Iraq war vet finds a new mission on the farm


Calvin Riggleman surrounded by kale at his farm, Bigg Riggs Farm in Pleasant Dale, W.Va. (Adrian Higgins — The Washington Post)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist November 11, 2013

One of the more popular vaudeville songs to come out of World War I was the little number “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”

You have to think that it wasn’t the exotic novelties of Paris that turned the doughboys’ heads but the surreal slaughter of the trench warfare 150 miles to the east.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

The song, though, captured the spirit of a society in profound change, when the city brought an alternative to the slog and hardship of life on the farm. A century later, the pendulum has swung the other way.

Today, the small farmstead offers the working stiff the allure of restoring his sanity and health while saving the planet, even if the only fertility there is in the imagination.

Calvin Riggleman is rooted in the soil of Hampshire County, W.Va., and grew up in a hamlet 25 miles west of Winchester, Va., but he’s the first to admit that a decade ago, in his early 20s, he had no idea where life would take him. At the time, he was learning the rural craft of taxidermy and helping at his grandparents’ farm and orchard. Of one thing he was certain: He wanted to be a Marine, like his dad.

In 2000, he joined the Marine Reserve and told the recruiter to put him down for the infantry: “I wanted to be where the action was.” His wish came true. The next year brought the Sept. 11 attacks and, in 2003, a deployment to Iraq for the invasion.

It was during that first tour that his Marine buddies planted an idea in his head that would keep him down on the farm. Hailing from the city and the suburbs, they told him about farmers markets and the trendy local food movement. Growers would load their produce on a truck and take it to a lot in the city, where people paid good money for the harvest. They also told him that he could convert his surplus into canned “value-added” products such as hot pepper jellies, fruit preserves and apple butter.

“It was a novel concept for him, people buying farm goods and not going to the store,” said his Marine comrade Brett Nelson, who lives in Cabin John. “He found it amazing that it was a hip thing to do.”

By 2003, the number of farmers markets in the United States had almost doubled over the previous decade. It was clear even then that the markets were not just a trend but part of a shift back to local agriculture. Since then, the numbers of farmers markets has more than doubled again, to more than 8,000.

The local-food movement has turned a lot of politically attuned social and environmental activists into revolutionary cultivators (those are the figures in this narrative who typically get the ink, including from me). But the phenomenon has also offered a farming livelihood for the sons and daughters of traditional and struggling small-farm families.

We think of farmers markets connecting city folk to the farm, but when you see Riggleman schmooze with his customers on a cold Saturday morning, you realize that the markets link the grower to the metropolis.

“I had never been to the city until I joined the Marines,” Riggleman told me. “I was [in Washington] in the sixth grade for a field trip, and that was it.” Now 32 and a former Marine, he is a big guy with a voice to match and a decidedly non-regulation beard and ridge of hair. He is not a traditional foodie, an opinion I formed after I asked him his view of groundhogs and he said they were tasty.

I also asked him, gingerly, whether he would mind being called a “mountain man” and then feared that I had offended him. He stood tall in a field of yuppie kale. “I’d be proud to be called a mountain man.” Phew.

By his second Iraq deployment, in 2006, his nickname had already morphed into Bigg Riggs, which gave the name for his farm and food products.

By then he was farming a couple of acres at his grandparents’ fruit orchard, but just as he got it humming along he left it to go back to Iraq. He volunteered, he said, “because I didn’t want to be 80 years old and thinking I should have gone again.”

The second tour came with an even greater sense of danger; the fighting “was more personal,” he said. He was on a patrol boat on the Euphrates River, he said, when the squad he was leading came under fire. The machine gunner right next to him was hit in the hand and the chest (he survived).

Bigg Riggs accepted the danger but resolved, when he got back — if he got back — to pour himself into his farm.

He expanded it to three acres and then, finally, to six acres before he realized that his ambitions were too big for the available land at the family farm.

He talks regularly with his Marine friends. Their role today is not so much to open his world but to keep it on the ground. “He pitches us his grand ideas, and we bring him down to reality a little bit,” said Nelson, who was Riggleman’s sergeant in a scouting unit that went ahead of the main expeditionary force. “Some things we thought he was crazy for doing, he made work.”

Last year, Riggleman and his business partner, Trey Smith, bought an old 85-acre dairy farm in Pleasant Dale, W.Va., and, the year before, an existing food processing operation in nearby Romney called Gourmet Central. It has six full-time staff members and makes products for 200 other customers.

At the farm, Riggleman has about 16 acres under cultivation, a couple of greenhouses and a cinder-block refrigeration room that he and Smith, a former bricklayer, began building at 5 one morning and finished at 1:38 the next.

His farm plans include more growing fields and an irrigation pond, and he is pursuing other ventures.

In addition to opening up a big strategic world, his life in the Marines offered some tactical skills. “I just love miserable experiences,” he said, laughing. “No day is the same thing here. There’s always something that’s wrong and you have to fix it. You have to be relentless, even if the odds are against you.”

From spring to fall, Bigg Riggs Farm can be found at six area markets, five in Northern Virginia and the one on Vermont Avenue NW near the White House. The venues shrink to three for the winter — Old Town Alexandria, Westover in Arlington and Leesburg. He also provides weekly produce to 40 subscribers who take part in a community-supported agriculture program.

In his gray pickup truck, driving past fields of kale, cabbages, chard and other cool-season vegetables, Riggleman, clearly, has found a way be a player in the locavore universe.

Asked where he sees himself in five years, he says “I want to grow more stuff, feed more people. I’m not out there hugging trees, but I feel it’s important for people to have a connection with their food. As soon as you pick something, it loses nutritional value.”

On Fridays before his weekend markets, Riggleman can be found marshaling his troops — a small crew that picks, cleans and packs the produce and assembles the jars for sale. “First you do a work-up,” he said, “and then you go on your mission.”

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Also at washingtonpost.com
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