Joel Slezak, 30
Erica Hellen, 28
Free Union Grass Farm
He may have gone to school to study politics, but Joel Slezak is now at the forefront of the local food movement with his fiancée, Erica Hellen. The owners of Free Union Grass Farm-—located 15 miles northwest of Charlottesville in Free Union—the young couple have been dedicated to raising free-range chicken, ducks, and cows in an environmentally friendly way since 2010.
A homeschooled kid before attending Tandem Friends School, Slezak spent a good chunk of his childhood running around outside and helping out with the cows on his family’s 13-acre homestead. He attended Guilford College, but it turns out farming is in his blood, and he said he’d known from a young age that “conventional jobs” weren’t for him.
“I’ve always been skeptical of the urban lifestyle and how fragile it is,” said Slezak. “It’s nice to know that I can create a lifestyle that can sustain itself if the world falls apart.”
Hellen, an Oklahoma native, arrived in Charlottesville as an intern at Polyface Farms, an organic, pasture-based local market farm that’s been around since the 1960s.
“I knew that any female who works at a farm is definitely going to be a badass,” said Slezak. They’d both been toying with the idea of starting a farm, and shortly after meeting and beginning to date, Slezak and Hellen schlepped out to the countryside and started trying their hands at raising poultry.
Four years later, Slezak said there’s no way they’d be successful now if it weren’t for farms like Polyface and local chefs who are so passionate about local food.
“When we first started, we raised a bunch of chickens and just started taking them to chefs,” he said with a laugh. “We didn’t even have business cards. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we learned from our mistakes really quickly.”
Young farmers are in, it seems,
and once they started getting their footing as farmers and business owners, he said it wasn’t too hard to make a name for themselves among their customers. The challenge, he said, is getting in with the veterans in the industry.
“I think the old school, conventional farms are often skeptical of what we’re doing, and they don’t always take us seriously,” Slezak said. “So it’s been fun to kind of learn to respect your neighbors, and seeing them coming around finally as we grow our business.”