Story written by Mary Ann Barton | NACo Senior Staff Writer and reprinted with permission from NACo
Heading west about an hour or so outside of Washington, D.C., you’ll find green rolling hills, horses grazing in pastures and low walls made of weathered stone in Fauquier County. You’ll also find city slickers new to the area who are embracing a new more laid-back lifestyle.
For those who are hoping to trade rush-hour grocery shopping for growing their own produce, Fauquier County points them to a program that is helping cultivate new farmers and preserve the county’s rural heritage.
The county has teamed up with Fauquier Education Farm, a nonprofit, to offer several programs that lead to getting closer to Mother Earth. The county donated the land (and leases it to the nonprofit for $1 per year), purchases farm equipment, offers grants, promotes the programs and pays for 5 percent of its annual budget. The county’s Agriculture Department director, Ray Pickering, sits on the nonprofit’s board.
“They do educational seminars involving agriculture and last year I think they produced over 60,000 pounds of food which was given to our local food banks,” said Fauquier County Supervisor Rick Gerhardt, whose district includes the farm. “That’s really a return on investment that the county gets in addition to teaching future farmers about agriculture. We’re also taking care of our needy in the county.”
Jim Hankins, executive director of Fauquier Education Farm, heads up the operation. “Our primary audience are folks who have moved to the county who do not come from a farm background and are eager to learn more about growing their own food,” he said.
The 197-acre farm is used in several programs to help newbies who want to hone their skills. They can do so by checking out the farm’s educational programs and volunteer opportunities. The educational programs include two multiweek classroom “Beginning Farmer” courses.
The new farmer “incubator” program leases quarter-acre plots from 10.5 acres set aside for them. The rest of the land is used to grow and donate vegetables and fruits to area food banks. In 2017, the farm and its volunteers donated 60,867 pounds of produce to several organizations that help the needy. The farmers-to-be try their hands at farming while paying no fee the first year and then $100 per year after that. The opportunity is easier than having to purchase land in the area, which ranges from $5,000 to $15,000 per acre.
The farm also offers 10 drop-in workshops that are directly related to its demonstration plots. The workshop series is free and open to all. The farm also hosts numerous school tours and working visits for schools, clubs and scout groups, which often volunteer by picking produce.
The farm offers volunteer opportunities to anyone who wants to stop by to gather produce for food banks and notifies the public via social media and email newsletters about the farm’s volunteer hours.
“Our volunteer opportunities are extremely popular,” Hankins said. “People volunteer to gain direct hands-on learning for themselves and their families, and a great many people like to volunteer for good healthy outdoor activity with their neighbors while also supporting our donations to area food banks.”