Going to Extremes

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

Harrisonburg Micro-Farm’ Puts Intensive Horticulture to Test



HARRISONBURG, Va. — Dan Warren and Sam Frere manage their farm for continuous harvest, picking and pulling mature crops while planting new seeds every day.

This week, their haul included kale, collards, chard, watermelon, several kinds of beans, a few different peppers, an assortment of tomatoes, radishes, carrots and squash, plus mint and cilantro.

They were also hard at work putting in their fall and winter crops, which they intend to continue harvesting straight through the dead of winter: mache (a French green), chard, beets, parsnips, carrots, kohlrabi, onions, leeks, radishes and Brussels sprouts.

Using their own home-grown adaptations of various “ecologic” and “biointensive” farming techniques, Warren, 22, and Frere, 21, are three months into a bold and unusual experiment: making a full-time living as farmers on a 0.15-acre city lot (an area that includes the large Victorian house where they live with a few roommates).

The pair, who met as freshman-year roommates at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, bonded over a common interest in horticulture.

Frere, who grew up working on his family’s small produce and livestock farm in Lancaster County, Va., had solid experience in farming; Warren worked in a conventional Michigan apple orchard as a teenager long enough to develop serious enthusiasm for sustainable, organic agriculture.

By last fall, they’d begun a compost system and some garden beds at the house they rent, and took on internships at a garden that supplies produce to a Harrisonburg restaurant. This spring, they decided to jump wholeheartedly into farming.

With their landlord’s blessing, they replaced every square inch of lawn with beds and began converting the property to a legitimate, if microscopic, farm. They call it Collicello Gardens, named for the street they live on.

In addition to liberal use of compost, which they make with organic waste from restaurants, neighbors’ yards and wherever else they can get it for free, Frere and Warren established a worm colony in the basement, from which they harvest castings and brew a nutrient-rich “worm tea.”

They also emphasize succession planting to keep the soil covered with a green, living mulch, and use sunflowers, calendula and other plants to attract beneficial insects as part of their integrated pest management system.

Their gravity-fed drip irrigation system remains a work in progress.

By summer, they’d turned the property into a dense, thriving jungle of vegetables, and the two quit their other jobs to farm full-time using a CSA business model. After beginning with one weekly delivery in June, they had 13 weekly customers by mid-September.

While they intend to finish out their degrees in integrated science and technology from JMU, they’ve also cut back drastically on their fall class schedules to devote more time to farming.

“We quit our jobs. We have to make a living doing this (now),” said Frere.

One obstacle to that, however, involves the city zoning ordinance, which doesn’t include a provision for farming. Alison Banks, the city’s zoning administrator, said that agricultural uses are not permitted at all in residential zoning districts. Because of this, Warren and Frere are unable to get a business license from the city.

Banks said her office has met several times with Warren and Frere, and she hopes to work toward a solution with them. She has recommended that they pursue an amendment to the zoning ordinance.

Kirsten Buhls, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Arlington County, said that growing interest in urban gardening and small-scale commercial farming has increasingly sparked conversation about zoning and land-use in urban areas across the state. She anticipates that zoning ordinances will begin changing to allow for activities like Warren’s and Frere’s farm, to reflect public support for local, sustainable agriculture.

“I think that’s a very good thing,” she said, adding that farming can put underused urban land to productive use, with side benefits to environmental health.

“If people are concerned about growing food on their land, they’re taking care of the soil.”

For the moment, Warren and Frere are still considering how best to solve the zoning problem. In the meantime, they’re running their farm as a “community produce donation program,” under which they regularly give their produce to people, and regularly accept donations from these same people.

Because they operate with extremely low overhead — the biggest expenses to date are about $300 for a few years’ worth of seeds and about $220 to rig up a 600-gallon water catchment system — Frere and Warren figure they will be paying their bills with just 15 regular produce “donors.”

At the same time, they are confident they will be able to keep 50 donors supplied with produce by next summer, which would make their operation unusual for its profitability as well as its size.

To make that happen, the two have hatched a variety of plans to coax even more out of their small farm. They’ll fill the porch with rows of trays planted with low-light greens. They’re going to hang herb pots from the fences and make increased use of frames and other structures to maximize their use of vertical space.

They don’t plan on an off-season, either. Maximizing productivity and profit means that they’d like to keep on growing produce straight through the winter. Using insulated cold frames, small greenhouses, careful storage and other season-extending methods, Frere and Warren are counting on maintaining the same production during the winter as they did this summer.

“If we’re not (doing that), we’re going to be totally disappointed in ourselves,” said Frere.

With the end of the traditional growing season approaching, Warren acknowledged some uncertainty about the success of their plan. They wish they had a few more customers; they wish they had more seeds in the ground already.

“We would like to be further by this point,” he said.

At the same time, they feel confident they’ll continue the successful trajectory they’ve set over the summer.

“This is an experiment that we have every reason to believe will work,” Frere said. “There’s a lot of momentum and spirit behind this Now there’s no choice. We have to keep it going.”

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

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