Farming for the future

By Rachel Bynum

I read with interest the profile of farming in Rappahannock County [“A Fraught Future?” July 12], and the relatively bleak picture of the future that we see for farms here. Hodge Miller points out in his heartfelt letter in last week’s paper that commodity farming here, as anywhere else in the U.S., is tied to a larger economic picture that consistently devalues farmers’ work and deprives them of viable livelihoods, while corporate profits are driven higher and higher. I am writing to offer a case history of our farm, one of a few in USDA’s “growth” category briefly mentioned in the article.

My husband, Eric Plaksin, and I have been farming for a living in Rappahannock County for the past 18 years. We moved to Sperryville in 1999 to start Waterpenny Farm, growing 10 acres of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, along with keeping 200 laying hens. We have found it to be a great way to make a healthy living and maintain the quality of life we want for our family while contributing to our community.

We learned to farm after graduating from college by spending several growing seasons working on a profitable, sustainable, vegetable farm in Loudoun County, performing all the tasks of farming and selling at many D.C. area farmers markets. The outdoor work, access to amazing food, and a strong and friendly eco-farming community in the region, as well as the satisfaction of selling the fruits and vegetables of our labor directly to appreciative customers led us to pursue starting our own farm.

Finding land to lease long-term (we signed a 40-year lease in 2005) at Mt. Vernon Farm in Sperryville was ideal for us because it is within an easy drive of Washington D.C., a densely populated, well-educated, and affluent area with thriving farmer’s markets. (There are many other viable markets in the D.C. area — many of our farming friends sell to grocery stores, food co-ops, and restaurants, and the demand has continued to be generally high).

Our business model, as I see it, is based on three main principles:

The first is to grow ecologically — to us this means using only organic inputs, feeding our soil ecosystem using cover crops and minimal tillage, and using a bare minimum or organic pesticides. This means that we are producing pesticide-free products that are unique and unavailable at the grocery store (organic doesn’t mean pesticide-free). It also means that we aren’t exposed to synthetic chemicals in our many long hours in the field; our farm is named for water pennies, pollution-sensitive beetle larvae that live in Rappahannock’s clean streams.

The second is to grow a wide variety of crops, so we are not relying on just one or two products to take us through the season (if we had been a potato farm this season, we’d be sunk after the June deluge). We revise and update our crop list and varieties each year and pay attention to market trends.

The third is to direct-market our produce, and to go where the markets are strong. Our city farmers’ markets are our largest source of income; the CSA farm shares we sell are the second-largest, and the on-farm stand we run in our green barn is the third. Our on-farm sales have increased each year, and the fact that we can take in thousands of dollars each year at a self-serve stand in little Sperryville is a testament to the wonderful, supportive, local community we have.

Each year, we hire a crew of about 6 post-college interns who work hard, live, and learn on the farm. We provide housing and a minimum-wage stipend, as well as paid educational field trips to other sustainable farms in the region. They go on to do any number of interesting things, as young, bright people who care about good food and aren’t afraid of hard work, tend to do. There are quite a few financially viable sustainable farms that were started by or are being run by our former interns, most in our region or county.

The sustainable farming business is growing, and we are building a network, small farm by small farm, that has great potential to be key to a positive future for many productive careers in farming and food here.

The writer is a farmer in Sperryville

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