By Jane Sayner, RD (MA, Sustainability '21)
large brown barn emerged over the hill as I turned the sharp corner to the farm on my first day of work. It sat peacefully on the quiet autumn morning across from a bustling greenhouse. Since October, I have had the opportunity to intern at Harmony Ridge Farms while attending the Sustainability Graduate Program at Wake Forest University. The internship was described as working on a "sustainable" farm, which appealed to my interest in sustainable agriculture. With a goal to address food system issues, I was excited to absorb as much information as I could on the farm. I came from eleven years of working in healthcare and knew little about actual farming, but as a registered dietitian, I absolutely valued it.
Harmony Ridge Farms is known for its sustainable agricultural practices and has succeeded in being fiscally sustainable in this chaotic time.
What started in 2009 as a retirement hobby by Kevin Oliver and his son Isaac (WFU '06) quickly developed into a flourishing business. From the very beginning sustainability was important to Isaac. He told me, "I insisted we grow organically because I had always gardened that way and had no interest in putting chemicals in our products." I knew about a few basic practices of sustainable farming, but was surprised to learn how much they do to ensure the farm is as sustainable as possible: they use no chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, and only OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified products such as PyGanic and DiPel for insect control. They use compost purchased from another farm on the fields, and grow cover crops like winter rye and hairy vetch, which act as green compost. Animal waste produced on the farm is also applied to the fields.
Harmony Ridge has become a highly successful farm in the metropolitan Winston-Salem area, as well as an important part of the community. The farm provides food to local residents through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and home delivery, sells at farmers markets, and caters to restaurants. The farm also has philanthropic priorities; they partnered with university researchers and ran a program for five years called Farm Fresh Healthy Living that served low-income families in Forsyth County. The multi-faceted program included CSA deliveries, farm tours, and cooking classes in addition to the research that was being conducted. At one point, the program was so successful it served 100+ families per week through the summer season. Though Farm Fresh Healthy Living stopped due to lack of funding, Isaac and his staff are now implementing new programs this summer to help address the food access crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
Harmony Ridge Farms has become a sustainable business as well, proving its resiliency during this challenging time. At the beginning of the pandemic, farm manager Jen St. Clair was out on deliveries and saw how frantic the community was getting. Jen recalled, "I had the foresight to know this was serious, and we had to get a plan in place fast." With a business background and experience working in food insecure communities, Jen understood the importance of keeping the farm open and available to the public, assisted by the determination that farms are "essential businesses." When COVID hit and restaurant orders dramatically decreased in mid-March of 2020, Isaac cut back staff hours — but only for a week. By the following week, home delivery business increased so much that the staff quickly got their hours back, and additional help was hired. COVID safety measures were strictly enforced at the farm, such as wearing masks in the barn. Staff member Oli Reid expressed gratitude to have her job during the pandemic saying, "I felt so fortunate to be able to work outside and provide people with nutritious food while keeping my family safe." It was therapeutic for the staff to work outside in the soil, and fulfilling to see how excited masked customers were when they purchased freshly-harvested produce at the farmers market, which remained open with increased safety precautions and social distancing.
While the farm offered respite from the constant bombardment of horrific news, it also continued to feed and nourish its community. It was exciting to be part of a business that placed so much value on providing quality nutrient-dense food in a time of crisis. When Isaac discussed the future of the farm, he foresaw a hybrid model where restaurant/wholesale orders return to previous levels and operate alongside the increased direct-to-consumer business. Noting that, "We were fortunate to have kept our business open to the community at large and not limit ourselves to serving wholesale interests. Our experience serving the farmers market and CSA served us well operationally and in terms of attracting new retail business through the pandemic."
It was exciting to be part of a business that placed so much value on providing quality nutrient-dense food in a time of crisis.
As they expressed gratitude to their customers, it was clear how much the staff appreciated the community support around local businesses. Isaac and his dedicated team were able to safely acclimate to this new environment to feed their community and aid its economy. Harmony Ridge Farms has been long known for its sustainable agricultural practices, and now has succeeded in being fiscally sustainable in this chaotic time. My experience at the farm reminded me of what farmer Brian Brett once said, "Farming is a profession of hope."
Photography credit: Oli Reid