NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Stoney Lonesome Farm, Gainesville VA

Open farm
Sharing your business with the community, warts and all, can be a positive experience for everyone.

By Pablo Elliott
Posted June 2, 2005



Stoney Lonesome Farm
Gainesville, VA

Farmers: Pablo Elliot and Esther Mandelheim

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables (always lots of tomatoes)

Location: 35 miles west of Washington, D.C.

Marketing strategies: CSA, farmers' market

May, 2005. One week to go until the first harvest for our CSA program, and we pause for the Open Farm, a food-and-music event that serves as the starting line for a 21-week race.

The Open Farm is the moment we stop working exclusively toward the future and take account of what we’ve got. We have flowering snap peas. We have lots of lettuce, chard and greens. We have a small-but-strong patch of broccoli and cabbage. We have hanging baskets of flowers to hand out the first week. Most importantly, we have a community of folks who are supporting two new farmers as we struggle to make this farm work ecologically and economically. We know this will be a tough season, but we focus on the positive as we meet and greet our CSA members and give them a tour of the fields.

The fields don’t lie, and exposing your farm life and work to the community can be tough to stomach. Our squash is severely stressed, the pac choi is riddled with holes, and plenty of weeds encroach on the onions. And that’s just the beginning of a long farm list that includes the functionality of the guest bathroom. What impression will these things leave on our CSA members?

A key piece of advice passed on to me from seasoned CSA growers is to stay positive no matter what, because so much of the long-term success of a CSA program hinges on the positive experience that surrounds the food.

That doesn’t mean covering up tough times with a fake smile but being open about problems while focusing on constructive solutions.

So this year, rather than gloss over the difficulties we’re having, I bring these issues to the attention of our members at the Open Farm while remaining positive in tone and outlook. I point out the mistake I made in over-mulching the garlic, and I acknowledge that my learning curve is still steep as a farmer-in-training. I talk about the effect of unusually cool weather on our summer plantings, hopefully offset by an extra bounty of cool-weather crops. And the members surprise me with their acceptance of holes in the greens. In fact, some of them love the holes. This reminds them of the garden they had growing up. The food may have flaws, but it also has flavor.

We’re learning to let the community in on what’s going on, even if the truth is far from bliss. I think this process creates a more meaningful experience for all involved and works to make the overall outcome of the season a successful one. The truth this year is that we are enduring serious growing pains as we expand our program, and we need all the help we can get. We’ve been open about this, and we have gotten a lot of support from CSA members, family, and friends—on a daily basis.

Surveying the garden, we should be in good shape for the first few weeks of the season, and at least that feels good. We are not so confident about the main summer months, with most of the warm-weather crops still in the greenhouse and headed for newer, rougher garden territories. Now that the Open Farm has passed, we return again to work in the field. We will build the remainder of this season one bed at a time.