Staying Fit to Farm - Modern Farmer

Staying Fit to Farm

GardenFit, streaming now on PBS, visits 13 farms to highlight how gardeners can tend to their bodies while cultivating their plots.

The show visits Soul Fire Farm in New York.
Photography courtesy of PBS.

How do you feel after a long day in the garden or on the farm? You might be proud of the work you put in, or maybe you’re feeling excited about the new shoots you can see poking through the soil. But are you also a little sore and achy? Got a crick in your neck and a tightness in your shoulders? A wrenched back, creaky knees, tight hamstrings…it comes with the gardening territory.

Madeline Hooper knows your planting pain. She felt it herself, too. The longtime PR executive turned to gardening after retiring, and she has spent years cultivating her own garden in upstate New York, spending hours at a time outside. But as happy as she felt to muck about in the dirt, her body was paying the price. So a friend recommended she find a personal trainer. The next day, she called Jeff Hughes, a longtime fitness trainer for celebrity clients. “Once I started to work with Jeff, he had a chance to really understand what I was doing,” says Hooper. “And within a month, the stress, the aches, the pains, all went away, because I was moving my body better.” 

Hughes’ fitness philosophy relies on building routines and following some basic guidelines. Clients have often told him he should write a book, but he jokes that “my stuff is so common sense that a book would be a pamphlet.” When asked about a universal tip that can help most backyard gardeners, his go-to piece of advice was: Pay attention to your posture. Keep your ears in line with your shoulders, shoulders in line with your hips and hips in line with your knees. Aim for that as a neutral stance, and you’ll stave off a lot of issues. Small but powerful.

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Still, common sense or not, the stretches and “fixes” that Hughes prescribed to Hooper were so effective, they sparked an idea. How could they help other people with similar issues? Although Hooper is a newbie to the television world, Hughes has spent time in front of the camera before, acting in small roles on shows such as Days of Our Lives and All My Children. Taking this garden-based advice to the small screen seemed like a natural fit for the pair. From there, GardenFit was born. 

Now streaming on, the show involves Hughes and Hooper traveling to a different garden or farm in each episode. They traverse the country, meeting with farmers and gardeners who are just as passionate about the outdoors. Viewers get a tour of the different garden spaces, and the guests talk about what they grow and why. The growers speak about their physical health challenges as well as how their gardens help their mental well-being. It’s a balancing act.

Harvesting saffron at Peace and Plenty Farm in California.

There’s Peace and Plenty Farm in northern California, run by Melinda Price and Simon Avery. The couple moved from a city lifestyle to become the largest saffron growers in North America. But harvesting more than half a million saffron flowers per season is no small feat. Saffron crocuses grow fairly close to the ground, while Price and Avery both stand more than six feet tall. All that hunching and bending over was becoming a problem. “I needed to fix how they bent down and stood up, without hurting their backs,” Hughes says. “The first time he stood straight up, Simon went “Oh!” And he just got it.”

There’s also Brooke Bridges of Soul Fire Farm in New York, a community farm committed to food sovereignty and incorporating traditional African techniques to crop cultivation. While running the farm, hiking up and down 80 acres of narrow rows, Bridges was also pregnant and trying to temper her foot and ankle pain. By adding a few simple stretches and swapping out her restrictive rain boots for more comfortable sneakers, Hughes was able to make a big change for the new mom. 

Throughout the season, Hooper and Hughes also visit a Japanese-style zen garden in Connecticut to help owner Bob Levine get rid of his knee pain while weeding and begin practicing Tai Chi again. At 95, Peggy Walsh is the show’s oldest guest. She starts each morning with a barefoot walk through her backyard vegetable garden. One of the largest farms they visit, Ziibimijwang Farm in northern Michigan, sits on 300 acres of tribal land. The head of the garden, Rosebud Schneider, dives into the history and meaning behind her “three sisters” crops (corn, beans and squash), finding links to her ancestors through cultivating the land. 

At Ziibimijwang Farm in Michigan.

 The fixes Hughes suggests are often quick and simple. He designs them so they can be done whenever or wherever, without needing a gym or other equipment. But the goal is to enjoy your time outside, not dread the work because of how it makes you feel. “One of the reasons that we went to so many different gardens, and saw people from ages 30 to 95, in all different shapes and sizes, is we wanted to inspire people that it is that simple,” Hooper says. The pair chose guests who genuinely love gardening and would benefit from understanding how to use their bodies better. “Their body could be their best garden tool.” 

After their initial visits, Hooper and Hughes return to the farms four weeks later to see how their students have taken to the lessons. In all cases, the farmers’ aches and pains are gone, and their gardens are flourishing. Hughes hopes people watching the show will recognize an issue or two that they might suffer from and work to correct it. Gardeners and farmers are already “used to doing something and being a little patient, nurturing it and watching it grow,” Hughes says. “Take four weeks and try to change a few things. I would love it if everybody started feeling better out in the field.”

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For Hooper, the joy of the show is in seeing how passionate the guest farmers and gardeners are about their plots and how connected they are to their land. The show isn’t just about physical fitness, it also incorporates the mental fitness aspect of being outside, tying it all together into a holistic sense of wellness. “The solitude and the peace of working on one plant, pulling one tomato…it’s an exciting feeling that we are contributing to the planet, even in our small little space,” says Hooper, who hopes people watching see that there are no rules when gardening, as long as it makes you happy.

“All of the people we visited were trailblazers,” she says. “They really created their environment.” Viewers at home can do that, too. Plant what you like, and watch your posture. Everything else will sort itself out.

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