Sept. 28, 2021

Julie Benjamin (Farm Alley)

Julie Benjamin's upbringing instilled in her an appreciation for small-scale production. A collaboration with a local fabric artisan helped bring Farm Alley to life, her farm based in Lagunitas, CA. There she offers kids' summer camps, grows resources including botanicals, and designs spaces that inspire others to create.

In this episode, we dive into Julie's story, what community feels like, and how to spark creativity.

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What You'll Learn:

[1:33] A walkthrough of Farm Alley and how it came to be.

[7:02] The story of Julie's parents, two hippies who found their way towards creating a small-scale business that's been around for 50+ years.

[10:20] A high school experience that exposed Julie to making things in community.

[11:58] The characteristics of a strong community, going back in history.

[15:34] The #1 thing Julie has kept in mind when creating an environment that promotes creativity.

[16:55] How to balance creating a space that sparks something without being too directive.

[19:09] What excites Julie about the future.

(Audience Q&A) Ideas for getting back in the creative flow when you feel stuck.

(Audience Q&A) Julie's early childhood education skills applied to parenting.

(Audience Q&A) The type of artistic work Julie feels most drawn to.


Farm Alley

Skin Trip


Julie 00:00

So I love the idea of kind of celebrating the small, there's a certain quality that you can pick up on when something is done in a small scale way. When you go to things that are mass produced or are on such a big scale, that personal feeling is kind of gone, it loses something. And that sort of doesn't have this depth to it.

Mike 00:29

This is Making Us, a podcast about makers, artisans and creators. we dive into their story, how they approach their craft, and the meaning behind the things they make. I'm Mike Giordani, and on today's episode, a creator who found her calling in designing spaces and growing resources like botanicals for others to create. The place that holds this all together is her farm in Lagunitas, California. We'll talk about what community feels like, how to spark creativity, and the value of small scale production. Her name is Julie Benjamin, and she's the artist behind Farm Alley.

Mike 01:18

Julie, Hi.

Julie 01:19

Hi, Mike.

Mike 01:20

So here we are, recording from Farm Alley. We might hear some roosters coming into the picture at some point. [A rooster crows] That's good timing [laughs]. How would you describe this place?

Julie 01:35

So we live on... It's basically a homestead that's just under five acres. It's in Lagunitas in San Geronimo Valley in Marin County [California]. It has about an acre of walnut trees that are about 50 years old plus, and they're a special kind of walnut called carmello which are sweeter than most and bigger. One of the things I love about this property is it has these little micro properties within it. So there's the orchard, there's we have a flower farm, which is very like it's out in the sun, it's hot. We have the garden, which is kind of this labyrinth of herbs and flowers and edibles. We have a whole riparian area by the creek met it's his own world and about 10 degrees cooler. And there's I mean, it's it's crazy how different it is from 10 feet. And then there's the house, which is a little bit more modern and more landscaped. So it's sort of like within one spot, there's at least five or six different places to be within, you know, a two minute radius. So it's been it's fun to kind of go in these different places and experience these different experiences all in one place. And they all really provide such a different feeling to so the some of its very agricultural, some of it is very more spacious and design oriented. Some of it is more kind of magical fairy land. Yeah, some of it is like just pure homestead with chickens and goats and a cat.

Mike 03:32

Probably the world's friendliest cat. [Laughs] One of the things I love about this place is how dynamic it is. There's a lot that goes on here. And I was wondering if you could share a little background story of how it all came to be.

Julie 03:48

So when we first moved here, which was 2010, there was a woman working up at a nearby farm. And her name is Rebecca Burgess, and she started Fibershed. She's a whole, like, revolution. She has been really exposing and inspiring people about sort of farm to fiber. And the idea of where our clothes come from, and where they used to come from and where they now come from, and how to make them more small scale. And walnuts provide of really rich brown die because of the tannins. And so she came down and I met her and she was like, "could I pick some of your walnuts and fallen on the ground?" I was like, "sure, and I'll help you." And by the end of that conversation, we had started a summer camp. So that was the first... that's just how the summer camp happened. And Rebecca also came up with a name Farm Alley because the road that we live on has a bunch of these tiny homesteads and their little farms, and it's almost like a little alley. So sort of the alley of farms. And the farm kind of got shaped into this homestead with the idea of providing kids the space to explore, and be creative with nature and the elements and also plants, so it's very botanical based. We do a lot of natural dyeing, we do a lot of just creative swing making [laughs], we do a lot of other crafts. There's a lot of stuff that comes out of it. And this, this property really is such a great place to hold that and, and be inspired by it.

Mike 05:55

Yeah, it totally is such a great sort of container for these resources and collaborations that you offer. I know you've been very intentional about running a small scale production, which feels counter to what our society tends to emphasize. How did you come to believe in that? Were there any experiences that you think really shaped that perspective.

Julie 06:24

So my parents have a small scale, skincare company that they've had since 1971.

Mike 06:33


Julie 06:35

Over the years, and especially recently, I've realized how much influence it's had on I think, how I think of things and what I value, but also who I am. And they they were hippies. They have a kind of super interesting past. But basically, classically, they were in a VW van traveled the US ended up traveling coast to coast, and, and landed in Colorado. And Colorado has a very high elevation, and it's very dry. And my dad has a degree in mechanical engineering, and my mom is just a naturally very creative person. And they somehow came up with a lotion that would easily absorb, keep you moisturize, but not be sticky and hang around. And I was perfect for an arid climate, and also a beach climate. And when I was growing up, they had their small warehouse with a few employees. And we would go in there and just kind of mess around and just take it all in. So their product is Skin Trip, which is a coconut lotion. I really love it. And they've developed a couple other products since then. And it's just the label has been the same since the 1970s, the lotion has stayed the same, and it's just amazing to see something that started so small scale that stayed small scale, and that is almost timeless, and it still holds up. So it doesn't really like it just has this feeling to it that isn't like it's it's been, it's my parents, and I love that about it. And it's been so amazing to watch it kind of from the sidelines. And now I actually know what it means sort of creating a product and having it and having customers love it. And doing it on such a small scale, how much value that has, and what it brings to each customer and what it brings to my parents and just like the value of a small scale, really well made product.

Mike 09:16

Right. To stay in business for 50 years and to do it in a way that maintains the essence of the company and the product is really, really amazing. I know that there was an experience in high school that also helped you feel viscerally this idea of making things on a small scale. I wonder if you could share a little bit about that.

Julie 09:46

When I was in high school, I got the opportunity to be involved in the Native American reservation of Laguna and New Mexico. And it was the first time I've ever sort of been out of my bubble. And there was such a strong sense of community, very strong sense of community that I hadn't experienced before. And also what they were doing within that community was really influential and has stayed with me ever since I've been there. But just they made a lot of things. And they made a lot of things, they created a lot of things together, there was always a group of people making something, whether it was stew, or pottery, or, you know, something for the kids graduation. It was constantly in community, it has really influenced how I think about things. So I feel like bringing together community and creativity on a small scale creates this sense of belonging, and then also just, you have this ability to share in a way that I don't think is there when it's not produced that way or not made that way.

Mike 11:15

It seems like there's something deeper that gets made than the things themselves, right, this sense of togetherness, like you said, having lived in multiple places since then. What makes you say, "hey, there's a strong community here." What are some of the factors that go into that?

Julie 11:38

I think that thing with community is, I mean, we all live in a community. And it's just the fact that if we're connected to it or not, I think that being connected in a community is really a lot about collaboration, and support. So the idea that you have people in your community that are creating something or produce something, like my neighbor, Gina makes the most amazing dried fruit ever. And the fact that, I know that, and I want to buy it, and she can sell it, and she knows other people that want to buy it, it creates this support that I think you don't necessarily find, when you're not really part of a community, you might be enamored with a product or something. But there's this underlying support of you know, the person, you know, what was grown, you know, how it was grown. Same thing goes with something, how it's painted or crafted or made. And it also feel like that togetherness, like that a community is willing to support each other during hard times, that they're willing to kind of be a united front when something happens, or that they disagree with, not to say that people can, you know, have different opinions or whatever, but just to be able to support each other within that also. And I definitely feel, again, it's not so much product driven, but going back again, to, to kind of pre industrial ages, just a community support each other. They made sure that they were all fed, they made sure that they had the clothes, they made sure they had everything that they needed to survive and move forward.

Mike 13:59

I love that you're bringing this back to history and what it's meant to be in community. You're reminding me of this quote that I have here because I knew we were going to talk about this. It's by Jane Jacobs, the journalist and activist from Canada who spent much of her life in New York City and has a whole legacy around urban planning. And this is what she writes in her book, "Dark Age Ahead:" "Two parents cannot possibly satisfy all the needs of a family household. A community is needed as well for raising children and also to keep adults reasonably sane and cheerful. A community is a complex organism with complicated resources that grow gradually and organically."

Julie 14:49

Yeah, exactly.

Mike 14:52

So creativity is something that I know you've been practicing for a while. I was wondering what's the end The number one thing that you've kept in mind to create an environment that sparks creativity,

Julie 15:06

Space. So, if you leave space for things to happen, they will. I guess that's a little "Field of Dreamsy" but the sense that when I have camp with the kids, or when I taught early childhood education, if you set up a space, in a certain way, it just promotes creativity. And part of that is leaving space. It's not super crowded. It's not overwhelming. It's not super minimized. Like, in a way you sort of have people see something in a new perspective that might inspire them to create for themselves.

Mike 15:55

How do you balance creating a space that sparks something without being too directive?

Julie 16:04

Um, it's a good question. I think that sometimes, if you just have an open space, like if you have a blank canvas, it's great, especially with someone who knows what they want to do. But with people who don't know what they want to do, you give a suggestion, or a hint, or you pick out something from the environment, like I definitely find, if you pick out something from the environment, and you place it inside, it has a whole different context to then getting inspired by art to create with. And then also color, I definitely feel like if you just focus on one color, it tends to expand what is possible. But when you have all the colors available, it's like you always kind of get brown. And that's also me talking from a, you know, teaching kids point of view, but it's like, have you minimize sort of what to focus on then then something can really come out of that. But if it's all open, then who knows what's going to happen, which has some wonderful benefits. And then if it's so directive, then you only going to get kind of like a photocopy, like you're only gonna get one result. So it's sort of like you just stead of getting 100 results, instead of getting one you get like 20. There's a sweet spot there.

Mike 17:39

That's super interesting, feels like we can apply this to a lot of different spaces if we want to become more intentional about how we design them and bring a little more creativity into our lives. So what, what excites you about the future for yourself, and Farm Alley?

Julie 18:03

The thing that I love most that I realize is I love to be able to provide the resources for people to create, and be inspired, whether that's through space, of creating a space for them to do that, whether that's through, you know, creating a certain type of project that's inspired by nature, or spontaneous. And most recently, it's been providing the actual resource of botanicals of creating something. So being able to grow a type of flower like coreopsis, which makes a dye and then drawing it but then having it be available for people to then take that material and use it and ever like whatever way they feel inspired by. So it's really about providing a resource and growing that resource. And, you know, putting a lot into it, to solely have it be for someone else to create with. And that's what I think I get the most excited about. Because even with this whole beautiful piece of property. I think that's what I'm continuously trying to do is just provide a space and provide the materials for others to create.

Mike 19:46

We'll be back right after this.

Mike 19:49

If you like what we're doing at Making Us, there are two ways you can help us reach new listeners. It would mean a lot to me if you left us a review on Apple Podcasts, click on Making Us to go to our page, scroll down and you'll see the option to write us a review. If you're not listening on Apple Podcasts, you can help spread the word by sharing our show with a friend you think would enjoy it. Thanks for your support. I really appreciate it.

Mike 20:18

It's time for Q&A, you submit a question, and today's maker will answer it.

Q&A Participant 20:26

Hey Julie. Sometimes I feel really creative and ideas just come to me. Other times I feel stuck. I was wondering what you can suggest to get unstuck and get back on the creative track. This is Antonio from San Anselmo.

Julie 20:37

So in the world that we live in, we definitely lived in like it's a time crunch world. And I think that we are sort of, we think that we need to provide, we need to create on demand. And I feel like that expectation is not attainable at all. There's just a natural flow that goes with the creative process, you're either on, and you're flowing, and you are super creative and productive. And there's times when you're just not. I think part of it is just honoring that and being in recognizing it and accepting it, and the sooner that you do that, the easier it is to get back into the creative flow. I feel like when you kind of sandwich yourself into, you have to be creative all the time, or you need to be creative, or you have a deadline, and you really have to be creative, it just is gonna have a different feeling. So I would definitely say, give yourself some space some time, I think recognize it. And the sooner that you do that, you'll find yourself being more creative. On a more practical level, I think, you know, sometimes I feel stuck, and I think don't do anything and just drawing with my daughter, or going outside in the garden. It kind of instantly comes back. So it's also breaking the sort of stuck cycle by doing something that you enjoy, whether it's creative or not. So like my husband surfs, and like, it just breaks, it has a different energy so that you can break free from whatever you're stuck in.

Q&A Participant 22:27

Hi, Julie, this is Mariah from Laguna Hills. I think teaching is a superpower. So I'd love to hear how you find yourself applying those skills as a parent in the way that you're raising your own child.

Julie 22:38

So Myla is this beautiful, exuberant, like, she has this really brilliant light, and obviously, like, I think that because she's my kid. But she is sensitive in the sense that she will wilt like a flower and kind of shut down. And she'll need some space and time, again, to just find her own feelings. And I think it's been really helpful for me to have the background of the teacher to recognize that and also give her that. So not to just rush in and make something better or not to rush in and try and change it. And just try and kind of be with it, and have her feel whatever her feelings are. And I do think that that's probably one of the most beneficial things have been a teacher. And how it's helped me be a mom is just really recognize the importance of a child recognizing her own or their own his own feelings and how to process because, again, the the times that we live in now, it's just things are so quick. And there's just this rush to kind of get everything to Okay, ness. And sometimes it's not okay. And I think allowing time for it not to be okay is really important. That's probably one of the most beneficial things.

Mike 24:24

Wow, that's really wise. What would you say is something that you've learned from working with kids?

Julie 24:37

Working with kids is amazing. Because they just "do" or they just "be" and they haven't really developed all the filters that adults have. And so, when they're creative, they just have this moment that they need to capture, and they want to capture it, and they do. But it's fleeting. So it's also knowing how to guide them, and also how to like, preserve that moment before it gets into another moment. So he definitely remember being a teacher. And we'd all be working on a project. And there'd be this one defining moment where you're like, "okay, good. I'm gonna give you another piece of paper now." Because it just is like, it's a snapshot, and then you can take it, and then start something new. Especially with younger kids, they just keep there kind of moment to moment to moment to moment.

Q&A Participant 25:41

Hey, there, my name is Samreen. I know Julie is going to be speaking about her creative process, and I'm excited to hear about that. So my question for her is, what type of artistic work do you feel most drawn to? Thanks.

Julie 25:59

I love spontaneous collaborative artwork. So if a friend of mine wants to do something, I am 100% game and like, it will be the most exciting thing I'm doing. Yeah, so anything, again, that is with botanicals or plants, or flowers or dried flowers, or sticks or grass, or leaves, I mean, anything that I can find just outside. And then the idea to have you can take something so like, there's a pile of sticks on my property. But if I just rearrange it into a circle, it all the sudden becomes this art piece, where beforehand it was just a pile of sticks. So I also find a lot of joy and excitement when I do that, too. just rearranging things that are already around just in a new way to give you a new perspective and a new kind of gives you a new outlook, too, about how things are.

Mike 27:01

That's beautiful. This was so much fun. Thanks for joining me, Julie.

Julie 27:08

Thank you. It's been such a pleasure.

Mike 27:14

That's Julie Benjamin from Farm Alley, based in Lagunitas, California.

Mike 27:29

Julie has taught me to approach the creative process with more ease instead of trying to make something happen, allowing it to happen instead of having to be in control, letting yourself be guided somewhere that you can't even begin to imagine.

Mike 27:46

You can find a full transcript and notes from today's conversation on our website, There you're also able to submit questions for future guests. We'd love to have you be a part of our Q&A. Again, that's We have new episodes coming out every couple of weeks, so if you like what you heard today, go ahead and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Mike 28:13

Thanks so much for listening to Making Us. See you next time.