Taking the scenic root 

Inn at Little Washington farmer Joneve Murphy’s personal, global mission

In just a few months, soon-to-be former Inn at Little Washington farmer Joneve Murphy will be leaving Rappahannock County — as well as her job at the Inn — to travel around the world, volunteering on farms across Europe, Asia and South America.

Joneve Murphy is leaving her job at the Inn to travel abroad for a year volunteering on various farms.
Joneve Murphy is leaving her job at the Inn to travel abroad for a year volunteering on various farms. Molly M. Peterson

The trip will take her to a number of farms — 25 or 26 are lined up right now, though Murphy says she expects to visit several more and hasn’t planned every destination yet — where she plans to volunteer for a week or two and learn how the farms operate.

Murphy says she’ll be exploring a wide variety of farms — hydroponic, urban gardens and school cooperatives, to name just a few — in the interest of exploring “what sustainability means to them.” She also plans to “follow the food home” by cooking and sharing a meal with one the farms’ customers.

“My project is a global exploration of the concept of farm to table . . . I want to work with farmers and cook with consumers in an effort to highlight the numerous and tenable ways food finds its way to our plate,” Murphy says.

Her plan is to leave in June, visit at least one farm in each country, and “travel and fall into things” from there. It’s for that reason that only half her journey is currently planned — and will remain that way. The farms she’s already scheduled to volunteer on will likely provide stepping stones to other farms, Murphy explains; those she’ll likely volunteer on for as little as a single day or as much as a week.

“I kind of like the uncertainty of it,” Murphy says.

Her journey’s main goal is to “explore the diversity of sustainability,” Murphy explains. “I want to interview the farmers and find out why they do what they do . . . Sustainable farming can be more expensive, but hopefully I can help inspire people back home to be more enterprising.”

Sustainable farming often requires innovations in agricultural techniques, Murphy says. “Industrial technology isn’t the only way to go,” she adds, though even the most sustainable farms often use at least some technology. “I would like to prove that there are environmentally and socially conscious ways of growing food to feed the world.”

“I always travelled in the off-season,” Murphy says. “I spent high school in Hong Kong . . . I just really love Asia,” she adds with a laugh. Murphy also plans to maintain a blog about her experiences and update it as often as she can.

Murphy’s past international farming experiences greatly influenced her current itinerary, as she plans to revisit several farms — such as an avocado and blood orange farm in India — at different times. “I loved working there, but I didn’t get to go to their huge mango festival last time,” Murphy says.

However, this is a much greater investment than any of Murphy’s previous journeys: She’s investing $10,000 — most of her life’s savings — into the Asia and South America portion of her trip, and holding fundraisers for the European portion, including one at the Headmaster’s Pub in Sperryville at 5 p.m. next Tuesday (April 8).

Most of that is being raised on Indiegogo.com, a crowdfunding website similar to Kickstarter. The key difference, Murphy notes is that “Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, but Indiegogo lets you keep whatever you make.”

Though her project, entitled “Farmer Seeking Roots,” has been active for just over two weeks, Murphy has already raised $5,021 — half of her stated $10,000 goal. Of her 69 current backers, “most are family and friends at this point,” she laughs.

A picture from one of Murphy’s previous travels; similar shots are available to those who donate to Farmer Seeking Roots on Indiegogo.
A picture from one of Murphy’s previous travels; similar shots are available to those who donate to Farmer Seeking Roots on Indiegogo. Joneve Murphy

But as an incentive to elicit donations from non-acquaintances, Murphy is offering a number of prizes for various donation levels, including prints of photos from the trip (and past trips), copies of a garden guide she’s been working on for several years, and even Skype or in-person consultation sessions for backers’ gardens. (There are 21 days left to donate.)

In addition to Indiegogo, Murphy is also utilizing Couchsurfing International, a sort of social networking site for travellers that allows them to find one-night hosts in more than 100,000 cities across the world. “Basically you come, crash and leave,” Murphy says. “You’re not living there and eating all their food; it’s just for one night. Sometimes people do something for the house like buy dinner . . . I’ve used it a few times before.”

Though farming has always interested her, prior to her three-year tenure at the Inn, Murphy wanted to be a biologist. She attended SUNY-ESF (the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry) — “Which was basically full of hippies,” she laughs — and studied mycology (mushrooms). Originally she wanted to be a biologist, but ultimately found it required too much time in the lab.

“So I drove cross-country with a friend and got a job on a farm for the summer and it all clicked.”

Three-and-a-half years ago she accepted a job at the Inn as the world-famous restaurant’s farmer-in-residence, where she helped cultivate two gardens — a 15-by-15 production garden behind the Country Cafe and a half-acre touring garden on the Inn’s grounds, which features “something of everything” for the guests to observe.

Ultimately, while Murphy admits her future after returning from her year abroad is uncertain thus far, she doesn’t seem bothered by it. “I’d say I’m 99 percent excited, one percent terrified,” she admits. “I like the idea of not knowing what’s going to happen . . . But it’s really hard to keep me out of the dirt.”