In an expansive field of dry dirt, under a hot, rising sun, rows of new apple and apricot trees line the top of a small hill, each hidden in a long plastic tube to protect it from deer. The fruit from these dozens of trees are the first crops of the season on Bob Blair’s farm, where, in the coming months, hundreds of volunteers will help produce about 60,000 pounds of food to be donated to food banks.
“There will be rows of vegetables: peas, onions, potatoes, broccoli, squash, peppers,” says volunteer Pat Eggers of Warrenton.
Blair’s Culpeper farm is three years old, and he has been farming with volunteers for nine years on his other farm in Woodstock, Va. Blair, 77, worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency for about 20 years, and he also ran a Christmas tree farm in Woodstock, where he would “escape to the countryside” on the weekends. He says he “woke up one morning, and there was the idea” to turn his tree farm into a volunteer farm.
Blair is in the most need for volunteers from now until November. No training is necessary; a lead volunteer is always there to instruct the helpers. Since he started his Woodstock farm, about 15,000 people from 42 states and 27 countries have volunteered, but the number of helpers on any given day varies from handfuls to hundreds. A lot of church and service groups come, and a lot of families do, too. “We get all sorts,” Blair says.
His bare 40-acre field might look a little desolate now, but volunteers such as Eggers are eager to be working it. They plant and water crops, and they also clear the fields, getting down in the dirt on their hands and knees to weed out rocks and stems. It’s unglamorous, if necessary, work.
“I’ve always loved being outdoors, and I love the concept of farming and the concept of growing fresh food for people who need food,” says Eggers, who gardens in her own yard and grew up near her uncle’s farm in Maryland.
Most volunteers don’t have experience farming. Many are children younger than 18 and don’t know where their food comes from. “Kids come out and say, ‘Is that what a cauliflower looks like?’ ” Eggers says.
“It’s a great experience. You see a different side of life,” says Jeanne Edwards, 70, a gardener who volunteers regularly at the farm with her Nokesville church group.
Blair is a proponent for providing fresh, healthy produce for people who need it. In this country, “we have a very serious nutrition issue,” he says. People “don’t have the money to be able to feed themselves properly.”
Blair is also passionate about encouraging service; the farm motto is “We grow volunteers.”
“We want to nurture the youngest folks to volunteer throughout their lives,” he says. “We want to ingrain in them the lifelong [idea to] help other people.”
How do I volunteer? Go to www.volunteerfarm.org to register or call 540-459-3478.
When: Mondays-Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. Rain or shine.
Where are they? 11251 Cherry Hill Rd., Culpeper, and 277 Crider Lane, Woodstock.
Who can volunteer? Anyone who wants to work. There are no age limits. You must sign a waiver, available online or at a farm, before volunteering.
What should I bring? Sunscreen, bug spray, a hat, snacks and plenty of water. Wear long pants and sneakers, and don’t be afraid to get dirty.