Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.
Wintertime brings holidays, warmer clothing, still mornings and reflection. But it also keeps a harsh side. When things go into hiding, a frigid blanket lays upon the land. For farmers it isn’t glamorous. It’s cold and it’s stark, and for many it’s where the real creativity comes into play, because as awesome as it would be, we aren’t bears who hibernate, and we need to eat. Food preservation, such as canning and dehydrating, are main methods utilized in self-sustainability and local eating, but what about growing year-round?
Meet Jason Von Kundra, the farm manager for Harvest Table Restaurant , located in Meadowview, Virginia. Harvest Table Restaurant is a farm-to-table operation with a mission to create a model that can be used nationally, as well as support local economy from the bottom up. Jason is a doer. What do I mean by that? He’s always searching and fighting for more efficient and just ways of living. I wanted to check out the farm in wintertime specifically because I knew there would still be oodles happening…and I mean, it would just be too much to cover in the summer. Am I right? But truly, it’s a wonder listening to him speak about farm systems. Walking into the kitchen, Jason pointed out a pineapple head he’s saving to try and grow one of his own. If you’re willing to work with nature and give her a chance, she’ll astound you.
Farmers are also scientists. On a single farm, you can be dealing with a diversity of soil mixtures. The specificity is mind boggling considering the array of crops grown here. How does one keep it all straight? Spreadsheets, patience and passion. That’s what I’ve seen so far.
I’ve met other staff members at Harvest Table and the underlying current between each of them is their commitment to working for an institution that they believe in. We need young people like this, who work for companies that they can get behind. That call out injustices and speak up when they see a more constructive path. The people I’ve met here inspire me and have convinced me that the work we do each day on our own values does, in fact, help. A lot of small steps together create great movements.
If you want to take a farm tour and gain the full experience, contact Jason and Harvest Table on their website, or visit them in Meadowview. You can also find Jason selling produce, eggs, chicken salad and pimento cheese at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market! Enjoy our journey in conversation and photos below…
Sarah: So, how many years have you been here as the farm manager?
Jason: I started August 2016, so, it’s been a year and 5 months.
S: How do you plan ahead for the poundage and how much yield you need for the restaurant and the market, and divide that up?
J: So, we have a document. When I first started, it was very much, we will take as much of a diversity of things as you can give us and then sometimes I would be bringing in 10, 20 pounds of cucumbers, and like, this is too many cucumbers. So, this past year we’ve really made a lot of strides in figuring out exactly how much the restaurant uses by each crop and by how much is a good amount to give them every week. We do have that document now and that’s been the work over the last 10 years. Well, since the farm and the restaurant have had this relationship over the last 6 years. So, that started with Matt, the first farm manager, and then Sam Eubanks. But we’ve had the same chef, Philip, that whole time. So, a little story about how this came to be with the Harvest Table…it really all began with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. We just celebrated its 10-year anniversary this past spring. And after the publication, it became a national bestseller, using the success of that book and the financial success, they wanted to build on the assets that already exist here in Washington County, which we have a strong agricultural community, and try to bring in money from the outside. So, Meadowview, like many towns throughout the country, is struggling with economic development. The economic development model that we have here and the rest of the country is bring in the big box retail, bring in these part-time, low-wage jobs, and then the county gets a little trickle down tax money. To flip that on its head and build a bottom-up kind of economy that’s shared amongst the community here, that’s where the Harvest Table funders came together and created this idea. We see tourism from all over the country. I’ve given farm tours to folks from up in New York, there’s a woman that flew down from Maryland for a day and spent a day at the farm. It’s really attracted people from far and wide, and through that we’re supporting 200 different producers and growers in the region, as well as artisans and other folks through the store. We’re bringing that money to the community where it stays. We’re investing. Building jobs, not just direct jobs at the restaurant, but the other folks that we support. And over 2 million dollars has been invested in this operation since it began. The first few years as a restaurant, they struggled with sourcing things consistently. Where the farm came in was not to replace any farmers, because our goal here will never be to grow 100 percent of the produce, even though we produce the majority of it here. It’s to fill in the gaps. It’s to grow the unique things that nobody else is growing, like the ginger and the turmeric and the gherkins…that nobody else at the market has…as well as the season extension, which I’ll show you a lot of that today.
S: And food preservation.
J: And food preservation. Those are the three main focuses. The unique stuff, the season extension, and food preservation. That’s kind of where we focus. Also to share what we’re doing with the world through the farm tours, as well as the internships and apprenticeships we’re working with.
S: ‘Cause you’re a farm that offers programs through WWOOF.
J: Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming, mhm. So, we’ve had older folks as well as folks right out of high school. One guy Kurt was working an IT career most of his life before hiking the Appalachian Trail and starting farming. We had a WOOF-er up at Laughing Water Farm that was a PhD chemist working in the lab and decided that that work for her wasn’t as fulfilling as it was when she first started, and she wanted to try something else and farming is where she found her meaning. There’s a huge diversity of interesting folks that we’ve hosted here.
S: And going back to talking about the big box stores. Something that especially our generation has become accustomed to is that whatever we want, we can get it pretty much at any time of the day. And the fact that it feels very scary to be like, well I want a banana and what if there isn’t a banana in town? We’re not used to that. We’re used to anything we want, food wise, we can get. And that is…the idea of not being able to get a food item is…crazy! But we’re actually so privileged, it’s unreal, that we’re able to get pomegranates and avocados, and things like that.
J: I think one of the myths though, about local food and the restaurant, is about how limited we are. We can’t use lemons, we don’t have bananas. Although, we had mango. And from the greenhouse at Virginia Highlands Community College, we had papaya. Also, there’s things that this large-scale food system cannot provide that we can do locally. For example, pawpaws, which have a very short shelf life, you’ll never see in the grocery store. But if you look at our grocery store today, 80 percent of the food that’s in there did not exist 100 years ago. I think Animal, Vegetable, Miracle does a great job of showing the miracle of this food that when you grow it, and things you won’t find in the grocery store, you can grow yourself and having that relationship with it finds new meaning and purpose. And I think for our generation, that wants that instant gratification, maybe slowing down a little bit, maybe putting some meaning to this food, can be nourishing not only for our bodies but also our minds and our emotional well-being.
S: Absolutely. And that you’ll appreciate the food more if there’s a season for it. If you can’t get it all year round, but say…I can’t wait to get sugar snap peas again. They are my favorite part of a salad, and they’re so tasty. And I won’t let myself buy it at the store because, a, it’s not as good, not nearly as good as the fresh stuff here. But it also is a special thing for that time of year. I know that there’s only gonna be, like, two months where I can get it, so I’m gonna eat them almost every day.
J: It makes it special.
S: It’s not just peas anymore, it’s like a treat. It becomes more important.
J: My story a little bit, coming here. I graduated college at George Mason University with a degree in Environmental Science. When I was in college, I totally opened my mind to social injustice, environmental issues, climate change, our energy infrastructure, so many different things. When I graduated, I was just feeling overwhelmed, but I saw food as a common connector, really at the crux of a lot of our social and environmental issues here in this country. My degree being in environmental science, I had internships with the government, and I was planning on working for USGS (United States Geological Survey)…2012 was sequestration, so there was a hiring freeze across all government agencies, so I was like, well now what do I want to do?! It kind of opened the door and so my Mom, having moved to Damascus in 2007, she was like, well come move down here. There’s tons of opportunities. I was like, yeah right. She asked me what my dream job was. And I thought about it for a long time. We had a campus garden that was supplying a food pantry and I thought, well if we could make it participatory, we could start these gardens at the food pantries and involve the folks. Rather than giving a fish, teaching folks to fish. And build a local food movement. For the most part, our food movement is mostly expensive farmer’s markets, high-end farm to table restaurants, like the Harvest Table. That’s really the dominant face of our food movement. So, how can we make it more accessible to those folks who are on the other end of the spectrum. So then, Sprouting Hope. I heard that they were hiring a program coordinator for exactly what my dream job was. So, I applied for that, moved down. The community was doing that for the first 4 years that I was living down here. I was farming with folks, mostly with the food pantries and the soup kitchens. And then transitioned into this job afterwards, and have been here as a full-time young farmer. To have a salaried position where I can experiment and where I’m given support and the infrastructure is already in place, is incredibly valuable. Young farmers, those jobs are very few, so I feel very lucky to be in the position that I’m at now and find a lot of meaning here. That’s just a little background about me.
S: That’s awesome though. What are some of the biggest things that you learn on a daily basis here?
J: Always observe and interact. I mean, I think that the animals and the plants are the best teachers, so I think we can look and observe and record and plan. Plan, plan, plan, the best that we can based on that. But then sometimes a lot doesn’t go as planned, and then we plan again. And every season’s different, too. I mean last year, I usually always do my brassicas (cold crops such as cabbage) the first week of August. And this year, the weather was just a little bit different and I didn’t quite have the production with my cabbage. So, I know next year I wanna do it a little earlier. Watching the plants and listening. We do a lot of permaculture and the first principle of permaculture is observe and interact. Also, I have learned so much from the community of farmers here. Having Steven Hopp as a mentor, having Antoinette Goodrich as a mentor when I was working at Laughing Water Farm. As well as these organizations that support us farmers. Appalachian Sustainable Development, Association for Biological Farming, and through conferences and that kind of thing. Should we walk around a bit?
S: That sounds great!
J: Before we leave, I want to show you the onions. We grew about 350 pounds for the restaurant of these. These are cobra onions and these were harvested 6 months ago. These will store through the winter and these we start from seeds in the greenhouse and then we transplant them out into a field, actually where that chicken tractor was (movable chicken coop). One of the benefits of this chicken tractor is that it’s open-bottomed. You want to add the manure to the soil directly, so we left this chicken tractor in the field where we grew onions. That chicken manure is the highest of any manure in nitrogen content. Nitrogen is what plants need for roots, stems, stalks, leaves, which is 100 percent of what an onion plant is. So, it’s a heavy feeder for nitrogen. And we had a great onion crop. Did not use any other fertilizer. Just used natural, organic, straight from the chickens. The most challenging part of organic management is weed management. Here on the farm I kind of have a policy against hand weeding, because I feel like if we’re down on our knees, we’re stressing our back and we’ve done something wrong. On these guys, we plant them to where the distance between the rows is exactly the width of our sharp hoes that we use, to where we can run the hoes standing up, using our muscles. When we plant almost 2000 in the ground, it’s a lot easier to manage them that way.
S: What kind of animals are on the farm?
J: The operation here is 3.6 acres, as well as about 35 acres over the mountain, which we call our sister farm. It’s where we have our Dexter beef cattle, and we’ve got about 25 head over there. As well as, can you see the sheep running up through the gate? That field is part of our 3.6 acres, and that’s pasture for Icelandic sheep. We’ve got 24 Icelandic sheep, and we use those for wool and meat. We shear twice a year. The wool we process out of Asheville. In addition, we’ve got 2 flocks of chickens. Those birds are all egg layers. Right now the chicken salad is coming from Dwayne’s chickens (Goshen Homestead). This year we didn’t raise any broilers. Bertha is our big show rooster, come here Bertha!
J: Some new things this year are the raised beds and the cold frame. The idea is, with any kind of season extension, is you’re giving it a layer for protection. So, for the cold frame, we’ve got this window that was repurposed. All of this is repurposed stuff around the farm that otherwise would be wasted. When this window box is closed, then it’s got that protection from the frost and the cold weather with this little box in here that’s gonna stay insulated. And when it’s warm enough, we can open it up and get direct sunlight. You can see all the lettuce planted pretty dense that will be harvested for salads throughout the winter. This raised bed is for carrots.
With carrots I struggle. We planted 400 row feet last fall and didn’t harvest a single carrot because of the deer. So, this is an area so much closer to the house where the dogs are more active and they keep the deer away. The soil in here, what we did was gather sand from the creek. Your soil texture is the proportion between sand, silt and clay. You can see there’s still carrots in here. The proportion that you want is called a loam. That’s when your sand, silt and clay are of equal balance. You want to hold the nutrients in some water, but you want it to flow and you want the roots to be able to penetrate in a nice loose soil. Different plants like different proportions, and carrots like it very sandy. Sand is something that we can find in the creek and rather than buying it and hauling it, shipping it, costing fossil fuels, we can take a shovel and dig it straight out of the creek. Mix that in with some top soil, use organic compost that we’ve created here ourselves, I’ll gather cow manure over at the cattle farm, composting that with plant matter. We’re building the soil from scratch and it’s been quite productive. With season extension, you want to plant varieties that are more cold tolerant. This is tatsoi, related to pak-choi, bok choys, all those Asian greens. We’ve also got arugula and turnips, kale.
S: You’ve got all the greens.
J: And some of these won’t get any cover. We haven’t covered it yet and it survived 15-degree weather, so we’ll see how far it can go. The tatsoi will be fine without any cover all winter long. When water freezes, it expands. Within a plant’s cell, that expanding water busts the cell wall and they start to rot and decompose. There’s 2 strategies plants use to prevent that. The first is…you know how salt water reduces the freezing point? We salt the roads, et cetera. Sugar does the exact same thing. Sugar dissolves in water and makes it to where it doesn’t freeze in 32 degrees, it’s got to drop down to 28, 27, 26. They produce sugars as carbohydrates within the plants to prevent that. Additionally, the tatsoi and spinach does it where, when the hard, hard freezes are coming, they’ll move water outside the plant cell to prevent structural damage.
S: They’re so smart. Nature knows what it’s doing. This is beautiful, my gosh.
J: This is what we call the “Creek Field” because this is our wetlands area. The 3 pillars of sustainability are social, economic and environmental. This area being a wetlands is critical for the environmental health of the farm. The management prior to this being a farm sprayed the creek line with Round-Up, and that’s what was considered “good management”. ‘Cause you can look at this and it kind of looks like a weedy mess, but this is what we call a “riparian buffer”. Water-loving plants that fill different ecological niches, and they’re deep-rooted and established perennials and they buffer the erosion and nutrients, which are pollution, downstream causing eutrophication, which causes algae blooms and dead zones. By buffering and retaining with the plants here, we’re preventing that pollution from downstream and we’re being responsible with our farming practices. Because even with organic, no matter how you farm, you have an impact on the land, so let’s be mindful of that impact. This is a huge ecological benefit, as well as we’re planting things that we like in there. We’ve got the cardinal flower, we’ve got pawpaws growing, we’ve got the cattails, which are edible.
S: I didn’t know cattails were edible.
J: Every part of the plant, 12 months of the year, different parts that you can eat. In the winter time, this is the time you can be digging up roots and eating the roots. The heads are edible, the young stalks in the spring are, like, better than asparagus. This is called the “Crawdad Field”. Let me see if I can find a crawdad hole. Crawdads, most people think of picking up rocks in creeks and they’re totally edible and really fun. These terrestrial ones have habitats in the ground and they dig these holes. They’ve been doing this for thousands and thousands of years. They live in these holes right at that water table and they’re nocturnal insectivores. They come out at night and hunt. By building these holes, they’re naturally cultivating the earth, so they’re bringing in that subsoil that’s deep in there, that’s rich in a lot of nutrients, and it’s bringing it to the surface and integrating it with the top soil.
[Further along the farm tour]
J: This was peanuts right here.
J: Maybe I should grab a shovel. The flower gets pollinated above ground and then grows underground. Maybe if I just pull it up, we’ll see what we get.
S: Woah! Oh, my gosh. And they taste just like regular peanuts?
J: Well they’re raw at this point. You can boil ‘em, you can roast ‘em like normal, and salt them. You can make peanut butter out of them, there’s so many different things you can do with peanuts.
S: That’s crazy. I did not know peanuts grew in the ground.
J: The only nut! Ground nut. That’s what they call them in West Africa, where they speak English. Instead of peanuts, they call them ground nuts. More descriptive of what they actually are. If these were above ground, if we harvested them here and left them like this, then when they freeze they would go bad. But being underground, they stay warmer, because soil in Virginia says, at a certain depth, stays 47 degrees year-round. So, we can save some of these. We do a lot of seed saving. I grew them at Sprouting Hope for a number of years and have been saving my own seeds, to where now Sprouting Hope has a stock of peanut seeds that they’re growing themselves. If anybody wants peanut seeds, I’ll share some of mine and then we can have more people growing them.
S: This is amazing.
J: I mean these all started from 1 peanut. Having 2 or 3 peanuts, we could get 20 to 30 times what you put into it. That’s part of how we can do seed extension, too. When you harvest it, because we could have harvested these months ago and had peanuts months ago, but waiting this late in the season where there’s hardly anything else…when it’s harder to grow other stuff, we can have peanuts! And like any legume, they’ve got these nodules that grow on their roots that fix nitrogen, and that’s beneficial for the next plant to follow.
[We headed out to the sheep field]
J: So, Icelandic sheep are rare. Iceland, there’s actually a ban on getting sheep in or out. All the flocks here in the United States were brought originally by this one woman who smuggled them out and couldn’t land her plane, and eventually landed in Canada and brought in a flock that way.
S: What the heck!
J: There are some Icelandic sheep now in the United States from her. Incredible story.
S: When was that?
J: Over 50 years ago, I believe.
S: They definitely look different.
J: They’re a lot more susceptible to worms, so we have to watch that carefully. Rotate them and…this is an electric fence, but we could climb over…Ok, it’s off now if ya wanna climb over!
S: They’re beautiful!
J: Aren’t they incredible animals? And there’s our donkey, Sally. She’s their protector.
S: She’s like, come on guys!
J: There’s a little piece of clover there, want some clover?? You wanna pet one? I would do just real slow motions. Quick motions are what startles them. Want me to get a picture of you?
S: Thank you for bringing me over here. They’re beautiful, and they’re just so gentle.
J: They really are. They get fed every day and brought into the barn every day. Have that relationship. Like dairy animals, that are getting milked every day, they’re so much more friendly. Comfortable.