New generation of farmers cultivates community off the land
LOCUST DALE, Va. (AP) — A new generation of farmers cultivates variety, responsibility and community living off the land, continuing a family tradition deeply rooted in the Virginia Piedmont.
“I think if farmers want to survive, they’re going to have to diversify,” said 23-year-old Ashby Rider, of Madison County.
With his two younger sisters, 20-year-old Kendall and 16-year-old Annsley, the siblings have done just that with their running of the 5 Riders Farm Stand, located 1.3 miles off of U.S. Route 15 on Twyman’s Mill Road. Hand-painted red and white signs along the highway point the way.
What started out eight years ago as a few tomatoes on a cardboard table under a tent that blew away has turned into a seasonal cornucopia of products grown and made on the family farm where their dad grew up and their grandfather before him farmed.
“We just followed him and he showed us everything,” said Kendall. “Dad was a farmer from day one and we’ve been in the same boat.”
Their dad came up with the idea to set up the farm stand on a hay wagon with gradual improvements happening to it over the years including constructing a building around it out of a barn that got blown down in a derecho.
“The only thing we spent money on was for the nails,” said Ashby.
This year, the farm stand gained a shade cloth and chairs for sitting and talking. It’s also got an industrial fan for cooling. The vegetable farming operation on seven acres, in addition, got a plastic layer, holding the moisture in the ground and cutting down on weeds.
“Let’s be honest, I don’t like to pull weeds,” Ashby said. “So we can lay the plastic down and just mow right between the rows.”
Income earned at the farm stand pays for the improvements, and that’s how it has to be, said mom Kristin Rider. The Rider operation was primarily a dairy operation until 2001 when they got out of that business, she said.
“We switched over to beef cows,” she said of the need to survive. “The milk price now is worse than when we got out. That milk price is controlled and there’s so much cost to producing that milk and the prices have gone up tremendously. It’s a lot of work, feed, time, energy and equipment and you just can’t come out on top.”
Added Ashby, “You can’t feed your cows for the price of milk.”
The family has their hands in a little bit of everything since, contributing to a farming way of life that is frugal, sustainable and valued.
“We’ve converted and evolved to fit what the needs are now,” said Kristin Rider. “We couldn’t just have beef cows, or just the garden.”
The 5 Rider’s Farm Stand is at its summer peak right about now, and the homegrown inventory is vast. There are cucumbers, tomatoes, three kinds of squash, eggplant, sweet corn, onions, watermelons and cantaloupes.
“We planted 2,000 tomato plants this year and are getting ready to do our second planting of another 2,200,” said Kendall.
The siblings raise guineas, ducks, chickens and geese for eggs and goats and rabbits for meat. They grow blueberries, strawberries and herbs.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I bought the geese in the spur of the moment, but these are angry animals, very territorial,” said Ashby. “He chases me out of the pen.”
Inside their home’s certified kitchen, delicious flavors emerge with the production of jams, jellies, salsa and pickles in such exotic varieties as salted cantaloupe and watermelon rind. Also produced in the kitchen are various breads and rolls in addition to cakes, cobblers and even bread for Communion.
What is grown and produced follows the season. In the autumn, the Rider farm produces pumpkins, mums, greens, lettuce and other cool weather plants.
“We work outside all day,” said Kendall. “We start early in the mornings because we’re trying to beat the heat and we start picking, clean the vegetables, get the stand ready for the day and from there on out, Ashby, he’ll be working on equipment or mowing. I’m doing advertising and Annsley is helping me with social media or in the kitchen.”
The 5 Rider’s Farm Stand also sustains itself through Community Supported Agriculture with 35 members — the most ever — pre-purchasing their vegetables and other products. CSA members can sign up for 12 weeks or 24 weeks, picking up their produce weekly or biweekly. They also get special perks including access to Rider family recipes like a stuffed patty pan squash filled with sausage, tomatoes and onions, topped with panko and cheese and baked for 45 minutes.
“It’s about real food and it’s a lot educational, too,” said Kendall of running the farm stand. “It’s learning where your food comes from and how to fix it.”
She is using the income earned from the farm operation to put herself through college and is taking online classes in writing through Germanna Community College.
Ashby took four years of agriculture at Madison County High School, where Annsley is now a senior. Kendall is the mechanic of the family, keeping all the tractors and mowers going while his mother runs a daycare business on site.
Not just a place to get real food, the farm stand has become a place of community.
“Socially, it’s super fun for us,” said Kristin Rider. “People come, they sit down and visit.”
They’ve met all kinds of people, including neighbors they otherwise would have never met. It’s a bit of agritourism on site also with visitors welcome to walk around the house and interact with the animals, another way to generate interest in farming.
Raising her kids on a working farm has taught them valuable lessons, said Kristen.
“They are very resourceful, responsible and mature because they realize just because they plant something doesn’t mean it’s going to come up,” she said. “They are like little business people.”