Maya O'Brien McLeod

The COVID-19 lockdowns caused many of us to reexamine how we spend our time and rediscover what brings us joy. For MPS in Horticulture student Maya O'Brien McLeod ('22), that self-reflection brought her back to the basics, like caring for plants and growing food.

"I think it was a time when a lot of people were taking a step back and living outside of the 9 to 5," she recalls. "I was collecting plants like crazy. I have this little balcony and I spent all my time out there, just reading and taking care of the plants."

Turning Empathy into Action

But before Maya was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, she was an undergraduate here studying journalism with a minor in environmental science. "It was a really good combination," she says. "Because I think you need communication skills anywhere you go, in any profession."

Maya O'Brien McLeod holds a container of cherry tomoatoes

After she graduated, she became the communications coordinator for Cardigan Donuts in Minneapolis. But as the pandemic spread, she began to think more about big picture questions, like how we feed ourselves and exist together, and what are some ways that we can make that more community focused. She began bringing leftover donuts to the different camps for unhoused people in nearby neighborhoods.

"I was witnessing all of this excess, and at the same time seeing people who don't have a place to live and who don't have food. My heart hurt, seeing all of the lack," she says. "And it's not because we don't have the food, but because the food isn't going to the places it’s needed most. So I was trying to figure out a way to put myself in a situation where I could give people opportunities to feed themselves and their communities. I think where I've landed has been great for that."

Maya started the MPS in Horticulture in the spring of 2021. Because of her environmental science minor, she already had many of the prerequisites completed. Some of the courses were still online, but she loved the courses. "It was so cool to meet people who were interested in what I was interested in and were talking about the same things I was."

Creating Her Own Path

The flexibility of the horticulture master’s degree allowed Maya to take courses in different subjects without having to declare a specific focus area. She says, "Something that I really liked about this program was the variety of classes I could take."

"I was able to explore my interest in soil science and take the student organic farm course… I really liked the breadth of material that there was to choose from.”

Flowers at the Mill City Farmer's Market

In October 2022, Maya became the communications manager for the Mill City Farmers Market. She manages the market year-round, as well as the Market’s nonprofit side and charitable fund. She runs their Next Stage Grant Program, which provides small grants for farmers and food makers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Maya also writes for the organization’s blog and website and handles their social media.

Her role, she says, "is a perfect combination of journalism and horticulture. Having communication skills in the sciences where we're really trying to convey ideas to people so that they can live differently, is really important and sometimes undervalued."

Today, in the thick of summer with the pandemic somewhat in our rearview mirror, it appears that the draw of local, fresh food has not waned at all. "It's been great," Maya says. "We're seeing some of the biggest numbers we've ever seen, even prepandemic."

Major Takeaways

Maya O'Brien McLeod at the Mill City Famer's Market

"I think this whole program was a big practice in trusting myself. It wasn't anything that anyone else was telling me to do or even really knew about. I just applied and thought this could either be a mistake or one of the best things I've ever done, and it was one of the best things I've ever done."

Advice for Students

"Keep the big picture in mind. It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day. Whenever I was feeling overwhelmed or confused, I’d come back to plants and why I'm here. Give yourself that breath to step back and think, I'm where I want to be, I'm doing what I need to be doing, everything's going to come into place. I just need to do my best and trust that it will happen."

Memorable Course

Scheduling Crops for Protected Environments
"You start with a box of seeds, and then it's your job to grow two flats' worth of each of the seeds in your box. I had a box of 14 different seed packets, and at the end of the semester I needed to have two flats of each of those plants.

"It was such a good learning experience. I got to spend so much time in the greenhouse, which was incredible, especially in the Minnesota winters! It's a lot of math and a lot of planning for the seeds that won't sprout and for different things that happen. I learned a lot about what it takes to be a farmer and to grow multiple crops, and as a result, I have a much bigger appreciation for the people who grow our food."