Meet Vera Fabian and Gordon Jenkins, Young CSA Farmers
Vera Fabian and Gordon Jenkins are doing something that is increasingly hard to pull off: they are making a living as small, sustainable fruit and vegetable farmers. They do not come from farming families, and they did not start out owning a piece of land.
They have a passion for growing food — having farmed during college and taught gardening to children afterward — and a passion for getting delicious, sustainably grown food into the mouths of as many people as possible.
I met Gordon sitting next to him at a desk in Brooklyn (well, before that, but let’s keep it simple for now), where we campaigned for better school lunch and encouraged people to eat sustainable, delicious food, even on a budget. I was not surprised when he fled the city to return to growing food, but I knew enough about how hard it is for young farmers that I was impressed by his and Vera’s courage, and nervous for what lay ahead for them.
Fast forward six or seven years: Gordon and Vera have been running their own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina, for nearly five years now. They recently went in with two friends to purchase land and will be farming on it in the coming season. I asked Vera to tell me more about their CSA, their land purchase and the struggles and victories of young farmers.
Tell me about Ten Mothers Farm and your CSA/farming model.
We started Ten Mothers Farm three years ago. The name comes from an old saying “garlic is as good as ten mothers.” We felt it captured our belief that food is healing and magical and we also happen to love garlic. Gordon proposed to me with a garlic shaped ring. Obsessed maybe. There’s also a lovely little film from the 70s with the same name.
We grow for 70 CSA families and several restaurants on half an acre. We don’t own a tractor because neither of us really like working with machines, so we do everything by hand.
Each week, our customers have the chance to customize their box. We send them a newsletter with the harvest list and they can swap onions for carrots or cucumbers for extra lettuce, depending on the season. The newsletter is full of recipes, cooking tips and pictures from the farm.
Two main things impact what we plant each year: is it profitable and do our customers love to eat it?
How has extreme weather/climate change affected your farm and how do you plan for the unpredictable?
2018 was a very rough year. Sure, we had two hurricanes and a blizzard within a few months of each other, but worse, it was the wettest year on record. Heavy rainfall and high temperatures make growing organically in the Southeast incredibly challenging. We have high disease and pest pressure and many popular crops struggle to survive. To plan for this insane climate, we do three things: build the soil to be as fertile and absorbent as possible, build lots of hoophouses to protect crops from heavy rain, and build a customer base that understands what we’re up against and is there to support us during the hard times.
Is purchasing land, like you did, achievable for others?
It was a mix of good fortune and hard work. From scrimping and saving to having some very real, tough conversations with friends to many hours of looking at properties that weren’t right, it all came together at the right moment. Like most things, I don’t think it’s at all impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy. And remember, right now, it’s just bare land (no water, no electricity, no houses), so check back in a year to see how possible all the rest of it is.
Do you have suggestions for how this country could address the problem of young farmers struggling to find affordable land?
Most Americans you talk to want to have farms and farmers in their communities. On the edge of their towns or cities or even in their towns and cities. We all want to have good food to eat that wasn’t shipped in from far away, we want to have land close by that isn’t paved over, and we want to have a real connection to how our food is grown and raised. I bet many of us would be willing to pay a small tax to go towards acquiring farmland near our towns/cities and making it accessible to farmers.
Another possible solution would be finding ways to transfer farmland from retiring farmers to young farmers. This is a huge dilemma. If there was a way to connect these two parties, then we wouldn’t be losing so many existing farms each year. There are examples of this happening around the country: Boulder County in Colorado is one case in point and the Maine Farmland Trust is doing it successfully all over Maine. We could look to them to find ways to scale these programs.
Anything that's worth doing is hard. Cultivate generosity. Be on the lookout for wonder. Compost. Compost. Compost.
What has surprised you most about farming?
I’m shocked by how exciting it is. When we were contemplating leaving our city jobs to farm, I was very drawn to farming, but I was also terrified by it. I was certain that we wouldn’t be able to hack it. That we’d be poor and tired and stressed. And we are all those things, it’s true. But we’re also incredibly motivated and alive and grateful. We fail a lot but we also manage to grow a lot of really delicious food for some pretty special people who care about us and the work we do. We get to work outdoors (though we complain about it a lot) and we use our bodies and we’re not in front of a computer all the time and we sleep deeply at night.
How does growing your own food change how you shop for food (the stuff you don’t grow)?
I care a lot more about the people who produce that food. And think about what their lives are like and how much they’re getting paid. I’m willing to pay more for better quality food, despite being poor. I know how much work goes into it. And I know it’s the most important thing we can do for our health. We are what we eat. Plus, it’s going to taste far, far better!
How does growing your own food change how you cook?
We cook much simpler food than ever before. These days, we’re too busy and tired for elaborate meals. And just-harvested vegetables need so little done to them. We make a lot of really big salads with good dressings. We roast lots of vegetables and toss them with a dressing and some toasted seeds or nuts and put an egg on it. It’s one of the ways in which we feel rich. We can make an overflowing dish of tomato salad to bring to a potluck that would normally cost a fortune. We have access to such absurd abundance and we want to revel in it and share it. It’s one of the great joys of farming.
- Read up on the National Young Farmers Coalition that Vera mentions.
- Read about the problem of aging farmers.
- Check out Civil Eats’ series dedicated the issue faced by young farmers.
- Learn more about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).