Tony Kleese, our farm coach, died peacefully at his Chapel Hill home recently. His wife, Christine, and he had fought courageously for over a year to overcome cancer, and his posts on his Caring Bridge site gave friends and family uplifting words of encouragement even as he reported that Hospice had been called in. A few days before his death, I was asked to collaborate with his friends and fellow farm/food leaders, Sandi Kronick and Gerry Cohn, to write his obituary. It appears on the The People’s Seed website, an organization that Tony founded to help promote a fair and open seed Industry — http://thepeoplesseed.org/tony-kleeses-obituary/
We first met Tony when he led a workshop on organic gardening at a Durham church one Sunday afternoon. We went to learn more about organic gardening in our own Greensboro kitchen garden, but he ignited in us a growing passion to pursue a new path of sustainable farming and to deepen and broaden Lee’s healthy cooking pursuits. He accompanied us on a number of small farm prospects during our farm search. To learn more I participated in a Saturday series on organic farming that Tony and Steve Moore of Elon University’s Agroecology program led. I wound up taking classes at Central Carolina Community College’s Sustainable Agriculture program, a program that Tony founded and headed up. We also went on farm tours and attended the annual conference of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, an organization that Tony helped found and later led.
When we stumbled on the land that is now Peaceful River Farm, Tony analyzed the soil structure, walked the river bottom with us, and gave a broad brush perspective on how the farm might be laid out. “This land speaks to me,” he declared, and the pluses and minuses list we had drawn up about buying the property just got a big plus. It was more house than we wanted and more land, but its location on the ancient Haw River and its natural beauty also spoke to us, and the garage adjacent to the house had promise for conversion into an Education Barn for Lee’s classes.
On subsequent visits after we bought the property, he helped us outline a farm plan, a business plan, an equipment plan, and a timeline for developing the farm infrastructure – fencing, irrigation, and farm shed improvements. Once the farmscape was in place and we had begun growing produce, he taught organic farming classes at the farm for those interested in farming. Tony also visited every few months to give advice – always encouraging but direct in his suggestions and critiques. Advice coming from the guy who had a strategic vision for building a sustainable food system in the Southeast and had set about building each step for such a system, was humbling for upstarts like us. Although Tony traveled the country to give talks and to participate in various farm organizations as well as consulted in the Caribbean, he was down-to-earth. His robust laugh still echoes in our memory.
Tony touched many lives, and he will be missed greatly. He died much too young — younger than I was when we began farming. Yet, he had a multitude of accomplishments. We feel fortunate to have been coached and encouraged by him and to have had him as a friend. There will never be another Tony Kleese, but he has left a legacy that will live on well past our lifetime.