Roundabout Farm

July 17, 2010


Logo for Roudabout FarmOne thing we wanted to do this year is “sustainable farming,” according to the opening blurb. We’ve certainly done some gardening, and we’ve got some chickens; but we’d be hard pressed to call that farming. To be real farmers I think we’d have to (1) earn money from our labors and (2) increase our scale. Earning money from your garden but working on a small scale makes you a “market gardener.” Increasing your scale but not making money makes you a “hobby farmer.” The distinctions between farmer, market gardener, and hobby farmer are pretty hazy sometimes, and the distinction is made hazier by the unfortunately low profits many farmers achieve. However, I still feel pretty comfortable saying that we’re not farming, market gardening, or hobby farming, despite living on a piece of land called Thomas Farm.  Our situation has left me to do enough sustainable farming for everyone else.

I’m currently working at Roundabout Farm, a non-certified organic vegetable farm near Charlottesville, VA.  The farm essentially follows the guidelines for raising produce organically as specified in the 1990 Farm Bill, but the owners haven’t found it necessary to fill out the mountain of paperwork necessary for official certification.  Instead of government-sanctioned entities certifying that the farm’s practices are relatively safe for the environment, workers, and consumers, the owners rely on trusting relationships with local people.  The people purchasing the vegetables know the owners and trust that the owners are doing their work in the most sustainable way they can, even though the buyers probably don’t have much of an idea of what good farm management looks like.  In the past Roundabout had run a CSA and sold at the local farmer’s market, but this year the farm has found it easier to sell to restaurants and grocery stores nearby including chains such as Chipotle and Whole Foods; Roundabout also sells produce to a company that provides CSAs.

My work day starts at 6:00, and all the employees get working right away.  Roundabout has a 60-hp Kubota tractor and an old International Harvester tractor that do substantial work on the 12 acres under cultivation, but there are still plenty of task that require manual labor.  The types of tasks can pretty much be divided into planting, maintenance, and harvest.  Many crops are started in trays in the greenhouse.  We plant most transplants in the fields from a transplanter.  The transplanter is pulled by the tractor, making muddy holes for us as we push the plants into the earth.  I’ve only driven the tractor for transplanting.  Since the tractor only goes about 0.1 m.p.h., it’s a good task for someone without much experience.  The owners use the tractor for direct seeding.

The maintenance tasks include a large amount of weeding, thinning carrots and beets, spraying for fungus and bugs, and trellising tomatoes.  Lately we’ve been helping to build a 10-foot-tall fence that surrounds the whole farm.  The fence post need to be sunk approximately 3 feet into the ground, and, when the tractor’s auger hasn’t been able to dig that deeply, we’ve had to dig the holes manually.  At times auger’s only been able to go down a few inches, and we’ve had to do the rest ourselves.  That has been hard work, but it will be worth it if we can keep deer out.  Apparently Roundabout lost $50 000 in profits last year due to deer damage.

Harvest is currently taking up a large portion of time.  Roundabout grows carrots, beets, garlic, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, greens, butternut squash, and melons.  The melons, tomatoes, and peppers have been a special treat to take home lately.

The work I do at Roundabout is pretty satisfying.  It’s really easy to measure the work I do (e.g., “I’ve weeded one bed”); I enjoy the seasonal and daily rhythm of the work; and it’s important work to provide good food for people.  I think it would be fun, but probably pretty stressful, to plan a farm’s schedule of planting, maintenance, and harvest.  I’ll be glad to do continue doing the “sustainable farming” for people until the end of the season and perhaps beyond.


Thanks for posting about your farming adventures. I enjoy reading and admire your dedication!

Libby — July 19, 2010

I’m surprised deer can wreck so much damage! I don’t check in here as often as I would like, but always enjoy being entertained and educated when I do. Keep up the communication!

Tracy — July 19, 2010

So good to learn the difference between market gardening, hobby farming, and farming (can I turn all those into verbs?). Thanks for keeping us updated on your goings-on, it is such a pleasure to read!

Angela — July 19, 2010

Thanks for writing, guys. We’re new meatless eaters and are planning our own sustainable minifarm as soon as we move out of this apartment, so it’s been encouraging to read about your adventures. There’s a decent WIRED article on urban farming here ( though the magazine version is better (with blueprints!). Thanks again for the time you take to write and God’s blessings on your life and work.

Dan — July 19, 2010

You were too young to remember our days of market gardening, which we gave up because of diminishing returns. I think our country still has the mentality of “something for nothing” when it comes to paying for food. Our food is so plentiful and readily available that people balk at actually paying what it is worth, not taking into account the labor and machinery that go into production.

Lynne (Mom) — July 20, 2010

Being able to measure the work you’ve done at the end of the day makes a job much more fulfilling, as I have learned in the past few months. Unlike grad school, where you leave after 14 hours and think… “what exactly did I accomplish?”

Angie — July 21, 2010

I have always thought of farming as the backbone of our country and a skill that will always provide. What an excellent learning and earning experience. Also I know that deer can wreck havoc. They actually stood on our front porch and ate our impatiens last week. Glad we could give them dessert but please have a little fear of humans? And why not eat those lovely dandelions and other weeds?

Sandy — July 22, 2010