From a fortuitous partnership grows a summer bounty at Berrey Hill

Katharine Wilson says the next year at Berrey Hill will be full throttle, learning the land by trial and error to figure out what grows best on the property. Photo: John Robinson Katharine Wilson says the next year at Berrey Hill will be full throttle, learning the land by trial and error to figure out what grows best on the property. Photo: John Robinson

A landowner and a farmer walk into an agriculture- themed social hour. Holly Maillet, a botanical artist and avid gardener, owns 55 acres of sun-splashed land in Madison County that she’d like to use productively. Katharine Wilson, a 26-year-old crew leader at Bellair Farm, has dreams of managing her own farm. They meet, recognize their shared vision for the land and launch a business together. The resulting partnership is a brand-new community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture at Berrey Hill Farm, delivering diverse produce, herbs and eggs from pastured hens to subscribers in Charlottesville.

Wilson’s excitement about the year ahead is palpable as she describes the start-up process, from seeding the fields to acquiring and housing 100 hens.

“It’s full-throttle right now, and it will be a year of that to get everything established,” she says. Learning the land will involve some trial and error. “To figure out what grows well, we may start with 50 varieties of vegetables and hone over the next few years.”

Record keeping for each crop is critical, as is gauging the demands of their customer base and accounting for potential loss at each stage. “Never stop planting is a pretty good motto for a CSA farmer,” Wilson says.

Before settling in Virginia, Wilson worked with nonprofits in east Africa to encourage community development. “I realized that food is a great root for a community to grow from,” she says, “and if I wanted to help farmers, I needed to know how to farm.” From her first season as an apprentice in southern Albemarle, she was hooked on working the land. Both women are passionate about the local food movement and are taking a holistic approach to ecological farming. “We’re building an ecosystem,” says Maillet, “not only with the vegetables, but we’re healing the soil and thinking about how livestock can factor in. We’re thinking about the native habitat around us and bringing in bees. It’s a really wonderful thing to be a part of.”

Innovations abound, the largest of which is a mobile chicken coop that Wilson built on site. The hens will be rotated through fallow fields, adding valuable nitrogen to the soil at each stop. Throughout the complex planning stages, the partners only really disagreed on one thing: beets. (Maillet is not a fan, but they’ll grow them anyway.) Future plans include raising pigs—“my favorite animal and my favorite meat,” admits Wilson—and blueberries, which will take a few years to establish.

Another modern adaptation is their “market-style” CSA, which allows customers to fill their own share bags each week rather than being given a pre-filled bag. This minimizes waste as there’s no getting stuck with unwanted produce, and the process adds to the sense of community that Maillet and Wilson are trying to build.

“We’re there at the pickup location for a few hours so that as people make their selections, they can talk to us and ask questions,” says Wilson.

The duo hope their project will be a model to young farmers of how to access land via partnering with landowners. The relationship is a serious bond, says Maillet, and rich with benefits. “We have open lines of communication and shared responsibilities. There are lots of like-minded people around, but the trick is finding each other.” And with that discovery comes a bounty for all of us.

You don’t CSA!

How much does a 2-acre CSA cost to start up?

Even if you provide all the labor yourself, here are a few key expenses:

Irrigation supplies: $1,350

Soil amendments: $2,000

Tractor implements: $2,000

Seed: $2,250

Field supplies (like fencing): $3,500

Laying hens and supplies: $5,000

24’x48′ greenhouse: $6,000

The biggest outlay of all? A tractor (≈$25,000)