Margaret Krome-Lukens is a Senior Program Manager and Chair of the Policy Team at RAFI-USA**, working to connect the experiences of farmers and community stakeholders to policy solutions. Prior to joining RAFI-USA, she worked as a farmhand and manager on various farms in the Triangle and ran the SNAP/EBT program at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. RAFI-USA’s Communications Manager Beth Hauptle recently interviewed Margaret for this staff profile.
BH: Where did you grow up? What were some of your early interests while growing up?
MKL: I grew up in Gloucester County, Virginia. Books and running around in the woods were probably my two primary interests as a kid, and soccer also became a great part of my life from middle school onwards.
BH: Who or what were early influencers in your life?
MKL: I think more than any single person, a place and community were probably the most formative for me, which is to say my time at Quaker outdoors camps (Shiloh Quaker Camp and Teen Adventure). I was a very competitive kid and not always kind because of it, but camp helped me figure out that being kind to people is more important than being (or feeling) “better” than them. It helped me feel capable and adaptable and comfortable in the outdoors. It’s also a place that is 100% accepting for people to just be themselves, and that kind of radical acceptance is incredibly transformative for kids, teenagers, and adults. After being a camper I spent seven summers on staff at camp and I still go back and work in the kitchen for a week every summer.
BH: When and how did you discover your interest in growing things?
MKL: I was interested, post-college, in international development work and sustainable agriculture, but I thought it would be fairly preposterous to get into that field without some familiarity with how plants grow. So I looked for farms to work on after college, and it became evident very quickly how happy it made me to raise plants and animals.
BH: When you were an International Studies major, where were you thinking you would take that knowledge?
MKL: One thing I liked about the International Studies major was how interdisciplinary it was — I never wanted to pick just one discipline to focus on. Looking back though, I think that the political science part of that interdisciplinary major was especially interesting to me, though I always said I couldn’t spend too much time thinking about politics because it made me too angry. Hah!
BH: What are some of the highlights of your other positions leading up to RAFI-USA? What did you like best? What did you learn?
MKL: Farm work is really hard work, and it is hard on your body — despite that, I really loved it. There are smaller joys within it — digging potatoes feels like discovering treasure, onions stalks make cool noises when you knock them together, harvesting cantaloupes is like playing catch, your fingers make squeaky noises after you’ve been harvesting sugar snaps for a while, split radishes are great for tossing to your dog, and beets are so satisfying to clean. Also, green beans are just flat-out terrible to harvest, and early morning kale will make your fingers go swollen and numb on a cold March morning. But I love the rhythm and all the quiet headspace of farm work. I particularly love pruning — it means taking the time to really figure out what a plant is trying to do, and nudge it into doing that in the most healthy or productive way — it’s like slow-motion sculpture. Also, grapevines are hilarious and delicate, and foolish, and I loved pruning them.
Working as the assistant manager and food outreach coordinator at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market was the job with probably the most variety of any I’ve ever worked — so that was fun and kept things interesting. Getting to meet people at other organizations and agencies in the community for the food outreach part of the job was also amazing — it just made me appreciate how many people were doing really good work in our community. Starting “The Market Bunch” program for kids at the market was VERY cute and satisfying.
BH: What do you most enjoy about your work now?
MKL: I enjoy learning constantly. I enjoy any time we’re able to get farmers’ voices and experiences heard in DC.
BH: What drives you to want to do this kind of work?
MKL: It feels like we’re very close to several points of no return — whether we’re talking climate change, or corporate takeover of our food systems, or the health of our democracy. Being able to see small pieces of the food system I want to see in individual interactions — in essence, farmers being able to make a decent living working hard and doing what they love to feed their communities — makes me want to fight so hard for a system where that’s still possible, where it becomes increasingly possible, and where we all get to weigh in and support the kind of food system we want. One where no one is disposable and we’re problem-solving as a community. We’re trying to move things on a systemic level, but that system encompasses the experiences and relationships of so many individual people.
BH: What are a few things you’ve done at RAFI-USA that you are particularly proud of?
MKL: I’m very proud of our 2017 and 2019 Come to the Table Conferences. I think the mix of the deep and connected content and the atmosphere we were able to provide at the conferences made them really welcoming and fruitful spaces. And I’m proud of the work we all put in when the pandemic hit to figure out what the heck was happening, and what farmers and rural communities needed at that time, and how RAFI-USA could support those needs, whether through direct emergency grants or making sure that the policy that was happening in response was actually helping farmers. I’m proud of the work we’ve done and are doing to try to continually improve how we put into practice our value for justice – both internally and externally.
BH: I’ve heard great things about your dog, Sheila. When did she join your family and what is she like?
MKL: Sheila came into my life in 2009, when she was about 14 weeks old. She really took to farm life — she learned how not to get in garden beds really quickly (somehow she figured out what “go around” means?!), and she would bring me half-rotted veggies from the compost so we could play fetch. She still comes to wait behind me when I’m weeding so that she can catch the weeds and shake them. She loves to catch falling leaves and snowflakes in her mouth. She likes to run back and forth and bite waves as they come into the shore and she will literally do that for 30 minutes straight. She’s a real smartie and a great communicator. She prefers to play with two toys at once, and she’s very good at kicking tennis balls and soccer balls. I could go on, but I think it’s safe to say she has a pretty big fan club and I am its president.
BH: What are you reading these days?
MKL: I’m on my second read of the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells, and just digging into Naomi Novik’s new release The Last Graduate. I love paper books as much as the next library enthusiast, but audiobooks fit better into my life these days and the narrations for both of those series are really excellent.
BH: What do you do for fun?
MKL: I love spending time with my family, and my niece and nephew in particular are constant sources of surprise and delight. Aikido, the martial art I train in, is 100% necessary for my physical and mental health, and also so fun!
I came to video games later in my life than most, but I love taking a break to explore these amazing alternate worlds and characters that game developers create. Also: knitting and puttering around with plants, obviously.
**Since this article was published, Margaret has been promoted and is now RAFI-USA’s Policy Director.