By Josette Keelor
Tuesday the Volunteer Farm in Woodstock will celebrate 10 years of feeding area hungry. In 10 years, it's raised 303 tons of food and attracted more than 18,000 volunteers from 42 states and 27 foreign countries.
But still it survives day to day.
The nonprofit organization, situated on 40 acres of irrigated land off Back Road in Shenandoah County, grows many products area residents might find in grocery store produce sections, said chairman and CEO Bob Blair, but as with any other farm, their crop yield is based on weather and help.
"Farming is up and down," he said. "It's a gamble."
"We don't grow a row of this, and a row of that," he said. "We grow acres of things. We're trying to get into as much mass production as possible."
Planting twice a year, he said they can grow across 80 acres. As soon as the ground warms up and dries out, they can begin again this year, but he said between now and June is a tough time to fill volunteer spots. Children are still in school and not available during the week, so that's when they need more adults.
"We'll have plenty of kids on Saturdays. We don't work Sundays," he said. "During the summer, that reverses... and then we get into the fall and start all over again."
They draw a wide range of volunteers from schools, churches, businesses and civic organizations as well as college students and from groups like People to People International.
"Some come back a couple times a year," he said. "It just varies."
"We're shooting for about 4,000 [volunteers] this year, which would be a challenge," he said. The farm also receives multiple grants and donations throughout the year to buy seeds in bulk and otherwise run the farm.
Thanks to a $25,000 grant, he said the farm will be able to offer stipends to college interns for positions such as an assistant farm manager and a teacher to mentor young volunteers.
Two years ago, the farm harvested 168,000 pounds of crops, but last year only 13,000 pounds. This year, he's shooting for more than 100,000.
Helping them achieve that goal are the fruit orchards they added last year and the potato plow, which is new this year.
"It will allow us to improve the quality and quantity of the potatoes that we grow," Blair said. It cuts a wider path than the old one did, preventing it from missing potatoes.
He remembered that when researching ideas 10 years ago, the only other volunteer farm he found was in Massachusetts, and it used volunteers to grow vegetables to sell at a roadside stand. They donated the money raised to area food banks, Blair said.
"We think the food bank needs the food to supplement the canned goods and processed food that they distribute to the food pantries," he said. "It's a nutritional thing. We got a serious problem in this country with nutritional food, with people who are food insecure."
If faced with paying for food or buying medicine, rent or gas to get to work, he said, "Food is one of the first things that goes... Twinkies are cheaper than apples."
In celebration of their anniversary, an open house is planned during normal operating hours from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, and cake and ice cream around noon. Blair said area churches are also planning fundraisers for the farm in coming weeks as part of the anniversary.
The Volunteer Farm is located at 277 Crider Lane, Woodstock. For more information, call 540-459-3478 or visit www.volunteerfarm.org.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com