Edible Blue Ridge — Summer 2011
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Growing Stronger

The Valley's newest CSA farm offers produce, eggs, meat–and recovery.


SKIP BRACELIN'S WORKDAY BEGINS at the livestock pens. A former jockey who has spent much of his life on thoroughbred farms, he's taken primary responsibility for the five alpacas, 20-odd head of grass-fed cattle, and flock of chickens, as well as the quarter-acre vegetable garden on Our Community Farm, 15 steeply sloping acres overlooking Smith Creek in northern Rockingham County.

Many of the cows–including sweet-looking three-year-old Phoenix, a Holstein– used to belong to nearby dairy farms, only to suffer career-ending injuries from falling or calving. Normally, such damaged animals would be doomed, but these cows were lucky. A supporter of Our Community Farm (OCF) arranged for them to move here, where they have made full recoveries.

That's fitting, given the fact that fresh starts are the entire reason OCF exists. Yes, it does sell ecologically grown produce, eggs, poultry, and beef to the public, but the organization's core mission is serving as a long-term recovery facility for men with alcohol or drug addictions. Up to eight residents live and work on the farm, where they focus on staying sober while learning job skills that can keep them on track once they leave.

"We strive to teach the men helpful, useful things for when they get back out into the real world," says Bracelin, the first resident to move here in January 2010. He's since been invited to stay long-term to help manage day-to-day operations.

The morning sun is already intense and the air is still, filled with gnats and birdsong. It's going to be a hot day, which suits Bracelin just fine, he says, the sun glinting off the silver-and-black-onyx ring that he found nearby while playing with a metal detector.

Elsewhere on the farm, fellow residents are tackling their own chores–tilling, weeding, repairing equipment. No doubt, reclaiming this property to grow enough food to supply a CSA has been a challenge to rival the men's own struggle for a new life. A neglected fruit orchard had to be cleared. An acre of hard-packed, shovel-bending clay had to be transformed into dark, rich soil. Terraces had to be carved into the property's steepest slope. Mirroring a central tenet of addiction recovery, they took it one day a time. And with a bit of faith, and a lot of sweat, it may have been realized that digging a hole for a tomato plant is more satisfying than digging a hole for yourself.

Now, after 18 months, the garden bed is crowded with vegetables and herbs, and those terraces hold blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry bushes that hopefully will be part of a pick-your-own operation in 2013. A half-acre of basil has been planted in partnership with Shenandoah Growers, a company headquartered just a few miles down the road that provides live and fresh-cut herbs to supermarkets across the mid-Atlantic. If all goes as planned, that side project should provide a reliable stream of revenue.

For its initial CSA this summer, the farm started modestly, with just 15 shares, and quickly sold out. Shares will include garden staples such as tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash, and eggplant. Separate from the produce CSA, the farm also sells grass-fed beef from cattle raised on the pastures that surround the garden beds, and meat and eggs from chickens that can roam freely. (Milk from the dairy cows is kept on the farm because state law bans the sale of unpasteurized milk.)

The people who buy from the farm are not referred to as "customers," but rather "supporters"–a distinction noted by all who work here. Supporters believe in the farm's recovery mission, and are willing to fund it in exchange for wholesome, local food.

"I thought the opportunity was perfect," says Leanne Wickline, who has signed on to buy at least $50 from the farm each week through the CSA. Wickline has been interested in local foods for quite a while, but considered herself a novice when it came to preparing it. So buying from a new farm was a perfect fit: As the farmhands learn to grow good food, Wickline learns to cook it. The fact that she's supporting addiction recovery is a bonus. "This meets a real need in the community," she says, "and I'm loving the idea of having fresh-grown, local food."

If you've ever eaten a meal made from produce you raised yourself, you know that every sugar-snap pea tastes especially sweet, every kernel of corn is especially juicy. This is likely even more true when every bite also seems like a small reward for making a positive contribution to society.

That energy circulates around the long, rectangular dining table at suppertime, along with home-grown salsa, grass-fed burgers with fresh basil, and pickled zucchini–all of which was raised on this land. The dining area is one of the boxy brick farmhouse's natural gathering spots, along with the cramped kitchen's prominently displayed coffeemaker (during the winter, at least four pots a day were consumed) and the wood-paneled library where the entire house meets for worship each morning.

Along with Bracelin and seven other residents, who sleep in four bedrooms upstairs, tonight's meal is shared by 29-year-old farm manager Ken Wettig, his wife Emily, their three children, and another couple, Tripp and Karen Ennis, who also live on the farm. (Emily and Karen handle most of the cooking.)

Also present is Ron Copeland, director of Our Community Place (OCP), a Harrisonburg nonprofit community center that provides meals, computer and phone access, worship, recovery meetings, and other services to anyone who shows up. The similarity in names isn't an accident: OCF is OCP's newest major project. In fact, everything on this table that wasn't grown or raised on this farm–the bowl of white rice, the dinner rolls–came from the pantries of OCP.

Despite Wettig's supervisory role, he has no prior farming experience, but drew inspiration from the Betel movement, a group of work-recovery programs that sprouted in Europe. He, Copeland, and others dreamed of a place like this, where residents could live, work, and recover together. Because, as Copeland says, steady work alone isn't always enough. So when a 155-acre farm in northern Rockingham County came up for sale in 2009, a group of OCP supporters bought it, portioned off the 15-acre section surrounding the farmhouse, and sold it directly to OCP.

By February 2010, the Wettigs and the first residents, including Bracelin, were able to move into the farmhouse. With Emily managing the house and homeschooling the children, Ken began figuring out how to farm: reading, seeking expert advice, bringing in volunteer knowhow and muscle, and learning as he went.

"Ken has done an amazing job, and I don't mean that in a cliché way," says Copeland, who is here on his weekly visit for supper, a game or two of ping-pong, and to interact with the residents. "He's doing grass-fed cattle. He's got blueberries in the ground, bramble berries, half an acre of basil. He's got free-range chickens. If you look at what's happened here in a year and a half, it's amazing that someone with no farming experience would be able to hold all that together."

Still, this farm, like any farm, at first glance is a chaotic place: Dogs and chickens scamper through the yard; planting trays, hoses, and tools lie helter-skelter on the back patio; coffee mugs, books, and toys are strewn about the house. There is, though, a deeper system at work–rules, expectations, habits that ensure a smooth day-to-day routine will serve OCF's long-term mission.

After supper, the men divvy up dish washing and kitchen cleanup. Tomorrow is a harvest day, when they will haul produce in buckets and trays from the gardens to the back table, where they methodically wash and pack it into bushel-size wooden crates, built from recycled wood and painted with each CSA supporter's name. And then this weekend, as on all weekends, the entire house will be cleaned from top to bottom.

Even with this level of routine, the learning curve at OCF has been steep at times. There was a scorched-seedlings-in-greenhouse debacle one warm spring day. Another time, a gate was left open and the entire cattle herd scattered across the forested slopes of Massanutten Mountain. (All were retrieved after a considerable effort.)

And as with any recovery program, there have been setbacks and relapses for the people as well. An encouraging number of the 20 total residents so far, though, have thrived and succeeded at turning their lives around; many develop close friendships with other residents on the farm and return to lend a hand.

"Living on the farm was very good for me," says Joe Tiernan, who left after a year in mid May but who still regularly comes back to work on the farm. "I've used this experience to stay sober and helpful to the community."

Earlier today, he tended the basil patch, fertilizing the bright green plants with a foul-smelling but nutrient-rich fish emulsion. A self-described "suburban boy" from New York who had never grown food before moving to the farm, he says the physical work, the satisfying reward of harvest, and the spiritual aspect of life here were therapeutic parts of his experience. More crucial for him, living on the farm simply kept him sober–something he'd been unable to do on his own.

Indeed, for some of these guys, the smallest things can make a big difference. "One of the residents told me when we were gathering mulberries, 'I've never, ever picked a fruit in my life!'" says Wettig, holding a glass of OCF-grown blueberry smoothie. "That was a cool thing."

Volunteers and friends of the farm likewise say their involvement has been a worthwhile investment. "I enjoy seeing the skills of caring for animals and caring for land passed on to others," says Hannah Lapp, the woman who arranged to relocate some of the rescue cows to the farm. In the early months, Lapp visited every week to teach the men how to care for and milk the animals. At first the attempts were clumsy at best. But one by one, the men became confident and efficient milkers.

"I've been impressed with the potential that can come out of people you might have dismissed," adds Lapp, who remembers one particular resident with no farming experience but an instinctive knack for interpreting the cows' personalities and moods.

In the end, that's the magic of OCF. It is a changed place, and a place of change. Nobody knows this better than Bracelin, whose own recovery is so tightly entwined with the recovery of the surrounding 15 acres, as he pauses at the top of the farmhouse stairs on his way to bed. The last dish from supper was washed and dried long ago, but from the landing, summer's late dusk still offers an expansive view across the entire Shenandoah Valley to the Alleghenies.

"There's a whole lot more to this than just the CSA," says Bracelin, as he switches off the light. Tomorrow, he knows, there's still a lot of work ahead of him.