Can I tell you something? I just love meeting these local super heroes more and more. Each week I learn another tidbit about how incredible nature is. Nature takes care of itself, we only need to guide it. Every bit of bounteous beauty contained in this world…it’d be impossible to see it all in a single lifetime. But come down to Virginia and you might see a large portion.
Meet Neal Reid of Spring Ridge Farms or Neal’s Produce. Born and raised in Southwest Virginia, he runs a farm out in Damascus and sells produce at the Farmer’s Market each Tuesday and Saturday. Learning is his aim, and vegetables are his game. Tomatoes, onions, garlic, potatoes, squash, zucchini, beets and strawberries. He also dabbles with lemons, corn, sunflowers, and much more. His sunflowers are ever so stunning.
He’s an experimenter, using methods such as intercropping, crop rotation and cover crop. Having worked in several fields before coming back to his roots, his hunger for knowledge shines through, as well as some corny puns. But those are always welcome.
With coffee in our hands, and the mountains as our backdrop, I stopped by the farm to take a tour and ask a few questions about his journey back to the soil…
“Sarah: When did you start helping out on the farm?
Neal: My Granddad was Sheriff here in the county for a while, so at the time he was really very part time on the farm and I was…he had 4 grandkids, 2 of them grew up down there and my brother and myself grew up here…and so we were around to help him with stuff, the few things he tried to do. He would grow a small garden behind his house there, and he would usually grow about 2 acres of tobacco in this field, which is pretty good. I have tomatoes down there now, I think they’re pretty good. Not to tell you what to shoot.
S: Oh no, please, if they’re your favorites.
N: So, yeah, I would work in tobacco and that was kind of hard.
S: Tobacco’s not something you hear about people growing anymore.
N: It’s gone away, yeah. I think I mentioned at the market about Appalachian Sustainable Development [ASD]. Anthony Flaccavento, good fellow, he and some other progressive minded folks who ended up here, and were interested in agriculture…they got together and started ASD. Part of the thrust of that was that farms in the area at that time, there was a lot of federal support for subsidies or at least an allotment, or an amount that you were allowed to grow on your farm based on the size of the farm, I guess. So our allotment was 2 acres. And where ASD comes in on that is that they saw a lot of these farms moving away from tobacco, and really a lot of farmers in the region ended up without their crops, crops were dropping out from under them. So what they wanted to do was help people who were in that situation find markets, find packing and kind of community infrastructure. They built a packing house and processing facility where they could have a chance at a market outside of tobacco. You’re right, you barely see any at all now, and ASD’s work is to try to continue to help people who want to farm but don’t have that crop anymore. They’ve helped me with tons of training. They’ve helped me get an organic certification in the past. They just constantly support me with grant support programs, tools, seeds, things like that. For me, being a part, sort of on the inside of that and seeing both sides of tobacco and organic produce production, I feel like they’re really helpful here in our community.
S: Do you hold any place on a board?
N: Oh lord, don’t give anyone ideas.
S: You know, we were talking about stretching ourselves thin enough where the pieces will fall into place as it happens, but, like, not so far that it’s impossible. But always stretch yourself thin, because great things will happen.
N: I try to do that with my planting plan. Where I have sort of more space than I can responsibly manage, even at 1 acre here. I have the same sort of approach. Like, get really aggressive, try to plant a lot and you’ll get the weeds pulled. You’ll figure out how.
S: Figure it out, exactly. So tell me about the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] baskets? Do you put them together?
N: So, for now, I’m a part of a CSA that is picked up in Kingsport once a week. It’s either 24 or 12 customers, it’s bi-weekly. Me and 3 or 4 other growers combine to fill up the boxes each week. And so right now the guy that sort of manages the fund, he e-mails at the beginning of the week and asks, “What do you guys have? We have this many customers, what can you put in the boxes this week?” So, I’ll take a look at what’s there and what I’m planning to harvest, what I’m planning to take to market and what restaurants need, and then go from there. It’s sort of an extra thing I wasn’t planning on so much this year. I got asked to be a part of it. It’s been really great. A lot of the stuff I planted aggressively has ended up going there when it needed to go. I haven’t really had to compost anything this year. Everything I’ve harvested has pretty much sold or I’ve given away.
S: That’s great.
N: Yeah, that’s been an improvement. I hope to be able to keep that up for the season.
S: Is that what people do when don’t sell stuff at the farmer’s market? End up using it for compost?
N: I try giving them away first, to the food bank or to…if I have enough to where I feel like it’s something that they want even…the only things that end up in the compost are really malformed fruits or something that’s way too big. My chickens eat my damaged second tomatoes now.
S: Yes, a feast!
N: Sort of recycle those into eggs. So, CSA for me this year is something I’m really excited about being a part of. And I’m looking to try to build another sort of new-ish one next year with a couple of other growers that I know. I’m looking to put together enough farmers that want to commit and are looking to get that started. Do some marketing in the wintertime, some Facebook, maybe. Social media, try to sign some people up. And next year do a little more planting towards that and selling produce in that way. It’s nice because it’s kind of like a restaurant order. I can pick it the morning of the delivery and sort of do it all together. Sell it all at once versus sitting around at the Farmer’s Market.
S: So, I’m just curious about what your daily schedule is here?
N: Yeah? The truth or the Facebook version.
S: The truth.
N: The unvarnished truth. I get up early. One part of what keeps me here, that I’ll fight like hell to never stop, is that I don’t set an alarm clock. I never have. Except if it’s a late Friday night, and there’s market on Saturday morning…I don’t wanna leave it to chance.
S: Do your chickens wake you up?
N: Not yet. They’re still young. Ideally I like to step out, make my coffee and try to wake up a little bit. I come out here and look and think about what needs to be done, if I haven’t sort of made a plan from the day before and it isn’t obvious or on fire…something that needs immediate attention. On Tuesdays I get up and pick for the market early so that the heat doesn’t wilt the greens. Then I clean for the market and get everything packed and ready for that. If I have more time, a nap or weeding. Yeah, siesta is a big part of my day, almost daily.
S: I can imagine with the heat.
N: It’s so hot, yeah. So, if I get started at 6:30 or 7:00, work 5 or 6 hours in the morning, then I’m ready for a nap.
S: You worked a few jobs in between college and now. When did you begin farming?
N: I started thinking, what’s something else that I could stand doing? After reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book [Animal, Vegetable, Miracle], I started thinking I should at least be growing my own food, or at least trying to. And I became more and more concerned about what I was eating and why organic matters and GMO’s and all that kind of stuff. So, I built a couple of box gardens up there and started selling some stuff out of that. And that was about 3 years ago. 2 years ago I built this garden area back here…and started selling at Glade farmer’s market. That market was really nice. That’s where I met the Wolfs. Sweet folks.
S: Do you get your supplies from them?
N: Everything. I wouldn’t dream of cheating on them. They seem to trust me too, and I’m glad for that. I like when people like that trust me.
S: It’s funny because they talked about that, too, that that’s a huge part of why this local community is so important. You trust what you’re eating. You don’t have to question it because you know them, you know their character. What does that community mean to you?
N: Supporting my business endeavor, it’s obviously important. That community is like an island of sanity, at the farmer’s market. I made a lot of friends there over the past few years that I’m really happy about knowing and connecting with and learning from. One reason I started doing it is I admired the people so much when I started as a shopper, ya know, I look up to them and admire them tremendously. That they’re able to do it and they’re willing to do it, and I envied that they were able to it. And so, yeah, it’s important for more reasons than just trying to have a place to work. I don’t know how to say that without sounding sappy, but it’s a break for me that I need each week. Without it, I’d probably be more cynical.
S: Yeah, understandable. Is it harder being a younger farmer?
N: In some ways I think with new customers at the farmer’s market. And especially if my table looks a little less. Being new and, ha younger, it perhaps makes people a little more reticent to stop by me for something that they could get from someone who’s older or that they know or have seen there and recognize that that person’s been here longer than him. I think perhaps there’s some room to grow there. On the other hand, folks support me because of that. A lot of folks do. Either they say it overtly or I pick it up that that’s something that’s important to them as a shopper. They’ll say thank you for doing this. I’m happy to buy your produce. And for me, that’s good to hear.
S: Probably, like, giving a face to the younger generation too. More people are leaving these towns. People have more reasons to leave, so I’m sure that helps to see a younger farmer. And gives the older generations hope to see that there are people who will stay here.
N: I want to be that kind of hopeful person. Or be a person who can inspire hope. That’s a good point, I think, in part of the reason that I was motivated to try to be more serious about this. I meet a lot of folks like Samantha Eubanks at the Harvest Table, Kelsey Burke, Heather Jeffreys. I’m not sure where all of them are from, but I gather lots of them are like you, they’re transplants.
S: They are, yeah.
N: They’re all people I look up to and admire…[I think] these people would kill for the opportunity you have here. You have access to property to grow. Shame if I don’t use it, ya know? I started being motivated more in that way and thinking of it that way, like, this is an opportunity that you have. That helped clarify a vision for me and still informs what I’m trying to do. I draw a lot of inspiration from those younger folks who come here and wanna be a part of an agricultural, organic community and I’m happy to try and use some of the opportunities that I have towards that.”