Chris Rolfe of D.C. United is as at home on small-farm fields as on soccer fields

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a farm in Frederick County, Md. It is Groff’s Content Farm, not Groff’s Content Market. This version has been corrected.


D.C. United’s Chris Rolfe and fellow shopper Sherica Jackson pick out peaches at the White House farmers’ market. Rolfe sought out an apartment within walking distance from a farmers’ market when he was traded to D.C. earlier this year, and has volunteered at farmers’ markets and a small farm. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In the hours after he learned he had been traded to D.C. United, Chris Rolfe contacted family, close friends and teammates.

He then reached out to a pair of farmers.

Eric and Samantha Sexton had been supplying Rolfe with meat and produce from their family-run farm an hour south of Chicago for about a year. Although they delivered to the city, the MLS veteran had visited several times. He wanted to know not only from where his food was coming, but how it was farmed.

So on periodic days off, Rolfe drove to Grant Park, Ill. — a village of 1,700 in Kankakee County, not the urban green space on Lake Michigan — to gather and clean eggs, chase chickens for crating, meet the hogs and ride through pastures.

Now he was leaving Chicago, traded from the Fire to United on April 2 for financial considerations. Rolfe would have to abandon his six-month share in the Sexton’s community supported agriculture program (CSA), one that distributes orders to city subscribers near a Kennedy Expressway exit ramp on summer evenings once a month.

“I told Eric, ‘Dude, I am so sorry, but I’ve got to go. Give my food to someone else,’ ” he recalled. “I had a real ideal situation. They were awesome.”

Rolfe, 31, is MLS’s agrarian attacker, a player as happy in a corn field as on a soccer field.

A passion for sustainability

Make no mistake: Rolfe is no vegetarian. He is a self-described meat-and-potatoes Midwesterner who grew up in Kettering, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, and starred at the University of Dayton before bursting into MLS in 2005.

It’s that he cares deeply about food production, sustainability and the impact on the environment. His Twitter page bio reads, “Wannabe farmer, pet owner, small farm supporter and #18 for @DCUnited”

Rolfe shops at farmers markets for meat raised without antibiotics or hormones, organic-oriented stores for staples. No deli meat or other processed food. Farm-raised fish is out. No soda and candy. Bourbon — made from organic corn — is his vice.

Upon arrival in Washington, Rolfe sought an apartment within walking distance of a farmers market. He settled on Barracks Row, a short stroll to Eastern Market, where, every Tuesday afternoon starting in spring, merchants from the region set up outside the Capitol Hill landmark.

Last week, for the first time, Rolfe visited the market near the White House, launched in 2009 with Michelle Obama’s influence. He chatted with merchants about farming philosophy, checking to see whether they used genetically modified seed, and stuffed a backpack with corn, kale, peaches and zucchini.

Rolfe has signed up for volunteer work with Freshfarm Markets, which operates 11 outdoor bazaars in the Washington area, but has yet to serve a shift because of his unpredictable soccer schedule.

“I hope it encourages people to think more about their food and where it is coming from and hopefully leads to more support of local small farms,” he said. “I can’t stand the bigger industry. I found out how corrupt the food business can be, the lobbying and impact on farmers.”

Rolfe’s passion took root about five years ago. Environmental consciousness led to curiosity about food production and health effects. He watched “Food, Inc.,” a documentary exploring the food industry, and read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan’s book about the relationship between food and society.

Through an online search, he found the Sextons’ Nature’s Choice Farm. Before buying land and starting the business in 2006, Eric worked construction and Samantha taught in an elementary school. Rolfe placed a CSA order, then asked to get his hands dirty.

“We get a lot of people who want to see the farm but not a ton who want to participate,” Samantha Sexton said. “They want to know you and your family, but Chris wanted to do it.”

The Sextons are not big sports fans and were unaware of Rolfe’s profession. When he renewed his subscription, the payment arrived in a Fire envelope.

“I think Chris is with the Chicago Fire,” Eric said to his wife.

“The department?” she replied.

“No, Sam, the soccer team,” he said.

Rolfe referred teammates. Some remain members today. Besides the deliveries, Rolfe strolled the farmers market at Lincoln Park: meat and vegetables from downstate, cheese from Wisconsin, berries from Michigan.

“I like the feel of local things, of community,” he said. “That is a big part of this for me.”

Outside Eastern Market, he has bonded with people running Groff’s Content Farm, a centuries-old farm in Frederick County, Md.

Rolfe is not the only United player with a natural streak: Midfielder Perry Kitchen, a native of Indiana, and his wife have a stake in a Virginia CSA recommended by a season ticket holder. Goalkeepers coach Preston Burpo is vegan.

Rolfe understands his shopping and eating habits are not for everyone. “I thought I would only go to farmers markets,” he said, “but it’s hard to do. It’s not black and white.”

To avoid catered lunches after practice at RFK Stadium, he often brings food from home. But, he added, “there are times when I am worn down and there is food there that is good for recovery.”

On the road, when players often eat together at the hotel or a nearby restaurant, he will stick with salads, fruits and vegetables, plus chicken for protein.

Rolfe has a sponsorship deal with Chipotle, which he said he supports because of their efforts to use sustainable and local ingredients.

Has the diet benefited physical performance? “This year and last year is the healthiest I’ve ever been,” said Rolfe, who also avoids gluten. “Does that have a direct correlation to my food? There are a lot of variables, but it’s definitely not hurting.”

Cold weather preparations

Ahead of winter, when local food is hard to come by, Rolfe will fill his freezer. He also plans to begin canning and preserving. He has made salsa, though it took six hours to produce eight jars.

Rolfe has another eco-friendly hobby: vermicomposting. All food scraps fall into two bins occupied by 2,500 worms that produce natural fertilizer for his herb garden and reduce the amount of trash. “They don’t stink,” he joked, “and they don’t make noise.”

When his soccer career ends, a farming career may await. It will depend, he said, on whether he has a family, where he lives and market demand. Is it realistic?

“There is a side of me that romanticizes about it,” said Rolfe, who is single. “I would start with hens and eggs and broiler chickens. Start small. Two head of cattle. The second year I would introduce some hogs and then get into turkeys and lamb. Yeah, I could see it.”

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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