Radical Roots is a high-production farm located in Keezletown, VA. They produce hundreds of pounds of fruits, vegetables and herbs per week on only five acres of land, supplying vendors at two farmers markets and serving many CSA members. Although they have USDA Organic certification, they surpass the organic requirements by growing food using sustainable practices that will ensure the future fertility of their plot of land.
I had the opportunity to visit the farm in late July during the height of the growing season. Upon arrival I was met by Adam, the crew leader who I had acquainted with previously at the Burke farmers market. He walked my friend and I past the lagoon at the entrance of the farm to two of the long strips where they were growing head lettuces. There, I encountered four apprentices working hard prepping beds for planting a second or third round of chard. After joining in on the work for a half hour, we stopped for lunch. We walked together to the central gathering ground of the farm, located between the house of the farm owners and the lodging for the apprentices. The table there was set with bowls of salad, sauerkraut, hummus, and other homemade dips. Dave and Lee, the owners of the farm came out to meet us for lunch. Everyone sat together; we talked and laughed as we ate the delicious meal prepared with ingredients from the farm. Dave told me about how the farm started as a homestead built by him and his wife, Lee, and continued to grow overtime as they increased food production and starting hiring people to work on the farm. Amazingly, they didn’t need to expand their property over the past 10 years of increasing fruit and vegetable production.
Before returning to work, one of the apprentices showed me the herb garden out front of the apprentice house where they grew and harvested herbs to dry for tea mixes. I spent the afternoon spreading organic compost, seeding plants and observing the different parts of the farm with Adam. Adam showed me some of the aspects that make Radical Roots a sustainable farm. They use handheld and handmade tools, including soil tillers made by hand by a friend using recycled materials. The farm was set up with many permaculture design elements. Rows of contoured beds were lined up for growing head lettuces, herbs, peppers, melons and cutting flowers. Some of the rows weren’t in use or only had cover crops growing to fix the nutrients in the soil and get turned over as biomass. The garden beds were separated by lines of fruit trees, including Asian pears and apples that were there to catch runoff from the beds. The farm has three to four green houses where they start seedlings and grow hundreds of vine tomatoes, cherry trees, eggplants and other warm climate fruits. They amend the clay soil that’s so characteristic of Virginia with compost from organic, local sources.
At a certain point, my tour of the farm became self-guided. When I reached the north side of the farm, I looked past the fence and was shocked at the stark contrast of the farm next-door. On the other side of the fence there was a wide expanse of barren land with a few cows grazing on short, yellowing grass, and past that were two extremely long, white buildings. Upon inquiring about the other farm to Adam, he explained that it was a corporate factory farm where millions of chickens were raised. He said that commercial corn was brought in by big trucks every week to feed the chickens. He also told me of the horrendous smells that emanated from the neighboring farm when a heavy rainfall would cause the manure and waste to leach.
Sadly, the farm I saw beyond the fence is the spitting image of many farms across the United States and in countries throughout the world. Huge factories are constructed to rear billions of chickens, pigs and cows. Lands are deforested to make space for commercial crops, which are produced relentlessly with chemical fertilizers. Cows are brought into the land to graze after the land cannot produce crops any longer. And in the case of overgrazing, the once fertile and rich soils become barren and dry. In an ecological world increasingly affected by anthropogenic activity, we need to rethink and rebalance our systems of agriculture. We have to produce enough food for the people of today, but we need to ensure that the Earth can still produce food for the children of tomorrow. That’s why Radical Roots sets a superb example for sustainable farming: they utilize both intensive and regenerative farming practices, producing an outstanding amount of fruits and vegetables on land that is kept fertile with organic supplementation, seasonal rotation and rest.