Struggling volunteer farm is closing

Bins of potatoes overflow at the end of a row at the volunteer farm in Woodstock during the Northern Shenandoah Valley United Way Day of Caring last September. The farm's board of directors announced on Tuesday that the farm will be closing. Rich Cooley/Daily
Bob Blair

After more than 10 years of providing thousands of pounds of fresh produce to a third of Virginia, the World Foundation for Children’s Volunteer Farms in Woodstock will be closing.

The nonprofit charity announced the closure in an email sent out on Tuesday to those subscribed on their list, citing insufficient funds to open in 2016. Bob Blair, the chairman of the board of officers and directors, said in an interview that he couldn’t really put a dollar figure to the lack of donations that were needed.

“It’s been a struggle ever since day one to get enough money in donations; it’s not been easy to raise the necessary funds,” he said.

During 2015, Blair said the charity added more than 1,000 contacts to its database, but donations even from long-time contributors had been on the decline. The farm may not have been lacking in volunteers, but as Blair said, “there’s not a dollar figure that goes with that.”

Many have called or emailed the farm since receiving the notification with suggestions to keep it going, but Blair said the board had vetted those ideas to no avail.

“We considered a number of different options of possibly changing our ‘business model;’ trying to raise cattle, as an example…nothing seemed to be viable,” he said.

Before April 1, the charity will auction off its assets at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds, and Blair said that all or part of those funds will be donated toward organizations also devoted to feeding the hungry. In the meantime, he said the farm is open to communications with similar organizations to pass on the care of 350 apple trees planted last year.

In its almost 12 years of operation, Blair said the volunteer farm has seen the number of pantries it works with drop from around 800 to 250, while the number of people receiving assistance has jumped from about 50,000 to 150,000 a month. He said that for many of the smaller pantries, the financial cost has also made them halt their efforts.

Through the years, he said he’s also come across many who have tried to start similar efforts in smaller community gardens, but “what we had was unique and very difficult to replicate.”

Blair said produce from the charity is shipped off to food pantries from Fairfax and Alexandria all the way down to Charlottesville and Blacksburg.

The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank received donations from the farm that were in turn distributed to participating pantries across several Virginia communities. Since 2012, the food bank has received more than 250,000 pounds of produce from the farm, 75,509 of which came in 2015. Abena Foreman-Trice, director of communications for the nonprofit, said the volunteer farm’s contributions could’ve been distributed almost anywhere in the food bank’s large coverage area.

“They do a fair amount providing produce for our partner agencies as well as directly to the food bank,” she said. “They’ve been quite a valued resource…I understand the challenges there are in farming today.”

Restore Hope House Food Pantry in Strasburg, established in 2013, helps around 150 area families a month and is affiliated with the food bank. Co-founder Elaine Forte said the pantry received several thousand pounds of produce from the farm this past summer. This was an important component to the pantry’s efforts toward providing healthier, more nutritious food – since she said the farm was its most reliable source of fresh produce.

“They were the best; I don’t know of any of the other ones,” she said. “I’m sure there are more out there but that was the one that was the biggest and blessed us the most.”

Despite the board making a tough decision, Blair said trying to open this year would’ve meant wasting existing assets rather than putting them toward a similar good cause.

“There’s a lot of disappointment, but we’ve had a good run, we did a lot of good,” he said. “It wouldn’t have done any good to try and fight this situation.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com

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