As the weather warms, local gardeners are churning the soil, smelling its pungent aroma, and eagerly awaiting green sprigs to spring from the earth. Whether you’re going to tend one lone tomato plant on your patio or you’ve already planted row upon row of lettuce, these local farmer families are sure to inspire.
Alison and Scott Wilson along with their nine children live on a 25-acre farm in Suffolk. They lived in Greenbrier for 18 years before becoming a farm family.
“We considered farming for several reasons,” Alison said. Their first four kids had ear tubes and started developing allergies. When the ear nose and throat physician recommended their fifth child for surgery, Alison decided something had to change. There had to be a reason everyone was getting ill, she said. She did some research on the foods they ate and made some “quick changes” in their diet. They stopped consuming commercial dairy products. At that time, there were not many local choices for foods that were organic, hormone-, and antibiotic-free. But the small changes they made resulted in a big difference in their health. “Our two youngest boys were born on the farm, and they are the most robust things,” Allison said. “The change in our health has been nothing short of miraculous.”
Before embarking on the farm life, Scott was a software instructor who worked long hours while Alison home-schooled the children. By the time he got home, the kids weren’t seeing Scott at his best, Alison said. Then “God turned his heart home,” she said. “He wanted to be more present in my life and our children’s lives; he wanted to do something as a family.” Those thoughts merged into the idea of creating a family farming business. “We began studying about farming and looking for land,” Alison said.
They took their leap of faith at the end of 2007 when Scott quit his job. From all predictions, it should have taken a few years of hardship before prosperity. However, they were unexpectedly blessed. “Our business grew in 2008 beyond what we could have imagined,” said Alison.
The farm’s name—Full Quiver Farm—is a Biblical reference. Their website says, “Children are a reward from God. They’re like arrows in the hand of a mighty warrior. Blessed is the man that has his quiver full of them. We are raising many types of animals and plants here at the farm. But there is one thing we are raising that is more important than anything else: our children.”
Ranging in age from six to 20, their three sons and six daughters all have jobs on the farm. With turkeys, pigs, dairy goats, hens, lambs, cows, and vegetables, there’s plenty to do. “We look for natural ways to care for our animals,” said Alison. “Diversity is very important in a farm.”
“The kids learn so much on the farm,” Alison said. “They live science. They have to do math daily. The farm has been so meaningful for them…it was a good choice for us. Everyone works very hard; it’s an all-family effort.” Even her dad makes deliveries for them. They have delivery spots to hostess homes in surrounding cities. They also participate in the seasonal Old Beach Farmer’s Market at Croc’s 19th Street Bistro.
The older children have the heaviest workload now, but the younger ones will handle more as they age, said Alison. And the Wilsons want to start a more formal internship program. They’ve already mentored a handful of families, who have started their own farms. “People thought we were a little nuts,” Alison said, “leaving a good paying job for farming. Now there are young men retiring from the Navy who want to work with their families. We’d like to extend that for young folks who are interested…work for a season, learn the basics.”
The Wilsons want people to understand why buying local is important to all of us. “With the economy and shipping prices, it’s important for people to buy from a secure, local source,” Allison said. “We have a relationship with our customers. We have a high level of responsibility and accountability to them. We want them to have the best we have to offer.”
Whenever they’re near Greenbrier, the Wilsons drive by their old house. Alison said the kids make comments like “How did we live there? There’s no yard!”
“The oldest ones realize the choices we made and that it was for the best,” she said. “They appreciate it and are blessed by it.”
A BETTER ENVIRONMENT
Diane and Don Horsley of Land of Promise Farms in Blackwater grew up with farming. Diane’s parents farmed some of the same land on Land of Promise Road. Diane attended Averett and then Radford University, majoring in home economics education. Don, who had been raised on a rented farm in Suffolk, got his animal science degree at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
“He always wanted to farm,” Diane said. “That was in his heart.” They were married on Diane’s family’s farm the Saturday after they both graduated. They put a mobile home on the farm and lived there four years before building a house across the road. Her new husband farmed with her dad for about 18 years. As the years passed, Diane said, Dad let him rent some of the land on his own. From there, their “farming story built. It was the life I loved and had grown up in,” she said.
The Horsleys are row crop and livestock farmers. They tend sweet corn, wheat, and soybeans on more than 5,000 acres. They own about 300 acres and rent the rest. They also have niche enterprises, such as U-pick pecans and hogs raised in a farrow-to-finish operation. They also graze a small heard of Black Angus (about 25). “I love to see black cattle on green grass,” Diane said.
“Picking up pecans was one of my fall chores when I was a child,” Diane said. “Mom would sell them to local grocery stores.” As stores stopped buying from local farmers, Diane saw that the U-pick idea was getting popular. She ran an ad in the paper. “We asked people to bring a bucket or bag, and we weighed them,” she said. “It was unbelievable how successful it was.” They still sell like crazy as does the sweet corn in the summer.
Don was the 2011 Virginia winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Famer of the Year award. They have five full-time employees on the farm. “I do the bookkeeping, the wash, pack and take them lunches in harvest and planting season, and run errands,” Diane said. In describing farm life, Diane said, “There are never two days alike. You have to plan, but it’s not a routine life.” Weather and equipment play big roles.
The Horsleys raised two sons on the farm. “For vacations we went to the state fair or a cattle sale,” said Diane. “It’s been a life that I’ve been in my whole life. I’d be the first to say that I don’t think you could raise children in a better environment. You learn so much about life’s lessons—birth, death, winning, and losing. Some years the weather is good and you do well, and some years the crops don’t do well.”
“Farmers are the biggest gamblers in the world,” Diane continued. “It’s not like you’re going to bring a paycheck home every Friday. You plant it in the ground and hope you don’t have a tornado! You automatically do these things and have a lot of faith that everything will turn out fine.”
Her boys played sports and participated in school activities like other kids do. But from age nine through high school, they also were involved in 4- H. They had animals to care for as well as school work.
Their sons followed in Dad’s footsteps to study animal science at Virginia Tech. “When our oldest graduated college,” said Diane, “he wanted to come home to work the farm. We told him to see if he could go out and find a job—because if he came home first and decided once he was older that farming wasn’t for him, he wouldn’t be as marketable later on.”
So he found a job as a commodities hedging analyst at Smithfield Foods and commutes from the farm. If there’s daylight when he gets home from his long commute, he changes his clothes and goes out on the farm, Diane said. And he works it on the weekends. “He loves to be here,” she said. When their youngest son graduated, he told his parents to not even try to convince him to look elsewhere, he was coming home to farm. He’s involved in all aspects of the farm and manages the hog operation. Among his other responsibilities, he has raised and sold show pigs in five states to date.
DAWN TIL DUSK
Maureen and Kevin Anderson also are part of the Old Beach Farmer’s Market at Croc’s. They’ve lived and farmed in Pungo the past 15 years and have been on the 30-acre farm where they are now for almost three years. It’s named Hearthside Farm to celebrate gathering around the hearth at night when the work is done. There’s a lot of farmland surrounding them, Maureen said. But there’s “not a lot of hands-on farming going on—the dawn-til-dusk, old fashioned farming” that she enjoys.
“It’s non-stop work sometimes,” Maureen said. “There are definitely times I could cry.” She recalled a time when she had to haul water 160 yards in thigh-high snow. The stories of James Herriot—trudging through the snow in the middle of the night to birth an animal in a cold barn—inspired her on nights when she had to do the same. And she tried to entertain their eight children with such adventures.
Goats, chickens, horses, ponies, Welsh Corgis, sheep, a cow, and “two little pigs” are just some of the livestock that occupies Maureen. She also gardens on a grand scale without pesticides. She started with herbs and tomatoes. “The bigger my family got, the more need there was to grow more…and now I’m addicted,” she said. Keeping a detailed journal has been essential to her success.
“I grew up around farm animals,” Maureen said. She lived in Fairfax and attended a private school in Loudon County. A lot of classmates were farm children. “I was really inspired by Tasha Tudor,” a female illustrator of children’s books and cookbooks. She used a lot of natural ingredients and fresh herbs. “It burned in my brain that how she lived is how we’re supposed to live,” she said.
Many folks think Maureen is “Tasha,” since one of her businesses is “Tasha’s Own Handcrafted Goat’s Milk Soap.” But Tasha was the original female head of the herd—a Nubian with “long, floppy ears.” Maureen named her after Tudor, who taught her to care for her goats.
Kevin is a Virginia Beach native, a landscaper-turned-full-time farmer about six years ago. He is also a musician with two bands. Though you might not imagine someone with that background working in a barn, Kevin recently readied a shed for spring babies. They had to make many 4x4 cubicles called “geols”—Old English for “jail”— for the sheep and goats. The mothers and babies bond better in the smaller enclosures.
“We have six girls and two boys,” Maureen said. “One works in New York, another is getting a master’s degree at Mary Washington, and one son is at James Madison University.” One daughter is Maureen’s “right arm,” but her kids are not her workforce. She does welcome their help with the garden, though.
“I really like being out there with the radio on and not feeling like I have to hurry,” she explained. “I’ve always truly felt if I do this kind of work and make this kind of living for them…it will allow them to choose their paths.”
After the kids complete their schoolwork, Maureen lets them pursue their own hobbies—whether it’s music or needlework as long as they’re productive. “I want everyone to be in the same vibe as I am,” she said. “It makes the day beautiful. I’m anxious for people to not think that they are farmhands. It’s my dream, and I’m providing them support for their own dreams.”
Sometimes it’s hard because of outside expectations. “The reality is we have to pay the mortgage,” she said. “It’s our workplace as well as our home.” Last year the Andersons held a summer camp for kids and an adult camp in the fall. They were both successful, and Maureen is busy planning this year’s camps.
Maureen says she meets a lot of people who seem to think local farming is a competition. “It’s not,” she said. “Getting back to agriculture is what the local food movement is all about. It’s about supporting one another.”
Maureen’s voice sounds like a 20-year-old at her first job. The excitement is palpable. “I love it and I don’t know why I’m doing it,” she said. “It’s a driving thing—to be responsible for the way I live and the way my kids are raised....The thrill of getting eggs—I’ll never get over it.”
For more information:
• Check out www.tashasown.blogspot.com.
• Visit www.fullquiverfarm.com .
Mary Ellen Wernimont writes for a variety of publications and lives in Va. Beach.