by Amanda Little
June 14th, 2013
At first glance, they’re a funny match: Jeanne is 44 and Verd is 34. Jeanne is Type-A and a worrier; Verd is mellow and happy-go-lucky. Jeanne is Jewish; Verd is Irish. Jeanne grew up playing tennis at a country club; Verd grew up tagging the streets of Chicago. Jeanne’s community was rock-ribbed conservative; Verd’s was bleeding-heart liberal.
But somehow Jeanne and Verd stumbled onto the same path—a turbulent path fraught with mistakes and heartache, but one that has led, against all odds, to a devoted marriage with wonderful kids and path-breaking careers.
Jeanne met Verd in 1992 on a 200-acre farming commune outside of Austin, Texas. Jeanne had joined the commune seven years earlier, at the age of 18, after dropping out of high school. Verd did the same years later. He’d been a super bright student, but was more interested in breakdancing and bongs than in attending classes. He skipped whole days of school to work at a kennel where he cleaned cages for $6.50 an hour. One day in 1992, he picked up a magazine at Lollapalooza and saw an ad for the commune; two weeks later he was on a train to Texas.
The commune attracted people from all walks of life, from ex-cons to former marines to brilliant MIT and Harvard grads who were otherwise social misfits. Some came from as far away as Japan and Australia. Jeanne and Verd discovered that they’d grown up 20 miles from each other, in different suburbs of Chicago, and instantly connected.
She was beautiful, savvy and in charge. He was explosively charismatic and a great dancer. He apprenticed under her in the fields, learning how to grow the vegetables and fruits that fed the commune’s three-dozen members. They fell in love—the kind of fairytale love that involved running naked in the rain and having sex next to rushing rivers. But there was a big hitch: the commune leaders forbade monogamy. They believed that exclusive pair bonds would threaten the greater whole.
I won’t share the details of their forced separation here – you can read them in Jeanne’s book From The Ground Up: A Food-Grower’s Education in Life, Love and The Movement That’s Changing The Nation,(Random House: Spiegel & Grau) which comes out next month, but here are some key elements of their story: Verd got evicted from the farm; Jeanne developed a relationship with her best friend, Bryan, and they had a beautiful daughter named Thea. But with Verd gone, Jeanne spiraled into a deep depression, and eventually fled with Thea back home to her parents in suburban Chicago.
There, she began doing the only thing she knew how to do: grow food. First, on a small plot in her parent’s back yard, then, for a few neighbors and, eventually, for hundreds of clients. Jeanne’s business, The Organic Gardener, has now built more than 650 farms and food gardens in and around Chicago, and she’s become a pioneer of the urban farming movement that’s growing nationwide.
But none of this could have happened without Verd — and, for that matter, without Bryan. When Jeanne came home to Chicago, she had no emotional room for anyone but Thea, who was not yet three. Bryan had left the commune too, and was living close by — not a romantic partner to Jeanne but a dear friend and a devoted dad to Thea.
It took Jeanne a year after her return home to let Verd back into her life. Their reunion brought an emotional monsoon—grief over the time they had lost and euphoria at their second chance. Within six months, Verd had moved to Chicago. They married in 2007 and had their daughter Kisten the following year.
It was a natural fit for Verd to partner with Jeanne in her food-growing business since, under her own tutelage, Verd had become an expert organic farmer on the commune. She didn’t have much to pay him (or herself) at first, so Verd worked extra jobs running UPS deliveries and teaching ballroom dancing.
As their business began to pick up, Verd went back to school during his off hours, enrolling first in community college and then at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Last May, he graduated cum laude with a B.S. in neuroscience and received the highest departmental distinction — all while working full-time growing food. For now, he’s committed to building Jeanne’s enterprise and the broader movement, but he plans to go medical school eventually and become an eye surgeon.
Bryan — who was a mentor and friend to Verd on the commune — still lives close by, and he, Verd and Jeanne co-parent their two daughters. (We’ll share more details about their two-father household in a later post, but for now we’ll just say that it works miraculously well.)
The life Jeanne and Verd live is difficult, especially now during growing season, when they work 100-hour weeks. Verd is typically up by 4 am, does accounting for the business until 6, has family time until 7:30, and then his day of physical labor begins. In a typical week, he and his team of 10 staffers truck and shovel hundreds of tons of soil and compost for gardens, build half a dozen fences, install 20 irrigation systems, and plant innumerable seedlings and seeds. Plus Verd puts in 10 hours of eye research at a clinic at University of Illinois-Chicago. Jeanne has a similarly crazy schedule that also involves designing their projects, managing client relationships, and speaking events.
Doing all this while raising kids (Kisten is now 5, and Thea, 11) is intensely challenging. Jeanne and Verd occasionally have their knock-down-drag-out fights like the rest of us, but their tenacity, their eccentricity, and their punch-drunk love and gratitude for each other should earn them a place in the pantheon of world’s best couples.
Stories of happy marriages and ardent save-the-worlders can be cloying and unbearable — like excessive PDA. But Jeanne and Verd have a love so hard-won that to know it has just the opposite effect — it seems like a kind of public service, like their story might just restore goodness and vigor to relationships the world over.