It was a bright and blue morning in late September when my mother and I drove to Victory Farms in Varina, Virginia. After a week of rain and steaming humidity, the clean air was a relief. Our drive, about 20 miles east of downtown Richmond, featured rolling green hills and still-lush trees hesitating to change colors with the season. The ground was tender from the rainfall, and the smell of the earth was ripe and loamy.
Upon our arrival, we traipsed through the fields which led us to buses waiting to take us, and about a hundred others, on a tour of Richmond-area farms. The farm tour, sponsored by organic grocer Ellwood Thompson’s and food advocacy group Real Local RVA, was designed to inform attendees of the importance of sustainable agriculture and supporting local vendors. After the tour, we were invited to stay for a cookout featuring freshly-prepared dishes created by talented chefs using local ingredients.
At Victory Farms, we were greeted by Colin Beirne, marketing director of Ellwood Thompson’s and a buddy/ customer of mine from the restaurant where I make my living. Imagine our excitement as he led us towards a cooler filled with cardboard-boxed lunches made fresh by Ellwood’s. There were a couple different options but I settled on a hummus and roasted veggie wrap, potato salad, salt and pepper kettle chips, and the featured cookie. The cookie was a soft sugar cookie with rainbow sprinkles, created by in honor of the gay pride celebration in Richmond that weekend. Anytime one can support an important cause while also eating something delicious and colorful, one must.
After finishing our adorably catered lunches, we were off. The first farm on our tour was Shalom Farms, located in Goochland. When the bus stopped, we all got out and gazed upon the expanse of sowed land before us, a testament to what was once the American dream. It was beautiful to see something so pure just miles away from the neon signs and strip malls of Short Pump.
There were some retro ads painted across one of the sheds, advocating actions for food diplomacy, such as “Enjoy, don’t destroy,” and “Food is Ammunition- Don’t waste it!” These murals were exemplary of Shalom Farms basic message. Shalom Farms is a non-profit farm that grows food for the good of the community at large. They aim to nourish food deserts, feed the hungry, diminish waste, and educate people about the food that they are putting into their bodies. In 2015 they donated over 200,000 pounds of produce to their partners, such as after-school programs and food banks.
At 6 acres, Shalom Farms’ output is impressive, but it will be even more so after their planned move to a 15-acre farm only 25 miles out of the city. The move is scheduled for March 2017, although donations are still needed.
After Shalom Farms, we drove a little further west to Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, also in Goochland. Lickinghole, named for a nearby creek, makes its beer with ingredients grown from the 200 acres of land surrounding the brewery proper. Not only does Lickinghole grow their own hops and barley, but they grow the other produce used to make their beers unique, such as rosemary for their saison and pumpkins for their fall seasonal.
In the spirit of a brewery, there were a fair amount of customers drinking craft beers and eating from a food truck idling nearby. A few people played Jenga with huge blocks while others listened to a weathered band of troubadours playing crowd pleasers by Elvis and Jimmy Buffet. The warmth of the sun and the availability of beer afforded us all a nice moment to stretch our legs and relax.
Our third stop turned us back in the direction of Richmond City, to Tricycle Gardens, an urban farm in the heart of Manchester. As cars whizzed by and pedestrians commuted to and fro, we offloaded at a robust pocket of land that seemed a little out of place. It was a green oasis in a concrete desert where flora thrust out into the crisp blue sky, bursting to the curbs.
For such a small farm, the variety of produce they grow and the scope of their operation is surprising. I was excited to see peanuts growing off the vine for the first time, as well as squash, sweet potatoes, collard greens, arugula, and some beautiful wildflowers.
There are rows of bins quietly cooking compost, as well as an area for honeybees and an herb garden. Tricycle Gardens, like Shalom Farms, is a non-profit farm doing the majority of its harvesting for charitable donations. They focus on education and awareness and offers tons of fellowship and volunteer opportunities. One of their objectives is not only to grow food but to “grow farmers.” They hope that with their educational program, they can produce a new crop of farmers that are creative and forward-thinking. On their website, one can find job and volunteer opportunities, information about upcoming events, recipes, and news stories supporting their mission.
At only one-acre, the farm makes efficient use of its space, employing innovative techniques in storage, composting, irrigation, and seeding. It uses different kinds of vessels as planters such as a beautiful terra cotta pot, designed to conserve water, and a kiddie pool. Its gardens go up multiple levels of varying elevations so that there is enough water, space, and sun for everything.
Upon returning to Victory Farms, we were excited to see what dinner would bring. The pavilion housing the chefs and the food that they crafted, smelled enticing. My personal favorites were fried avocado tacos topped with pico de gallo, made by Chef Todd Johnson from Ellwood Thompson’s, and kale gemelli pasta with walnuts made by Joe Sparatta of Heritage and Southbound (who said to look for it on Heritage’s upcoming menu). There were also more cookies.
Sated, we sipped iced teas and people-watched, listening to the bluegrass band that played nearby. As we sat, the passion and ingenuity of the farmers resonated with me. I thought about the importance of food from the ground up and the respect that is due to those that fight to keep people healthy and nourished. One can only hope that these charitable and idealistic farmers, like their crops, will continue to sprout.