Stewards of the Land

You don’t have to be a traditional farmer to achieve your farming dreams. Gain inspiration from these farmers, who all make a living stewarding land in nontraditional ways.

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by Stefanie Keeler Photography

There’s never been a better time to forge your own farming path. With an abundance of niche markets and a multitude of ways to reach people, you can make a living by specializing in a specific plant; inviting visitors to your property for a farm-to-table feast; starting a nonprofit to increase local food security; and much more. Between online promotion opportunities and increased interest in gardening and eating local, even if you’re a small operation, you’re sure to find folks who will buy your product or support your project – if you first base your offering on an existing need.

The farmers we spoke to for this feature all assessed what their communities were seeking and then worked to meet those needs in unique ways. You can do the same by connecting with your community or customer base, and then aligning what you provide with what they’re looking for – while keeping your integrity front and center. Because, as the following farmers convey, by infusing your work with your passion and values, you’ll gain so much more than profit.

Showcase Your Passion

My son, Scott Meyer, is the owner of Congaree and Penn, a farm-to-table agritourism facility. And in his community, he’s seen the need for deeper connection between consumers and the foods they eat. His 350-acre farm gives visitors the opportunity to roam through row upon lush row of persimmons, pomegranates, pears, and more and to taste the local foods that are the farm’s specialty. Visitors can share a picnic beneath oak trees curtained in Spanish moss, pet the farm’s friendly goats, take a wagon ride, or toast to one of the farm’s specialties – cider made from a blend of North Florida’s indigenous fruits, including mayhaws.

Agritourism provides a steady stream of people visiting the farm throughout the year. Scott attributes the farm’s success to the menu it offers. “[Visitors] may not want to walk in the fields and get their hands dirty, but they can experience the local foods and native fruits right from their plate.” Scott hopes this increased focus on food will generate a greater awareness of the surrounding environment where it was produced. “I want people to experience peace and quiet – moments when you can hear the birds and the wind moving through the grass.”

He believes doing what you love will draw people in. And Mikael Maynard, the market garden manager at Congaree and Penn, shares that belief. Mikael is a permaculture design consultant based out of Jacksonville, Florida, who works for a variety of local farms and education centers, including my farm, Johnny Appleseed Organic. “It’s hard work. It’s an exciting hustle. And when you’re passionate about something and you tell people about it, people just want to help you,” she says.

Since studying environmental science at the University of Central Florida, Mikael has held a series of permaculture-related positions, often as an educator on regenerative practices. “I just want to be able to provide people with a better way of life, and to teach them how to do that themselves,” she says.

To that end, Mikael’s career is a mix of creative work, hands-on tasks, and visionary planning. In her day-to-day, she educates on alternating cover crops, interplanting among perennial species, and mitigating erosion. But as much as she brings her attention to what’s currently growing and how, Mikael is also a steward of the future, building forward-looking permaculture plans for the farms where she works to ensure their sustainability.

Learn By Doing

Before consulting, Mikael was an educator at Melbourne’s Verdi EcoSchool, which was founded by Ayana Verdi and her husband, John, in 2016. Ayana’s work is also forward-looking, with a focus on children’s education. Through the EcoSchool, she provides students with hands-on learning experiences, from nature immersion to internships at a local zoo. The mission of the school, Ayana says, is to empower young people to build healthy communities: “We’re very connected to teaching children, teaching families, and teaching adults that we can harness the power of providing for our communities and providing for ourselves now. We don’t have to wait for anyone to do it for us,” she says.

Ayana’s own upbringing in a large Caribbean family who valued growing their own food was formative to her connection with the land and her sense of responsibility for it. And as she had her own children, she saw in them the same desire to be outdoors and learn by doing. So she started offering occasional restorative agriculture programs, and the school grew from that seed. Without much of an existing blueprint for holistic outdoor curriculum, though, Ayana says they made mistakes – but “great” ones. “There’s a lot of trial and error that happens, and you learn by doing. And so that really became the ethos of the school: to learn by doing. And we really grew organically from there.” Her advice for others who want to try something new is “to really, truly believe in it and to live it, to live those values. And people will want to share sustenance with you in all of the ways that sustenance can come.”

The school is primarily funded through tuition. In 2019, the school also received the Drexel Fund, a venture philanthropy fund that seeds new school models. Today, the school enrolls about 60 full-time students in addition to the children it reaches through community outreach programs. Ayana considers the community their campus and place-based learning their focus. “What we do within the ecosystem that we live in, within our place, doesn’t just affect us, it creates a ripple effect that can change the world. … Creating healthy communities means caring for our Earth and understanding how to live with it, not separate from it.”

Increase Community Security

Creating healthy communities is also a goal of Theresa Snow, the founder of Salvation Farms, a nonprofit in Morrisville, Vermont, that takes its name from Theresa’s belief that small, diversified farms are our salvation, “the cornerstones and centerpieces of healthy, wholesome, and stable communities.”

So, although Salvation Farms is not a farm itself, it coordinates with dozens of farms across Vermont to glean surplus crops that would otherwise be lost and move that food into nearby communities. Salvation Farms has helped establish a collective of gleaning programs that share resources toward building a broader gleaning system across the state. Further, it has set up a hub for processing compromised produce that must be preserved or distributed quickly. Through these efforts, it saves 50,000 to 70,000 pounds of food per year, which it reroutes to more than 40 agencies and food programs.

Theresa grew up in a farming family, and later attended Sterling College for its focus on ecology and agriculture. And while that backdrop factored into her founding of Salvation Farms in 2004, it was her work with AmeriCorps doing disaster relief in New York City about six weeks after 9/11 that saturated her love of agriculture with a sense of urgency – and introduced her, for one day, to the concept of gleaning. Back at home, after having witnessed profound societal vulnerability, she experienced post-traumatic stress. Seeing her struggle, a farmer she worked for said he had extra greens and asked Theresa whether she could do anything with them. She recalled her daylong experience gleaning in AmeriCorps, and an idea took shape. “I could organize people to come and help me pick what you’re not going to sell,” she said to him. “And we can move those into the community in a way that doesn’t compete with your markets and helps people understand more about what’s available locally and seasonally.”

Theresa says Salvation Farms aims to create models others can adopt. And while growth hasn’t been the nonprofit’s intent, its partnerships and collaborations have allowed it to grow through the sharing of ideas and infrastructure. And Theresa has achieved her dream of increasing long-term community security by giving rise to an alternative food system. “I think that we can’t lose sight of the fact that if anyone is vulnerable, we all have that potential to be vulnerable,” she says.

Grow Humanity

Smiling woman carrying chicken on urban farm

Community vulnerability is one reason Nyema Clark founded Nurturing Roots, a community farming program next to the Black Power EpiCenter in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Nyema saw people in her community ailing in ways that could be attributed to industrial pollution – which disproportionately impacts Black neighborhoods – and saw how those effects were connected to a racist system. “I think the largest reason I can contribute to my career choice is systemic oppression and racism,” she says. “I really wanted to encourage more folks of color, more folks that are in urban environments, to consider agriculture as something that was beautiful, and something that could heal them, instead of harming us.”

After years of organizing at the EpiCenter community space, Nyema began to reveal that beauty by turning an unused garden plot into food – ultimately spawning the nonprofit that Nurturing Roots has become. By providing volunteer opportunities, hosting educational events, and partnering with local restaurants, Nurturing Roots promotes community self-sufficiency and provides culturally appropriate curriculum to young people. “Most folks, I tell them, ‘We grow humanity at Nurturing Roots; we’re not really growing plants. The plants are just a part of the humanity we grow.'” And adults, Nyema says, can learn how to produce their own food or forage their own medicine to rely a little less on systems that have oppressed them.

Nurturing Roots gives away all the food that’s gathered and grown through the program. The farm’s approach to community empowerment has gained broad local support, and it sustains itself through donors, grants, volunteers, gifts, and partnerships. “I think that the momentum of humanity, it really does just carry us,” Nyema says. “There’s so many people that have contributed.”

And not just people, but the land too. “I’ve had to make a living off of this, and fortunately, I can pull it from a foundation instead of pulling it out of the Earth,” she says. “The more we pull, the more of a disadvantage our Earth is at. So I always just love to challenge even the best growers, even myself, how can we be even better, give even more back?”

gardener watering garden

Local community groups are lobbying for a land transfer of a city-owned property in nearby Auburn to Nurturing Roots, which, if successful, Nyema envisions as a holistic community space with a larger geographic footprint for greater impact – and the ability to pass land to future generations. Nyema sees the impact of her work when young people visit the farm and express excitement and curiosity. “Loving the land is something that we can teach,” she says. “More than the benefit of how valuable this career choice or career path can be financially, I think I just want to reiterate … how life-changing it can be.”

Keep Your Ethics at Center

At Greenagers in rural Massachusetts, youth have a chance to do life-changing work in conservation, sustainable farming, and more. The nonprofit’s headquarters is April Hill Education and Conservation Center, an acreage that features historic buildings and a farm where employees, interns, and apprentices, many of them high schoolers, are paid to work with local farmers and learn about organic agriculture and animal husbandry. And to nearby regions, Greenagers sends out trail crews to maintain and build trails for conservation organizations.

It was while doing this kind of trail work that founder Will Conklin, who served as a trail lead for youth one summer, witnessed what young people could accomplish with support. Up to that point, Will’s career had taken some twists and turns, with roles ranging from arborist to environmental educator to small farmer, but two things had remained consistent: his interest in working with youth and community service. Those passions are combined through Greenagers, which began as a fledgling club around 2007 and – through individual donations, grants, private foundations, state money, and federal money – grew into a youth-serving organization that employs up to 70 youth per year. In 2019, the nonprofit was able to acquire the 100-acre April Hill farmstead from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Greenagers team began growing vegetables and grazing sheep. And after the pandemic began, the value of food security became even more visible. “The best place for anybody to be was outside, so we get to continue our work in a safe way, and the farm in particular really blossomed, because we were poised to provide food for the community,” Will says. Through harvesting and gleaning, Greenagers produced about 7,000 pounds of food in 2020 and 10,000 pounds in 2021.

Another of its community-oriented projects is the Front Lawn Food Program. Each year, Greenagers sells garden beds filled with organic soil and compost, planted with selected seeds and starts, and installed by Greenagers staff and youth. Included in the price of each bed is the donation of a garden to a local family in need. The program’s goal is to encourage local families to grow their own food. And the program’s popularity keeps increasing; in the past couple of years, the Greenagers team went from installing 40 total gardens per year to 100 – 50 they’d sell and 50 they’d donate.

Will says that’s because the project meets a local need. “We didn’t know necessarily that people would want raised bed vegetable gardens, but you start small,” Will says. “You offer a couple of them. People like them, cool, we’ll offer some more! It’s sort of antithetical to so many of the forces at play in our lives and culture in terms of business models and growth. But if what you’re doing resonates with the community, growth will happen, in a sustainable way. Keep going back and asking people what they want. That said, keep your ethics and morals at center.”

Jeff Meyer is the founder of Johnny Appleseed Organic, an eco-village and online store.

  • Updated on Mar 11, 2022
  • Originally Published on Feb 24, 2022
Tagged with: agritourism, community action, stewardship