Photo by Amyrose Foll
If you come to Virginia Free Farm at Spotted Pig Holler, you’ll find many of the typical features of an average American farm. You’ll see chickens pecking away, diligently fertilizing the grounds in preparation for subsequent growing seasons. Ducks and geese will be busily pulling every last weed they can get their bills on, while hard at work gifting the farm with a bounty of beautiful eggs. You’ll notice tangles of polyculture gardens mimicking the diversity of our natural ecosystems, and pigs oinking noisily at anyone who’ll listen, in hopes that a kindly visitor will share a morsel of food. It’s the Rockwellian pastoral landscape many envision when picturing a bucolic farm. What’s different about this farm, however, is that the food produced here is given away — all of it.
Founded by Amyrose Foll, Virginia Free Farm operates with a collectivist ethos that honors tribal values of responsibility to one another, the community, and the planet.
Photo by Amyrose Foll
Photo by Derek Foll
Founding a Free Farm
What if I told you there’s a better way to farm? A way as old as the hills of the Piedmont; one that’s been all around us, waiting patiently like a seed for the right conditions to sprout.
Several years ago, I began to feel burned out from the farmers market scene and from delivering to restaurants and boutique grocery stores. Don’t get me wrong, I love that life, and I loved the people I grew for and fed, but as a single mother with three small boys, it was taking its toll on my well-being. It’s difficult enough for a family to live this life, and as a lone woman working the land, I had to be absolutely cast-iron to make it happen each day. It became clear to me that I needed a change. So, with some time and a successful commercial-sign business under my belt, as well as my new husband, Derek, by my side, I started in a new direction.
I’ve been actively farming for close to two decades, but in 2019, I discovered what lies at the center of my heart when I founded Virginia Free Farm — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization focused on providing high-quality, nutrient-dense food to those in need.
I started my customary garden prep early in 2019, and, like every other year before, my plants quickly produced more than any one household can consume. With that, the real work of the Free Farm began. Without much thought, we started giving the food away to anyone and everyone we could find to take it. Word got around, and a local TV news personality shared our message, and then suddenly folks were clamoring for assistance. We were overjoyed, but soon the project became too unwieldy to handle on our own. So, we formed a nonstock corporation, completed our paperwork for nonprofit status from the IRS, and set to work spreading the word (and the beans).
Virginia Free Farm exists at the intersection of all of those superfluous, and sometimes contrived, marketing buzzwords swirling around fashionable agricultural practices. I’m talking about sustainable, permaculture, and regenerative methods, and countless other movements that will follow in years to come, depending on the zeitgeist of the day. We consider the farm to be all of those and none of those at the same time — a “Schrödinger’s farm,” of sorts. We service a broad swath of central Virginia and Piedmont, and occasionally the military families of the Washington, D.C., metro area through mutual aid with a sister farm, Fields 4 Valor. (Fields 4 Valor was founded by fellow U.S. Army veteran Peter Scott. Learn more at Fields For Valor.) It isn’t always easy; this life isn’t for the faint of heart. But, with a cadre of dedicated volunteers and sponsors, we make it happen.
The farm team gives educational presentations on agriculture-related topics, including Indigenous growing and seed-keeping methods.
Photo by Jay Grebe Yeats
A Collectivist Concept
To understand the “why,” you need to understand who I am at my core. I’m first an Indigenous woman, and second a seed keeper. Descended from millennia of farming mothers, I work diligently to continue the sacred legacy of the Native American farming traditions I’ve been gifted. When Giovanni da Verrazzano first set foot on the shores of the Northeast in 1524, what he witnessed wasn’t an untouched wilderness, but the vast and meticulously farmed Wabanaki food forest and curated Seven Sisters gardens stewarded by countless generations of my many grandmothers. The collectivist concept of farming that feeds all people is one of the most fundamental cultural values that binds my people together as a band, a tribe, and, more broadly, as the Wabanaki people. In our culture, no one goes hungry.
The farm now operates under the direction of a board, with a robust team of volunteers who’ve expanded our programming and embraced the traditional collective values of tribal responsibility to one another, the community, and the Earth. Food justice is an important part of community justice, and by fighting hunger, we strengthen the fabric of our community and improve the lives of those yet unborn. At the Virginia Free Farm, we go about this in several ways, in addition to providing food to those in need.
Amyrose and Derek Foll.
Photo by Vanessa Selik/Storybook Imaging
We’re supporting food sovereignty efforts by providing free seeds, plants, chickens, and ducks to growers, tribes, families, and community garden initiatives. We’re also teaching the next generation of land and water protectors by installing school gardens and educating children about Indigenous methods of growing and seed keeping.
In the past 100 years, a staggering number of cultivars have been lost in the name of “progress.” In the face of climate change and extreme weather, it’s vital to protect our biodiversity for future generations by distributing and sharing seeds — many of which are uncommon varieties — with the wider community. By saving seeds, we control our selection, and therefore our food supply. Hundreds of excellent plant varieties have been discontinued as big corporations have consolidated the seed industry and focused on the most profitable varieties.
Each spring, we start hundreds of plants for individuals, schools, community gardens, and other nonprofits across Virginia. The seeds are given free of charge as a means to foster an increased sense of self-sufficiency in the local area and, most importantly, in historically neglected communities. As an enrolled tribal member of a sovereign Indigenous nation, I espouse the belief that we must operate with the native values of providing for the community, sharing what we have, and conducting work in a way that seeks to benefit future generations. There’s a vast difference between a Western settler mindset of “I have rights” and the characteristic Indigenous mindset of “I have obligations.” We’re not raised with an entitlement mindset, but rather with the notion that we’re obligated to serve the past, present, and future generations, and Aki (the Earth) herself, through our actions.
Through partnerships with local organizations, Virginia Free Farm has been able to serve a wider swath of Virginia and Washington D.C.
Photo by Derek Foll
Photo by Whit Brooks
We work with many community groups to disseminate food, seeds, plants, livestock, and information to the wider community and all people who ask us to help. Recently, a mentor of mine impressed upon me the importance of innovation over renovation in system design. By working with organizations already in action within the community, we’ve been able to work synergistically to propel our mission further and faster than we could alone.
We’ve partnered with so many incredible organizations, including the Richmond Indigenous Society, through which we were able to help Vanessa Bolin in her creation of Community Roots Garden in downtown Richmond, Virginia. (Richmond Indigenous Society serves as a community for all Indigenous diaspora living in the Richmond metro area. Visit Instagram to learn more, @RichmondIndigenousSociety.) We’re also stepping up to help the Rappahannock Tribe and Monacan Indian Nation reclaim their traditional agriculture and medicine, reimagine foodways, and rematriate sacred seeds. We’ll be restoring the lost crops of their ancestors as a promise to their future food sovereignty, and educating the surrounding community about their deep farming roots in the rich soil of Virginia.
We work with too many organizations to write about individually in this article, but I will tell you this: If you ever feel the desire to replicate this “free farm” concept on your own, seek out the organizers and the caregivers already on the streets in your area — all those who serve our forgotten first. They’ll be your springboard. I can tell you from experience that you can’t do it alone. I tried, and I failed. What we’re doing is needed now more than ever. Our local news has reported mile-long food pantry lines and record numbers of evictions in the wake of the pandemic. It doesn’t have to be that way. The medicine for tragedy is community.
The Path Forward
Feeding people is probably the best calling one could ask for. It fills the proverbial tank. But our ultimate goal is to essentially educate and facilitate grassroots food growers until we’re put out of a job.
One of the most important plans we have for the future is to be a resource to include a financial safety net for new farmers. Virginia has more than 40,000 farms, and only a small portion of these farms provide their owners with adequate income. Many of these farmers support themselves by keeping full- or part-time off-farm jobs. They struggle with ineffective marketing; the inability to compete with cheap, highly processed foods; and the ever-widening wealth gap, making their products financially out of reach for many would-be customers. Small, Earth-friendly farmers with less market share end up with unsold product. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of all produce in the United States is needlessly thrown away — some 133 billion tons (or $161 billion worth) of produce annually, when calculated in 2010. If that produce can be distributed to people in need, Virginia’s fertile areas and farming legacy could be effectively leveraged to end hunger in the state.
What we’re working on is integrating and collectively connecting farms that take a holistic approach to land stewardship and husbandry with a way to ensure that any food unsold at the end of the week doesn’t result in economic loss for farmers. By leveraging the enormous network of active farms in the state and using donor contributions, we can compensate farmers for unsold perishable farm goods. These goods are distributed to those in need through a scalable version of the current delivery system and community partners we currently use to get food to clients in need. By centering our future and finding balance through Indigenous values of collectivism and community, we can end hunger in our communities, improve health, and create vibrant, solvent family farms.
In addition to food donations, Virginia Free Farm also supplies plants, livestock, and seeds to help foster self-reliance and resilience in the community.
Photo by Amyrose Foll
Photo by Vanessa Selik/Storybook Imaging
Strength and Leadership
I realize one woman can’t single-handedly transform an entire regional foodshed. Luckily, women from matrilineal systems are taught from a young age to take up space and use their power by design. We have little trouble unapologetically embracing the positions of leadership and strength meant for us. My ancestors have willed this resistance into existence. I’m instinctively led by the wisdom and blood memory of all the matriarchs that came before me. I use this energy to advocate for disenfranchised communities, food sovereignty, and environmental equity for all forms of life.
Wlini nedoba — thank you, friends.
Amyrose Foll is a fervent advocate for food sovereignty, earth and people care, and resource sharing. She’s a U.S. Army veteran and former nurse, and she continues her duty to protect and care for others through Virginia Free Farm. Learn more about the Virginia Free Farm.
More from Author Amyrose Foll
Join Amyrose for two online workshops as part of our “Natural Health: Immune Boosting” course. In one, she introduces participants to turkey tail, an easy-to-identify fungus that’s abundant in North America and available most of the year. It’s been studied at length by modern medicine, and has proven effective for immune health. Turkey tail is a great medicinal to forage at the start of your wildcrafting journey. Learn more on our site.