Friday, July 30, 2010

Harrisonburg, Virginia: Mike Philips

"Well, Kacy and the Sunshine Band!" Mike Philips exclaimed as we parked behind his flatbed truck and put out our hands for some shaking. We plopped down on the truck and Mike proceeded to regale us with story after story of farming and neighbors and the one vacation he's ever taken in his life, a 30 day trip via Hawai'i.

Mike is the kind of guy one feels immediately comfortable with and we contentedly stayed where we were for a good 2 and a half hours as the sun sank low. Mike grew up on the farm that he currently runs and he also devotes a part of his farm to test plots for the National Resource Conservation Service. He showed us pictures of what some of the research from these plots have shown, pictures of giant radishes with gnarly twisted bottoms. "Hmmm" I said after looking at those compelling results (I wasn't quite sure what the research was showing us, unless there is a blue ribbon out there in the 4-H fairs for most corkscrewed radish). Mike excitedly explained that what the corkscrew actually meant was that these radishes were penetrating through extremely compacted, microbially-dead soil (known as hardpan in farm lingo) and allowing air and nutrients to seep through it again. Radishes doing the job of a plow, and with far less damage!

Although Mike is much too humble to say so, he is kind of a big deal in his community. The truck we were sitting on was right off of a country road and anytime a truck would pass the horn would honk and the driver would toss out a greeting/ribbing/wave to Mike and Mike would give us that person's story. Mike is all about stories whether he's telling you about how his grandmomma and the community elders taught him about farming or how he teaches the up and comers about farming, or his relationships with his neighbors. The best thing to do is make yourself comfortable and enjoy the tales that come from living in a small town with big characters in it, people you wish you knew because they sound so warm and real.

Before heading on, Mike walked us around his farm, beautiful long rows of verdant green. His pride in his life's work as well as his acknowledgement of how many people he has learned from and accepted help from seemed like the traditional farmers cocktail; one part pride to one part humility to one part pure grateful faith. I left with the hope that whatever place I settle in will have Mike Phillips' counterpart as the community sustainer, the story teller, the one who doesn't forget who has walked here before us.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Keezletown, Virginia: Dave and Lee O'Neill, Radical Roots Community Farm

Our friends at Muddy Bikes told us that we'd be missing something huge if we left Virginia without stopping in on the folks running Radical Roots farm just south of Harrisonburg in Keezletown. We don't want to miss anything, and Trav was of course impressed by the pun in their farm name (I was stumped about what the pun was exactly...Trav obligingly broke it down for me: a radical is the first root a plant puts out in its baby stage of growth).

Radical Roots is a hopeful, new, and already successful model of a diverse biodynamic farm. We saw the beautiful curvy rows of tomatoes and peppers and herbs as we rumbled up the driveway in our faithful Element and met Lee O'Neil at the salad-washing station. An intern was under the roof of the same structure cleaning off new eggs where the cooler hummed and another intern worked opposite of Lee washing greens slowly and methodically so as not to bruise the tender leaves.

Lee's husband David was inside with their 2 kids, supervising nap time, and joined us presently to help get ready for the 2 farmers markets they sell at the following day (every Saturday they sell at Charlottesville and Harrisonburg). Lee told us about the early days when she and Dave were traveling and interning on farms along the west coast and how they were drawn back to VA eventually to start their own place. They very highly value the lessons they learned about treating the land well and sustainability and they strive to pass that knowledge on.

Part of their income is derived by hosting workshops on biodynamics and farm design on their land. Their farm is so pleasing to the eye with its curves and slopes and bioswales (I had never seen bioswales before; they are a flat stretch of land below a crop on a slope that slows erosion and catches water, and they're nice to walk on). Before leaving, Dave and Lee's 5 year old gregarious son ran up to me and put a still warm egg in my hand, fuel for the journey. The O'Neils waved us goodbye with directions to the nearest swimming hole and off we went into the golden day in search of it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Harrisonburg- The Friendly City

After the week well spent at Micah and Bethany's Trav was feeling healthy as a horse again and we wound our way through Pennsylvania's Big Valley to Harrisonburg, VA, the home of my alma mater EMU. Harrisonburg is also home to a few giant poultry processing plants (Cargill, Perdue and Tyson have facilities there) and the smell that wafts over the town on rainy or humid days is quite atrocious (unless you like eau de rendered chicken). You can find a wide variety of folks in Harrisonburg and the surrounding towns, old order mennonite farmers, urban farmer/social workers, a large Mexican population working mostly for the poultry honchos, and lots of students at EMU and JMU getting the idealism knocked right out of them (just kidding, I for one am still plenty idealistic).

The first place we stopped was at the EMU physical plant office to see if my old boss, Will Hairston was there. He was! What a reunion it was, I hadn't seen him in 5 or 6 years and he had been my mentor through college. Will is the epitome of quiet kindness, he is soft spoken, wise, and aware of everything that's going on on the EMU campus. Many students sought him out in my day for his gentle wisdom and perspective, and it was so good to see him again. When he understood what Travis and I were doing his eyes lit up and he whisked us away in his Honda to introduce us to s few farmers he's in touch with.

In no time at all we met Dennis and Mildred Showalter, an Old Order Mennonite couple with a family dairy and plant nursery in Dayton...Tom Benevento, a farming social justice activist on an urban plot in Harrisonburg... and Taylor Weidman, student caretaker of the EMU garden. After introducing us to these wonderful people Will also gave us a place to stay with a washer and dryer and shower (we desperately needed showers by then!) and met us for dinner that first night. If you are ever lucky enough to cross paths with Will Hairston, you are lucky indeed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mineral, Virginia: Ira Wallace, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and the Acorn Community

A distant memory from the nether regions of my brain surfaced as we drove further south of Charlottesville to meet with Ira Wallace of the Acorn intentional community. The memory is of a college field trip to a communal living development in which the dwellers ran a farm and a hammock production business and did their best to stay on the up and up so as not to be harassed by the cops in this rural town that suspicioned that the commune was a harbor for dirty communists or hippies or both. Most shocking to my 20 year old self (I was somewhat sheltered as a child) was eating in the dining hall with a trio of lovers. The lady’s name was something like Moonbeam, and she was about to have a baby fathered by one of these men, but no one wanted to know who the dad was. They just wanted to raise the baby all together as equal partners. My thirty year old self thinks that is a lovely way to be a family, and I appreciate the nontraditional roles they are able to embrace. I think my thirty year old self is (hopefully) less judgemental than I have been previously.
Back to present day Acorn Community. Ira welcomed us into the garden which is tended by the community members. At first glance it seems wild and haphazard, and upon further inspection it still seems wild but definitely alive with the loud hum of bumble bees and the signs that peek out from under the huge and healthy looking ruffage. The commune does a prosperous business with seed saving and selling (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is the name of that business). Ira talked about wanting to move back to the sister commune Twin Oaks which is about 10 miles away because the crowd there is older and a little less transient. Ira herself has lived on communes all her adult life, and was instrumental in creating and shaping the Acorn Community. Most folks seem to come and go on the commune, but it seems to truly be home for Ira.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dayton, Virginia: George Rohrer

George Rohrer's place is tucked away on a beautiful meandering farm road just before things start to get more residential. He is a kindly and welcoming man and he made us comfortable under a big shade tree in his front yard with 3 or 4 of his numerous corgi dogs wrapped around his (and our) feet.

George was born at this house into an Old Order Mennonite family and is related to pretty much every one of his neighbors. He decided to leave the family farm as well as the Mennonite faith when he was a young man and he ended up in Arizona trying his hand at various trades. George found that, in his case, there was nothing he could do that was as satisfying as farming. So, after a few years passed, he came back to Dayton and started taking over the family dairy.

As the regional president of the Dairy Farmers of America he has won numerous awards for his product and practices. He told us that the way milk is bought by corporations is very difficult for a farmer of his size. It's such an unpredictable market and dairy farmers have no way to recoup if the market is flooded and their milk does not bring in the price they were hoping for. He suggested that, in the whole country there may be three or four people who truly understand milk pricing.

George's kids still live in the southwest and do not show interest in coming back to the family farm. He seemed partly sad that the fate of the farm is unsure, and partly relieved that his kids will have more stable income. His brother farms on the property as well, taking care of the turkeys and chickens that reside in the 2 huge poultry barns on the property.

He waved us off to the produce auction where we ended up seeing him again and continuing to chat over really good homecooked mennonite grub. If you've ever heard of shoofly pie, it was represented in all its glory there at the auction (though we went for the keylime).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dayton, Virginia: Dennis and Mildred Showalter, Shenandoah Produce Auction

Mildred Showalter stepped out onto her front porch to greet us and I was struck, just as I was the first time I met her a few days prior, with how strong her arms looked. A beautiful Old-Order Mennonite woman with a big smile and perfectly white teeth in her late 40's or early 50's who has raised 5 biological children and 30 odd foster children. The arms peeking out from the ruffled sleeves of her simple homemade dress have picked up and comforted a lot of babies, and it shows.

Mildred runs the family plant nursery with her daughters and they have waves of white and purple pansies at the moment, though the season has peaked and the greenhouses are nothing like they were a few weeks ago. Her husband Dennis runs the relatively new produce auction in Dayton and dairy farms along with 2 of their sons. The third son has a mulch business that fits in wonderfully with the nursery.

The produce auction has been very successful, providing a new outlet for local farmers (many of them also Old-Order Mennonites). The dairy business has been stressful the past few years, as evidenced by many of our recent conversations about low and fluctuating milk prices, and some farmers welcome the chance to develop niche vegetable crops, such as tomatoes, melons, or squash, to offset their dairy costs and diversify their farms. Sometimes the buyers are individuals looking for a bushel of something for canning, but most of the sales of fruit, veggies, and flowers go to larger clients such as local supermarkets and stores in the cities of surrounding states.

The Showalters talk about how farming has allowed them to spend time with their kids as they were growing up and tighten the bond of their family. Trav and I could see the family pulling together at the produce auction with Dennis helping the last of the buyers load up their goods while Mildred and the girls served anyone with $5 and an appetite a plate of burgers, fries, salad, beans and key lime pie, all the while dodging around her latest 2 foster babies asleep in their bouncy chairs on the floor. At their request we did not photograph them, but they did permit us to take pictures of their place.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Harrisonburg Virginia: Radell Schrock, Season's Bounty

After leaving Muddy Bikes we drove a few miles away from downtown toward Radell's place on the outskirts of town. Radell was a couple of years ahead of me in school and I remember well his easygoing manner and ready smile. After graduating Radell taught high school for a number of years and rented a 5 acre plot of land that he farmed in the summer until school would start again. Radell talked to us about how much he loved farming and finally decided to stop teaching and farm full time. Now he has a CSA, grows for the Harrisonburg Farmers Market and is contemplating building a roadside stand at the end of the lane. As we walked through the extremely orderly rows of carrots, peppers, tomatoes (which he was especially proud of), and lettuce galore I thought about how well this farm seemed to reflect Radell's personality.

Radell farms with intense focus, rows are planted as close as plants can be and thrive, the design is efficient and utilitarian, and beautiful in a manicured way.
Radell's parents moved from Wisconsin to Harrisonburg for their retirement as they had always planned to do, but they have really enjoyed being part of the work on the farm. They help out every day and always bring a lunch fit for hard working farmers to share with Radell. Mrs. Schrock speaks with quiet pride about Radell's being voted on as the president of the farmers market association and how well he handles whatever conflicts may arise there. In the past few years the farmers market has gone from non-existent to slightly patronized to thriving, and we could well see that from the vendors spilling out of the covered gazebo ino the parking lot. Before we took off we bought some brilliantly orange carrots from Radell which we finished in the short walk from the gazebo to the car.

Harrisonburg Virginia: Muddy Bikes/Our Community Works

Trav and I had a heavy day of interviewing ahead of us, first on the schedule was Tom Benevento of Muddy Bikes, an urban garden. The plot is really the back and front yards of two houses owned by the nonprofit just a few blocks from my favorite downtown diner, the Little Grill. Tom Benevento is the dreamer who landscaped this social justice project after spending many years working with land and community issues in Latin America. Tom chose Harrisonburg VA to be the site of his next justice venture because it is a city that constantly teeters on the edge of dynamic change. It's a city like a lot of cities, ripe for change and always tempted to remain status quo.

After Tom bought the plots he found there was a community interested in helping him work towards more equanimity in relation to food and justice and people. There are many disadvantaged folks in Harrisonburg, and with Muddy Bikes Tom and company have found a way to offer more options to folks. Economically distressed people work the urban plots and are paid a great wage from the profit the produce makes at market. There is no fuel involved, and all transport is done by bikes with trailers on them (hence the name). There are many connected networks such as Our Community Works (those looking for jobs find them through this organization) and there is a new farm outside the city limits that will be available for people struggling with addictions to work on. The house that sits on the urban property houses up to three people at a time who need housing.

Not all the neighbors have been receptive to living next to Muddy Bikes but even that has it's positive outcome as neighbors with different perspectives and stories learn to live with each other. If Harrisonburg truly does teeter on the edge of climactic and great change I have no doubt that Tom and crew will be some of the ones giving it a healthy shove in that direction.

Sara and Josef

On our way west to Plowshare Farm in McAlevey's Fort, PA we stopped in to visit my old friend Sara and meet her husband Josef. We stayed the weekend on the farm that is owned by Sara's brother Myron and his family. Poor Trav was suffering from a stomach bug and he pretty much sacked out on the couch only to lift his head every once in a while to weakly say he was sorry he was not very good company.

The farm was a blissful recovery place for Trav, and I loved catching up with my friend. We picked strawberries from the massive garden (that we turned into strawberry ice cream) and I milked a goat for the first time (I just got a few squirts). Sara taught us to make goat milk mozzarella and introduced us to the Settlers of Catan game (and proceeded to develop the biggest settlements... we demand a rematch!) Josef and Sara were amazing hosts, and after church sent us on our way with asparagus and berries and other garden treasures. Our cup runneth over from the generosity of amazing friends.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

McAlevy's Fort, Pennsylvania: Plowshare Produce, Micah and Bethany

Travis was still feeling pretty ill when we made our next stop at McAlevy’s Fort near State College in PA. Not only were we going to interview two young farmers in the second year of their CSA, but we were spending the week working with them on their farm. We were desperate to get our hands in the dirt after talking to so many farmers and Bethany and Micah had a list for the 4 of us to knock out.

Arriving at the farm was the first sight of Micah I’ve ever had. Bethany I knew from being students together at Eastern Mennonite University. I was good friends with her sister Karen, and I knew from reading Bethany’s editorials in the school paper and hearing her speak publicly that Bethany had SOUL. Her poetry and perspective inspired me to bake bread, be kind, ride my bike, appreciate my surroundings and probably be a better version of myself in general. Back to the present…

Bethany and Micah met in Washington D.C. where Bethany was working for Mennonite Central Committee and Micah was teaching the third grade. They decided that they
#1 really liked each other and
#2 wanted to grow food.

They apprenticed on several farms before settling down two years ago on Bethany’s parent’s farm. They farm 2 acres of produce along with chickens and two plow horses and an adorable ornery donkey named Fred. Her parents make hay and keep dozens of sheep. They believe that a CSA connects the consumer to the farmers, and that’s good for everybody. Micah and Bethany are two of the kindest, gentlest, most fun loving people I know, and they pour themselves into their farm and their relationships with their community. They have a few customers who do work trade for their box of food, there are harvest parties and potlucks and they have created a "plowsharing fund" which provides a share through donations for someone who may not have been able to afford it otherwise.

Our week at Plowshare was filled with amazing meals and conversations, hard work, peaceful rest at the family’s cabin, and beautiful music brought to us by Micah and Bethany. Micah is an amazing guitar player and when they sing together it’s hard to hold back applause. They do a beautiful rendition of the Grateful Dead’s goodnight song and Trav and I have been singing it ever since we left.
You can see their farm website at