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“Mines to vines.” With Penny Bauder & Heidi Kühn

Roots of Peace is a humanitarian non-profit dedicated to the eradication of landmines and planting sustainable agriculture for future generations to thrive. We live in a world where there are an estimated 60 million landmines silently poised in over 60 countries. These seeds of terror hold the land hostage from sustainable agriculture to take root. […]

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Roots of Peace is a humanitarian non-profit dedicated to the eradication of landmines and planting sustainable agriculture for future generations to thrive. We live in a world where there are an estimated 60 million landmines silently poised in over 60 countries. These seeds of terror hold the land hostage from sustainable agriculture to take root. It takes only 8 pounds to detonate a landmine, the average weight of a newborn child.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heidi Kühn.

Heidi Kühn is Founder and CEO of Roots of Peace, a humanitarian-nonprofit organization founded in September 1997 with a vision to transform MINES TO VINES — replacing the scourge of landmines with sustainable agricultural farmland. Her pioneering work empowers families living in war-torn regions with hope leading to the economics of peace through export and trade. In her inspiring and deeply personal memoir, Breaking Ground: From Landmines to Grapevines, One Woman’s Mission to Heal the World, Heidi shares her extraordinary journey of creating a nongovernmental organization of groundbreaking impact from the basement of her California home that started with a clear vision: first, remove the landmines, replace with bountiful vineyards and orchards and then help farmers improve crop yields on the land for food and export. Her numerous awards include the: Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, World Association of Non-Profit Award, and The National Jefferson Award for Public Service — the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award, and the Gandhi Global Family Seva Award. Her supporters include the United States Government, the United Nations, World Bank and other international governments and organizations. She has been recognized by numerous world leaders including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and many heads of state and government. She is a graduate of the University of California, and recipient of the Cal Alumni Award for Excellence and Achievement. Kuhn has been married to her husband Gary for 39 years. They have four children, Brooks, Tucker, Kyleigh and Christian, and three grandchildren Jai, Laila and Amaya.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

My roots of peace run deep, as an American pioneer family. In 1701, our McNear family sailed from Scotland and settled in Wiscassett, Maine. They helped build the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, and many met a watery grave as seafaring visionaries. The McNears worked closely with the Iroquois and Mohawk tribes of New England, and the Native Americans who created the Great Laws of Peace, which many historians believe inspired concepts embedded in the United States Constitution.

From their base in Maine, the McNear family sailed to other American ports. In Boston, McNear relations donated the land for Tufts University, built in 1852, which opened the first graduate school of international relations in the United States. Another branch of the McNear clan migrated south to Philadelphia. Andrew McNair, a Scottish Mason, was the custodian of the Continental Congress and the official ringer of the Liberty Bell from 1759 to 1776. This was one of the earlier forms of communications in colonial times and a deep inspiration for me as a young reporter for CNN. When the Declaration of Independence was formally announced, Andrew rang the Liberty Bell thirteen times, a gesture of biblical proportions, “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land and unto all thy inhabitants thereof.”

Years later, Captain John Augustus McNear set sail from Wiscasset, Maine, for California in the 1850’s, and placed his earthy possessions on the ship, but somehow managed to ‘miss the boat’ as a young man in his early 20’s. As his belongings sailed around the Tierra del Fuego along the Southern tip of South America, he took the short cut via horseback through the Isthmus of Panama through malaria infested jungles and along raging rivers before arriving at the coast. Upon arrival in San Francisco, he learned that the ship along with his belongings had sunk. Captain McNear was not deterred, however, and he started the transportation shipping industry from Petaluma, California to bring the ‘eggs, milk and butter’ to feed the new economy now burgeoning in San Francisco. He started the Bank of Sonoma and sold real estate to those coming from the hills of the Gold Rush.

Through hard work and perseverance, he became one of the first millionaires in California and purchased over 2,500 acres of land in Marin County.

He became a prominent figure in San Francisco’s business, banking and agricultural circles, and was a contemporary to railroad barons Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford, known as ‘the Big Four’. Yet, McNear was a man of principle, and stood up against discrimination when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enacted, and sailed to San Francisco to offer the Chinese refuge on his private land. Eventually, more than 500 Chinese workers lived on his land, and these industrious immigrants started a thriving business exporting over 3 million pounds of dried shrimp to China annually.

My great-grandfather, Erskine Baker McNear, one of John McNear’s children, went into the shipping business as well and became a friend to many entrepreneurs including A. P. Giannini, who owned the Bank of Italy, later renamed the Bank of America. Together, they supported the dream of another visionary, Joseph Strauss, who designed the Golden Gate Bridge. As large landholders in Marin County with interests in transportation, their voices were strong. In the early 1930’s, my father, Robert Thomas, remembers seeing the model of the Golden Gate Bridge on his dining room table.

My Granny McNear would serve dinner to the business leaders, and she would always remind me, “Don’t ever let your dreams hold you back, or ever think they are too big! Remember, the Golden Gate Bridge was built across two strong currents at the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, when all those told him it was impossible. Pursue the impossible dream!”

The vision of turning MINES TO VINES began on our McNear family homestead, and these words of inspiration continue to echo in my mind!

Together, as a world, we must dig deeper for peace and continue to pursue the impossible dream on former war-torn lands — and plant the Roots of Peace on Earth…!!!

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Roots of Peace is a humanitarian non-profit dedicated to the eradication of landmines and planting sustainable agriculture for future generations to thrive. We live in a world where there are an estimated 60 million landmines silently poised in over 60 countries. These seeds of terror hold the land hostage from sustainable agriculture to take root. It takes only 8 pounds to detonate a landmine, the average weight of a newborn child.

Long after the guns of war have silenced, these explosive remnants of war remain buried in the ground to tempt the innocent footsteps of a child chasing a butterfly or kicking a soccer ball out of bounds. Together as a world, we must turn ‘swords into plowshares’ by replacing minefields with bountiful orchards, so that farmers do not plant their shovels in the ground — only to lose a life or limb.

For the past two decades, Roots of Peace has raised funds and awareness to remove landmines and plant rice in Cambodia, orchards in Croatia, wheat in Iraq, grapes in Afghanistan and black pepper on former battlefield in Vietnam. We have proudly planted over 5 million fruit trees and impacted over 1 million farmers and families.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

In September 1997, I was deeply inspired by the passionate footsteps taken by the late Princess Diana who catapulted the issue of landmines to the forefront of the international agenda. As a mother of four children and a cancer survivor, I deeply realized that ‘Cancer is a Landmine, and Landmines are a Cancer to the Earth. The solution is removal.’ This was an epiphany, as I raised my glass in a MINES TO VINES visionary global toast to peace from the living room of our Kuhn family home, as those luminaries from the landmine issue passionately spoke.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My California pioneer roots and passion for peace came together, as an epiphany when I made the MINES TO VINES toast to peace.

Images of turning blood to wine, killing fields into vineyards, and minefields to vineyards filled my mind like a watercolor wash — blending these passionate ideas together with the vision of transforming seeds of hatred into seeds of love.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Leading with faith, not fear, I took intrepid footsteps outside of our Kuhn family home to take this vision and turn it into reality.

Looking beyond my own backyard, I realized the privilege we had as California vintners to cultivate the land without the fear of landmines beneath our plow. As a mother of four children ages 14, 12, 10 and 2, this was not an easy task. Yet, I managed to get a babysitter and pursue my quest for peace by approaching the Napa Valley vintners. Those entrepreneurs who had established the wine industry widely opened their doors, and listened to my vision for transforming MINES TO VINES. A few months later, the Ottawa Treaty to Ban Landmines was signed, and I invited three prestigious California vintners to join me — Robert Mondavi, Tor Kenward and Eric Wente. Although the United States was not a signatory to the ban, these vintners went on behalf of the plight of farmers worldwide who must tend to their fields with the fear of landmines beneath their plow.

A few months later, I launched Roots of Peace and invited the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his wife, Nane, to join me at the World Trade Center in San Francisco. I sent an invitation via my FAX machine in the late 1990’s, and was astonished to hear the ‘beep, beep’ as the letterhead from the United Nations came through with the affirmation that they had cordially accepted the invitation.

Our local San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi also joined the launch, and quietly whispered that she would stand by my side for as long as it took to implement my vision to turn MINES TO VINES. Years later, I was invited on two occasions to witness her pounding the gavel with her grandchildren as she was sworn in as the first woman Speaker of the House in both 2007 and 2019.

My intrepid California pioneer spirit allowed me to think beyond my own backyard, as I continue to bridge borders for peace.

Roots of Peace was tragically attacked by The Taliban on March 28, 2014. It was a horrible call to receive our Country Director, “This is Sharif, our Roots of Peace compound is under attack — a suicide bomber just detonated!!” For the next four hours, we listened to a LIVE attack as the suicide bombers were targeting a Kindergarten where 25 children were in the play yard. Through the smoke, they took a wrong turn and entered into our rooms where we had just stayed a month earlier. Five Taliban were heavily armed, and confronted our five Afghan guards who fiercely fought the battle as five Roots of Peace expatriates hid in their rooms and jumped from the trees. These were tense moments, as my children were home and also listened to this horrific struggle until the last suicide bomber detonated himself in our dining room — across the world in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The New York Times and Washington Post were contacting us, and our humanitarian non-profit was featured on international news — not for the good work we did to help millions of farmers, but for the tragedy of a suicide bombing. Our family was devastated. While we had won the battle, there was definitely no victory. It was a defining moment when I thought Roots of Peace had just become too difficult to manage from the heart of a California mother halfway across the world.

Then, our first grandson, Jai was born. As I looked into the eyes of this precious infant, I remembered the words of my wise Granny McNear, “To whom much has been given, much is expected.” And, somehow, I mustered the courage to stand up to this great challenge and continue my surge to plant the Roots of Peace.

With funding from USAID, our Roots of Peace CHAMP program (Commercial Horticultural Agricultural Marketing Program) helped to lead the national agricultural exports from $250 million in 2014 to over $1.4 billion by 2020. This innovative business model for peace impacted millions of farmers and families as we provided exports to new markets in India and U.A.E. As I reflect upon the devastation of the Taliban attack, I realize that none of our accomplishments would have happened if I had not chosen ‘the road less taken.’

Today, I continue to manage over $100 million in grants and employ over 250 Afghans working in all 34 provinces. My work is now focused on yielding a ‘Harvest of Hope’ for deserving Afghan farmers and families, and providing them access to new markets as we face the challenges of a global pandemic.

I continue to lead with Faith, not fear.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

During the initial years after The Balkan War, the devastation of landmines destroyed the vineyards in the former country of Yugoslavia.

In 1990’s, the country was divided into five new countries and news was constantly changing. In 1997, I was invited to a posh Napa Valley event to share my vision to transform MINES TO VINES, and was seated next to the Consul General of the newly formed nation of Croatia. Politely, I asked how I could help Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the late Princess Diana had taken her last footsteps to raise landmine awareness earlier in the year. There was no internet at this time, and I realized that some lessons were not yet updated in textbooks. I had no Foreign Service experience, and had to teach myself global affairs though research in textbooks and current affairs magazines.

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The Consul General was very polite, and reminded me that they were brutal enemies across these newly established borders. I learned the importance of researching my subject matter even further, in preparation for sitting next to global dignitaries.

Over the years, we became good friends and the Consul General of Croatia came to respect my efforts for eradicating landmines which know no borders for children. Eventually, I demined fields in both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina — for the sake of future generations, not political landmines which I had clearly stepped on!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have been blessed by many mentors and cheerleaders across all sectors including the Napa Valley vintners, United Nations, U.S. Government, Autodesk, Chevron, Skoll Foundation, Rotarians, Gandhi Global Family, and Marin County friends and supporters from my own neighborhood.

Yet, the greatest support always came from my family; my husband, Gary, and four children, Brooks, Tucker, Kyleigh and Christian.

I’ve always quoted the words by Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We need to raise both funds and awareness to eradicate all landmines from the face of the earth, and plant sustainable peace through agriculture.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, yet over 45 years later millions of explosive remnants of war remain buried in the former DMZ province of Quang Tri. Since the war ended, over 100,000 innocent Vietnamese lives have been maimed or killed by the legacy of landmines, UXO and cluster munitions.

In 2010, Roots of Peace expanded our MINES TO VINES initiative to replace the scourge of landmines with bountiful black pepper vines in Vietnam.

My son, Tucker Kuhn, bravely stepped forth as the Country Director and helped train over 3,800 farmers to grow the finest black pepper on former battlefields. Over 80% of the land remains riddled with explosive remnants of war and Roots of Peace raised funds to partner with MAG (Mines Advisory Group) to eradicate these seeds of terror and train farmers to grow sustainable peace through agriculture.

One of the best spice companies in the United States, Morton & Bassett Spice Company, learned of our efforts and taste tested the black pepper in his laboratory and agreed that the quality was among the best in the world! Morton Gothelf, Owner, served in the Vietnam War during the 1960’s as a pilot evacuating the injured soldiers, and was deeply touched by our MINES TO VINES efforts to heal the wounds of war.

Now, years later, he wanted to give back and support us to transform former battlefields into thriving farmland for export and trade.

Today, every bottle of Morton & Bassett Black Pepper spice sold on the shelves at supermarkets across the United States features the Roots of Peace logo to raise both awareness and funds.

In this manner, we are giving the world a ‘Taste of Peace!’

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Abundance of Patience
  2. Faith in my Footsteps
  3. Strength to overcome Obstacles
  4. Gift of Gratitude
  5. Each Day is a Gift

As a mother of four children, I needed to give balance to raising my own family while expanding my heart to help children worldwide.

The above five lessons were daily personal reminders to allow myself patience to pursue my deepest dreams and vision for peace.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Life is like the tapestry of a beautiful basket. The native Americans in Marin County would weave local roots and reeds, pulling them back and forth. They often struggled to make the weave tight, and it would be painful on their arms to tug and pull, back and forth. The young villagers would often wonder why they struggled so hard, when it was just an ugly tussle of weeds. Then, as the basket was finally finished, they turned the tapestry around and saw all of the beautiful patterns. Without all the tugging and pulling, this beautiful tapestry of a basket would never be so stunning.

The ‘roots’ of peace is often like this, as I’ve struggled many times in situations where others often told me just to put my basket down and quit.

It was an ugly series of knots and reeds all tangled together. Yet, I have faith in the pattern that I am weaving, and the Roots of Peace as now produced a beautiful basket to carry the fruit grown on former minefields. Together, we have truly turned MINES TO VINES and firmly planted the Roots of Peace on Earth.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous.”

There have been times in my life during my darkest hour when challenging situations just seemed too impossible to handle. These were defining moments when a ‘spark’ of light and hope would appear. Perhaps it was an attorney walking down the path to Stinson Beach who offered to provide pro bono legal services when I had no money to hire an attorney. Or, meeting a landmine victim in Kabul, Afghanistan born on the same day as my daughter with a different fate (May 1, 1987), as he deeply inspired me to go the distance on behalf of other children who could not walk.

From my heart, these were ‘rays of light’ from Heaven, guiding me forth on a dangerous path — but always reminding me that I was never alone.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama.

When a seed is planted, it doesn’t know the color of our skin, the politics in our mind, or the religion in our heart.

As seed will grow when nurtured and cultivated, in stark contrast to a landmine.

As First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama was passionate about planting gardens with children to teach nutrition and other life lessons.

During this time in human history, we are suffering the phantom enemy of COVID-19 which is like the hidden killer of landmines which knows no borders. As a proud American woman, I believe we must rise above this suffering and dis-ease caused by a global pandemic and emerge as a more compassionate society. I am deeply proud that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) and Cindy McCain (R) have both written quotes on the cover of my book BREAKING GROUND. While all bookstores are closed due to the pandemic, I hope that my story may still emerge and deeply inspire global citizens to join me in eradicating landmines and other seeds of hatred from the face of the earth. We must dig deeper for peace, so that future generations may thrive.

My dream would be to ‘plant a tree’ with Michelle Obama in Marin County, as a tribute to the vision of the original delegates from the United Nations who gathered 75 years ago (June 26, 1945) beneath the towering redwood trees of Muir Woods with clear intention for a more peaceful world. Children of all colors would gather a pail of water to water the tree with their tiny hands, and join us in a symbolic effort to plant the Roots of Peace on Earth.

How can our readers follow you online? www.rootsofpeace.org

To learn more: www.heidikuhn.com, www.rootsofpeace.orgLinkedInYouTubeFacebookInstagram

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Tashakor, Thank You, Arigato, Gracias, Cam On!

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