HELPING HANDS FOR LOCAL FARMERS

Story by Grant Beck

Photos by Chrissy Skutnik

Making the trek to Janet’s Garden is a reminder that the Shenandoah Valley was once the breadbasket of the Confederacy. Vast plots of rolling farmland, gnarled trees and old barns line the back roads in Greenville, Va., that lead to the small farm. Piles of compost and chunks of asphalt surround the winding, gravel driveway on either side. A one-story farmhouse appears over the crest of a hill. As visitors pull up, a sign offers a warning: “Never mind the dog. Beware of the owner.”

This sign, plastered on a front porch crowded with five freezers, greets visitors to Janet’s Garden — that and the duet of barks and yelps from Maxine and Django, a pair of Australian cattle dogs. The greeting is one that junior integrated science and technology major Amanda Jenkins is familiar with. Jenkins makes the 40-minute drive south on Interstate 81 from Harrisonburg to Janet’s Garden twice a week as part of an agricultural internship program.

ISAT 473: Local Agriculture and Farm Internships provides between 10 and 15 students from various majors the opportunity to do hands-on work with local farmers in the Shenandoah Valley. In an additional section of GEOG 350: Topics in Geography, Professor Jennifer Coffman co-teaches the course along with professor Wayne Teel and came up with the idea for an agricultural internship after she took one of her classes on a day trip to Elk Run Farm in Fort Defiance, Va. She was pleased with the enthusiastic response from her students. “They were really surprised with all the vegetables growing,” said Coffman. “They couldn’t believe that was what asparagus looked like in the ground.”

After gauging interest in an internship class, Coffman and Teel began building the framework for the course. The class meets once a week for lecture and discussion. On-farm labor is the other major component to the course. Students enrolled in ISAT 473 must log 110 hours, earning four academic credits, while students taking GEOG 350 must log 75 hours of on-farm labor for three credits.

“I want [students] to learn not just the mechanics and ecology, but the culture of farming,” said Coffman. Jenkins works with Janet Ripley, owner of the namesake Janet’s Garden, and Andrew Katz, a former Marine from Baltimore who has been working on the farm for the past two years. Throughout the course of a day on the farm, Jenkins performs various chores, from milking cows to repairing trellises for bramblefruit. She says these types of tasks are her favorite part of the internship.

“I enjoy doing work, hands-on work,” said Jenkins. “I’m also lucky I got placed here. I like Janet and Drew a lot.” Ripley first started farming 10 years ago because her son wanted a glass of milk. Ripley, who was a vegetarian at the time, did not want her son drinking pasteurized milk. Using the 48-acre plot owned by her father, Ripley began the farm with a single milk cow. Today, Janet’s Garden is home to six Jersey milk cows and several beef cattle, a small flock of Jacob sheep and chickens for meat production. One of the focuses of the course is the impact of the local ecology on farming. The interns learn sustainable and small-scale farming practices like crop rotation, intercropping and animal husbandry. Sustainability is a key issue for many small farms. Although Janet’s Garden is not certified organic, Ripley does not use any artificial fertilizers or pesticides. She composts organic material and recycles it into fertilizer applied to food crops. Ripley believes that this more natural approach to farming is healthier for her and her customers.

“I’m raising this food for me first, then everyone else,” said Ripley. Another aim of the course is to teach the interns how small-scale farms remain viable as a business, a struggle with which Ripley has first-hand experience. Janet’s Garden, like all other farms, constantly requires repair and construction. A barn stands unfinished and all that remains of a greenhouse collapsed from snow is the metal that Ripley was able to salvage for other uses. The farm generates various forms of income. Ripley makes local milk deliveries, sells meat to restaurants, makes a twice-weekly trip to the Staunton-Augusta Farmers’ Market during the market season (April-November) and sells her homemade aromatherapy products.

However, the cost of running a small farm is high. The poor economy has led to increased food prices for restaurants, particularly for protein. The small farm also gets no government subsidies like larger agribusinesses receive. Ripley also works full time as a CT scan technologist at the University of Virginia Medical Center during the weekend. During the week, the farm consumes her time. “It’s keeping me active both mentally and physically at all times,” said Ripley. “Because I have a big investment in it right now, I’m doing it mostly for my customers. But I really do enjoy the work.” Interns help alleviate some of these difficulties for farmers. Coffman views this program as a way to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between students and local farmers. Students learn practical skills and gain knowledge to take into future careers.

“After I graduate I hope to join the Peace Corps,” said junior health sciences major Karen Kappert, who interns at Season’s Bounty in Harrisonburg, Va. “When working with them, you’re often placed in a location where food sources are not optimal and you have to help rethink ways to have a more prosperous yield.” Coffman also hopes that interns will take the concepts of sustainability and a respect for small-scale faming with them wherever they go and that the interns’ help will encourage farmers. “For one thing, it gives them [farmers] hope,” said Coffman. “Here are these 20-somethings interested in what they have to say and do.” As for the near future of Janet’s Garden, Ripley hopes to have someone take over the farm for a time, for what would only be her third break in five years.

“Necessity’s going to dictate that we need to be away for a while,” said Ripley.