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Growing Happy and Healthy

January 23, 2017 | By Tim Pratt

Alumna Kristi Durbin manages the Community Supported Agriculture program at the University of Kentucky.
Alumna Kristi Durbin manages the Community Supported Agriculture program at the University of Kentucky.

On a tract of land in central Kentucky, farmers are growing dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables.

There’s broccoli, kale, lettuce and tomatoes. Squash, corn, onions, melons and herbs are grown there, too, along with many other items.

All of it is organic, and all of it is being managed by St. John’s College graduate Kristi Durbin.

Durbin (A04) runs the Community Supported Agriculture program at the University of Kentucky. She has held the position since February 2016.

Durbin’s journey to the University of Kentucky was a “convoluted” one, she says with a laugh. But she credits her time at St. John’s with helping her get where she is today.

“I think there were definitely some formative experiences at St. John’s that I look back to,” she says. “First of all, the trajectory of being able to do a lot of soul searching, asking good questions, that path of self-discovery, was critical. It would have been much easier for me to be swayed toward the culture of ‘success’—to have a lot of money, have a high-stakes job—but St. John’s instilled in me a desire to find something I loved. That was my measure of success.”

Even before Durbin arrived at St. John’s, she had a love of gardening. She enjoyed working outside, being in touch with nature and working with her hands. She liked working with people, too.

But Durbin didn’t immediately pursue her passion. After graduating from St. John’s, she worked desk jobs, studied Russian in Eastern Europe and served as a missionary.

Eventually, Durbin realized she no longer wanted to live overseas and returned to her home state of Kentucky. She reflected on what she really enjoyed in life, and that was horticulture.

After returning to the U.S., Durbin started volunteering with the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Kentucky. In 2011, she enrolled at the university and became an apprentice on the Horticulture Research Farm. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Sustainable Agriculture in 2013. Already a staff member at the farm, she eventually worked her way up, becoming manager of the CSA program in February 2016.

The program links faculty, staff and students with the Organic Farming Unit at the farm. The farm is about 80 acres, Durbin says, of which 25 acres are certified organic. The CSA is run on 10-12 acres, she says.

Participants pay a subscription fee and receive a box of items grown at the farm each week during growing season. In 2016, the program distributed food from late May through late October.

Each member receives around 300 pounds of food in a season. The CSA distributes 70,000 pounds of food each year.

All financial proceeds support the production of food during the growing season and student educational activities of the Sustainable Agriculture undergraduate curriculum.

Durbin says she enjoys her new job and her mission at hand.

“One of the fun things about my job is not only am I outside growing food and growing plants, but I get to work with people,” she says. “I work with students one-on-one and mentor them. I get to teach in a hands-on way in the field.”

Her work takes her back to a conversation she had with a freshman one day during her senior year at St. John’s. The conversation revolved around Durbin’s post-graduation plans, with the freshman wondering why she didn’t just move to a big city to try to find a high-paying job.

That conversation still sticks with Durbin. She says she learned at St. John’s the need to lead an “examined life,” one that makes her happy. She hopes that student eventually learned a similar lesson.

“There’s more to it than just your paycheck,” she says.