Alena Ivakhnenko, our lead craftswoman, was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, where memories of helping her grandmother cultivate their vegetable garden, along with her love for the outdoors, was of paramount significance in guiding her future. Her family made a move to Salt Lake City, Utah where she graduated from Westminster College in 2010. Continue reading to be inspired by the opportunities bestowed upon Alena, whose desire to unite food and food systems greatly enhances what she contributes daily to White Oak Pastures.
Although both of Alena’s parents are aeronautical engineers, Alena’s interests veered towards outdoor activities. Her outdoor-oriented friends referred her to a vegan animal sanctuary for abused animals rescued from CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), or animal abuse. Loving the manual labor and feeding hay to animals, Alena signed on as a member of the Utah Conservation Corps that works to improve public lands. She spent time in the Canyons of Escalante on the chainsaw crew cutting out invasive species trees, led a group of fifty volunteers to New Jersey for Hurricane Sandy Relief to rebuild houses, was a wildland firefighter in Arizona, joined a Forest Service trail crew in Juneau, Alaska, and built trails in the Tongass National Forest. After all of these endeavors, Alena chose to move back to Atlanta where she fell in love with the Southeast. At that time, she decided to pursue her love for the outdoors, passion for food and community, and decided to become a farmer!
“I found White Oak Pastures through a friend who often drives through here on her way to Florida. I interviewed for a gardening position and was hired. I spent one growing season in the garden, then joined the leather department.”
Leaving for her next farming apprenticeship in North Carolina, Alena worked at Pitch Pine Farm in Brevard, NC before returning to White Oak Pastures to expand the leather department. “I am first and foremost a vegetable farmer and grower, but leatherwork has become an amazing skill and trade that I look forward to using throughout my life. I heard we sold leather goods and was shown some of the hand tools used and how they worked. I asked if I could buy some leather and make my own bag for fun. Luckily, that bag turned out pretty good so I got to make more!
I make other accessories, as well as the totes, such as wallets, clutches, coasters, and keychains. I’m just lucky that I have the opportunity to use leather from cattle that are raised with the best standards, and I know where my materials come from. Seeing my leather goods purchased and appreciated by people that understand what we are doing here is very rewarding. Having someone appreciate the time, effort, and hand craftsmanship that goes into creating every item that goes from start to finish; from hand-raised on the field to hand-butchered, then hand-made, is amazing. Honestly, keeping up with large sales is the biggest challenge and being a department of one can be tough, but I do get amazing help on special projects from Anna Hunt. These handmade items take time and are a labor of love.”
This past Christmas, Alena described her department as “a non-stop, tote-making workshop” for weeks. But it is amazing to see all of our goods being loved by our community and being able to fulfill the demand. That is awesome! It is always an amazing shock when things in the store sell out over the weekend! Like, I just made all these great pieces and they all got scooped up during the weekend! It feels really good.” Alena’s favorite chore of the day, a shocking, yet inspirational example to others, is to make sure the leather workshop is cleaned up for the day. “I love cleaning, so it always feels good to get everything put away, so the next day starts fresh.”
Alena would like to trade places with Laura McDonald, our Human Resources manager, for one day. She would enjoy the opportunity to interact with so many people that work in areas throughout the farm and hear about their experiences. “I think that is an amazing position to have and it would be so interesting to be able to communicate with everyone about their time at White Oak Pastures.” Alena says she looks forward to starting a farm of her own one day, which will focus on vegetables, cut flowers, and medicinal herbs. Even though the worst parts of south Georgia are the heat and the gnats, the best is being able to change some stereotypes of what organic agriculture can look like when surrounded by conventional growers! And for that, Alena, we thank you for the role you play in that positive change!