By Michelle Miller
---- — Origins Café, a business created by two Cooperstown Central School graduates, made its debut at the Earth Festival in Milford last year.
Kristen Leonard and her sister, Dana, set up their mobile food vending trailer outside the school gymnasium again this year. However, most of their business is done at a more permanent location - at their parent’s gardening shop, Carefree Gardens, on Beaver Meadow Road.
The women have set up a garden-to-table café where people can sit among the herbs and vegetables that are served. Kristen, 26, and Dana, 24, both went to college for environmental science and feel it is important for people to know the origins of the food that they eat. Produce for the cafe is sourced from local farms and from gardens on site.
According to Kristen, they are planning to host volunteers from all around the world through the educational and cultural exchange program Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
People are connected via internet, she explained. According to the website, visitors, or ‘WWOOFers,’ spend about half a day on a host farm, learn about the organic movement and sustainable agriculture and receive room and board - with no money exchanged between hosts and WWOOFers.
WWOOFing is a way to learn practical farming skills, be part of the organic agriculture movement and experience the heart of American agrarian culture, according to the site. Kristen said she and her sister participated after closing the café last October and were able to travel to Greece.
“Initially we went to the International Slow Food Conference in Italy, and then we were connected with farmers,” she said.
The café, which features a seasonal menu, is open daily for lunches. An opening celebration was held on April 17. There was a full house with live music, according to the women.
Live music is made available every Wednesday night during a ‘Meet your Farmer’ dinner at the cafe, featuring a product and short presentation by a local food producer.
“Its been a really nice way to get the community together around local food and meet the people who are growing their food,” Kristen said.
Reservations are required for the family-style gathering and can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a back room the women have some items from their travels on display. They said they like to bring back different things, such as olive oil from the farm they worked on in Greece, to use in their food.
“What we are really trying to do, through the collection of fairly-traded products from the places we have traveled, is just try to show how sustainable food is an international movement and what we can do on a local level to support it,” Kristen said.
Traveling is not something new for the siblings. The girls were inspired to become activists in the sustainable food revolution while WWOOFing in South America where they volunteered in Peru and Ecuador in 2011 before creating the café.
“We became aware while we were traveling,” Kristen said. “Basically we learned about the enormous impact food has on the environment, so we kind of entered into food from the environmental lens.”
“We want to serve food that is good for the environment, the community and our health,” she continued.
Travel and work exchange have grown to be an integral part of Origin’s seasonal work cycle. With each season, the women said, they hope to continue bringing stories of their organic farming experiences back to share at the café.
Dana said being able to start a business together back home has been great after spending so much time away.
“The ideas that we have had pertaining to food, and the local organic food movement just happened to coincide with our lives when we wanted to come back home again, so it just kind of fit perfectly,” she said.
Dana said she thinks there are a lot of people in Cooperstown who are accepting and excited about having alternative food options locally.
“A lot of the businesses, especially restaurants, tend to cater to the baseball crowd, so having a gathering place for locals is a really nice addition to the Cooperstown landscape. I am not sure if there has been anything similar before,” Dana added.
Since the café made its debut, the women have brought on another helper, Sandy Alles of Massachusetts, who is serving as the house baker.
Dana said she reconnected with Alles after having met him while attending college.
“Everything has kind of just fell into place and we are all kind of creating a plan as we go,” she said. “We are learning as we are doing.”
Origins is growing to become an edible education center with an emphasis on organic agriculture. Future goals include growing more produce on site, offering cooking classes and other gardening workshops and possibly working with area students. Dana said she recently finished a grant proposal to WWOOF that will hopefully allow the women to offer free cooking classes to high school students.
The cafe/greenhouse/garden space also serves as a venue for meetings of the local gardening group Growing Communities.