-The following first appeared in About HER, a regional magazine insert, on July 28, 2016
The four women farmers at Riverstone Organic Farm all agree that they love their jobs. Kat Johnson, Carol Bozenmayer, Dulaney Rierson and Angela Vitale each express a sense of accomplishment from working directly on the land and contributing firsthand to positive changes in our food system, rather than from behind a laptop or desk.
The 80+ acre destination farm, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd, was conceived by Woody and Jackie Crenshaw as a purposeful investment of their retirement fund and with the hope of creating an example of a new generation of farming, one focused on sustainability and bringing land stewardship and economic viability together.
The Crenshaw’s interest in farming grew out of their involvement with SustainFloyd, a non-profit citizen group dedicated to strengthening Floyd’s local economy, protecting its natural and cultural resources and promoting environmental education and energy independence. After selling the iconic Floyd Country Store that they ran for 10 years, the couple put their energies into developing Riverstone Farm. They began by looking for a skilled team of farmers with the dedication and experience to help them manifest their vision.
That was five years ago. Today, Johnson, Bozenmayer, Rierson and Vitale are the farm’s core crew. Through their efforts – with the support of the Crenshaws and the help of seasonal interns that live in cabins on the property –Riverstone Farm is the largest certified organic farm in the region. It’s fertile Little River bottomland and mountain valley meadows are home to 15 acres in vegetable cultivation, pasture-raised beef cows, pigs, lambs and laying hens. Four hoop houses and a greenhouse allow the year-round production of fresh food, which is sold directly to local customers and wholesaled to distributors in food hubs, such as D.C., Richmond, Charlottesville, Raleigh and Durham.
The farm also grows berries, perennial flowers and medicinal herbs for the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine’s Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium. Hiking trails and a Riverstone Farm Store are open to the public daily. The store is stocked with food produced on the farm, including Riverstone jams, made by Jackie Crenshaw, using family recipes and with Riverstone Farm berries. With the recent addition of a new processing kitchen, plans are underway to develop more value-added Riverstone products, such as dried and fermented foods, frozen soups, chutneys and relishes.
Kat Johnson, a California native, has been managing the farm’s livestock since 2012. She was set to be a teacher when she realized she wanted life experience outside of the classroom. Before coming to Riverstone, Johnson had worked on organic farms in three states. She currently manages The Farm Store and the farm’s wholesale and retail accounts.
Johnson also coordinates more than a dozen farm events a year, which have recently included workshops on making cheese, canning, growing mushrooms, bird watching and monthly Farm Tastings and Tours. At a recent Tasting and Tour event, area children delighted in getting close to chickens, finding eggs in nesting boxes and petting baby lambs. Visitors sampled slimjims made with the farm’s grass-fed pork and coffee cake made with farm grown rhubarb.
During the event, about 30 people took a guided walking tour to learn more about farm operations and to experience them firsthand. With Johnson as their tour guide, they sampled freshly picked vegetables as they walked. Johnson explained how the farm focuses on what grows well on the property, without too much intervention. She talked about the benefit of livestock rotational grazing and growing winter cover crops as green manure for the soil. She lifted a large sheet of fabric to reveal kale, broccoli and cabbage seedlings growing underneath. The lightweight row cover protects plants from flea beetles and cold nights, she said.
Caroline Bozenmayer is the farm’s crop manager. She plans and implements planting and directs the field crew. Bozenmayer, who has a degree in Environmental Science, was on track for writing environmental regulations, when she realized that she wanted more direct experience with our food system. Before coming to Riverstone, she did sustainable market gardening and worked on a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. “I feel like every environmental, human rights and animal rights issue all relates back to agriculture. A positive sustainable agriculture system is the best way to impact the world,” she said.
Dulaney Rierson – a returning seasonal intern who is now a full time crew member – thought she knew a lot about gardening. She had gardened with family members and worked at a regional plant nursery before coming to
Riverstone Farm from Roanoke. “Now I learn something new everyday,” she said. The one time hair-stylist finds farm work satisfying, saying, “You’re sore and tired at the end of the day, but you know it was a good day.” Along with her work as a farm crew member and produce packer, Rierson manages the Riverstone Farm booth at the Floyd Farmers Market.
Angela Vitale, the farm’s greenhouse manager, agrees that farm work is physically demanding, but also satisfying. “It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. It takes its toll physically and emotionally, but at the end of the day you can see the meaning of your work, and the impact ripples into the community.” Vitale, who also heads up the farm’s mushroom growing projects, first started thinking about food politics when she was dating a Native American who lived a reservation. On the reservation, she saw the cycle of deep poverty and became aware of how important local food systems are and how they relate to community health.
With a degree in conservation biology, Vitale was working in a lab doing biological controls for a seed company, when she was inspired by the writing of Michael Pollen, an award-winning author who writes about the effects of industrial farming on the environment and how cheap processed foods contribute to disease. “I wanted get more invested in what’s happening with our food system and wanted more practical experience,” the New Jersey native said about farming.
Along with their managerial duties, all four women are intensely involved in hands-on farm labor. They get their hands dirty and drive tractors. They manage equipment, compost and irrigation. They keep records, order supplies, and “do what needs to be done,” said Bozenmayer.
“This is a really creative job,” Johnson added. “You don’t get bored and you have to think on your feet.” Colleen Redman
Photos: 1. The women of Riverstone Farm are (left to right) Kat Johnson, Dulaney Rierson, Caroline Bozenmayer (back) and Angela Vitale. 2. The Riverstone Farm Store is located on 708 Thompson Road. 3. Farm co-owner Jackie Crenshaw and Johnson. 4. Rierson waters seedling plants. 4. Riverstone jams. 5. Johnson with mama and baby lambs that were born in April. 6. Caroline Bozenmayer uses a tractor for some farm chores. 7. Rierson lives in one of the cabins (built by Woody Crenshaw) on the farm. The other core crew members live nearby. 8. Rierson lives in one of the cabins (built by Woody Crenshaw) on the farm. The other core crew members live nearby. 9. Vitale serves up a farm-to-table Riverstone meal at a recent event at the Floydfest festival site. 10. Angela Vitale tending to the farm’s heirloom tomatoes, grated to promote disease resistance and flavor. 11. Farm co-owner Woody Crenshaw in the farm’s new processing kitchen that he built. Crenshaw also built an equipment barn and the Riverstone Farm Store. 12. Kat Johnson helps tour-goers sample rhubarb. /Our World Tuesday