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Volunteer Farms faces closure

Bob Blair, founder of the Volunteer Farm in Woodstock, walks through a field of cabbage on the nonprofit farm that grows food for the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. Blair, who is chairman and CEO of the farm, recently announced the farm is in financial trouble and needs funds to continue to operate. Rich Cooley/Daily

Grower of produce for food bank in dire financial straits

By Sally Voth

Without a Christmas miracle, the Volunteer Farms might have to shut down, founder Bob Blair recently lamented.

"We're past dire straits," said Blair, sitting in the Woodstock farm's office.

A second farm in Culpeper opened a few years ago. All of the fruit and vegetables grown on the farm are donated to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

The idea for the farm came to Blair about nine years ago, and in less than a year, he converted part of what had been his Christmas tree farm into a growing operation for the hungry.

This year, the 30 acres planted in Woodstock and 40 acres in Culpeper yielded more than 165,000 pounds of food, such as onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and watermelon.

That's about eight times more than last year, mainly attributed to a donated deep-water well and irrigation system. More than 1,800 volunteers -- the majority younger than 18 -- pitched in this year.

"The revenue has been on a steadily downward trend for the last four years with the recession," Blair said Wednesday. "We've tried everything we could to increase the revenue."

This year alone, an additional 100 churches have helped support the farm -- bringing the total to 225, he said.

"But the total revenue has really not gone up that much, i.e., the churches are being hit hard, too," Blair said. "I don't know exactly what the figure would be [in order to continue]. Probably somewhere around 50,000 in the next month. Which is pretty hard to fathom.

"It's going to take one or two checks, as well as we need to have people that used to donate get back on the bandwagon with us. Hope someone wins the Powerball."

The charity has had to lay off its farm manager earlier this fall, he said.

And, on Wednesday morning volunteer Carol Reed was stuffing envelopes with thank you/appeal letters, although there was no money to pay for the postage. About $480 would be needed to pay for the stamps, said volunteer coordinator Suzy Billhimer, the farm's only full-time employee.

Reed's husband, the Rev. Rick Reed, works part time as the director of education and mentoring.

"The issue is we will have our annual meeting the first week of January, and I don't know whether the board will say we need to continue for the next year," Blair said.

It's also possible the Culpeper farm could shut down, he said. Each farm has a 10-year lease for $1 a year.

"The bottom line is people are afraid -- duly so -- of this recession," Blair said. "They don't know what's going to happen tomorrow in their situation. So, love thy neighbor has kind of been put on the back burner. I think there's a lot of factors that come into play, but I think it's mainly the recession. They keep hearing about going off the cliff, as an example. They may be helping their family members that have been out of work for a couple of years.

"The start of the recession was the beginning of our downfall four years ago. Now, because we've had a steady decline of revenue, it's hard for us to go to the foundations and get grants."

Operating the farm costs more than $100,000 a year, according to Blair. About $817,000 has gone into operations since 2004, according to numbers he provided.

Since 2004, the farm has produced close to 600,000 pounds of produce.

But, in that time, the number of hungry people has tripled, Blair said.

"When we started off eight years ago, Blue Ridge Food Bank said we would be helping to feed about 50,000 people a month," he said. "That figure has now gone up to 150,000. We've had an increase in number by three times, but we haven't been able -- other than this year -- to keep up with that growth. Certainly, our revenue did not keep up with that."

In this area, 40 percent of those who are hungry are children, said Blair, and they're at greater risk of obesity because of the higher costs of fresh produce compared to junk food.

Blair never thought the farm would be this close to closure.

"I still find it hard to believe that the Lord has decided that we're going to be poor to the point that it will affect our capability to feed the hungry," he said. "These folks need the fresh vegetables.

"We've done everything we can, but I guess we're letting our desperation show a little bit now. Anyone that donates to us now in the next 30 days or so, their funds will go to help hungry people whether we stay in business or not. [If the farm stops operating] we will donate any excess assets to area food pantries, soup kitchens, etc."

Blair is afraid that the Volunteer Farms' message isn't getting out properly, and seemed frustrated it has come to this.

"I can't believe that people are so selfish that they're not considering the problems of people, but I think they may be doing other things," Blair said.

He reiterated that many people may simply be using their extra resources to help out-of-work family members.

The Volunteer Farms are "doing outstanding work," Blue Ridge Area Food Bank CEO Larry Zippin said Wednesday afternoon.

"Food donations from [our] other services are declining," he said. "The federal government is buying less food as the cost of food has risen, and the whole issue of balancing the budget and the deficit, fiscal cliff, etc., the federal government is buying less food and donating less to food banks."

Manufacturers are donating less as quality-control measures have become more efficient resulting in less packaging errors, Zippin said.

"Now, [manufacturers] have discovered a secondary market, dollar stores, and they sell those mistakes now for 30 cents on the dollar," he said. "It's sort of a perfect storm as the amount of donated food declines, the number of people facing emergency food assistance has increased 16 percent this past year."

The food bank has warehouses in Winchester, Charlottesville, Verona and Lynchburg and serves about one-third of the state, according to Zippin.

Those wishing to donate to the Volunteer Farms can visit www.worldfoundationforchildren.com, call 459-3478, or send checks to 277 Crider Lane, Woodstock, Va. 22664.

Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or svoth@nvdaily.com


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