Alistar Harris operates Origins Farm with his wife Rebecca Ponder in Hanover, north of Richmond, Virginia.
He claims to have gotten into farming "accidentally." But listen to him talk about his veggies, and you'll find out pretty quick that this was no accident.
Briefly describe your farm. A six-acre leased property which is Certified Naturally Grown since 2008. Our land is compost-fed and pesticides are never used. Our produce is hand-harvested and tended to daily by myself and a small team, and arrives at farmers markets freshly picked, clean and ready to enjoy. We grow more than 50 different vegetables (including many heirloom varieties) with some fruit. Hanover County is well known for its "Hanover tomatoes", so we try our best to live up to expectations.
Who farms with you? I farm with my wife, Rebecca Ponder, and a small group of full and part-time team members, including volunteers.
What are your markets? Our markets are local Richmond, VA farmers markets; a local & independently-owned food grocer (Ellwood Thompsons); and our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program members.
Why did you get involved with CNG? CNG offers an opportunity for peer to peer engagements and inspections. This is lacking in other certification systems and organizations. We value CNG's focus on the participatory guarantee system, on transparency, and your good faith in a producer-led system that inspires integrity.
How long have you been farming? I have been farming full time since 2010.
What did you do before farming? I worked as an outdoor educator, environmental educator, project manager, and operations manager for a educational non-profit in South Africa, for many years. Later on, I was an operations manager for a climate change non-profit, focusing on climate change adaptation projects with small scale farmers.
How did you get into farming? Accidentally.
What made you want to become a farmer? In early 2009, I worked with a group of small scale farmers in South Africa, focusing on climate change adaptation in farming practices. I was inspired and challenged by the very experienced group to consider my personal impact on climate change, and focus on what my best effort could be to mitigate that. My response was a clear sense that I wanted to grow food, sustainably, for myself, my family, my friends, and an immediate community.
(When) have you wished you hadn’t become a farmer? When I have to get up at the crack of dawn to tend to seedlings in the greenhouse. I like my sleep.
Talk about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a farmer. It is almost easy enough to grow food. It has its challenges sure, but my biggest challenge is engaging with people - those who buy our food, and those who are interested in or thinking of buying our food. Client interfacing is rewarding, but very difficult for me as I'm an introvert at heart. Also, managing our team of staff and volunteers - people management is by far the biggest challenge for me as a food grower and business owner.
Talk about a change -big or small- that you made on the farm to address a challenge. A big change that happened about a year ago was thinking about the farm as a business that should be profitable and afford myself and my family a comfortable livelihood. Not thinking of our farm as just a hobby, a post-hippie dream, or an infatuation with living off the land, but a profitable farm. My thinking was influenced by much reading, the experiences of other successful growers, and my strong belief that investing in our soil fertility and quality is a long-term investment in success.
How did you choose your farm name? In a very practical manner. My wife and I came up with many different names, and vetted them against available farm or website names. Most names were already in use or the web domain not available. We knew we wanted the farm name to reflect a re-discovered connection to land, the origins of agriculture, and of growing food. Choosing "Origins Farm" was pure luck and serendipity, and the web domain and farm name were available.
Most unusual farm tool? Using an old top-load washing machine as a salad greens spinner. Using plastic bottle tops, screwed into the front wheel of an Earthway garden seeder, spaced one foot apart, as a marking tool on beds for plant spacing.
Favorite vegetable? Carrot.
What unexpected customer interactions have been especially rewarding? Receiving a bottle of my favorite wine from an awesome CSA member, based on a "who's your farmer" themed farm newsletter - she remembered that I'm fond of Shiraz- it was a pleasant surprise!
What’s your favorite dish to cook at home? Thai Green Curry.
Do you have any hobbies? Photography, mountaineering, and carpentry/furniture making.
Do you have any guilty pleasures? Great dark chocolate, perfectly-roasted coffee beans, and reading the New York Times over a French toast breakfast on a Sunday morning.
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