Radical Roots Community farm in Keezletown offers more than just produce

Story by Rachel Mendelson

Photos by Tia DeVincenzo

The sun rises over the Shenandoah Mountains, warming the earth and waking the sleeping plants and animals. A ray slides through the window onto Isaiah’s face. He jumps out of his bed and heads straight toward the backyard. He and his little sister have to check on their garden.

Lee O’Neill watches through the window as her kids hoe their garden. They designed it themselves and keep up with it on their own. The kids aren’t forced to participate in any part of the bigger farm the O’Neills live on, but they like to. Miranda, who’s 9, has been able to pick out the ripe mulberries from the trees since she was 4, and 10-year-old Isaiah has a name for every chicken. For Lee, integrating the family into the farm has been one of the best parts of the experience.

“We want them to have this life of being connected to their food and animals,” Lee says. Miranda and Isaiah, who are homeschooled, have had lives filled with organic farming and apprentices. They don’t really know a life different from having the freedom to eat straight from their backyard: Radical Roots Community Farm.

When you plant a seed in the soil and water it, the seed coat swells. That swelling initiates germination and the plant begins to grow. The first thing to break through the seed coat is called the radical — a radical root. This brave root is the mascot for Lee and Dave O’Neill’s farm in Keezletown. What started as a hay field is now a 5-acre, USDA-certified organic farm that produces hundreds of tons of produce for thousands of people each year. The O’Neills pride themselves on leaving a green footprint on the environment through their farming practices.

Dave and Lee met at James Madison University as undergraduates but learned all they know about organic food and farming through their own apprenticeships after they graduated. Dave worked at Horton Road Organics in Blachly, Oregon, the farm that Radical Roots’ apprenticeship program is most modeled after. Then the two worked together at Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop, Washington, and spent some time on various organic farms in Baja, California and abroad in New Zealand and Australia. On those farms they were wolfing, which means spending a couple weeks to a month at one site. Their apprenticeships weren’t just about learning farming techniques for Dave and Lee, but about learning the lifestyle.

“I learned more in those four years than I did in college for sure… just about who I am, who I was, and what I wanted,” Lee says. They both agreed that it was a growing experience, unlike anything they could have gotten anywhere else.

They had the benefit of learning from seasoned farmers about organic practices in place on an already-successful farm. The couple also teaches organic farming practices to a few hardworking people each season through the apprenticeship program they host, paying forward the experiences they had when they were learning about organic farming.

Dave and Lee hire a maximum of six apprentices a season and most of them live and work on the farm from March to October. “We want to be mentors,” Lee says. Watching their apprentices make the same connections about organic farming and the lifestyle that it facilitates is the reason they host the program. While farming hasn’t always been a part of the O’Neills lives, Lee has always been connected to it in one way or another. Lee’s father was a farmer, and although the family didn’t live on the farm, she spent a lot of time on it. Their large- scale farm, which has been in the family for over 100 years, covers over 100 acres. While she rode the tractor sometimes, farming wasn’t something Lee had pictured herself doing for a living.

“When we started he was like, ‘It’s just a garden,’” Lee says about her father. Their farm grew as they learned more about the earth and organic farming, and Lee’s father now understands and respects what Dave and Lee are doing at Radical Roots. He swears that Radical Roots’ tomatoes are better than any tomatoes he’s ever had. Looking back on her childhood, Lee has lightbulb moments when she realizes that processes they use she’d seen as a kid on her family’s farm. With Radical Roots, Lee has a new appreciation for what her father has been doing for years. Lee and her father now have conversations about farming that they couldn’t have before. “I think he will always do some part of farming,” Lee says. Her personal connection to farming goes beyond her dad, specifically when it comes to organics. Real people work hard to make good choices to raise organic food, and this is something that Lee wants the consumers of Radical Roots products to take away.

Radical Roots sells produce at the Harrisonburg and Charlottesville farmers markets and to Whole Foods, which is also in Charlottesville. Lee especially enjoys the 80 to 100 families that are part of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Once a week for 18 weeks CSA members receive a half-bushel of organic, locally grown food from Radical Roots. Lee sets up at the Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg in a style like the supermarket, allowing people to pick the produce they want. If they know they’re going to eat a lot of salad that week, they can pick the biggest head of lettuce. If Radical Roots has ripe green tomatoes and ripe red tomatoes, they get to choose which they want. This process connects her to the consumer, and vice versa.

“I see the people every week. I have known members that have been members since the beginning and I’ve watched their kids grow,” she says. These people have a face to connect to the food on their table, and they know where their food goes from the soil to their mouths. This is really important to the O’Neills about their growing process. The farm isn’t the only part of the property that operates with a greener footprint. While they have an actual greenhouse for their produce, their home is a green-house as well. The O’Neill’s home also has a light footprint, ecologically and economically.

Dave, an I-can-do-it type of person, built the house himself, as well as the other buildings on the farm. With all the ideas they had that they wanted to implement, it took him two winters to complete, working on it in between growing seasons.The house is passive solar and heated with a furnace. They use natural light almost exclusively, with solar panels on the roof that Dave installed to provide electricity. They have a cistern that catches rainwater as a backup water system. “It’s been awesome. You take a hot shower and it’s all from the sun,” Lee says. “It’s part of the success of the farm … It feels so satisfying now to know that all the systems we wanted on the farm are pretty much done.”

Through the glass window that looks out on the front yard and rows of vegetables a chicken waddles by, pecking at the ground as it walks in and out of sight. “You should know that Isaiah is very into poultry,” Miranda says. “That’s everything he talks about.”

The kids are connected to the earth the way that people who eat Radical Roots’ produce feel connected to the farmers who grow the food that’s on their table. Organic farmers grow vegetables that connect them to the community and in turn, connect the community to them. It’s a web of connection. The more people who understand that farmers like Lee and Dave at Radical Roots work to ensure that the food is healthy, tasty and good for the environment, the better.