Amanda Nigon-Crowley finds no greater pleasure than connecting with people who like to play in the dirt.

Nigon-Crowley is the executive director of The Village Agricultural Coop, an organization focused on providing a place for people of different cultures to grow their own food, educating the public on sustainable farming and encouraging the next generation of growers. The Village is spread across six sites, with community gardens at five of them.

Through the pandemic, the 40-year-old has continued to drive the organization forward, bringing in more participants from around the community in a time when many felt isolated.

What got you interested in sustainable farming, especially with a multicultural focus?

I grew up farming, and my family has always done as much as we can to put away our own food. And that is something that I've just carried with me throughout my life. So I left Rochester for 10 years, and everywhere I worked I was starting a community garden or participating in a garden. I worked in mental health for 12 years, I have a master's in art therapy. So I think that growing gardens has always been kind of a therapeutic form of art for me. I really like functional art -- growing gardens is beautiful, and it's also highly functional. I think I have a strong connection to the Cambodian community in Rochester, because growing up in the Catholic school system, I have many friends who were Cambodian. And I remember going to their houses and seeing how they lived in a multi-generational household. As I've gotten older, my family and my roots are very important to me, and my ties to -- primarily -- Ireland. Just seeing how it's so important to keep those cultural ties alive and pass them down.

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Also, I just have a really big heart for supporting people who want to improve their lives. Especially hardworking people, or people who like to grow food. It's not an easy path. So yeah, I joke that, you know, finding other people who like to play in the dirt is a passion.

Amanda Nigon-Crowley, garden coordinator with the University of Minnesota Rochester and the director of The Village Agricultural Cooperative, works with compost Thursday, July 22, 2021, at The Village in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Amanda Nigon-Crowley, garden coordinator with the University of Minnesota Rochester and the director of The Village Agricultural Cooperative, works with compost Thursday, July 22, 2021, at The Village in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

What populations do you serve?

Our largest populations are coming from Cambodia and Kenya, but then we have a number of people who are from Mexico, Guatemala. We have six or seven other countries in Africa represented: Cameroon, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Sudan. We have people from Iran, Bosnia, Ukraine, Laos. We have, I think, one or two Hmong growers. So yeah, we have over 15 different countries represented at our largest community garden.

Your organization focuses on raising awareness of different cultures as well as sustainable farming. In the current political climate, do you feel you're gaining new support from the community?

I definitely feel like it's been a little easier to gain momentum because of the current political climate, and because of global warming. Younger people seem to be more interested in creating a sustainable future. So, it's all of those things. It's the need for cultural integration and acceptance. It's the need for local food markets that are environmentally friendly.

To me, people are people. Our organization comes from all over the world. And if someone's willing to come in and work hard and grow their own foods, then we're here for them. That's the bottom line.

Amanda Nigon-Crowley, garden coordinator with the University of Minnesota Rochester and the director of The Village Agricultural Cooperative, works with compost Thursday, July 22, 2021, at The Village in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Amanda Nigon-Crowley, garden coordinator with the University of Minnesota Rochester and the director of The Village Agricultural Cooperative, works with compost Thursday, July 22, 2021, at The Village in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

What does a typical day look like for you?

The storms that went through on July 6 knocked down one of our sheds. The week looked like going out and finding all of the pieces of the shed and starting to rebuild it. And then, in between that, we had a summer of service group come out, we had a University of Minnesota-Rochester cohort come out. I'm kind of juggling a little too much at this point. And working to make it not be like that forever. We have a lot of active groups in the communities that are involved, and we're working on educating youth. And then I'm also a bit of the property maintenance person. So it's a lot of project management, really. It's making sure that all the groups are coming together doing what they need to do, that we have the supplies that we need. And then trying to find time to sit down at my computer and write grants, emails, bookkeeping, all of that.

What have been some of the most fulfilling moments of the job?

I've made some really amazing friends. And I think seeing the way that language doesn't have to be a barrier. It's not a barrier to building amazing things. The nonverbal communication that (is) able to happen to get a job done, we have a few people at our garden who are quite elderly.

I've helped some of our elders, Cambodians in particular, feel more comfortable interacting with white people. A lot of our people are refugees of war. And so, there's a certain level of trust that needs to be established. I used to have a couple of our growers, I would call them on the phone for something and they would have their daughter call me back or they would have their son call me back because they weren't comfortable speaking with me on the phone. We might have to repeat ourselves three or four different ways before we understand one another, and even then there still might be some misunderstanding. But just the fact that people are comfortable now in doing that, I think is a real win for us.

Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to news@postbulletin.com.