On Friday November 30th, 15 people from the DC metro area gathered in Ballston to embark upon the Crossroads Farmers Market Farm Tour – an all day event intended to bring individuals interested in small-scale organic farming face to face with people who are doing it.
The group toured three farms – first, Stoney Lonesome Farm in Gainesville, VA where Esther and Pablo Elliott are in their fourth year farming using a biointensive method and marketing a CSA in Prince William County. Esther and Pablo are young – 28 and 30 respectively – and both from a liberal arts background, not an agricultural one.
After spending a few years in Washington working entry-level non-profit jobs, they decided they needed a change. In college at Vassar, Pablo worked at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, a place we visited on the Garden Cycles Bike Tour in July. His family has owned 90 acres in Virginia since the 70s and because the land was available, he said, he and Esther had the crazy idea to start a market garden.
The Elliotts shared what they call the “small scale empowerment model”, their particular type of farming that maximizes growing space or concentrates human energy resources on small areas of the farm. They take great lengths to transfer these methods interns who work with them can know what they know and take their simple methods and apply them somewhere else.
“The group we’re most interested in is the group that’s thinking of taking the leap into farming – and trying to give those people a boost. Because we see the demand exploding and the lack of comparative growth when it comes to producers,” said Pablo. “We’re never going to meet the demand”. The Elliotts, while encouraging new farmers, were also realistic when talking about the obstacles for the new farmer.
At the end of the presentation, Pablo pointed out a row of boots he had lined up to demonstrate his point. He had heavy duty work boots, slippers, rain boots, work shoes, casual sneakers, etc. to explain all the little invisible costs that add up to be a lot. Nonetheless, the couple is committed to helping young people plan for these challenges. In addition to the farm, Pablo works at the Airlie Center in Warrenton, promoting sustainable agriculture in that forum as well.
“We look at it from the point of view that we benefit from a stronger network of farms. Everyone who initiates a farm project is going to discover different things, have successes and failure and we all benefits from these collective experiments going on,” said Pablo.
After only about a half hour at Stoney Lonesome, the group pushed on to Sperryville, Virginia where we had a wonderful lunch of local foods and listened to Cliff Miller of Mt Vernon Farm. He shared his perspective as a land owner on leasing farm land to new farmers and talked about his experience providing land to the farmers at Waterpenny Farm, which was the last stop on our tour. Mount Vernon is a grass-fed animal farm, which we toured around.
One other impetus of the tour was to showcase Crossroads Farmers Market’s new Small Farmer and Food Producer Micro-Loan Program, which makes loans available from $2,000 to $8,000 for small farm or prepared foods businesses. It was a great day.
Organizers Stacey and Michelle did a lot of work to pull off a full day of interactive learning for new farmers, possibly the first of its kind in DC. The organizers said they are planning another such tour for Spring 2008, so if you’re interested in taking the first steps to become a farmer and missed this one, there’s always next year. –KS