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Homegrown in Central Virginia

Homegrown in Central Virginia

Grassroots group of family farms band together to cultivate back-to-the-land growing practices, nurture local food movement in Lynchburg area

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The scent of basil becomes intoxicating as Holly Brown crouches and plunges red ruffle basil leaves deep into a trough of cold water.

Butterflies and bugs flit through the outdoor insectarium to her left and the land, thick with black soil, spills downward on her right in a kind of organized chaos.

On harvest mornings there is no sound on Island Creek Farm in Bedford, save for the snapping of stems as tomatoes and peppers are freed from their vines.

For a long time, “We felt like we were on an island,” said Troy Brown, who owns Island Creek Farm with his wife Holly.

But near the valley floor stretches a long planting bed waiting to be sown, and confirmation they are far from alone.

Last year, Jason Fowler and his wife Pam co-founded Land and Table as an offshoot of his project called Sustainable Traditions, where Christianity dovetails with conscientious-green living.

The Fowlers wanted to bring those involved and interested in the food movement together not only to network and support one another, but to expand the reach of each member.

In winter 2011, three local food movement advocates who believe food has to be grown and animals raised in ways that restore the land and a guest from out of town met. Land and Table was born and started its grassroots journey there.

“We want to help build the local farm movement and educate the community about supporting the local food effort,” said Ben Coleman, owner of Mountain Run Farm in Sedalia and one of those first members.

“We want people to desire a life of cooking for yourself, buying locally and being self-reliant.”

Supporters joined Land and Table faster than new community gardens could be planted.

After almost two years of potlucks and forums, Land and Table is proving that consumer interest in all-natural, locally grown food is no passing fad. The farms and their owners now are part of regional conversations on hunger and the scarcity of healthful foods in some areas of the region. Those who once scoffed at terms like “organic” or “farm fresh” as elitist or too expensive have a new understanding of their meanings.

Land and Table has been a key to that forward motion.

“We want to encourage everyone to support local, sustainably managed family farms, chemical-free market gardens and the stores and restaurants that support them,” writes Jason Fowler on the Land and Table website. “We also want to encourage everyone towards community-resilience and more self-reliant ways of living: cooking from scratch, organic and natural gardening, community gardening, agrarian skills.”

After just a few meetings, local Land and Table forums turned into potlucks with musicians and crowds numbering in the 70s.

And just then, as its mission started to become hazy, members stepped back to remember why they’d come. They had left behind the fertilizers, toxic pesticides and herbicides, believing the health of the land was directly tied to the health of their food and the health of the animals.

So away went Land and Table’s small music gatherings and in came “crop mobs” with members swarming one another’s farms to help build fences and paddocks and even process chickens for the next-morning’s market.

“We want to change the way the region eats,” Fowler said.

It is already happening, he said.

The Island Creek Hugle bed — layers of decay that holds water and creates the perfect mix of nitrogen and oxygen — should have taken four days to construct.

With Land and Table members, it took one hour, said Troy Brown.

From those beds come countless pounds of sweet green lettuce leaves, lush flowers, berries and a salad mix so flavorful, at least one local chef now orders it by the pound.

“We want to help build the local farm movement and educate the community on supporting the local food movement,” said Ben Coleman, a member of Land and Table and one of the most well-established sustainable farmers in the region.

He and wife Carly run Mountain Run Farm in Sedalia. Raised on diesel, fertilizer and traditional farming methods, Coleman turned in his tractors, fertilizer and corn machine several years ago, deciding instead to let the land dictate how it would be used.

The $50,000 he spent annually on farm equipment and diesel to cut hay now goes into grass-fed beef and non-Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) feed for the hogs and chickens. Those three months he used to spend each fall on the tractor cutting hay are nothing but a bad memory.

The farm has been chemical-free since 2007.

“I’ve got this determination to live primitively and simply; we are kind of backing out of this whole farm scene and the spotlight,” said Coleman as he leads a young summer intern through the berry-picking process.

***

It’s raining when the Land and Table family gathers again. This time it’s to build a chicken paddock for Doug and Lucy Overstreet. The Overstreets cleared a piece of land on IdleWild Farm in Bedford County, where they raise hogs, hundreds of chickens and harvest fresh eggs from hens to take to the Forest Farmer’s Market each Saturday.

“Really we started this because we were scared to death of what’s in the food at the grocery store, Doug Overstreet said. “That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are.”

It was a decision they made before their two girls were even born, to raise enough wholesome and natural food to sustain their family and friends.

Years later, their little girls are slip-sliding through the mud with friends and there is a Land and Table potluck behind their home.

“All of these people here understand the importance of good quality food,” Overstreet said.

They work tireless hours for it, too, showing up at IdleWild again on a Sunday to help process more than 100 birds. The Overstreets have raised, processed and sold more than 1,300 chickens since they began. On these days, tall glass jars fill with livers and hearts, chicken feet pile up and chickens chill in cooling troughs.

“It’s a lot of work and I question every day whether it’s worth it on not,” said Doug Overstreet who, like the vast majority, works a full-time job to pay the bills and mortgage.

Then he thinks of the children.

“When your little girls ask for more and you don’t have to worry about what is in your meat, that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” he said.

“Food is medicine, you know,” said Lucy Overstreet. “So much of our food is better in whole form.”

***

It also is more beautiful and fulfilling to serve.

“She makes us look good,” said Jared Srsic as Holly Brown makes her weekly delivery to Millstone Tea Room in Bedford one afternoon. Srsic is one of at least a half-dozen local chefs between Roanoke and Lynchburg who rely on local farmers’ products to create one-of-a-kind menus. He crafts his menu around what is growing at Island Creek Farm, spending hours on the phone with Brown each month to determine what she can harvest, how much and how he can best present it.

She enjoys knowing what will become of the fruits of her labors.

He enjoys talking to the person who personally grew the foragers mix salad he serves again and again.

“You won’t get a tomato in January on our salads here,” said Srsci. What patrons will get is produce picked that week, from a farmer whose family eats the same food.

“It’s beyond just a commodity. It has color and texture and different flavors,” said Srsci, long an advocate of local farms and their role in the economy.

He believes that by buying from local farms rather than vendors, local restaurants help keep local farmers going strong. His role is to teach patrons about the seasons, serving what is fresh, so they begin to understand the true value of a fresh local tomato from Bedford.

The message seems to be getting across, as restaurant patrons now make their way to the Forest Farmers Market, open Saturdays from April through October, to purchase from the farmers themselves.

“I’d rather support somebody here in my community than I would in Georgia,” said Kim Graham, a Forest resident one Saturday as she waited in line to make a purchase. She spends $20 to $40 a week at the market, where a vendor introduced her to Shitake mushrooms, a new favorite.

Still young, the Farmers Market has found itself backed by a staunch group of supporters, all standing firmly by the market’s decision to only allow local producers to sell there.

“That was mainly the goal, to be producer-only,” said Dorothy McIntyre of the market. “It was a hard decision, but it was the right decision.”

As she speaks, vendors help one another hoist tents while others artfully arrange displays of apples, peaches and berries. Squash, bell peppers, corn and watermelon are bountiful on this morning and eager shoppers are stalking vendors well before 8 a.m. trying to see what is available. McIntyre flips through recipe cards as she passes stalls, stopping every few feet to stash one next to the produce required to make the dish.

When the market opened last year, 25 to 28 people came through each hour. This year the market has about 50 people each hour and McIntyre is working hard to inspire shoppers to try to things. It has become a social event for the farmers, who rarely take a break from their work, as well.

McIntyre carefully places a stack of recipes for fried okra next to heaps of okra. It’s a recipe she liked.

“People want to support local, you see that trend,” McIntyre said.

**

When Land and Table meets again a month later, it is comprised of the core group of 20 to 30 people who arrive without fail each month. They’ve added new customers at the farmers market and new restaurants to their delivery routes.

Their vision is coming into focus. Members have begun to determine criteria and best practices that all farmers must meet in order to join the Land and Table network and they are looking to add new members in the future. Together they hope to one day publish and distribute a regional local-food buyer’s guide that can act as the ultimate source on where to buy, eat and pick locally-produced sustainable farm products. Fowler is thinking big on this one, imagining a guide that goes so far as to include recipes that rely on local farmers’ products.

And producers, like John Graham of Bass Fish Farms — who wants to help people define for themselves what “fresh” means — eagerly wait to join. Becoming part of the network increases a farmers exposure, helps them educate more people and can increase their client base.

“There’s something honorable about wanting to provide a better alternative,” Graham said.

Contact Amy Trent at (434) 385-5543 or atrent@newsadvance.com.

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