Every day during growing season, Cam Terry is up early tending to his crops, just like farmers everywhere.
Okra, lettuces, bok choy. Strawberries and spring onions. Kohlrabi.
But Garden Variety Harvests isn’t a farm in the way that most people might picture one. Terry’s crops are spread across Roanoke, in borrowed backyards shared by homeowners who want to support a local grower.
Terry has been farming this way since he moved to Roanoke from Colorado in 2017, driving his pickup truck from plot to plot to plot every day. But it was never his long-term plan. And now, with help from a national farming initiative, he’s close to scaling up to a full-fledged farm.
“I didn’t want to farm yards forever,” he said on a warm mid-October morning when fall crops – kale, spinach, broccoli – were reaching for the sun in his southeast Roanoke backyard.
“I knew in the beginning that it was going to be inefficient enough to drive me nuts, but I figured I would stick with it long enough to try to make the jump to another piece of property. And that’s kind of where we’re at now, in the process of making that jump.”
The Southwest Virginia Agrarian Commons, an initiative of a national nonprofit called the Agrarian Trust, is close to acquiring a piece of land in Roanoke that would allow Terry to consolidate his cultivation in one place, and to expand his production and his wholesale business.
The Agrarian Trust, which was created in 2013, focuses on providing access to land to the next generation of farmers. It developed a land-holding model it calls Agrarian Commons: In each community in which a commons is created, landowners can donate or sell property to the nonprofit, which then leases the land to farmers at a rate that is affordable and sustainable.
It’s intended to open up farming to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to make a go of it because they lack capital or access to land, said Kim Kirkbride, a member of the Southwest Virginia Agrarian Commons board and assistant director of the New River Land Trust, which is a partner in the commons. She’s a farmer herself; she raises sheep, Dexter cattle, laying hens and bees in Giles County.
Land is a particular stumbling block for many new farmers, especially if they don’t come from a farming family that already holds acreage, or don’t have the financial wherewithal to buy property outright.
And the problem of land access is particularly acute for people of color. More than 95% of U.S. farmers are white and just 1.4% are Black, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. Black-operated farms account for 0.5% of the U.S. total. Black farmers own about 0.3% of all farmland in the U.S.
“We want to create opportunities for people who have traditionally been boxed out of farming opportunities,” whether those are farmers of color, women or other socially disadvantaged groups, Kirkbride said.
Before learning about the Agrarian Trust, Terry said he had been “lightly” looking for land around Roanoke – looking, and becoming discouraged.
“When you drive by something that looks like it could be farmable in the city and they have a sign up, as a farmer the price they’re asking for is routinely 10 times what I think it is worth for my business,” he said.
Someone who has 4 acres in the city is probably going to end up selling to a housing developer, he said.
Ready for expansion
Terry, 33, didn’t grow up on a farm; his early exposure to agriculture came during family visits to eastern Nebraska, the middle of corn country, where his mother had grown up on a Winnebago Omaha Indian reservation.
“It never entered my mind that that was the kind of career that I would get into,” he said.
He went to film school at the University of Colorado Denver. But then he made a film about a farmer, started learning about gardening, spent a summer in Canada working on organic farms with his partner, Chloe Johnson, through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms initiative.
By the time they moved to Roanoke, Terry had read “The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land” by Curtis Stone, which gave him the idea of raising vegetables on city plots. He figured he’d have to canvass Roanoke and knock on doors, asking for space in yards that looked right. He designed flyers, but he never even had to print them, he said.
His first year in Roanoke, he was offered space in a community garden and an opportunity at Morningside Urban Farm, which he now manages for Carilion Clinic.
As soon as he started showing up at the Grandin Village Farmers Market with vegetables, people started coming to him with offers of garden space, he said. He has a form on his website soliciting yards, but he periodically has taken it down because he’s gotten so many responses.
Landowners get a weekly box of produce during the growing season as payment for their space, and Terry pays for any increases in utility bills.
This year, he’s worked five plots, including his own yard and Morningside, which is an educational space where he can plant crops that maybe aren’t as profitable but are interesting to the kids who come on field trips: pumpkins, artichokes, cauliflower.
He planted about a third of an acre, and he believes the market will support expansion. He could’ve sold three times as much lettuce as he was able to grow this year, he said. He sells regularly to three or four Roanoke restaurants, and more sporadically to a number of others. He’s a fixture at the Grandin market, and he’d consider adding another market or two if he could find the right people to staff them.
He wants to be able to provide his wholesale customers with as much produce as they need, and maybe scale up enough to supply small grocery stores like Earth Fare or the Roanoke Natural Foods Co-op.
But his growth plans are modest.
“Planting a couple acres of vegetables is really only ever going to pay the bills for a handful of people, and that’s all I want,” he said. “I don’t want to scale the business any larger than that.”
The land that the commons is closing in on is a long-standing organic urban farm, said Eliza Spellman Taylor, regional Agrarian Commons development director for the Agrarian Trust. In addition to providing expanded space for Garden Variety Harvests, the land also would have room for a couple of other farmer lessees.
Terry would like to see the land become a community hub.
“We should be selling more than just the food,” he said. He’d want people to feel welcome on the farm, to hike or picnic, to see where food is coming from. “I think we kind of owe people that.”
With so little land in cultivation, Terry hasn’t been able to grow a diverse enough mix of crops to support a farm share program, but that’s something he’d like to do after he moves – maybe make it neighborhood-focused, he said, with a pay-what-you-can or sliding-scale model.
That desire to “demystify local foods” is one of the things that made Terry a good candidate for the commons, Kirkbride said.
Although creating a farm in a city is somewhat unusual under the commons model, that’s a smart approach if you’re also trying to foster community connections, she said.
Matching farmers and land
There are now about a dozen Agrarian Commons across the country, including three in Virginia. (The others are in Central Virginia, near Richmond, and in Northern Virginia.)
While the Agrarian Trust is a land trust, the work done through the Agrarian Commons initiative offers a twist on the idea of conservation easements, which protect land from development and provide tax credits but don’t generally create any incentive for farming, Kirkbride said.
“A lot of times when we protect a farm, it ends up being almost more like scenic open space,” she said. “And maybe that land is mostly just used for hay, and the people who own the property aren’t very affiliated with farming.”
Taylor thinks that farmers who are aging out of the business might see donating or selling their land to the commons as a way to keep agriculture alive on their acreage.
Donations of land to the commons can be eligible for tax credits as well.
Agrarian Commons generally acquire donations of land first, and then look for farmers – the opposite of what has happened in Roanoke, Kirkbride said.
But Taylor said that the year-and-a-half-long search for an urban farm property unearthed a couple of other landowners who are interested in donating to the commons, opportunities that the board will explore once they get a little further along with the Roanoke project.
Commons boards have various ways of finding farmers.
In many cases, Taylor said, land that comes into a commons already has young tenants who might have a short-term lease that would transition to the commons. Other times, a commons might put out calls for farmers with livestock experience or vegetable-growing experience, depending on what the land is best suited for.
Some commons, like the one in Central Virginia, are focusing specifically on farmers of color.
“There’s a real commitment by various agrarian commons for land justice and equity in land for folks who have been left out of land ownership or had their land stolen historically,” Taylor said.
It’s possible that the Southwest Virginia commons could go in that direction, especially if it can learn from what the Central Virginia commons is doing, she said. But that might not be a judgment for a majority-white board to make, she acknowledged. One possibility, as more land comes into the commons, would be to create a compensated committee that focuses on seeking out farmers of color and ensuring that their land is a good fit, she said.
Taylor, who raises dairy goats, sheep and vegetables in Craig County, hopes that other land trusts will see what the Agrarian Trust is doing and find ways to riff off of it. There’s enough work to be done to replicate the trust’s work “a bajillion times,” she said.
A transition year
Even with the challenges of planting in city yards, Terry has been able to make farming his full-time job.
“I was very fortunate that I had a little bit of savings. I had parents who would front me a little cash, a partner who was willing to pay the bills,” he said. “I didn’t make anything for six or eight months when I first started the business.”
Assuming the deal closes, 2022 will be a transition year, he said. He’ll need to build infrastructure at the new place, maybe raise money to buy some equipment.
He will pay rent, a percentage of his revenue, although maybe not until he gets his new operation up and running, he said.
“The idea that a farmer could make an equitable salary and be secure in their farming business and not own the land always made sense to me,” he said. “I don’t need to own it, I just need to know that I’m not going to be kicked off.”