Farming in Your Subdivision

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By Emma Young

John Klapperich, founder of Lake Ridge-based Sweet Sophia.

“Bees are simply amazing,” said John Klapperich, a former Green Beret and founder of Lake Ridge-based Sweet Sophia, which, with the help of over 1,000,000 honey bees, produces honey and other products from the hive harvest. “You can keep bees anywhere. Bees thrive in urban environments. You can put bees in a really small area. I live in a neighborhood, with neighbors around me, not on a farm.”

Sweet Sophia has grown each year since its founding, finding success in offering a variety of products: “Honey, soaps, balms, lotions, candies, candles, jams–basically anything we can make with honey or beeswax,” said Klapperich. Sales are online at mysweetsophia.com, or patrons can stop by and get products without paying the shipping costs.

Klapperich isn’t the only one enjoying success with a subdivision backyard farming project. “In the summer, we’ll have eggs like crazy,” said Debi Woolfrey, a homeowner in Nokesville and Manassas teacher. She currently has nine hens, but has had as many as 30. “We can have as many as 9-10 dozen eggs in our refrigerator. We make a lot of omelets and quiches,” said Woolfrey. Another Nokesville resident, Carla Valentino, a Damsel in Defense mentor, has six hens on her subdivision plot. “People see how easy it is to get fresh eggs, and the next thing you know, they’re hatching their own hens,” Valentino said.

“They’re super fun to watch,” Valentino said. “It is not uncommon for my husband and me to sit outside with a glass of wine and watch them. It’s a nice pastime because they’re so funny.” Woolfrey enjoys the chickens as well: “They are really funny. They follow me everywhere. They come when I call them. They’re very social.”

Woolfrey and Valentino each have large garden plots as well where they grow vegetables and flowers. “It is the most satisfying feeling, growing a vegetable from seed. Some sun, rain, and a little love, and I’m eating food I grew,” said Valentino.

“I love all of it,” added Woolfrey. “You get used to the cycle of nature, the fresh air, and the reason to be outside. You eat something that hasn’t been processed or treated. It is about as fresh as can be.” “I find the act of making a product from scratch that other people love enough to buy again and write five-star reviews is about the most rewarding thing I can ever do. It’s incredibly satisfying to provide quality products and build customer loyalty,” Klapperich said.

Beyond purchasing products, what could encourage the growth of the beekeeping industry in the county? “Prince William County is very bee-friendly,” said Klapperich. “I think making it easier for beekeepers to keep bees on public areas (or even on government buildings) would be great. It’s often difficult to find space for an apiary,” he said.

Farming on a Large Scale in Prince William

“Agriculture is a difficult industry,” said Peter Callan, the Northern District Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent specializing in farm business management. “Farming has high operating costs and slim margins. It’s tough work, and you are dependent on the weather. You can do everything right, but if it doesn’t rain at the right time, you are out of luck. As much as it is a science, it is an art too. There is no easy answer in agriculture. The people that are left farming [now]are astute business people. Anybody farming has to be a good manager,” he said.

And to the challenge of high operating costs, weather-dependency, continual hard work, low profit, and the difficulties of ensuring a consistent, quality product, add an increasing human population. Prince William is one of the fastest growing counties in the region, according to its Department of Economic Development.

Yet Prince William remains tied to and enriched by rural roots with local farmers finding new ways to adapt to an increasingly urban environment.

TrueFarms grows Bibb lettuce, spring mix, and arugula year-round for local grocery retailers, such as Whole Foods and Giant, local markets, and restaurants in Northern Virginia and
Washington, D.C.

Hydroponics: TrueFarms

“We have approximately half an acre of greenhouse area, capable of producing about 25,000 heads of lettuce per month and providing employment to six people on a year-round basis,” said Vishnu Agarwal, owner and operator of TrueFarms, based in Bristow. Established in 2010, TrueFarms grows Bibb lettuce, spring mix, and arugula year-round for local grocery retailers, such as Whole Foods and Giant, local markets, and restaurants in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Prince William was a natural fit for the operation due to its “proximity to the Washington, D.C. metro area, good water quality, and availability of land.”

“People recognize the benefits of locally grown, sustainably grown, and safe food,” said Agarwal. “We are able to deliver our products to our customers within hours from harvest, in comparison to several days for produce grown in and coming from California or Florida [for example],” said Agarwal.

The benefits of hydroponic farming are many according to Agarwal: “Less land use, less water use, no pesticides, and no chemical run-off to natural water streams.” Hydroponic farming is the method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): Yankey Farms

In Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), members of the public purchase a farm “share” and are entitled to a portion of what is produced on the farm. The public support helps to ameliorate the risk to the farmer and enables the public to enjoy the continual harvest. Generally, farmers provide a variety of produce on a weekly basis over the primary harvest months.

Nokesville-based Yankey Farms offers a 16-week subscription program, by the bushel or half-bushel, where members receive a share of whatever is being harvested each week, starting in May. Spring’s greens, carrots, and zucchini are followed by summer’s tomatoes, green beans, and peppers, with the CSA concluding in fall with perhaps potatoes, squashes, and apples. Members pick up their own produce on site.

Non-members can visit the Yankey Farms roadside stand for “healthy, locally produced, food,” as well, according to Jay Yankey, founder and farmer at the over 100-acre Yankey Farms.

Diversification is another key to Yankey Farms’ success. In addition to the innovative CSA and the roadside stand, Yankey Farms offers pick-your-own strawberries and pumpkin patches, grows corn, soybean and hay for feed and cash sales, and raises Black Angus beef cattle that is marketed directly to the consumer as freezer beef. In the latter, a person “can order a half a steer for their freezer and enjoy top-quality beef all year,” said Yankey. “We now farm over 100 acres. We grow about 10 acres of pumpkins, two acres of strawberries, 10 acres of vegetables, and finish around 15 steers per year,” he said.

Prince William has been good for business. “The proximity to the large customer base is great for marketing our products directly to consumers,” said Yankey.

Harvest-Your-Own & Diversification: Evergreen Acres

Jim Gehlsen, founder of Nokesville-based Evergreen Acres, has seen many changes on his farm over the years. He started with a niche market: Christmas trees. “It’s a unique product, it’s not too equipment intensive, so I planted about 8,000 tree seedlings,” said Gehlsen. He opened up his tree farm in the 1990s, and the first year sold about 150 choose-and-cutyour-own trees. Last year he sold about 1,000, and has 25,000 trees planted on 97 acres.

Gehlsen quickly saw the value in not only expanding but in offering a variety of products. “There are several advantages to diversifying,” he said. “If you have a crop failure in one area, you’ve got the other area to carry you along. Another plus is agritourism. Someone might come in for one item, then notice the other item and purchase that as well,” said Gehlsen.

Evergreen Acres now offers a pumpkin patch starting in late September (selling about 20,000 pounds of pumpkins in an open season), raw honey year-round (200 pounds sold this past harvest, which starts in July), high-quality hay for horse-feed (with about 75 acres planted), vegetable and fruit products for local grocery retailers, such as Whole Foods, and Christmas-tree harvesting starting the day after Thanksgiving.

“Prince William is rather ideal. The people have built right out to me. I enjoy showcasing the farm and talking to people,” said Gehlsen. The build-out, though, has come with difficulties.

“The Rural Crescent is really not working because developers buy up farms, and you’ve got to have 10 acres to build one home on. If [the county]wants to preserve farms, talk about clustering the houses and buying development rights…If the public wants to have farms, they’ve got to support and patronize the farms,” said Gehlsen.

A Pot and a Spot is All You Need

Even with the proverbial postage-stamp sized yard, you can get started on urban farming. Beyond the small space needed for a beehive that Klapperich noted, “You can have two chickens in a small coop, and they’re pretty self-sufficient. Some food and water. It is a whole lot easier than I thought it was going to be,” Woolfrey said.

Backyard gardeners also encourage growing your own vegetables. When Woolfrey lived on a small plot, “I grew lettuce in short, wide pots like bowls. I grew tomatoes, peppers and herbs in a pot. As long as it gets water and sunshine, you can harvest,” she said. “You can grow vegetables in your kitchen window,” said Valentino, who recommended starting with hardier vegetables, such as potatoes, onions, and tomatoes if you are concerned about lacking a green thumb. “You just have to try it, whether it is a container, a windowsill, or patio gardening,” she said. “We all could do a lot more. It would make us all self-sufficient, with fewer trips to the grocery store and less use of roads. I love my chickens and my garden.”

That love of farming, whether it be hives, hens, hydroponics, or hay, drives Prince William farmers through all the challenges, and we all benefit. Farmers feed the world.

Emma Young (eyoung@princewilliamliving.com) is a mother and freelance writer living in Montclair. She is excited to visit these farms and enjoy their offerings throughout the year, as well as harvesting her own peppers and tomatoes.

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