“I’ve always had this idea, sort of a picture in my mind, of a lot of people working physically together, towards a common goal. Not only like working together and being simple, like peasants, having simple needs and not complicated by so many interpersonal things going on. Just people working side by side and as they’re working it becomes an art – they’re singing, see. They’re singing and it’s a rhythm…We’re doing the farming part and kind of doing the music thing and maybe somehow those will work more together and really living life more artistically and having our daily activities more appealing and beautiful and more nourishing than now.” – Ken King, 1989
Twenty years ago Ken King shared this simple idea about community and life. He achieved that vision, and more. Through his practical practice of his ideals, hard work, loving family, and extensive community, he lived and thrived on Frog Holler Farm in Brooklyn Michigan. Locally, Ken is perhaps best known from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, where the Frog Holler produce has been a staple.
Ken died Thursday, May 7. His was a life well-lived.
Ken’s life was entwined with his family, their farm and their love of music. Cathy King, his wife, is a well-known yoga instructor for Inward Bound in Ann Arbor. Ken and Cathy have three grown sons – Billy, Kenny and Edwin.
With his family, Ken created the community that he had idealized. The place, the earth, the food were all interrelated for him. In a 1989 interview, he told me, “I feel stronger than ever that our soil and our environment are losing vitality, so people are losing their vitality. Before we can deal with all the social and personal problems, I think it’s absolutely essential to rebuild people’s health. I’ve had just an inkling of what a healthy soil is, and it’s radically different. I think that a healthy person would be that much more radically different from what we’ve grown accustomed to. We have grown accustomed to less than exuberant living. Less than fulfillment. We have just accepted it. People say all the time ‘that’s life.’ I can’t accept that. It just seems that there should be a lot of joy and happiness.”
That joy and happiness extended to their customers, too. The Frog Holler website includes this bit of their history: “During their first years as organic truck farmers, Ken and Cathy experienced the proverbial steep learning curve; but their needs were small, Ken made apple cider for natural food’s stores in Ann Arbor, and they were able to obtain a stall, and find a niche as the first organic growers at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market. From that time on, it has been full tilt trying to keep the customers healthy and happy.”
The People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor and Frog Holler Farm had a symbiotic relationship for many years. Carol Collins, former general manager of the co-op, described it to me as “a wonderful circle. You have to have people who are committed to providing organic food for the co-op, and then the co-op can commit to supporting local growers.” Carol described Ken as someone who “helped the People’s Food Co-op become a leader in providing local and organic food to the community.” And with a sad smile, she added “he was just a joy to be around.”
His relationship with the co-op wasn’t just about food. ”Ken and his sons played for several co-op events,” said Kevin Sharp, the co-op’s marketing and member services director. “It wasn’t that long ago they played in the Sculpture Plaza.” And their music was also welcome at several annual meetings.
Frog Holler seedlings and starts have been a part of thousands of gardens over the years, and the co-op carried their seedlings for many years, Kevin said. “There were trays of seedling in front of the co-op with their little hand made signs. That’s the image I think of remembering Ken.”
Dick Siegel remarked on that legacy when I talked with him at Saturday’s Farmers Market. “Through his work with growing things he still remains – in hundreds of people’s gardens.” Dick first met Ken in 1972, through the Indian Summer Restaurant, which Ken and Cathy King co-owned.
On the Frog Holler Produce website, owner Richard Peshkin explains some of that early history: “Back in the 70′s there was definitely a communal element going on in Ann Arbor. A group of us at Indian Summer Restaurant decided to buy a farm, and in a get-back-to-nature kind of way, we wanted to live on the land and grow food for the restaurant. At this juncture I would be amiss not to mention Ken King. Ken was the impetus for both Indian Summer and the Farm, which was and still is Frog Holler Farm, located in Brooklyn, Michigan. Ken was the spiritual leader and guiding force behind both the restaurant and the farm. Many of the folks who participated in Indian Summer, I would venture to guess, were inspired by their participation there, and their lives was profoundly affected by the experience. I know mine was! You may have run into Ken, and his wife Cathy King at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, where they bring their fine, farm raised organic vegetables and fruits to market. They’ve been at it for over 35 years and have helped raise the awareness of the organic and local produce movement in Washtenaw County.”
When the farm was purchased in 1972 it came with the stipulation that they keep the name, and continue to be stewards of the land as a wildlife habitat. It is 125 acres of hilly land, primarily of woods with a large pond and just a few acres dedicated to gardening. The early years were certainly lean, but Ken once observed, “I can sacrifice a lot because ideals and stuff I feel are life sustaining.” Ken had a wonderful partner in his wife Cathy, who shared the same spirit. In my interview with them in 1989, she said, “We are trying to live in a more spontaneous, intuitive manner – in that sense we have exchanged security in the material world for a really interesting time.”
Frog Holler has been a learning place, sanctuary and inspiration to untold numbers of people over the last 35 years. I first visited the farm in 1987, and it wasn’t more than a few hours until Ken had the group of us squatting in a wet field, carefully placing baby leeks into the black fertile ground. With a dozen of us at work together, this normally back-breaking work was fun, quick, and satisfying.
Joan Bailey worked on Frog Holler Farm, before transplanting herself to Japan this winter. She found a farmer there to work with, and in a recent blog entry she wrote this: ”We ended at a patch of broccoli that they said was done and needed to be cleaned up. Very generously they said we should pick as much as we wanted to take home and eat. The farmer then, in a gesture so similar to one I’ve seen Ken King do a million times over that it made my heart ache, took a bite out of a stalk he’d just picked. He said it was sweet tasting, and that it was organic. (If it weren’t for the time difference and the fact that I don’t have a cell phone, I would have called Ken on the spot to tell him about this. I felt so at home.)”
Joan sent these reflections from Japan: “Moonlight Bright As Day. I first heard Ken King sing this song a handful of years ago in the barn at a Frog Holler party. Eyes closed while he leaned into the microphone and played his guitar, Ken conjured up a world that shimmered and glowed with magic, love, and a little mystery. Since word of his death reached us, this is just one of the memories that run through my mind. Little flashes of Ken – eating oatmeal straight out of the pot on a chilly market morning as he waited behind the stall; waving his hand in dismissal and walking away as we tried to pay for the extra vegetables or seedlings he slipped in the bag; biting into a carrot in the field and declaring it the sweetest yet; engaging in earnest conversation at the side of the market table with long time customers – that make my heart smile and ache all at once.”
“It is hard to imagine that Ken is not here to talk with or hear sing. Or share a cup of tea with. It is harder to imagine Frog Holler without him, yet the vision he and his family shared and brought to life there carries on. The kale savors the chill of the spring morning, the garlic planted last fall stretches ever skyward, and the tomato seedlings limber up just outside the greenhouse for planting in the field. Hands together sow and set, weed and work as the days get longer and the pond water warms. Another world shimmering and glowing with magic, love, and a little mystery, but thankfully real. A gift from a friend we will all deeply miss.”
Ken’s spiritual side was strong. Standing in the busy aisles of the Farmer’s Market, Dick Siegel said that “Ken was one of the most earthy, spiritual people that I knew. [He was] grounded totally in the earth and in the realm of heart and spirit. That allows me to accept his transition into the spiritual realm more easily. He was so much a part of that.”
Haju Sunim, the resident priest of The Zen Buddhist Temple in Ann Arbor, also knew Ken well. In a phone call talking about her relationship with Ken, she was concerned that “I don’t want to make a big thing about it because I don’t think he would have. But by virtue of his really gentle and almost invisible generosity for many years we [the temple] have had a bounty of kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower and more. His influence has been felt a long way away through the greater sangha in a beautiful way. He was that kind of fellow. Sometimes I would ask him to advise us on how we were doing [in the garden]. He would come and walk around. One time he came and said ‘You guys just do not know how to weed!’ and brought us some special hoes.”
The King family made it possible for the temple to produce two musical CDs. “They believed in it so much that it helped to make it happen,” Haju said. And there were other ways that the King’s supported the temple. “They offered the building there at the farm for retreats. It felt like in a way part of a big family. I can’t say that I saw him more than 2-3 times a year, at market, when they came to drop things off, when we saw each other it was very kind of – so low key that it was sort of beautiful.” Haju finished by acknowledging that Ken is “an example of a person where ‘words fall short.’ When you can’t describe things with words and do it adequately. I found that to be true about him.”
Music has been an integral part of the King family’s life. In a recent interview for The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal article on Community Supported Agriculture, Ken’s wife and partner Cathy put it this way: “Community has always been important to Frog Holler Farm and the Kings’ love of music is evident in farm events such as barn dances and open mics. The farm also hosts the popular Holler Fest, a week-long music festival that has become an annual event. We have benefited greatly from our interaction with a supportive community through the years, and perhaps, the community as benefited from the possibility that food, culture and creativity can all be ‘locally grown.’”
Indeed, music, food and community blended in the creation of Holler Fest. Dick Siegel, a local musician, described this annual musical event as “a really important, significant nascent musical gathering in this part of Michigan. It will grow in importance, because of his kids, and [Ken's] own musical talent.” If you have never had a chance to enjoy The King Brothers perform their original music and covers, their work can be found on their MySpace page as well as on Billy King’s website.
Of course, food at the musical festival is reportedly amazing, and one participant shared that the being served by the Kings made it even more of an extraordinary experience. The festival will go on this year. More information and a video of highlights from last year are online.
And what is the future vision and dream for Frog Holler Farm? Jim Bremmer of Merry Berry Farm, with his wife Mary Ann, have been at the Farmers Market for over 15 years. When I talked to them on Saturday, they immediately mentioned Ken’s friendly smile and friendly spirit. Jim commented that “sometimes the dad leaves and the kids don’t want to farm.” With the King boys, he thought, “They’ve been doing it long enough that it’s part of their lives.” Peter Stark of Renaissance Acres, another vendor at the Farmers Market, agreed. “It’s great that he’s passed it on to his kids, and they’ve kept it going.”
Indeed, Billy King, one of Ken’s three sons, told me, “That’s the plan, to keep it going. There has been an outpouring of support, volunteers and workers.”
Though his dad had died just days before, Billy was at the Frog Holler stall selling plants and greeting regular customers, busy as usual. “It’s the right thing to do” said Billy. “It is exactly what he would want us to do.”
When someone who stopped by asked what he could do to help, Billy’s response was “Whatever you are moved to do.”
About his dad’s death, Billy told me that “last fall he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After that he had his ups and downs, and no one could tell us how it would progress. He had radiation and alternative treatments. One thing that happened was that he was anxious. He couldn’t get that under control… It was probably the tumor, growing and pressing on some part of the brain.”
“In his last week things changed quickly. They said that could happen. For 2-3 days he slipped into unconsciousness and was comfortable.” Ken was in hospice care before losing consciousness and dying. “We thought he’d be around for the summer.” Billy told me. “It took us by surprise.”
Billy answered a friend’s inquiry about a memorial service: “We want to do the right kind of thing, in the right spirit. Something low key, and of course there will be music.” He paused, looked around at the people and produce and plants that surrounded us and pronounced, “The whole summer is going to be a tribute.”
Dick Siegel had this final thought about the death of his long time friend, Ken King.
“He just took one foot off the earth just now.”