Hannah at Shalom Farms greeting briefing volunteers.
I love visiting small farms! In the course of my travel and food writing life, I cross paths with small farms often. I might get leads at a restaurant where they list the farmers that contribute to the menu items, a farmer’s market, or even some grocery stores highlighting a farmer whose goods are on the shelves. Through the course of 4-5 farm visits each year I’ve learned much from the farmers I visit, sometimes much more than farming techniques and trends.
Starting up a small farm can be done for a variety of reasons. I’m constantly impressed with how one can create their own farm to reflect values and desires. By touring farms, I can learn about farming practices as well as finding a purpose in life. Two farms I’ve visited so far this year have helped me understand the many ways farming can add value to life experiences.
Shalom Farms (Midlothian, Va.)
Although Shalom Farms was started by the United Methodist Urban Ministries of Richmond, they no longer have a religious element. Their current mission statement is “To work with communities to ensure access to healthy food and the support to live healthy lives.” A diverse group of board members steers the farm in the direction of bringing healthy produce to under-served community members who need it the most.
With a 12 acres farmland-much of it protected by an electric fence to keep out the deer, high tunnels, and a greenhouse, Shalom can crank out a significant amount of gorgeous produce. In 2018, volunteers gave 16,482 hours and produced 400,000 servings of produce. Steve Miles (the director of farm operations), and his crew collectively have over 40 years of farming experience to guide Shalom Farms. Eschewing chemicals, the farm uses practices similar to organic farming and manages to grow a variety of crops. On a hot September day, I volunteered with my group of travel writers and saw gorgeous red bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cukes, and potatoes destined for lucky households. Even with the unseasonably dry weather, Shalom Farms was growing healthy crops that made me envious. When the soil is happy, the crops are happy proving to me that chemical-free farming works.
Not satisfied to provide just good food for hungry bellies, Shalom has an ambitious education program and hosted 1,185 visits in 2018. School kids, community members, and other interested individuals and groups came to see Shalom Farms in action. The school kids get to see how food is grown and distributed, community members learn how to make nutritious meals, and backyard veggie growers like myself, learn better sustainable growing practices through volunteering. I call that a win-win.
Third Way Farm (Havre de Grace, Md.)
I frequent my local farmer’s markets and sometimes get to know the farmers. Tommy Shireman is the inspirational owner/farmer who seems to be able to have his hands in all aspects of the farm’s business. I had talked with Tommy at the Havre de Grace, Maryland farmer’s market on numerous occasions and we set up a farm visit.
On my first visit to the farm, Tommy unintentionally showed me how disruptive pigs can be when they escape. Our interview and tour were cut short as he had to become a herder of wayward pigs. I had no idea pigs could be so hard to herd back into their pens. I asked Tommy why he bothered to raise pigs and he told me, “Pigs may be challenging at times but serves a purpose that provides a more fulfilling and healthy life for the pigs, allowing them to play a role in the ecosystem of the farm, and in turn produce a more nutrient-dense pork product for us in the end.” Even though my first visit was a short introduction to Third Way Farm, I got a good taste of what Tommy has going on. Third Way Farm also raises lamb and cage-free chickens for eggs.
The origin of the farm’s name is impressive for those of us that aren’t familiar. By permission of the farm I include it here:
The name “Third Way Farm” (TWF) is inspired by Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent resistance to oppressive and unjust systems. Famously, Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek” when someone strikes us, but unlike the commonly accepted interpretation of this teaching which calls for a passive, “peaceful” response to violence, it is actually a creative alternative. The “Third Way” entails a nonviolent, yet active and creative resistance to systems of oppression and violence, whereas the "first way" of response would be violence, and the "second way" passive acceptance.
With a statement like that, you might think they only want to work with Christians, but they welcome all faiths or those with no faith to intern with them.
Third Way Farm has an intern program that attracts would-be farmers of the future. The farm pays the interns a generous $850 per month and offers all the veggies they can eat. Internships can be as short as 2-3 months for the summer, 5-6 months, or the preferred term of 9-12 months. Interns can stay the farm's sod-roof home during their internship, keeping them close to the job.
What I love about Third Way Farm is their commitment to no-spray farming and integrating biodynamic principles when practical. At the Havre de Grace Farmer’s Market I often see Tommy selling veggies others don’t have like purple wax beans, broccolini, and micro-greens.
On my first visit to Third Way Farms, I got a look at a moveable hi-tunnel in action. I’d seen moveable chicken coops but never a full-sized hi-tunnel that could be moved utilize the soil more effectively. Tommy and his crew are interested in cutting-edge, eco-friendly farming. By using his high-tunnel, Tommy can bring fresh produce to the market year-round and provides customers with highly desirable micro-greens, salad greens, and herbs even in winter.
I managed to get out and visit a second time in September when the pigs were not a distraction. The interns were busy tending to rows of kale, broccoli, eggplant and prepping rows for fall planting. Tommy showed me how they are using a no-till method of farming in hopes of creating healthier soil. Third Way Farm may be turning out eco-friendly future farmers, but I’m happy knowing they come to one of my favorite local farmer’s markets with no-spray veggies.
These two farms have shown me there can be much more to farming than just growing good food for consumers. Take a trip to a local farm near you and see what you can learn. Why not feed your mind and soul from the lessons of your local farmer as well as your body?
Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska Magazine, Fish Alaska Magazine, Metropolis Japan Magazine, Edible Delmarva Magazine, North West Travel and Life Magazine, and Mother Earth News. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, MD area with his wife, dog and cats. Kurt’s articles also appear on several websites, including GoNomad.com, Trip101.com, MotherEarthNews.com, Adventuresstraveler.com, and several others. Kurt is a regular contributor to GoNomad.com writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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