast facing slope in southern Nevada County at approximately 1600ft elevation. We are nestled on the Wolf Creek Watershed, which is a beautiful mix of rolling oak woodland, riparian creek ecosystems, and mixed coniferous trees.  As such, our farm has a strong focus on riparian conservation and habitat restoration.  We continue to tackle over an acre of intense Himalayan blackberry infestation so that it can become a safe haven for amphibians. We also have two acres set aside for wildlife and will be adding native perennials to further enhance and support the original ecosystem. Lastly, we will be installing hedgerows and swales for both erosion control, wind breaks, and to provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds. Everything we do, we do in harmony with nature.

Randi – I grow certified organic veggie, herb, flower, and perennial nursery starts at my farm & nursery at my home in Nevada City. The farm consists of two small plastic covered hoop houses, providing a sheltered spot for an early January start of cold hardy vegetables. In the late spring, the plastic comes off to be replaced by shade cloth, allowing both a cooler place for the starts and for me to work.

The nursery covers a very small area, approximately 100’ long x 75’ wide; including the two hoop houses, many tables to hold the trays of plants and some garden beds where I have perennials used for taking cuttings.

Why did you choose to focus on plant starts and nursery farming?

Keerti – We love farmers!  We also love working with other small business owners and families in our amazing community. With the love, support, and guidance of my family, partner, former employers Antonio Garza (of Feeding Crane Farm) and Michael and Shannon Whammond (of Hillview Farm), and the direct support of Molly Nakahara  (of Dinnerbell Farm), we started our pilot year in the spring of 2022 doing contract seeding for some of the coolest people we know.

Randi – There was no one else in the area growing organic plants starts in our county; at least that I knew of, therefore a niche was waiting to be filled.

What do you love about farming?

Randi – That it’s good to get dirty! It is fulfilling to know that people are buying plants that are only of benefit to them and all around them; including not just humans but our earth, air, birds, bees and beneficial bugs.

Keerti – As I said before, we love farmers and we love flowers. More than anything we love working with mother nature. However farming is all about relationships. Without the long list of farmers mentioned before, in addition to so many others like Pat and Dianne at Foothill Roots Farm, or Bryanna from Stone’s Throw Farm, or Takahiro Sazaki the manager at Feeding Crane (and his new Asian Veggie CSA!), or Rich Johansen of the NID board of directors, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Above anything else I love my family and I love my community. We live in the most amazing county in the country as far as I’m concerned. We feel blessed to get to work with the land and with our community. Its why we do what we do. 

Farming is hard. There is no way around it. But Michael at Hillview helped teach me the importance of stopping and taking a breath, looking around at the beautiful plants we’ve grown, listening to the Sandhill cranes migrating, enjoying the view even while we’re crouched down transplanting all day, and basically just reminding myself why I got into this business in the first place. There’s no other job where can you work outside in nature while singing, listening to music, having incredibly deep conversations with fabulous farm workers, or just listening to an audiobook.

What is your biggest farming challenge?

Randi – There are several but I guess the biggest is the planning – grow enough to sell but not too much and, not knowing if my commercial accounts are going to purchase from me as opposed to the other local growers.  It is fine to have too much in terms of having plenty to share with those who can’t afford to buy, yet, if I don’t sell everything that I have planned to, it means time and costs that are not able to be accounted for.  There is a benefit to too much though, either I or the chickens get to eat the non-sold starts (greens & lettuce). The soil can be put into my landscape or compost and the pots cleaned and reused but this makes for an extra step.

Keerti – Hands down, being a single mother is my biggest farming challenge. Just being a woman in general in this industry is hard. Finding access to childcare (or lack thereof) makes getting farm work done even more difficult, because the kids always come first. For almost all farmers, overcoming each challenge while maintaining one’s mental health can be challenging. But as they say, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And in my case, it’s the relationships I’ve been blessed enough to build within our community that guide me. I just can’t speak enough to how incredible our farming community really is. My oldest son also tells me how  proud he is that his mom is a farmer, and is eager every day to help me with farm tasks. The look in his eyes and the love and joy my children bring to my life are the driving force that keep me going when things seem too difficult 

Lastly, without the guidance I continually receive through programs at Sierra Harvest, like my new mentorship with Deena of Sweet Roots Farm, I wouldn’t be able to overcome each challenge. This is why as part of our farm I am seeking to build more connections with organizations like Sierra Harvest and the Women for the Land, so that we can start to address these complicated issues as a community and find solutions.

How can the community support you?

Keerti –  Spread the word! If you know of anyone wishing to start their own farm, let them know that we can grow their starts for them. Whether you have your own seeds or not, we can help you. Also, if you know of anyone having a baby shower, bar mitzvah, coming-out party, a wedding with a smaller budget, a church fundraiser, or rotary club event, let them know where to find our amazing flowers! If your buddy just opened up his new auto-shop and he wants to attract the more discerning GenZ audience, let him know he can have weekly flowers delivered to his front desk to show that he is also a sensitive teddy bear. We have something for everyone and we absolutely love the folks in our community. We want to bring farmers incredible starts, florists organic local cut flowers, and our community members affordable floral options. We also donate many of our starts to various school gardens, and hand out flowers to underserved awesome folks in our community (because everyone could use a smile and some beauty once in a while).

Randi – Educate themselves on why to support organic (and why you have to pay more for this; there are so many reason), why to buy from local growers, share about the local growers to those who are not yet in the loop!

I love when I get to connect directly with customers, either by customers visiting my nursery or at the farmer’s market.  There is so much to see and talk about when one makes direct contact with the grower!

What is your vision for local food in our community? What would you like to see happen?

Keerti – I long for the day when 90% of ALL produce is grown locally, whether you live in Lake Merritt, Oakland or southern Grass Valley. I would love to see us little guys all banded together so we can push hard against the destructive practices of large-scale conventional agriculture. So we can demand equal access to government subsidies. Where all farm workers are able to earn a living wage and the farm owners are able to pay it (and themselves). I long for a future in which womxn are treated equally in agriculture, where we wont have to struggle to find childcare or fair representation in the legal system.  I long for a day when our farm communities are full of color and diversity and beauty, where we can exchange ideas and learn from one another no matter where we come from or what we look like. And I would love to see a future where all farmers can access quality mental health care. May my life be dedicated to these goals.

Randi – I wish to see more backyard gardens or if possible, small gardening coops; like community gardens where folks can work together and share experience / knowledge.

Gardening can be very fulfilling yet extremely challenging. During the first year of the pandemic, I could not keep up with the demand for any kind of plant. The next year there was less demand and last year, even less. My take is that the work of gardening was overwhelming to many and the returns, not as abundant as attained the first year or as wished for.

Coupled with this is that there is a large void in the understanding of how important feeding the soil is. I know that many of the new gardeners went out and purchased commercially available soil. This was ok for the first year but the beds rapidly lost nutrients that were then not replaced. The subsequent years’ gardens did not thrive and I believe many fledgling growers gave up.

We need more mentors for these novice gardeners but what I really want to see happen is a local compost business to be created. Not commercial compost but something that is made with care and knowledge, something that is not always bought up by commercial growers.

Where can we find your products?

Keerti – If you want to access some of our unique plant starts off our availability list, or are looking for cut flowers (dried or fresh), shoot me an email or give me a call and we’ll do everything we can to set you up. We serve Nevada County, Placer County, El Dorado County, and our awesome neighbors over the border in the Reno/Tahoe area. We’re also hoping to reach more businesses in the greater Bay Area.

Our website is a work in progress, but you can find more information on how to contact us there. We will also upload our availability list weekly for farmers or gardeners needing affordable starts. And once the cut flower season is finally underway, we will continually add our available cut flowers to our website.  916-663-7622

Randi – I sell directly to the public at my nursery by appointment only, and at the Nevada City Farmers Market in late winter through mid-June and then again late August through mid-September. My plants are also available at BriarPatch Food Coop, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, A-Z Hardware, Sweetland Garden Supply in North San Juan, Feather’s Flowers & Nursery in Downieville, and Peardale Farm’s seasonal farmstand.

Call to set up a nursery visit appointment 530-478-0800