The producers: Meet the locals who are taking the plunge into farming

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Austin Mandryk wonders if he can run a year-round CSA or if he can derive most of his income from customers who will drive to the farm, rather than stopping by his farmer's market stand. Photo by John Robinson Austin Mandryk wonders if he can run a year-round CSA or if he can derive most of his income from customers who will drive to the farm, rather than stopping by his farmer’s market stand. Photo by John Robinson

Why did the farmer win an award? Because she was outstanding in her field.

Well—all jesting aside—probably not. If she was anything like the real farmers of Albemarle and neighboring counties, she was just as likely to be found working a job in town as spending time on her land. And when she was in the field, she probably had little or no time to stand still. As for the award? The average local farmer would be happy just to come out in the black.

Farming may be society’s most essential profession, but you’d never know it from looking at the numbers. Nationwide, the average farmer’s age is now 55.6; in Albemarle, that number is 62.3. For decades now, people have worried that as aging farmers retire, there will be no one to replace them, and family farms will disappear or be absorbed by corporate agriculture.

Not everyone agrees that there really is an “aging farmer crisis.” One economist got a lot of press in 2014 for a study that pointed out that the average age of farmers has increased exactly in concert with the average age of the labor force in general. Carl Zulauf even predicted that “the current period of prosperity will lead to an influx of younger farmers.” In 2017, the Washington Post reported that the number of young farmers was growing, largely because college-educated people were decamping from desk jobs to get their hands in the dirt.

Locally, the picture is mixed. The United States Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census found that in Albemarle, most farmers worked 200 days or more off the farm every year. That makes sense when you consider that the average Albemarle farm lost more than $11,000 that year. In nearby Nelson County, the average farm eked out a $309 profit. Farming, for many people, may be a lifestyle they love or even a family legacy, but it’s also a very uncertain source of income. “The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living,” wrote Bren Smith in the New York Times in 2014.

Dave Norford, vice president of Albemarle County Farm Bureau’s board, says it’s a major challenge even to get into farming in the first place. “It takes so much capital and experience,” he says. “You have to start out young and small and work your way up to it. It’s not like you jump right in at 21 and you’re all of a sudden a farmer.”

Norford raises cattle and has three teenage sons. “I spent my whole life building my operation to where if they want to take over, hopefully it would be big enough where they would have a fighting chance at making a living,” he says.

Having access to land is a major hurdle for new farmers, especially those without family land, and the wealthy economy in our area is a double-edged sword: There are lucrative markets here, but real estate—especially large tracts of open land—is unaffordable.

Still, between 2007 and 2012, Albemarle more than doubled its young farmer population. The local food movement has put small farms—often organic or artisanal in nature—on the minds of many consumers, and there is an undeniable romance to farming that can cut through the drone of corporate and academic lifestyles. Day after day, there are those among us who get up early to irrigate their tomatoes, bundle kale into bunches, doctor sick lambs, round up calves for auction, fix tractors, mend fence, court chefs, and brave chiggers, sunburn, and all the other physical demands of farming—all to accomplish a type of work that often costs more than it pays, but which the rest of us depend on for our very survival.

Below, meet a few hardy souls who have recently signed up for the job.

Plus bread

It was music that brought Heather Coiner and Ben Stowe together—they met in 2012 at an old-time music festival in West Virginia—but the trajectories that landed them there included another commonality too: They both love producing food.

At the time, Coiner had recently decamped from the academic life (she holds a Ph.D. in plant ecology) and was baking bread instead. “Partway through grad school I had an identity crisis,” she says. “I needed to do something tangible. The pace of academia was too slow.” She started a CSB (community-supported bakery) in Toronto, where she then lived, and delivered bread to customers by bike, contemplating a future in the food movement. Somewhere in Virginia or West Virginia, she thought—near the music scene she was part of.

Meanwhile, Stowe had tried out GED and ESL teaching after finishing college in New York City, and had quickly foreseen the end of that career. “I was proud of the work, but I was going to burn out,” he says. He followed a girlfriend to a farm internship in Wisconsin and, working in the greenhouse and the fields, began to envision a different path. “I was impressed by the quality of life,” he says. “I loved the food. I was working hard and sleeping well.”

He did a few other internships through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—a popular program connecting organic farms with short-term workers—and eventually spent two seasons at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, learning from experienced farmers who, he notes, “had a middle-class life.”

Heather Coiner and Ben Stowe’s Little Hat Creek Farm is a farm-bakery combination that “got bread customers before we got regular vegetable customers,” says Coiner. In 2016, the couple completed construction on a 1,000-square-foot bakery building with a wood-fired oven and plenty of space for trays, loaf pans, racks, and work tables. Photo by John Robinson

The couple became a couple more or less simultaneously with starting a business partnership, and the idea of a farm-bakery combination took hold early on. The search for land resulted in “a couple false starts,” says Stowe, before a very lucky break: He connected with Michael and Kathryn Bertoni, the owners of Appalachia Star Farm, an established CSA in Nelson County.

It was a good fit all around. The Bertonis were ready to stop farming after a decade in the business. They too had worked at Waterpenny in the past and knew that Stowe would understand the methods they’d been using. For Stowe and Coiner, the farm was a turn-key operation, complete with farmer’s-market and CSA customers and even, says Coiner, “crops in the ground.” In 2013, they signed a two-year lease and got to work.

Of course, the bakery concept was a major add-on to the business they were taking over, and one that required a name change (Appalachia Star became Little Hat Creek Farm) plus some big investments in infrastructure. Coiner made do with their house oven at first, and in 2016 they finally finished a 1,000-square-foot bakery building with a wood-fired oven. Now, in a gleaming space filled with trays, loaf pans, racks, and work tables, she bakes not only bread but croissants and other pastries—a valuable differentiator for CSA members and at the three farmer’s markets Little Hat Creek attends weekly. “We got bread customers before we got regular vegetable customers,” says Coiner.

When their two-year lease was up, she and Stowe were ready to commit long-term—to each other and to the farm. They got married, bought the property, and kept growing the business. This year, they have three full-time employees, 19 CSA members, and one and a half acres in vegetable production.

Photo by John Robinson

“This size farm would be too small without the bread,” says Stowe, age 34. With the farm-bakery model, they can make more money on a small property, their business is diversified, and they find more wholesale opportunities.

Bouncing their roly-poly 1-year-old twins as they tell their story, they readily acknowledge the long hours their business demands, as well as the juggling act they perform as new parents. But they’re even quicker to name what they love about farming. “You have to remind yourself about the high quality of life,” says Coiner, age 40. “We live where we work, and we’re eating high-quality food. We’re able to make a living for a family of four.”

Cattle drive

Growing up in Chesapeake, the oldest of six siblings, Antonetta Bates never imagined raising cattle. But she knew she loved an-imals, and when her family took camping trips to Sherando Lake, she’d stare out the car window at the cattle farms around Lyndhurst, unknowingly glimpsing a vision of her future.

It would take a while for that future to arrive, though. Not until 2011, when she moved to Earlysville to work as a live-in personal assistant to the owner of a large estate farm, did she find an opportunity to try out the agricultural life. Her employer put her in charge of managing the prop-erty—mowing, haying, maintenance—and offered that, if Bates liked, she could get a pet cow.

Antonetta Bates loves her grazing Angus and Herefords, but each animal is also thought of in numerical terms. Buying a young, pregnant female—a “bred heifer”—costs around $2,000, and that cow might produce a calf a year until she’s about 10 years old. Each calf can be sold at auction at about 7 months old and 500 pounds. Photo by John Robinson

Her first cow was indeed a pet (Annabelle, a Holstein, who died in March at age 6) but also served as the gateway to Bates’ more serious farming endeavors. “What really started me was a local farmer gave me an orphaned Angus heifer,” she remembers. “Then I bought a young bull and a few young calves to breed. Then my boss loaned me money and I bought 25 head and a second bull.” As she puts it, “it snowballed from there.”

She learned as she went, picking up skills from other local farmers and from her vet (“God bless her,” she says, “I can text her pictures and she’ll tell me what to do”). Though she’s also tried raising hogs, sheep, and chickens, cattle have been her main focus.

It’s clear that Bates, age 39, loves her animals, calling them by name and reaching out to stroke their heads when she drives a golf cart among the grazing Angus and Herefords. Yet if these are not to be pets, each animal must be thought of in numerical terms. Buying a young, pregnant female—a “bred heifer”—costs around $2,000; such a cow might produce a calf a year until she’s 10 years old or so, each calf to be sold at auction at about 7 months old and 500 pounds. This year, her herd produced 36 calves.

Antonetta Bates. Photo by John Robinson

Given all the variables—calves that die unexpectedly, beef prices that go up and down (they averaged $3 a pound a few years ago, less than half that at the time of our interview)—cattle farming is a tough business. That’s not even counting the startup costs, which for Bates have been partially waived; her employer provides 70 acres of fenced pasture for her to use, along with equipment. The farm is now for sale, however, and Bates knows her future is uncertain.

Bottom line: “I would need 200 mama cows to make a decent living,” she says. That would require 200 to 400 acres of land, which is prohibitively expensive in Albemarle. Bates is hoping that she can enter a new partnership with a landowner or perhaps a retiring farmer so that she can continue the life she’s come to love.

“I used to wear stiletto heels and get my nails done. Now it’s more like I need a nail brush,” she says. “You’d think farmers were crazy, but it’s truly not about money; it’s the love of the work we do. Ten years ago, I never would have thought I’d put steak on someone’s plate.”

Spirit of inquiry

“We’ve been doing agriculture for 10,000 years,” says Austin Mandryk, “and maybe we don’t know how to do it yet.” He walks among rows of tomatoes at his Atelier Farm in northern Albemarle, checking out the 98 varieties he’s planted this year, partly in a spirit of experimentation: Maybe he’ll learn something about tomatoes that no other farmer yet knows.

His four-and-a-half-acre garden includes hundreds of other crops, from young fruit trees to husk cherries to turmeric to six different kinds of holy basil. He’s even experimenting between the rows, searching for the right combination of cover crops to form a “living mulch” that will prevent erosion and attract good bugs but not out-compete his food crops. “The vision for me is a verdant farm,” he says; he dislikes seeing farms that “look like Mars,” with bare soil between rows.

In his second year (or “beta year,” as he calls it) running Atelier Farm, Mandryk, age 38, is deep into the test phase on many ideas at once. Can he run a year-round CSA? Can he derive most of his income from customers who will drive to the farm, rather than stopping by his farmer’s market stand? Can he gradually shift production so that half the food he grows is from perennial fruit crops?

“Everything’s in flux,” he says, after a lengthy explanation of how he prices his CSA shares. (In brief, they’re $20 per adult per week.) Since the CSA is buffet-style, rather than each member receiving the same bag of veggies, and since some of the things he’s harvesting now could become part of his winter offerings (think frozen berries or dried herbs), the formula of costs and income and value on this farm is fairly complex.

He knows he needs more members—he’s at around 40, but would be more comfortable with 60—but seems to be patient with the process of finding the right people to buy into his vision. Though this is the first time he’s been in business for himself, he’s been working on farms since right after college (when he biked to a farm in Pennsylvania to spend 20 hours a week pulling weeds for free) and has managed several other organic farms around the East and Midwest.

“Farming was never presented as an option” when he was growing up, he says, but he discovered the farming path in college along with a love of being outside—he’s hiked the Appalachian Trail twice—and a devotion to ecology.

In the second year of running Atelier Farm, Austin Mandryk is deep into the test phase on many ideas. He wonders if he can run a year-round CSA or if he can derive most of his income from customers who will drive to the farm, rather than stopping by his farmer’s market stand. He also considers whether or not he can gradually shift production at his four-and-a-half-acre farm, which includes hundreds of crops, from tomatoes to fruit trees to turmeric, so that half the food he grows is from perennial fruit crops. Photo by John Robinson

Atelier Farm rents a corner of the property owned by Mandryk’s sister and her husband. In the two years since Mandryk arrived here, he’s installed a deer fence, built sheds and walk-in coolers and a summer kitchen, created a washing/packing area and an outdoor office and herb dryers, and a place for members to select their week’s veggies, herbs, and flowers. (A onetime creative writing student, he’s also written lyrical blog posts to go along with each week’s CSA shares.) And, of course, he’s grown lots and lots of food.

It’s a demanding life. He describes camping in the cornfield to prevent nocturnal theft by a raccoon, reading farming books by flashlight before going to sleep in his tent. Yet he’s trying to make the work sustainable for himself by building it around his own desires. “I want spinach in winter, and frozen berries and dried beans,” he says. “There is a lot to be said for selfless service, but the foundation should be that I do everything I want to do. I grow what I want, and share it.”

The right blend

“I sort of didn’t choose the easy road,” says Katherine Herman, sitting in the new office of her farm, Gathered Threads, in Nelson County. She’s right, in that farming is never easy. But then she’s right again in that her type of farm—a small herb farm that supplies dried herbs, ferments, and other value-added products—might demand even more work than most.

Not only does she grow the herbs (and “grow” implies all the usual sub-verbs, from preparing soil to harvesting) and then, in many cases, dry them, she also makes them into everything from tea blends to salves to bath salts to infused vinegars. There’s packaging. There’s planning. There’s recipe testing. Oh, and there are two small kids.

Herman and her husband, Ralph, are keeping Gathered Threads in motion, here on this remote six-and-a-half-acre property, through ingenuity and hustle. “My husband’s job is paying our bills,” she says frankly. Ralph works long hours driving a truck, then mows the garden perimeter and does building projects around the farm after hours. Katherine tends an acre and a half of herbs and vegetables, usually with kids in tow.

At Gathered Threads in Nelson County, Katherine Herman runs a small herb farm that supplies dried herbs, ferments, and other value-added products to members of her CSA. Herman grows the herbs and, in many cases, dries them and makes them into tea blends, salves, bath salts, and infused vinegars. Photo by John Robinson

Luckily, she has many years of experience as a grower, all the way back to the garden she planted as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania in 2001. Yet Gathered Threads, founded in 2014, is different than the vegetable farms where she did most of her learning; her business draws heavily on her training at Sacred Plant Traditions herb school, as well as her own fermentation experiments, and requires endless creativity in the marketing sphere.

For example, several years after she’d started her herb CSA, the number of shares she was selling had fallen. Members were getting a monthly box of herbs and products, but there weren’t enough members. So this year, Herman decided to offer three different types of herbal CSA: medicinal, culinary, and bath-and-body. Sales went back up—and, of course, so did the complexity of developing and packaging the shares.

After growing up in Portsmouth, Herman studied animal science at Virginia Tech, but her Peace Corps years started her on an agricultural trajectory. “It was nice to grow some of what I ate,” she says. When she returned to the U.S., she looked for a farming position, and ended up managing vegetable farms for about a decade before starting Gathered Threads.

Photo by John Robinson

Herman, age 40, believes in the connection between herbs and daily wellness. “We need herbs instead of  pharmaceuticals,” she says. But selling herbs can be an uphill battle since most people don’t consider them a necessity. This year, Herman offered her herbal and fermented CSA shares directly to customers and also as an add-on at larger vegetable CSAs around Virginia, selling around 90 shares. She has a few wholesale accounts too, and sells at the Nelson farmer’s market, “a good way to network and get exposure,” she says.

If direct-to-consumer sales are the first image one might conjure for a small specialized farm, they may not be the most sustainable for the farmer. Herman sees the future of her business in larger-scale growing and bulk sales. “I want to grow more herbs and get more herbs to people,” she says. “I want to sell quarter-, half-, one-pound bags,” supplying other practitioners or producers.

It’s still a young business, with a solar dryer under construction, the new office half-tiled, and Herman’s baby daughter playing under a tent behind the farmer’s-market table. But in the garden, long rows of comfrey, currants, gooseberries, elderberries, nettles, rosemary, and dozens of others are growing—fragrant and promising.

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