A new farm is sprouting in the midst of a Roanoke food desert, on a site that has long been envisioned as a hub for a thriving urban village.
Garden Variety Harvests, which for several years has cultivated vegetables across a network of backyard plots in Roanoke, soon will hold the lease on a property in Roanoke’s Washington Park neighborhood.
The land – most recently the site of Lick Run Farm and Community Market – will be owned by the Southwest Virginia Agrarian Commons, the local arm of a national initiative designed to provide access to land to the next generation of farmers.
“It’s just exciting to be able to think about having a bona fide location for people to show up to – employees, but also visitors,” said Cam Terry, who launched Garden Variety Harvests after moving to Roanoke from Colorado in 2017.
Although the property closing won’t happen until later this spring, he started planting beds of cabbage, Swiss chard, snap peas and other vegetables as soon as the weather cooperated.
“I’ve already noticed in my time being here that somebody shows up every day – to chat, to ask about what’s growing, to introduce themselves,” he said. “That visibility is just going to be really awesome. It opens up a real possibility for on-farm sales that is contributing to community food sovereignty in a way that is really the end goal for starting this kind of business in the first place.”
Terry has been offering his vegetables through farmers markets and providing them to local restaurants, and he said he’s never had a problem selling as much as he could grow. But he wanted to expand, and he had a vision of creating a farm in a neighborhood that wouldn’t otherwise have easy access to healthy, affordable food. He and the Commons kept that in mind during their search for land.
The new farm site, which encompasses roughly 3.5 acres on 10th Street, right at the Lick Run Greenway, checks that box. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, much of the surrounding neighborhood is a low-income area that’s a mile or more from the nearest supermarket.
Terry eventually wants to be able to sell produce on site, perhaps setting up a Community Supported Agriculture program that would allow neighborhood residents to buy subsidized CSA shares.
“I love going to the farmers market, and I love working with chefs,” he said. “But if I can sell everything that’s grown on the farm, on the farm, that’s not a bad thing.”
The 10th Street project is the first for the Southwest Virginia Agrarian Commons, an initiative of the national Agrarian Trust.
The Agrarian Trust was created nearly a decade ago as a response to a growing trend within agriculture that saw older farmers retiring but younger ones lacking access to land, or unable to afford to buy or lease it at market rates.
The nonprofit created the Agrarian Commons initiative to link those emerging farmers with landowners – often farmers themselves – who want to protect their acreage from future development. Owners can sell or donate property to their local Commons, usually with a tax benefit, and the land is then leased at affordable rates to farmers.
Generally, an Agrarian Commons – there are about a dozen across the country – starts with land and then seeks farmers to lease it. The Southwest Virginia group, by contrast, started with a farmer – Terry – who was looking for land and had fairly specific criteria.
“The more we looked at properties far outside of town, the more it became clear to me that I just didn’t want to move the farm to Floyd or somewhere else,” Terry said. “It was just really important to me that we take advantage of any opportunity we could find that was in the city because that’s where our customers are. That’s where we can have the most social impact.”
Rick Williams bought the 10th Street land – the site of a former plant nursery – in 2010 with the idea of creating an urban farm and community market that would become both a gathering place for the neighborhood and a catalyst for community revitalization.
Today, as he prepares to turn over the property to the Agrarian Commons, he wryly calls Lick Run Farm and Community Market his “experiment in good intentions.”
Williams, who spent a decade on the city’s planning commission and also worked on one of the updates to Roanoke’s comprehensive plan, wrote a vision statement for his project in which he lamented that the city’s plan to create dynamic village centers had worked well in affluent areas like Grandin Village but not in the kinds of struggling neighborhoods that most needed them.
That was his dream for Lick Run.
He had a day job as an engineer, but he poured the rest of his time, and a lot of his own money, into rejuvenating both the land, where he planned to grow vegetables, and the old house on the property, where he wanted to live and to host neighborhood events.
He created the Lick Run Community Development Corporation to foster development and connections, and for a number of years he sold produce and plowed the proceeds back into the nonprofit. He had a small paid staff, and he got volunteer help from groups like the students who came from Michigan State for an alternative spring break project.
But the farm never became the neighborhood hub that he had envisioned. The house remains unfinished, the produce market petered out.
“I have to admit that some of it was my own fault,” Williams said. “I did the best I knew how. But for some reason, I just didn’t attract the support, whether it was the on-the-ground support of people who would come and get involved, or environmental people who I had hoped might see this and say, ‘Well, maybe we can move into that neighborhood.’
“But that kind of thing wasn’t on the radar screen at that time for most people.”
He said he also seriously misjudged the amount of work that both the house and land would need.
He hauled away three tractor-trailer loads of junk: trash that had been dumped on the site over the years, but also remnants of old buildings that had been so hidden by plant cover he hadn’t even known they were there.
And while the idea of living in the property’s original house was romantic, it wasn’t necessarily realistic, he later realized. The structure, which was built starting in around 1889, was in terrible shape, and even after years of work and investment, it’s still uninhabitable.
A series of what Williams calls “catastrophes” followed.
He’d been paying the farm staff out of his own pocket, but he lost his job in 2016 and could no longer afford to subsidize the farm’s small budget. And then the Virginia Department of Transportation started work on the city’s 10th Street makeover, a massive road project that for three years siphoned traffic away from Lick Run.
Williams said he’s heard plenty of criticism over the years of the way he’s handled the project: that he failed to execute his plan despite spending so much time and money on it, that he had no business sense.
He laughs, a little, at that. “I plead guilty to that,” he said. “This may be the stupidest business plan ever, from anybody.”
But he said he remained committed to his goal. Several years back, someone who wanted to build a convenience store offered him $120,000 for part of the property, he said. It would’ve allowed him to pay off the loan on the land, and to keep part of the property for future development, maybe apartments.
“I could’ve done that, but I didn’t,” he said. “I believed in what I was doing.” He also felt a moral obligation, he said, to the people who had believed in his vision and had loaned him the money to buy the property.
The opportunity presented by Agrarian Commons seemed like a good way to bow out of the property while still protecting it from future development, he said. He’s actually known Terry for some years, and the two had talked at various points about how the 10th Street land might be used for farming, but the discussions never led to a formal agreement.
Williams believes he’s leaving the land in far better shape for future farmers than when he found it. In addition to the massive cleanup, he added a well for irrigation. He put in swales to capture and store water. He planted cover crops like clover to add nitrogen to the soil.
“When I’ve been in the midst of it for 12 years, sometimes I look at it and see only the problems,” he said. “And other people show up and they see things with a different set of eyes, and for me it’s like, wow.”
Eliza Spellman Taylor, regional Agrarian Commons development director for the Agrarian Trust, concurred.
“It’s so rare to have that volume of acreage in the middle of a city, but it’s also farmable acreage where the soil has been amended and tended and cared for and is somewhat ready to go,” she said. “That’s a pretty special and unique opportunity.”
Terry will continue to farm his scattered garden plots while he develops the 10th Street farm. He figures that just over an acre of the land that he’s leasing will be suitable for cultivating vegetables – that’s about three times as much as he planted last year.
On the rest, he hopes to put in perennial plantings like raspberries, apples and figs – maybe open a you-pick operation – and he plans to add a walking trail and places for picnics. He wants the neighborhood to feel welcome to explore the property and see where their food is coming from, he said.
LEAP, a Roanoke nonprofit that focuses on access to healthy food options, has contributed $160,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money to the project. Some of the funds will pay for about 1,400 feet of deer fence, a mower and farm supplies, but Terry said the bulk will be put toward renovations to the house, which he expects will house community space, a demonstration kitchen, an area for cleaning and packing produce, and, on the front porch, a self-service retail area.
The Lick Run Community Development Corporation also will have space in the house and, Williams hopes, on the land; the details of the leases are still being worked out but Williams wants the nonprofit to take the lead on community outreach programs like a market or cooking classes.
The Commons and Williams have already signed a purchase and sale agreement, Taylor said, and they expect the sale to close later this spring, after an appraisal.
While the Commons model relies heavily on donations and discounted sales of the land it acquires, it also emphasizes compensating landowners for the work they’ve put into their property, she said.
“Part of our principals at Agrarian Trust is ensuring that an aging-out landowner is compensated properly so that they can afford to retire,” she said.
Williams said they agreed on a sale price of $180,000, with a first payment to be made at closing and the remainder over the next two years, contingent on the appraisal and on fundraising efforts. He’ll also get a $15,000 payment to cover assets including a greenhouse and some equipment, and his lenders will forgive most of the debt he incurred to buy the land.
The Agrarian Trust has launched a public campaign to raise the money needed to cover the costs of the project not already paid for with the ARPA funds and other donations; the nonprofit estimates it needs to bring in $171,494 by Aug. 1.
“I look at the budgets and sometimes I’m really overwhelmed by the amount of money that we’re going to have to raise to make this all happen,” Terry said. “But this is like real, lasting change. … We’re not raising this sum of money to get Cam a farm. This is a real, long-term play. Once this land is held in the Agrarian Commons, it will never be developed. It will be farmed so long as people inhabit this city.
“I think sometimes about this fantasy in my head about being able to shake the hand of like the fifth farmer on this land, and just imagining the ways that this place is going to flourish to meet the needs of this community is really exciting for me.”