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“We don’t own the land, we’re taking care of it”--conversations on leaving a land legacy

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, this is Earth Eats, and I'm Kayte Young.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  I think our approach is making it better, improving the land every time we have a chance. We are benefited by the sweetness of the maple, right? So, that's a source of sweetness for us and for the people to come after us and hopefully the pawpaws will be, one of these days, somebody can enjoy that fruit, yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, we explore what it can look like to have a vision for your land that extends beyond yourself and even your family. We speak with Helen Vasquez and Larry Gillen about their decision to leave their farm to a tribal college. And Josephine McRobbie visits with a regenerative farmer building soil in the Sandhills of North Carolina, with the help of some four legged teammates. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In order to grow food, farmers need healthy soil. In one particularly tricky region of North Carolina, a regenerative farm is enlisting some unusual farmhands to help build the earth. Josephine McRobbie visits Slow Farm in the Sandhills.

RACHEL HERRICK:  So, when we got here, there was really no thriving top soil to speak of. There were places where you could just stick your whole arm in, like up to the elbow, because it was just sand. It was dead sand.

RACHEL HERRICK:  We're looking in an area of North Carolina called the Sandhills. So, this all was, you know, beach front property millions of years ago. The Sandhills is aptly named. Our soil is sand.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Rachel Herrick is the owner of Slow Farm in Cameron, North Carolina. Her previous career is as an artist and educator, but she's also a third generation farmer.

RACHEL HERRICK:  My family background is in this very traditional farming model. We poisoned all the things and we plowed all the soil and, you know, we just did what everybody else was doing. It's the way it was done and we did it. We did it well. Like, you know, I'm not here to disparage anybody who comes from that traditional farming background and is proud of the work that they do. It's hard work and you don't make a lot of money on it, but what I saw growing up was farming that broke people in every way that it could, and broke ecologies as well.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Originally from Maine, Rachel bought her 47 acre property in 2015.

RACHEL HERRICK:  My husband Carlis a post-modern intellectual historian. He's a history professor and it's a very specialized field. You can imagine there aren't a whole lot of jobs for post-modern intellectual historians, so we went where the job was and that was here. For millions of years this was a massive long leaf pine forest and then 175 years ago they logged it out for pine and turpentine. From there just began to sort of use conventional farming methods, which then became increasingly industrialized, to grow things like cotton, tobacco, food crops and things like that.

RACHEL HERRICK:  Sand doesn't have a lot of nutrition in and of itself, so then it became a high chemical input situation. We already have problems with water retention in the sand and then you add chemical fertilizers and it just really wipes out any chance that, like, a soil mycelial network could possibly have.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  In order to grow fruit trees, vegetables and pollinator gardens, Rachel needed to rehabilitate the soil and that would be a difficult and lengthy project.

RACHEL HERRICK:  I started by just walking the land every day with my dog, looking at what was "wrong with it" and what was great about it in terms of land and farming opportunities.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  She first tried to reinvigorate the soil through green manuring methods, by mowing the fields of grass and weeds around the property.

RACHEL HERRICK:  The biology was so dead that nothing decomposed. So, we would mow and then it would just sit there. The grass clippings, the trees in pristine condition for, like, 18 months. That's how dead the soil was when we got here. And so, we knew, looking at that green manuring process, that we needed biology. We needed to bring biology in and livestock is, you know, like the gateway to all that goodness. Instead of just mowing it and letting it lie, you have the animals eat it, run it through their digestive systems, break it down all the way and infuse it with all kinds of bacteria and all that stuff and then excreted it and it just really jump starts life in the soil again.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Arriving at Slow Farm, I'm greeted by Potato and Turnip.

RACHEL HERRICK:  Potato's our three year old Maremma, who guards the livestock, and Turnip is a nine week old livestock guardian in training.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Livestock guardian dogs do important work for the farm, including keeping the perimeter safe in this rural area.

RACHEL HERRICK:  We're really committed to living peacefully with the wildlife and encouraging wildlife as part of the ecosystem of this place. Part of living with this wildlife means predators.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  We're standing over by a flock of guinea fowl.

RACHEL HERRICK:  Yeah, we definitely think of all of our critters as our teammates. Sorry, that's, that's a predator call, so he saw something.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  The guineas are alerting the dogs to a hawk flying overhead. As they settle down, Rachel explains more about Slow Farm's teammates. Every animal complements the greater project of land restoration and farm management through what they eat or hunt.

RACHEL HERRICK:  So, the guinea fowl that we have here, they're basically like tick roombas. They just sort of zip around and eat ticks and fire ants, and that's fantastic. Fire ants can actually cause a lot of damage. Say if you've got piglets out on pasture and they get into a nest, they can really, really hurt a piglet.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Nearby there's a small herd of brush goats. They manage the scrubs, vines and sapling trees on the farm.

RACHEL HERRICK:  What they want to do is eat from, like, as high up as they can reach, like on their hind legs, down to about chest level and evolutionarily, that's brilliant because that's where their intestinal parasites live, is in the bottom 18 in of grass. So, if you make them graze lower, you're going to have major parasite issues.

RACHEL HERRICK:  What we had was, like, this 18 in tall buzz cut that the goats had done an extraordinary job on, and we looked at what was growing here and what was left was a bunch of broad leaf stuff. Dock and cat's ear dandelion and stuff like that and so, I was like, "oh, Jesus, who wants to eat that?" because it's kind of, you know, like, dock is slimy and it smells like frogs, you know? But then I thought, "oh, well pigs would eat it."

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Pigs were animals that could work over the weeds in the fields as part of their regular diet, and this meant that Rachel could avoid using herbicides, but there was a problem.

RACHEL HERRICK:  Pigs are rototillers on feet. Like, they just, a conventional pig can plow and walk at the same time. They just can root 2 ft down. And so, if your project, like ours is, is to restore top soil, you do not want to be disrupting the root mat that you're trying to develop, the mycelial network you're trying to encourage to come back.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  She started doing more research online and that's how she heard about Kunekune pigs.

RACHEL HERRICK:  Kunes are sort of exploding in popularity, both in the science community and also in the farming community, as farmers figure out that, like, there is another way to do pigs. There's another way to do pork. This is the most eco-friendly pork you could possibly produce.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Kunekunes are small, maybe about half the size of a commercial hog. They can eat a lot of grass and weeds and so they need only a small amount of supplemental grain in their diet.

RACHEL HERRICK:  They've got really efficient metabolisms, so they can actually get nourishment from plant matter in a way that other pigs cannot. They were bred to have short noses, so they don't till the soil. They're actually physical marvels of, like, the perfect grazing pig. They're here, they're eating all those broad leafs that nobody else wants to eat.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Closely associated with the Maori people of New Zealand, Kunekunes were bred for their temperaments as well as their meat.

RACHEL HERRICK:  They're incredibly docile, they're easy to work with. I grew up with big 700 and 900 lb White York pigs and I've got the scars on my back to prove it. Like, they're tough business. I liked pigs, but I never thought I'd be a crazy pig lady. The Kunes have made me a crazy pig lady.


RACHEL HERRICK:  Hi Kid. Hi Nessie. Hi Cupcake. These guys live for a belly rub.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Meeting some of Slow Farm's Kunekune pigs, it's easy to understand why Rachel loves them so much. They are very friendly and they look almost like cartoon characters.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Can you also describe what they look like, because they're incredibly cute?

RACHEL HERRICK:  They are. So, if you imagine, like, a bat had a baby with a pig, you sort of end up like at a Kunekune. They've got these short little faces and they've got large ears, dark skin under a quite heavy coat of hair that makes them--

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  We're hanging out under some acorn trees right by Rachel's front porch.

RACHEL HERRICK:  It's acorn season right now and so they are all about some acorns. This also has the side benefit of discouraging squirrel populations close to the house, by just sort of managing their food resources.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Because of their cultivation as village pigs by the Maori, Kunekunes stick close to home and they don't try to get through fences. So, here in North Carolina, some of Rachel's pigs have the run of the farm.

RACHEL HERRICK:  We have our teenager pigs get to do something I call Free Range University. So, when they're teenagers they get to be out free ranging the whole 47 acres and this just makes them really smart, savvy grazers. It teaches them about all kinds of different plants, but it also lets us socialize them in a different way. So, these are pigs that are going to be here their whole lives.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  At one point in the 1980s, there were only about 50 pure bred Kunekunes in existence. A conservation association in New Zealand was able to bring the breed back and, since the 1990s, they've been growing in popularity in the U.S. Slow Farm now breeds and sells registered and pedigreed Kunekune pigs, but only on a small scale.

RACHEL HERRICK:  Kunes are fantastic pork. They are a meat pig, they were raised to be a meat pig. When I say they lived in the Maori villages with the Maori, it wasn't because the Maori needed pet pigs, it was because they were raising them as primarily lard pigs, because lard is an important way of conserving food. I'm happy to support farmers who want to raise Kune meat for their own consumption or Kunes on a small scale for resale or whatever. Everybody's got their own farming path to pursue and I'm here for it.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Rachel is picky about who she sells to.

RACHEL HERRICK:  So, there's actually a lab at the University of Vienna that studies Kunes in particular. They have, it's a Kune lab. They're observing their social dynamics, which Kunes are, they are more, like, heavily social than most breeds of pigs. Uniquely social. Like, when I sell piglets, I don't sell one piglet by itself, because it won't thrive. I always sell in sets of two for the pig's own welfare. I'm not afraid to turn somebody down for the pigs if they're not a good fit, their setup isn't the right fit. Anybody who was going try to do a confinement setting for Kunes, like, that's a disaster. I'm not going to sell you pigs. They're not going to thrive in that setting.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  Slow Farm partially operates as an educational farm. They put on workshops and activities for schools and the public and other farmers and Rachel shares her knowledge about these unique Kunekune pigs whenever and wherever she can.

RACHEL HERRICK:  I try to be a resource for other people who are interested in the breed, so I write a lot of articles on my website and we also do Kune workshops. That's been an ongoing thing. Through Covid we can do them privately instead of group tours. We just do them socially distanced and outside. But then, you know, I joke, but I'm not joking, that all my piglets come with tech support. So, anybody with a Slow Farm pig, you know, can text me at any time and get some guidance on this or that.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  After six years at Slow Farm, through this program of animal managed soil regeneration, Rachel has started to see some improvements to the land. There's still a lot to do but she welcomes the challenge.

RACHEL HERRICK:  Everything we do is a slow process. That's why we decided to call it Slow Farm.It's like, it says what we are and how we do it and it's also a really useful day to day reminder for me. So, this is my full-time job and when I'm out there and I just get impatient like everybody else does, I'm like "wait a minute, this is Slow Farm, I'm the slow farmer, take a breath, lady." So, it's a useful name that way.

JOSEPHINE MCROBBIE:  For WFIU Earth Eats, I'm Josephine McRobbie.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And I'm Kayte Young. Earth Eats returns after a short break.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  My name is Helen Vasquez.

LARRY GILLEN:  I'm Larry Gillen.

KAYTE YOUNG:  To get to Helen and Larry's farm in Southeastern Indiana, you head south out of Paoli on some two lane farm roads, eventually you hit a gravel road. It's hilly and wooded and at some point in their driveway, you encounter the river.

LARRY GILLEN:  Back in the old days it was accessed. Now there is a ford across the upper portion of the Patoka River and that's how we get in and out. We have a footbridge, when the water is up, that we park and walk across, bring the groceries and walk up to the house.

KAYTE YOUNG:  On this day, the water is up, so we park the car and assess the situation.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm with Marie O'Neill. She works with the Sustainable Food Systems Science Group at Indiana University and they're the ones who told me about Helen and Larry's story.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Marie has been here once before, but she never had to take the footbridge. The bridge looks like something out of a fairy tale. It seems to be hanging from the trees. It's made from sturdy cables pulled taut and lined with small pieces of wood for the decking and rails, which appear to be in varying stages of decay. The bridge squeaks and sways as we walk across, single file, but I have the utmost confidence in its ability to support us across the river. The structure is solid.

LARRY GILLEN:  Buildings are about a quarter of a mile from the ford and well up on the hill out of the floodplain and the property is 160 acres. It's in Southeast Township in Orange County. There's a little village about a mile away called Valeene. Most of the property is wooded. It's up on some hills and there's some bottom land along the river, about 15 acres and then the property is 90% surrounded by the Hoosier National Forest.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Larry will tell you that he and Helen are ordinary people.

LARRY GILLEN:  You know, Helen and I are rather ordinary people.

KAYTE YOUNG:  But if you ask me, they aren't like most people I've come across. First of all, what struck me right off the bat was the spirit of generosity. It was a cold day in early November and after our long drive and chilly hike up the hill, they ushered us into a tiny, hot, cedar-lined room in the center of their log cabin home. Larry's an engineer and he's got the heating system for their house rigged up to this sauna room with a wood-fueled stove. We stepped inside for a moment to take the chill off.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Sorry, Larry, I don't know anyone else who has a sauna for a furnace.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Get some tea.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh, yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This was my first time meeting them but they greeted me as if we were old friends. In the middle of our conversation we took a break so they could serve us ginger mint tea and a lovely pumpkin bread that Helen made from one of the giant cushaw squash they harvested from the garden. And their generosity extends to the way they talk about the land, which is what brought me there in the first place.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  We would love this land whether ours or not, you know, because it's like it's, we're part of it. We always really feel that we don't own the land. You know, we are taking care of it. We've been provided the opportunity and the honor of taking care of the land.

KAYTE YOUNG:  But let's back up a bit. I wanted to hear about their backgrounds and what brought them to growing food and how they ended up on this patch of land in Southern Indiana.

LARRY GILLEN:  I grew up as a farm kid and my mother grew the garden, my dad took care of the livestock and the field work and, so, as a little kid I tagged around with her. My grandmother lived in a small town nearby and I remember them, my parents and my father's brother and sister telling my grandma she couldn't garden any more because she was getting too old and she was going to hurt herself. But that didn't stop her, she kept gardening anyway. So, just little memories like that from my childhood.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Was that here in the Midwest?

LARRY GILLEN:  Yes. Up Northwestern Indiana.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Helen spend her youth in San Antonio, Texas.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  My father was a watermelon guy. So, he grew watermelons and he grew the best and a little bit of cotton, but that didn't stay very long, you know, and the kids weren't very, we were not very open to go pick cotton. It was very hard work. You know, I remember the first time I went, it was very hard. But the watermelons were lots of fun and, because he was so good at it, he always used to be called the watermelon man and we were the little watermelons. So, in Spanish we were called the sandias. That was our nickname. And my mom always had a garden and a herb garden. I didn't even know anything about that she would qualify now as an herbalist, because she had all these herbs. And if we had a little tummy ache, you know, we got this. And if we got that, we got that and if we couldn't sleep we got this. So, we got all the little teas and whatever it was.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  And I've always wanted things to grow myself. My mom did can and I learned from her the practice of canning. But we didn't have an extensive like we do here, but we did have the tomatoes and the green beans and the potatoes.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Though they describe themselves as farm kids, the land they live on now was not inherited. Larry purchased the land in the 1970s but he lived away from the farm much of his adult life.

LARRY GILLEN:  I did live here for a year before Helen and I met in 1978. 1979 I lived here for a year and then went back to school and that's what got us to where we could, you know, come here after our careers were finished, and now we're settled in.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Well, it had to be paid, so we had to work. You know, we had a job. Larry was an engineer and I was a bureaucrat in the Federal Government. So, we worked all over the place, mainly in Texas and, and Illinois, and Minnesota.

LARRY GILLEN:  When we were in Chicago working, we traveled down here a couple of times a month. It was a six hour drive each way, but this was our, our getaway from the chaos of, of Chicago.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  When we think about it, we don't know how we did it, really and truly. Of course, you know, that's 35, 30 years younger, but he would pick me up in Chicago, in the downtown because that's where I worked, and try to get out of Chicago at 5 o'clock on Friday afternoon. You can imagine. So, we would get here tired and then sleep a little bit and then in the morning we'd get up and start planting trees, do whatever. He built the pond up there while we were here. So, we were always coming to do something, but mostly outside, because we weren't going to do the inside until we were ready to come in.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  So, there was a lot of improvements that Larry built with some help, of course, but the pond up in the hills, it was one of our major accomplishments and lots and lots of trees that we planted.

LARRY GILLEN:  We planted, the most we planted were white pine, and we planted river birch along the river. We planted some Virginia pines in some very eroded areas. This land, and I have pictures from 1938, aerial photographs, and there were very few trees here. It was all cleared for grazing, except in the very steep ravine areas. Those were the only places that had trees. Everything else was, was cleared by that time.

KAYTE YOUNG:  By 1995, Larry was ready to settle on the land permanently. Helen kept working for six more years, spending as much time as she could on the farm. By 2001, she was ready to retire and join Larry at the homestead. Now that they live on the land, they grow a lot of food.

LARRY GILLEN:  We grow a varied vegetable garden, a lot of annuals. We have a 2,400 sq. ft. high tunnel and so, in the winter we eat kale, spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets, Asian radishes. Also in there we have...

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Strawberries.

LARRY GILLEN:  ...strawberries in the spring. We also have three fig trees.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Mm. I made our, our first jam.

LARRY GILLEN:  Part of our focus on growing things, and we don't market much of anything, we give some away to local outlets and we share with friends and neighbors. But one of the focuses is to grow things that we can store and keep easily, like winter squash is the best example. Also potatoes, sweet potatoes. These things, you harvest them and you can put them away for several months without, you know, doing very much with them. That's, I'd say that's one of our main focuses, along with the wonderful things we can grow in the summer. All the green beans, cucumbers, okra, tomatoes and peppers, and all that.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  And, and patches of zinnias. Beautiful zinnia patches that we have. Just gorgeous. And Larry's very humble in saying this, because he doesn't want to say this, but one of the things that we did in when we had, last year more than this year because there were other pressures, but we used to take bouquets of zinnias to the nursing home, so that they could share them with the people and we also, whilst we were in market we also gave them some, so that they could share with their customers, just give it to them if we have excess.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Like, right now we have a lot of Korean radishes and we have taken them a lot of these radishes, the various kinds to the farmers, to the deli, the co-op, so that they can enhance the things that they have, so they can add this. So, we give a little.

LARRY GILLEN:  We also grow a lot of garlic.


LARRY GILLEN:  4,000 garlics we planted here just before Halloween and we've kind of leveled off at that kind of scale. And then in the spring we've got beds beside the garlic that are set up for onions. Garlics, of course, keep well in the winter. We harvest them in July and plant our own seed from what we grew the year before. Because 4,000 is a lot of holes to poke in the ground, and cloves to put in them, we invite members of the community over and so we have a little garlic planting festival sort of thing. It's not over-blown at all, but Helen is the ringleader of a great meal when we finish that day and so we have a fun day of it with community.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  And after we harvest, they can, they'll have all the garlic that they need for the year.


HELEN VASQUEZ:  So, all the participants benefit of the garlic harvest.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And they benefit from your meal. What did you make this year?

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Oh, my God! What did-- I don't even remember what I did this year.

LARRY GILLEN:  Did we have potatoes?

HELEN VASQUEZ:  No. I don't remember. I, I know last year I had a, a five bean chili, and they loved it so much. I said, "no, I'm not doing it again", because it took me ten hours to do it. So, who knows what I did this year, but it's always something fun.


HELEN VASQUEZ:  And something good and they enjoy it. And we have desserts and all kinds of stuff, so it's a good coming together.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yes. It's a community event but you're also getting something done.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Oh, yes, exactly.


HELEN VASQUEZ:  We've seen members that come for two years in a row. But it's just, I think that it gives a different sense of what the community's all about. So, we get dirty, muddy, because most of the time it's about that time of the year, but then they come and we have to cover your shoes. You know, have tea. By the way, we're going to have some tea in a minute. For you too. Whenever you're ready to stop. So, it's a lot of fun. We make it fun.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You also said you planted pawpaws.

LARRY GILLEN:  A neighbor gifted us about 75 two-year-old pawpaws. He started them from seeds and the seed source for these are the state winners of Ohio, the state winner of Michigan and another pawpaw contest, the winner of that contest. He's started seeds from those three competitions and he had more than he was going to plant, so he sent them our way.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  He gifted us.

LARRY GILLEN:  Knowing we would give them a home.


LARRY GILLEN:  So, they're in the field down here and we're trying to learn about what all goes on in pawpaws. We know them in the woods but they don't fruit very well in the woods. They're a colony type of tree. In other words, you plant one tree and the next thing you know it sends out roots and then it sends up shoots. Now you have two pawpaw trees or three or four and that's how they grow in the woods in patches. They're not very long lived. They're maybe 35 years, but the colony keeps producing new ones, so you plant one and you might have a pawpaw patch there a very, very long time from now.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  We don't have any-- what would I call it-- any thoughts about that we're going to see the pawpaws in our lifetime, but that's okay. We didn't plant them for us, we planted for somebody else to enjoy.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's an interesting thing you bring up because I think about that a lot with planting any fruit or nut trees, it just really requires that vision for the future. Is that like a philosophy you have with your land?

LARRY GILLEN:  Well, yes.

LARRY GILLEN:  I mean, it's definitely we try to look in terms of the long term. We try to promote good things to grow here. We try to control some of the invasives that are around. We're not extreme about it. In fact, autumn olive is one of the invasives, but we treat that one like a crop because it grows woody enough that we can cut them and we make chips for mulch. We have a chipper that mounts on the back of a tractor and so, we don't encourage them, but we tolerate them and when they form big groups that are problematic, then we turn them into chips and make use of them.


HELEN VASQUEZ:  I think our approach is, it's like Larry said, it's making it better, improving the land every time we have a chance for the better, so the people that follows us, they can have an opportunity to enjoy what it is and we pray and hope that they will continue to improve it to where it is a place that they can feed themselves, because we have maple trees and we do mapling. We are benefited by the sweetness of the maple. Right? So, that's a source of sweetness for us and for the people to come after us and, hopefully, the pawpaws will be, one of these days, somebody can enjoy that fruit, yeah.

KAYTE YOUNG:  For the past few years, people have been connecting with Helen and Larry's farm through work exchange programs like WWOOF, Workaway, and HelpX. I was curious about what kinds of people came through.

LARRY GILLEN:  It's a bit of a variety.


LARRY GILLEN:  It's a bit of a variety. We've had people ages 18 to 50. Actually, 18 to 69. Becky was here this summer, from Holyoke, Massachusetts and she's ready to relocate. She, you know, sees suburban life in the middle of a cluster of colleges in Massachusetts as not being the place that she wants to grow old in and she sees a community here. So, age-wise, there's quite a span. We've seen couples, a lot of singles. We just had a 27-year-old male here on a 90 Day Visa from Germany. We've had young people that just need to find a new something different. We've had travelers who culminated their two year travel here because it's peaceful and quiet, and they'd been in 23 countries in two years.

LARRY GILLEN:  So, it's really quite varied.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  I think for many of them it's taking a break to decide what's next.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The visitors help with work on the land in exchange for room and board, but it's more than that for Larry and Helen.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We'll hear more about that after a short break, and we'll talk about the land transfer arrangement that brought me to Helen and Larry's story in the first place. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats. I'm speaking with Helen Vasquez and Larry Gillen on their farm near Paoli, Indiana. Before the break we were talking about the folks who ended up joining them on their farm to work and to share in the particular approach to land management that Helen and Larry teach.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  I think that, without realizing, we're impacting the life of these young people, or not too young people, that come to us, because we share our philosophy without wanting to. But like, for example, trust. We tell them, "Well, we don't check in here, you don't have a clock. We let Mother Nature tell us." If it's going to rain then we have to work longer. If it's not going to rain and we have time we can work less. So, we made a commitment. You give us five hours a day, and we feed you and we house you and you have Internet free. You have free everything, right, for five hours. You know when you put your five hours. We're not going to keep track and say "oh, did you make the five hours today?". No, we don't do that, because we trust. We work on a trust factor.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  And I think that for some of them it's very, it's a new concept that you don't have to check in and that we're not going to see whether you put five hours today or not, you know? But also, the respect for the land. I remember one of the young men who was here, he left the Tarzan running, while he was loading it and I said, "It's running", and he said, "Well, this will take ten minutes,15 at the most", I said "But all that time, all those fumes are going to the, to the environment. We are polluting this place" and he said, "Really?", I said, "yes, really". So, it was like, "oh, I didn't think about it" you know, but it's being conscious of everything we do, about how we treat the land.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  But for us, it's natural. You know, it's just think. You just turn it off. But if you're not accustomed to being aware of the impact that we have on our environment, and that's everything we do; everything, I think I realize, we realize that many times we take it for granted. We just think it's automatic.

KAYTE YOUNG:  If, like me, you were wondering what a Tarzan is, it's the pet name they have for their Polaris 4 x 4 vehicle that they use to haul things around on the land.

LARRY GILLEN:  All of the things here have names. This is like a little, like a little fantasy land here in a way.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  We also have Jane.

LARRY GILLEN:  Yes. We have Jane as well.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What brought me to Helen and Larry's story is a unique land transfer agreement. I asked them to tell me about their future plans for their farm.

LARRY GILLEN:  Well, we've made some steps. We do not have children. We're realizing that, you know, our clock is ticking and we have gifted the land to a tribal college in South Dakota. It's called Sinte Gleske University, and they are a land grant college, as well as a tribal college. So, they have, you know, a farming orientation. They have a gardening program. So really, the future is up to them. So we have what we brought to the current setting with our goals of planting trees and growing things and, you know, trying to stay out of Mother Nature's way and then over time, we're looking at a transition. In fact, we're in the middle of putting together a five-year plan to make that transition happen.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The small tribal college is on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. They imagine their land becoming a remote classroom for the college and a space for exchange. I wanted to hear more about how and why they made this decision.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Well, I mean, we don't have children. So, I mean, you take it from there.

LARRY GILLEN:  And you don't want it to go to the state, you know, by default. You don't know what's going to happen to it there, so we'd like to have it in some direction that would maybe see some of our values and direction carry forward after we're gone.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  We didn't do this lightly. I mean, we started this discussion, Larry and I, about five, six years ago. It didn't happen overnight. I think that choosing the university was the way that we felt our legacy stands a greater chance of moving forward.

LARRY GILLEN:  We've been making annual trips. This was our tenth year going to Rosebud, Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Reservations. We collect items from the local community, we transport those out there in September every year and drop them off. We've gotten to know some of the people at this university and there's a couple of things that have steered us in this direction and that is that we wanted some place that had some history and Sinte Gleska University has celebrated their 50th anniversary, so they've been around for a little while. And the other thing is that that university is founded by and steered by their own culture. The tribe's culture.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Yes, the tribe's culture.

LARRY GILLEN:  The Lakota and the Sioux culture is what it was founded on. It wasn't from some outside support. Those two things were important to us.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  They're the things that did also help us decide to gift out land to Rosebud. It's because they really have an emphasis on food sovereignty. They really are very keen to that, and with all that entails, you know?

LARRY GILLEN:  There's a big interest in growing vegetables and preserving. Helen, last year, attended a meeting at our friends there, Dallas and Becky Chief Eagle. They have a facility for hosting events and there was a--


LARRY GILLEN:  It was about--

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Presenting and preserving. Canning tomatoes. Yes.

LARRY GILLEN:  Someone from the state came in, that's a specialist on that, and at their place in Yellow Bear Canyon they're putting up a high tunnel and we've seen other very sophisticated facilities going in to increase sustainability on the reservations.

KAYTE YOUNG:  How might the university and the reservations that are connected to it use this land, do you think? I mean, given the location isn't right there, how do you imagine or how have they talked about it, if they have?

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Well, there's several things. I think that the first time we met with Lionel, the President, he wants to connect this, this place with the IU as an interchange of students and developing some cooperative stuff and carry it all the way to Chicago. I mean, he really wants to go all the way to Chicago. Will that come to be? I'm not sure. They want to establish some kind of connection between this place and IU and extend it when the time comes to Chicago. That's one, one thing. The other one is community enhancing. Kind of working together about a cultural exchange and we have been doing that. I mean, Larry and I have been fostering that concept with Orange County.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  We have brought people in from the universities and bring them together. Like, for example.

LARRY GILLEN:  Carmelita and Sonny, that run the gardening school that's at Sinte Gleska, they came here and one of our focuses was to show them the community that we have. So, we went to a large sustainable farm here in the county. We visited Bramble Berry Farm, which grows a lot of perennials. We visited Lost River Market and Deli and visited with other people. So, they got to see the flavor of the community here and how people worked together and then we're also looking at a possibility for hosting like workshops here. And that's the central part of the plan we have for transition will be how we identify and cultivate people from the Reservation to come here and interact.

LARRY GILLEN:  We take a little trailer every year and we haul sewing machines and fabric, clothing and garden tools, and this year we didn't bring the trailer back.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Because they're bringing back Buffalo.


KAYTE YOUNG:  The tribal college maintains a herd of buffalo, and they've talked about sending buffalo meat to Larry and Helen, since they're feeding and housing people on the land.

LARRY GILLEN:  Next year that will be a, an initial part of the interchange over the long distance. But long distance is clearly something that we are working with and are aware of that we have to find ways to make it happen.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, there's a question that I have, and I don't know quite how to ask it but, you know, there's a lot of causes and organizations or individuals that you could gift your land to if that was something you decided you wanted to do and I just wondered if there was any thought about the idea of reparations or the history of this nation and land theft and all of those things and if that came into your decision making with this, or if it was more just "we already have relationships with these people and so this feels like a good fit."

LARRY GILLEN:  No. I think, yes, that's, that's a very good question and, of course, these are people who the language of extermination and genocide has been applied to and is in many ways still being acted out. We think that if we continue to leave it up to the governments and big institutions to do something.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  It may not happen. We have a young man who came and we were telling him about what we have done. He grew up here, because his father and his kids grew up, stayed here while we were running around trying to pay for the property. And he says, "Why?", I said, "We're just giving back what we took away from them and that's the way we feel." I mean, our land is going back to where it belongs.

LARRY GILLEN:  Welcome to Indian Territory.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  And that's what we say, "Welcome to Indian Territory." This is their territory. Yes. I think subconsciously, I mean, we didn't say we're going to do it because of reparation. We just knew that somehow they were the best people to have it.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, I just think it's such a rare thing because a lot of people have that understanding, but they're not going to put their property on the line. You know, they're not going to take that extra step.

LARRY GILLEN:  And I think that might be changing.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Yes. I was just thinking about the same thing, because I think what we started is beginning to take roots and we hear other people that want to do the same thing.

LARRY GILLEN:  I just heard an interview the other day, two days ago, regarding COP26 and the issues we all face with climate change and they were interviewing an author, I believe he was from the subcontinent of India, but he says "You know, just using the Earth as resources and taking from it is part of what's ingrained in Colonialization" and so, his point was that well, what's the alternative? The alternative is Indigenous ways.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Yes. I think that, you know, when you think of all the problems that we are experiencing as a culture, and I'm talking about the American culture, I am edified to hear how the Native American ways are coming, almost perceptibly, making their way, feeling to all of us, you know, almost imperceptibly but real.

LARRY GILLEN:  To your question about I think what brought us here and not everybody's going to gift their land to some indigenous organization, but I think it is changing and, you know, Helen and I are rather ordinary people and I don't think we're the only ones that, you know, have these interests by any means. I think it's going to be materialized in this kind of action that we're taking with others.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, thank you both so much for talking with me today, really. It's been wonderful.

LARRY GILLEN:  We're grateful for the opportunity.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Thank you.

LARRY GILLEN:  Thank you for hearing us.

HELEN VASQUEZ:  Have a safe trip.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It was difficult to pull ourselves away once it was time to go, but they made sure to load us down with food, including chili peppers and cushaw squash. Mine was the size of a three month old baby. We took a peek at the fig trees and all of the greens growing in the hoop house, before heading down the trail to cross the river and head down the road towards home.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Marie referred to the footbridge as a transition. Sort of the portal into and out of a fantasy land. I agree, it does feel that way.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Once it becomes their remote classroom, I wonder what the folks from Sinte Gleska college on the Rosebud Reservation will make of this very dreamy, yet very ordinary, place along the Patoka River in Southern Indiana, 1,000 miles from home. I wonder what they'll make of a pawpaw. I hope they enjoy its sweetness.

KAYTE YOUNG:  For Earth Eats, this is Kayte Young. I've been speaking with Helen Vasquez and Larry Gillen on their farm south of Paoli in Southern Indiana.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening, we'll see you next time.

The Earth Eats team includes Eobon Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Rachel Herrick, Helen Vasquez, Larry Gillen, Marie O'Neill, Julia Valiant and everyone at Sustainable Food Systems Science at Indiana University.

Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artist at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

Helen Vasquez standing next to a big-leafed plant in a greenhouse

Helen Vasquez stands next to her beloved figs in the greenhouse on their farm in southeast Indiana. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“I think our approach is: making it better–improving the land every time we have a chance. We are benefited by the sweetness of the maple, right? So, that’s a source of sweetness for us and for the people to come after us. And hopefully the pawpaws will be. One of these days, somebody can enjoy that fruit. Yeah.” 

This week on the show we continue our celebration of 15 years of Earth Eats. This week, we explore what it can look like to have a vision for your land that extends beyond yourself and even your family. We speak with Larry Gillen and Helen Vasquez about their decision to gift their farm to a tribal college in South Dakota. 

And Josephine McRobbie visits with Rachel Herrick a regenerative farmer building soil in the sandhills of North Carolina with the help of some four-legged(and winged) “teammates.” 

A Visit to "The Crossing" 

To get to Helen and Larry's farm in southeastern Indiana, you head south out of Paoli on a two-lane farm road. Eventually you hit a gravel road. The landscape is hilly and wooded and at some point on their driveway, you encounter the Patoka River.

If the river is dry, you can drive across it and up the hill to their house. If the water is up, you’ll need to take the foot bridge. On the day I visited with Marie O’Neill, the water was up. So we parked the car and grabbed the packs with the recording equipment. 

Marie O'Neill in red jacket and backpack walking accross a rustic wooden foot bridge over a shallow river surrounded by bare limbed trees. The view is from behind her on the bridge
Marie O'Neill, crossing the footbridge onto Helen and Larry's farm (Kayte Young/WFIU)

Marie works with Sustainable Food Systems Science at Indiana University, and they are the ones who told me about Helen and Larry’s story. Marie has been here once before, but she’s never had to take the foot bridge. The bridge looks like something out of a fairy tale. It’s made from sturdy cables pulled taut and lined with small pieces of wood for the decking and rails, which appear to be in varying states of decay. The bridge squeaks and sways as we walk across, single file, but I have the utmost confidence it it’s ability to support us across the river. The structure is solid. I knew going in that Larry is an engineer. That’s where the confidence came from–I could tell that the bridge was well designed and maintained for safety. 

Larry Gillen standing next to a faded blue and black jeep-like vehicle with bare trees and brush in the background
Larry Gillen purchased the farm south of Paoli in the late 1970s, but has only lived on site since 1995. He's pictured here standing next to their Polaris farm vehicle named "Jane" (Kayte Young/WFIU)

Everything on their land seems to be well tended and that’s in keeping with their philosophy of land management. They see themselves as caretakers of the land rather than owners. They’ve planted hundreds of trees over the years, they manage invasive species (though not obsessively) and they grow a lot of food. They prioritize crops that preserve well for the winter months, and they give away what they can’t use themselves. 

As Helen and Larry age, they are looking to the future and thinking about who will care for this 160 acre patch of land once they’re gone. They don’t have children, so they had to be intentional about the next chapter for the farm They decided to set some plans in motion–while they are still of sound mind–and they chose to leave their land to a tribal college called Sinte Gleska on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. They’re a small land grant college with a strong gardening program. 

Helen and Larry had been visiting the area around the college annually for ten years or so. They had established relationships with people on the reservation and at Sinte Gleska University. They started the process of gifting the land just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The process has slowed down, but the wheels are in motion for their five-year transition plan. It is not certain exactly how the tribal college will make use of the land, but the vision includes the farm as a remote classroom and as a site for exchange between the college and tribal communities in South Dakota, and the rural and university communities in southern Indiana.

In this episode, Helen and Larry tell the story of how they came to the land, their approach to land stewardship and what they hope to impart on those who come through (they host people from work exchange programs like WWOOF, Helpx and Workaway). They also reflect on what it means to them to pass the land on to an indgenous community. 

Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from the artists at Universal Production Music.


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

Stories On This Episode

A regenerative farmer enlisted livestock "teammates” to revive fields of dead sand

Rachel Herrick stands in plaid shirt with arms draped over the bed of a weathered pickup truck with trees lake and field in the background

Josephine McRobbie visits with a regenerative farmer building soil in the sandhills of North Carolina with the help of some unusual farm hands.

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