ISLE OF WIGHT
Mike Pistininzi pushes aside a large clump of dirt exposing several large sweet potatoes. He gingerly pulls them out of the ground and piles them up behind him.
Up and down the row in a field at Batten Bay Farm, other Christopher Newport University students are performing the same task, trying to harvest several rows of potatoes before the rain returns. By the end of the morning, the 20 students collect 21 bushels of potatoes. They're loaded into plastic crates and hauled back to a farm building where they're spread out on the floor under a covered area to dry.
Squatting and kneeling in the soggy field is hard work, and clouds of gnats add to the discomfort, but the students don't seem to mind. Several belong to the Green Team, a student organization that operates a farmers' market and promotes environmentally friendly practices on the CNU campus.
Pistininzi and four others are learning about sustainable farming while earning credits through an independent study. The program was set up by assistant biology professor Lauren Ruane, who is also the Green Team's faculty sponsor.
"I feel like I learn something every time I come out here," says Pistininzi, a junior from Leesburg.
"At school, I feel like work is thinking and writing," he adds. "Out here, you actually work. You're not at a desk. You're using your body to do things."
To earn his three credits, Pistininzi puts in nine hours on the Isle of Wight County farm each week during the fall semester and keeps a journal about sustainable farming practices that produce crops while protecting the land. Another student, Andrew Rotzin of Harrisonburg, has seeded pepper plants and planted five rows of kale as part of his independent study. Both Pistininzi and Rotzin helped to inoculate 85 white oak logs with shiitake mushroom spores. Three weeks ago the students helped to harvest a bumper crop of 1,875 watermelons.
Standing nearby, Danny Byrum, owner of Batten Bay Farm, oversees the students' work, dishing out encouragement and offering suggestions. Byrum sells produce at several farmers' markets in the region and to members who buy into a Community Supported Agriculture program he participates in.
In exchange for teaching the students about farming, Byrum gains student labor that cuts his costs and harvesting time. "He appreciates the help but he wants to help us as much as we need him," says Ruane.
The majority of the students involved in the project come out for several hours on the weekends.
"I always try to have one project lined up for them," says Byrum. "Some of these students have never been on a farm, so I try to teach them every aspect of farming. I give them a tour and tell them about the organic methods we use."
Byrum says there are charts that will tell you when a crop is ready, but "I can look at it and tell you. I grew up on a farm in North Carolina. My granddaddy could do it, but he had a third-grade education so he never knew why he could do it."
Farming is a second career for Byrum, 61, who purchased the 47-acre property four years ago after retiring from a civil service job with the U.S. Navy. The land sits at the intersection of Chuckatuck Creek and the James River, which helps keep the ground temperatures moderate.
He grows kale, turnip greens, radishes, eight kinds of eggplant, watermelons, five kinds of lettuce, cantaloupes, broccoli, squash, zucchini, asparagus, corn, shiitake mushrooms and two kinds of okra.
"My little grandkids will come out here and snack on the okra all the time," says Byrum. "They'll only eat it raw."
He grows tomatoes as well but lost most of his fall crop to the rain and wind brought by Irene. He also keeps 50 chickens that supply the eggs that he sells. During the winter months he plants crops in two greenhouse-like structures called high tunnels. Byrum is hoping to produce early tomatoes and strawberries there that would be a hit at the spring farmers' markets.
"When you have a farm this small, part of it is being diverse and growing lots of things that people can't find in the stores. But it takes much more hands-on work."
Byrum, who says the average age of the farmer is 50 years old, is passionate about passing on his knowledge to the next generation. His efforts have earned him and his wife, Romayne, this year's award as Isle of Wight County's Farm Family of the Year.
"There's not enough money in it, so you've got to have a passion for it," he says. "The bulk of farmers work another job and work the farm part-time. It would be very difficult if I didn't have my retirement income. It's not all about money but you sure can't operate without it."
Every Wednesday from May through November, the 66 customers that are members of his CSA stop by and pick up a selection of produce items available at the time. Members pay $600 at the beginning of the year, which gives Byrum the capital needed to buy seeds and equipment.
He also participates in farmers' markets in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Governor's Point in Suffolk, City Center in Newport News and on the CNU campus. Ruane met him at the Portsmouth market and they developed the student volunteer programs.
Several times a year, the Green Team sets up a farmers' market near the student union building on the CNU campus. One of its goals is to connect CNU students with the farming community.
"I've always been interested in environmental awareness, but I didn't have an opportunity to act on it until I got into college," says Laura Hancock, co-president with Pistininzi of the Green Team. "I want to make CNU greener. I know I'm happier being outside and actually working toward something."
"We held the first market in April and weren't sure how it would go," says Ruane. "Thirty minutes into it, it was sold out. We were blown away.
"It's great that there are people who are 18 and 19 years old that care and that feel a sense of responsibility for the environment," says Ruane. "The students are driving this, and I'm just along for the ride."
Want to go?
What: Students on the Green Team at Christopher University will hold three farmers' markets during October and November.
When: 2 to 6 p.m. Oct. 6 and Oct. 20 and noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: Lawn in front of the student union building on the CNU campus.
Information: View the Farmers' Market at CNU page on Facebook. Read about the Batten Bay Farm online at battenbayfarm.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun