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What One Woman Can Do

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Monika Roth’s Amazing Career in Supporting Farms and Food

Written by Lisa Swayze, photos by Allison Usavage

Do you enjoy grabbing a bite from a vendor at one of our many area farmers markets? Are you a member of a local farm or food CSA? Do you appreciate the street plantings throughout the downtown Ithaca area? Have you strolled through the Ithaca Children’s Garden?

If you have participated in any of the above, you’ve experienced the work of Monika Roth.

Monika Roth is “retired” from her position as agriculture and horticulture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins), but that’s where she asks to meet. It turns out she’s still pitching in until they can find someone to replace her, a task that is proving somewhat difficult.

Across a picnic table in the CCE garden it’s immediately apparent that Roth, doesn’t like to talk about herself. She’d much rather point to the many partners she has worked with over the last more than 40 years.

“Every single thing I’ve done has been in partnership,” she says.

That may be true, but there seems to be a particular magic about Roth … everything she touches grows!

For starters, she trained the first group of Master Gardeners in Ithaca in 1981 and ran the organization for nearly 10 years until there was money to hire a part-time employee. That then grew to take over the 4-H Plant Sale, which grew into the Spring Plant Sale at Ithaca High School that attracts 3,000 visitors and generates over $100,000 in sales every year.

Monika with Kit Kalfs of Bet The Farm Winery.

When Roth started Master Composters it eventually grew into the Home Compost Education Program that has run ever since. When she implemented Citizen Pruners it grew into the Beautification Committee that continues to operate to this day, maintaining highly visible public plantings throughout the area.

Perhaps Roth’s most visible accomplishment was in helping the Ithaca Farmers Market move to its current location at Steamboat Landing, where the lakeside beauty has helped draw thousands every weekend. She also helped write the grant that built the pavilion in the mid-’80s, and that grew into her consulting with other markets around the country and in Canada.

“Ithaca Farmers Market is the best market in the country for a community of this size,” she says with authority.

Of course she won’t exactly take any credit for that. Instead she’ll tell you how fortunate she was to be able to work with farmers who are committed to producing food for our community.

She says, “Anything I can do to support farmers so we can keep that connection to the source of our food … I’m committed to that.”

Roth spent her earliest years in Austria on what she calls a “two-cow” farm. Even after moving to the States her parents always had a garden and grew much of the food they ate. It was inherently obvious to her that there was tremendous value in having your own homegrown and homemade food.

That resourcefulness about food stuck with her, continuing through her undergraduate work at the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station, to pursuing her graduate degree in plant pathology at Cornell, and throughout her more than four decades at CCE-Tompkins.

A young Monika Roth reporting for duty!

Roth sees a direct link between her education and the way she’s approached her work. “In plant pathology the solution is usually based on looking at whole systems,” she says. “How is the soil? Are there enough nutrients? It forces you to look at things holistically.”

If Roth is any indication, when you look at things holistically, you just can’t help but make things grow. Another highly visible project that benefited from Roth’s ability to both see the big picture and also make sure detailed work gets done is the Ithaca Children’s Garden (ICG).

Co-founder and ICG board member Harriet Becker says, “From securing financing to being a steady source of ideas, from using her years of experience to solve problems quickly to physically pitching in, Monika Roth helped guide the Ithaca Children’s Garden from its very beginnings.”

Becker continues, “Monika has created so many amazing and creative projects and organizations it’s almost impossible to list all of her grand ideas. Her work has benefited all of us who live in this area, and it has also provided models for other communities.”

When asked what it feels like to know your efforts have improved the lives and livelihoods of so many of your neighbors and stretched to the far reaches of the world, Roth once again deflects attention from herself.

“What was going on in this area fed my interests,” she says. “There were so many small-scale direct-market farmers, and they were already invested in being innovative. Their initiative and steadfast efforts have driven success in our region.”

She will, however, acknowledge her happiness in being able to see tangible things that wouldn’t exist without her efforts.

“We’ve had some good ideas, and they’re still surviving,” she says.

Monika surrounded by donations at the first Gardener’s Pot Swap & Recycling Event in 2008.

But as we all know, ideas without effort rarely yield results. It takes a lot of work to make things happen.

“I’ve always been willing to work hard and push to see things through,” she says.

“They’re going to need to name a street after her when she does finally, really, retire,” says Jacksonville farmer Teresa Vanek. “She’s been so instrumental in helping farmers in so many ways, especially with getting the grant funding and support they need to start and succeed.”

Vanek and her husband Brent Welch recently benefitted from Roth’s insight and hard work when she helped them secure funding and create a vision for their new venture, Bright Raven Farm & Apiary, which they plan to be a regional source for education and experience with all things beekeeping and honey.

Even as a retiree, Monika Roth sees no end to the growth she still hopes to encourage. She’s part of efforts to find a new winter home for the Ithaca Farmers Market when Greenstar Co-op moves to its new location. She hopes that can be combined with creating a much-needed “food hub” to provide infrastructure like production facilities to help farmers extend the life of their crops and expand food rescue and recovery efforts. She’d also like to write a book about the evolution of the local food scene.

If the past is any indicator, it’s likely Monika Roth will continue to help grow all of these projects and many more over the coming years.

“I like what I do,” she says. “There’s more work to be done and things I haven’t finished.”

Some people just don’t know when to quit. Thank goodness, Monika Roth is one of them.

Monika speaking at her “retirement party” in 2018.

Lisa Swayze believes in eating and shopping local and in growing things, including independent bookstores like Buffalo Street Books where she is the general manager.

Allison Usavage helps makers, craftspeople, couples, and small businesses tell their honest and unfiltered stories through documentary-style photography. Find her at allisonusavage.com

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Women’s Issue of the magazine.

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