39. Optimism

pickled radishes are a real hit with market customers

As I sit here in early March, I’m overflowing with optimism. I suppose that’s relatively normal for small farmers in the Northern Hemisphere. Spring is upon us, and with that comes visions of new varieties, new markets, and new land to plant. I think it’s beneficial to share our hopeful expectations, what with so much fear and sorrow flooding our news feeds. This rambling blog will be as much for me as it is for the reader; I’d like to be able to look back on the budding moments of spring from the dog days of summer and remember what I felt so excited about going into year two as a market gardener:

spreadsheet season is giving way to planting season

spreadsheet season is giving way to planting season

  1. Atop the list of exciting developments is a contraption sure to get your blood pumping: bicycle powered smoothies! It’s exactly what it sounds like: a stationary bike that, when pedaled vigorously, turns the blade in a blender cup in order to serve up a fresh, delicious smoothie! We’re partnering with a local bike racer who is gearing up for an epic ride with Bike the US for MS, and we’re allowing customers to contribute to his ride by pedaling their own drink. Our smoothie menu will borrow from the proven staples from local cafe Little Green Hive, and perhaps we’ll offer some healthy add-ins from our selection of microgreens. I think the blender bike will generate some real buzz in the market, as well as offering a healthy breakfast option for our customers. We’ll bring the bike to ten select markets throughout the year; keep an eye on our Facebook page for specific dates.

  2. I’m super pumped about our mix of varieties on the grow calendar this year. We’re sticking with some of the best performers like Tango lettuce, Touchon carrots, and Seascape strawberries. And we’re trying some new stuff: Valley Girl tomatoes, Moneta beets, and Carmine Splendor red okra. We’re upping our flower production, both edible and decorative. And starting this week we’ll start experimenting with popcorn and leeks as microgreens. So I hope you’re all ready to taste some new flavors in 2019!

  3. With a more confident mix of products, it stands to reason that we’re hoping to build on our sales numbers in year two. We sold most of what we grew last year. But our footprint has grown and more importantly, we plan to cut crop failures at least in half. More than a quarter of the seeds planted in 2018 did not make it to market, usually because of lost battles with critters, weather or both. So we’ll time it better, we’ll protect it more effectively, and that means we’ll sell many more great fruits and veggies in year two.

  4. Shifting focus from our micro-farm, let’s look at the city in which it resides. I’m excited to hear rumors and whispers of attention being paid in Roanoke to an issue I take very seriously: food sovereignty. Senator Mark Warner was in town last month saying all the right things about eliminating this city’s several food deserts. There is a movement afoot to bring a grocery back to Northwest Roanoke. Those neighborhoods have been without a full service grocery store for over 20 years. That’s a modern day tragedy with real consequences, and I’m hopeful that something can be done to solve it. It’s on us as residents of Roanoke to hold leadership accountable for the promises they’re making.

  5. I’m thrilled to reiterate the following shameless plug: Garden Variety Harvests now offers edible landscape consultations. At some point, it doesn’t make sense to continue adding properties willy-nilly to our urban farming network. But in the spirit of using my city ag skills to benefit the local food network, I want to be able to give aspiring growers a head start toward stocking their fridge with home grown goods. So if you have a wild hair this spring, and you’re in the Roanoke Valley, check out our consultations page.

  6. I’m delighted about relationships I’ve made in the local food movement. Those relationships are poised to bear fruit for all parties this year. I’ve got a handful of chefs and restaurants that look forward to sharing in the bounty this year. The Community Garden Association continues to support me with arable land and teaching opportunities. And our local fermenting guru is fit to stuff many of our field goods into jars that are belly-beneficial for our customers.

  7. Finally, I’m jubilant about the Morningside Urban Farm, supported by Carilion Clinic. To have the local non-profit hospital so truly invested in food as medicine is such a blessing. Having the wealth of resources, financial, human and otherwise, behind our little educational urban farm allows me to just play my part in a much bigger picture. We have over 50 events on the calendar for 2019 including community harvesting days, gardening classes, yoga classes, food demonstrations with local chefs, and so much more! If you haven’t been out to see the place, go to the Morningside website and find an event on the forthcoming calendar to check out!

our new, sparkly signage at Morningside Urban Farm

That’s not all I’m excited about, but in the interest of semi-brevity, let’s end with lucky #7. I hope your list of springtime sanguine is equally as long or longer!

38. Ag as Art


Vincent van Gogh: The Harvest, 1888

For over a decade, I made my living in art and media jobs: I exhibited blockbusters, produced video, snapped pictures and sold fine ethnic art. After making such a distinct pivot into a completely different line of work as an urban vegetable farmer, I often hear echoes of my artistic past as I gaze into the gardens. The backyard farm is so photogenic, with apartment buildings and schoolhouses peeking into the background. It has me thinking about all the ways that these two worlds, art and farms, intersect. The depiction of agriculture by art is so very common: think of the bucolic essence of van Gogh’s The Harvest, or the pitchfork in the center of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Wood didn’t stop there, of course, with later idyllic works like Young Corn, Fall Plowing, and Spring Turning. These portrayals of pastoral life create the lens through which the masses view this vocation we call farming.

There’s something so very attractive about a perfectly groomed garden. The symmetry, the robust color palette, and the random surprises nature tends to sprinkle in. Mother Earth does not do her work in straight lines or perfect circles. So humans, the pattern-recognizing machines that we are, find ourselves drawn to the manipulation that a well planned landscape applies to the out-of-doors.

There are entire institutions devoted to the depiction of farming in art. At Oregon State University, the Art About Agriculture program has been collecting and displaying works of art that illustrate horticulture for over 35 years. Their permanent collection includes the work of more than 150 artists and over 300 pieces! Most recently, the gallery features screen prints of eccentric chickens in an effort to examine the relationship between humans and poultry. Artist Kristie Potwora writes, “My hope is that the affectionate nature of these remarkable beings is as evident to the viewer as it is to me.”

Dave Nichols: Morning Chores, 1976

Across the country in Philadelphia, a cultivation-centric exhibit opened last month at the Studio B Fine Art Gallery under the title “Farm to Table”. A recurring annual show, the Farm, as it’s affectionately called by studio regulars, is in its 11th year and is open to submissions from the general public. And the appropriately located Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in David City, Nebraska has also been displaying art that connects people to the land for over a decade. Largely revolving around the permanent collection of Regionalist painter Dale Nichols, a David City native, the museum is a thriving beacon of creativity in a town of 3000 residents. Amanda Mobley Guenther is the curator at Bone Creek, and she’s pleased to be able to bring a bona-fide art museum to what many regard as flyover country. “This agrarian focus that we have, it’s perfect that we are in a small town. It immediately resonates with this community that we have art about the land,” she says. “And the majority of the people that live around here make their living from the land. So it’s not a foreign concept...”

If we all dig deep enough, it’s not a terribly foreign concept to any of us. All modern humans have an intrinsic connection to the fields and pastures from which their food comes. Most of us don’t have to trace our lineage back more than a generation or two to find ancestors who spent a lot of time with their hands in the dirt. In such a context, as creators and collectors of art, our fascination with works that highlight the beauty of gardens and landscapes is not a surprise.

radicchio planted in near-perfect rows

And the beauty works both ways, of course. Home-growers flock to arboretums and botanic gardens and annual garden shows every spring searching for inspiration that can make their own yards works of scenic art. We all have different tastes when it comes to landscaping. Whether you’re a mowed-and-manicured fescue kind of fella, or you prefer herbaceous flowering perennials, many of us find ways to express our tastes in our personal patches of dirt. I, for one, think a productive front yard that generates food crops is the most handsome statement a property can make. But as I meet with clients and customers regularly to talk about these topics, I find that not everybody sees their yard through that prism.

I think that viewing the world around you as a work of art represents a unique perspective, and can offer a real uplift to your spirit. It’s a consistent goal of mine to make things as exquisite as possible in my work. I love finishing transplanting a bed of lettuce, looking up and seeing perfectly spaced, linear lines of green in the black dirt. I want as many colors on my market stand as possible: yellow pear tomatoes, crimson radishes, purple and orange carrots, dazzling white spirals in my romanesco heads. Often I find myself thinking, as I take my phone out to snap a pic, “this is gonna be great for the ‘gram”.




our backyard: form and function