Founder, The Organic Gardener Ltd. and Author, From the Ground Up
“I was looking for something that would be basic and true and hold water no matter what.”
In 2005, Jeanne started a business called The Organic Gardener Limited. “We help families, individuals, schools, restaurants, not-for-profit organizations, corporations, whoever, grow food. We’re a full service company, so we have a landscape architect on staff. We design, build, implement, plant, educate, maintain, every aspect of what it takes to grow food in a sort of programmed setting or a backyard.”
Find more on The Organic Gardener Limited, Jeanne, and her book, here.
Jeanne tells me about what happened when, at 17 years old, she decided to eschew her family’s wealth and seek something more meaningful for herself, and how she views their wealth, today.
I remember having a conversation with my dad when I was probably 17, and I was really starting to think about the biggest questions. What is life about, why are we here? My family was not traditionally religious, so those answers weren’t definite in my family. My parents are atheists. It was more like: we are all figuring that out.
I asked my father what he lived for, and he said to me, “To make money to take care of my girls.” My sister, my mother, and myself. As a young, idealistic 17-year-old, I was disgusted by that. I really thought that that was shallow. I think that that set me kind of searching for my own meaning. I think I knew that what brought meaning to my father’s life was not going to hold water for me.
Did you tell him that?
My actions certainly did. I put my parents through, what I see now…. I don’t even know how they endured it, really. I grew up in Winnetka. Affluent New Trier [High School]. And I really felt that I was surrounded by shallowness, by people who were focused on money and all that money brought as happiness, but they didn’t seem happy to me. I was really struggling to find any role models. Within New Trier, within my community. It wasn’t looking to me like what I wanted out of life.
I think that I was searching for something that made me feel connected to some kind of deeper rhythm in life or meaning. I had always loved nature as a child. I went to summer camp in northern Wisconsin. A lot of my most pleasant memories and my best, most profound, content feelings had to do with the natural world. So I think that I was looking to feel a part of that. And I think I was also looking for something that would be basic and true and hold water no matter what.
At that point in my life, I wanted to simplify, not focus on material acquisitions as the sources of pleasure. I was really interested in things that were real and true and basic and honest and challenging. So that’s what I went searching for.
My boyfriend and I saved money and we went to Arizona and New Mexico, camping, searching, found nothing, lot of hiking, came home. But what I did find in Flagstaff, Arizona, was a little health store where I learned about organic food. I’d never heard about organic food. It was 1987. I was like, well what does organic mean? They explained it to me. It was like a light bulb. That’s what I want to do!
My mom had told a friend of hers about me and the struggles I was having, and her friend said, “Oh. So she’s earthy.” (Laughs) Her friend had read an ad in the Chicago Reader, and my mom brought it home for me. It was for a farm where I ended up going in 1987. It was a commune and an organic farm. I spent the next 17 years with that group farming in three different locations.
The place was called Zendik Farm, [and] was very, very critical of society. And really perceived itself as like a healthy alternative that was better for the Earth and more natural. So I was very steeped in this perspective that the outside world was a very negative place for myself and my daughter. There was a lot that was idyllic about the farm. About 116 acres in North Carolina, foothills of the Smoky Mountains. We had gorgeous buildings we built from all recycled materials; we had goats and goat cheese and yogurt and veggies. There was a lot that was great about it. Nice rhythms to that lifestyle, and there’s a lot to be said for sharing, for living communally.
But the bad was bad. It had some aspects of it that were cultish. Not the real extreme things that we think of when we think cult, but the leaders… They were a couple. He’d been a Beat poet on the Left Bank of Paris. She’d been an actress in Hollywood. Sort of ultra-bohemian people. But there were sort of power issues. The cultish stuff really manifested in never letting people get that close [to one another]. The same with parents and children. They really didn’t promote fully loving, healthy families developing within the commune. By the time I left, I had a daughter who was two and a half and it no longer worked for me.
I think that much of my family’s story is a great lesson in successful parenting. I think my parents really handled an incredibly difficult situation with a lot of wisdom. The way they handled it enabled me, at 35, with a two-and-half year old daughter, to call my father and say, “I need to come home.” And he was able to say, “When?” And I was able to say, “Now.” We moved in with them, and they set about helping me make a new life.
When I came home, I was struggling with some very fundamental issues. I had been brought to my knees by the failure of my life. I had gotten very off course, so I had to get myself on course. I felt terrible. My daughter was unhappy. I was not pleased with how I was mothering. So having that out of balance, entering my parents’ nice home with thick carpet and wallpaper and things that seemed frou-frou to me and things I couldn’t relate to [was difficult]. There were things that were difficult to adjust to. On the farm, there was a way that we dressed, a style, a look, and it tolerated frayed and stained and dirty. I hadn’t had a professional haircut in like 17 years. But some of it felt really good. Some of it was soothing and comforting. But the primary thing that was comforting was rejoining with my parents.
How has your view of money changed since you were in high school?
Well now my view of money is totally different. I’ve almost come full circle. [My husband and I] live in Glencoe, which is great, and we rent this little coach house here. It’s a historic house on a four-acre property. We pay for our rent partially through trade; we tend a very large vegetable garden on the property, so part of the reason we’re able to afford renting this coach house in Glencoe is because part of our rent is via our work on the garden.
Thea is eleven, now; she’s in sixth grade. She likes beautiful clothes, it’s very important to her. She calls herself a fashionista, among other things. [I said], “Let’s have a mommy- daughter day. What would you like to do? Work in the garden together? Take a bike ride in the forest preserve?” [She says], “Can we go to Chicago and go to lunch at the Four Seasons and go look around at Armani and Prada?”
“Yes! Let’s go for it. Absolutely, let’s go. Let’s do it.” And I have a good time doing it. Because I love her and it’s what she’s interested in. And I can get into it. It’s not like it’s completely disinteresting, you know?
I’ve not only relaxed about money, about a month ago, I found myself saying, I’m going to accept that I’m in a different phase. I want to make money. I mean, I don’t feel like my father where I want to make millions and millions. But I would like to make the amount of money that it takes to send my kids to college and own a nice house. I don’t want a huge house, but our house is too small. Our younger daughter doesn’t have a bedroom; she’s kind of in a nook. It’s very teeny, it’s a little too teeny.
I don’t have a totally clear picture on how much money I will be inheriting someday and what the range is. The house [my folks] built in Sonoma is lovely, and there’s a two-and-a-half acre vineyard, it’s something you keep for the next generations of our family. It’s a keeper. Whereas their house in Winnetka… I mean, it’s extraordinary, but it’s not me at all. It’s sort of colonial and formal. So I remember saying to my dad, “So, we inherit Sonoma… How am I going to have the money to pay the taxes?” He said, “Don’t worry. You’ll have the money to pay the taxes.” (Laughs)
Has that maybe enabled me to take more risk? To be more of an entrepreneur? To go more into unknown zones because I felt like I had a cushion back there should I need it? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s comforting to me that there will be some money that I will inherit. I think if I thought there would be nothing, I would be more focused on retirement.
I feel very appreciative of my dad. I mean, I feel very different about my parents, now. My point of view on my parents now…I don’t know that I feel completely apologetic for everything that I did, but I feel different about it. I have a lot of respect for them and appreciation.
Why am I able to do what I do? Because my dad busted his ass his whole life.
Jeanne’s memoir, titled From the Ground Up: A Food Grower’s Education in Life, Love and the Movement, was published by Random House in 2013.
See also my interview with Jeanne’s father, Les Pinsof.