"The Man in Overalls Wants you to Have a Garden"
By Kathleen Laufenberg
For Nathan Ballentine, gardening began as an elementary school pastime. Now, however, the 24-year-old Tallahasseean is on a mission to grow his own food, convince you to grow your own food — and get everybody to share some of what they've grown. "I love how food is able to bring so many different and disparate communities together," said Ballentine, who also is known as "The Man in Overalls" and is a regular blogger about his gardening adventures at http://maninoveralls.blogspot.com.
His gardening career — he makes a modest living mostly by building raised-bed gardens, teaching gardening workshops for kids and adults and, occasionally, substitute teaching — allows the 2004 SAIL graduate to unite his all-consuming interests of community organizing and edible landscaping.
"I really like what he's doing — he's got it right," Brandy Cowley-Gilbert of Just Fruits and Exotics Nursery in Crawfordville wrote in an e-mail. "It's about community and sharing what you know, "I think he'll be quite effective because he approaches what he's doing from a lot of levels; he's working with churches, community gardens and a broad range of people on a one-to-one basis. … He's inspiring a lot of people."
Chuck Jacobson, a teacher at SAIL for 32 years, described Ballentine as "bright-eyed, energetic and optimistic."
"You don't see that kind of optimism and willingness to go and do something that much; it's really the path less traveled because it's not the way to make money."
Ballentine (who really does wear overalls most of the time) earned his bachelor's degree in community organizing from North Carolina's Warren Wilson College in 2008. The small (about 1,000 students) liberal-arts school near Asheville is one of only a handful of colleges nationwide that requires students to work and do public service in order to graduate.
"Nathan is one of a kind," said Louise Divine, who co-owns Turkey Hill Farm with spouse Herman Holley. "He has a unique way of combining social activism and his love of gardening, and to marry those two is special."
Ballentine's unique approach to promoting vegetable gardening includes street-corner sign-holding. In the past year, you might have seen him near the Capitol, New Leaf Market, on Thomasville Road or near Lake Ella holding a sign reading "Will Garden For Food" or "Grow Your Own Food and Share It" or "Honk if You Love Food Gardening."
He does it to "create a buzz" about growing your own. And, he said, people do respond.
"They wave, they honk, they do the thumbs up, they mouth, 'Yeah! Grow that food!'"
Now Ballentine is slated to be a speaker — and probably the youngest one — at a May sustainability conference at the Florida State University Turnbull Conference Center, sharing the spotlight with nationally known activists such as John Robbins (author of "Diet for a New America," "The Food Revolution" and others) and Bill McKibben ("The End of Nature").
Ballentine said the news made him feel "honored and really scared because that's way out of my league."
Others said Ballentine is a good choice to represent local grass-roots efforts.
"My face lights up whenever I talk about him," said Maggie Theriot, Leon County's sustainability coordinator and the organizer of the May conference who invited Ballentine to speak. "He sure is a good mix of passion and reality."
To see more stories about the Man in Overalls, click here.