Filling a Growing Need

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

WOODSTOCK, Va. -- On a crisp spring Saturday in the Shenandoah foothills, a cry rang out and multiplied through the potato fields, down the lines of tilled dirt, past hats and bluejeans and little kids trying to remember what seven inches looked like to space the spuds.

As they finished planting the potatoes, a farmworker announced in a booming voice that the 80 volunteers would move on to a different field to plant onions.

The crowd cheered with the enthusiasm of people whose work that day was greater than the day itself. They were part of an unusual charitable effort, planting crops to supply more than 430 food banks in nine cities and 25 counties in Virginia, including Fauquier and Loudoun.

"I think it's great to give back to the community," said Michael Armstrong, 17, a student at Strasburg High School. "It goes to the food banks, and it's a good cause."

As he talked, Armstrong loaded potatoes into a white bucket initially used for kosher pickles.

Bob Blair started the Volunteer Farm in Shenandoah County ( http://www.volunteer http:// five years ago on land he had bought to escape the metropolitan routine of working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington and living in McLean.

This year, the farm will plant 40 acres of watermelons, cantaloupes, green beans, beets, turnips, onions, corn, peas, cucumbers, potatoes, okra and lima beans. Harvesting varies with the planting seasons, but the onions will come in July and the potatoes in August.

The Blue Ridge Food Bank picks up the food in crates, loads it onto a truck and distributes it to pantries in its network.

Blair, 73, a jovial man with a shock of white hair, is a widower, a father of three and the son of a newsman who covered the Southwest and South America for NBC.

When Blair worked for FEMA as a public affairs official, covering more than 400 disasters before he retired 16 years ago, he had a small vegetable garden in his McLean home.

"It was very shady, so it wasn't successful," he said. "The kids didn't like vegetables anyway."

Blair first started a Christmas tree farm on the land. Then he had a vision one night that led him to a new calling: to grow food for the needy.

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