Down on the Farm in Chesapeake

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Amber (9), Jenica (11) and Allison (2) Howell with the sheep (and Henry the Turkey) at Faith Hill Farm in Hickory.

With the recent city council vote to allow up to six “backyard hens” in residential neighborhoods, Chesapeake joins a growing number of jurisdictions that have loosened restrictions on keeping chickens in suburban areas. Backyard hens are part of a growing local foods trend that also includes vegetable gardening and buying from nearby farms.

Despite its official designation as a “city,” Chesapeake still maintains a vibrant agricultural sector with approximately 44,000 acres under cultivation, according to Watson Lawrence, Agricultural Extension Agent with the Chesapeake office of Virginia Cooperative Extension. Most Chesapeake farms fall into one of two categories: large “row crop” enterprises that grow primarily soybeans, corn and wheat and smaller “niche” operations such as vegetable farms, strawberry fields, and horse farms.

The 50 years since Norfolk County and South Norfolk City combined to form the City of Chesapeake have seen great improvements in farming technology. Farms of 50 years ago tended to be more diverse, with a single farmer raising grains, vegetables, and livestock. Modern farmers primarily specialize, limiting themselves to a few crops that grow well in their area. This has also lead to a “regionalization” of farming across the country.

Lawrence points to the decline of Chesapeake’s dairy industry as an example. At one point, 65 dairies operated in Chesapeake. There are none today. However, Chesapeake has become one of the top soybean producing jurisdictions in all of Virginia. Lawrence credits the area’s excellent soil and adequate rainfall with making row crops more profitable than dairy. “Double cropping” even allows area farmers to utilize their fields year round, growing wheat during the winter and soybeans over the summer.

Jerry Lilley and his brothers still farm some of the same Chesapeake land his grandfather bought in 1919. Back then, his grandfather worked a full time job—first for the railroad and later at the Ford Plant—in addition to farming. In addition to corn, wheat and soybeans, the family also has a wholesale nursery stock business specializing in shade trees, flowering trees, and large hollies. While they now conduct much of their operation in Suffolk, they still farm some areas of Chesapeake, including their strawberry fields in the Western Branch area. Unlike their row crops and nursery stock, they sell the strawberries, available as either pre-picked or pick-your-own, directly to the public.

Many people like to buy directly from the farmer. However, direct marketing to the consumer is a change from years back when farmers primarily sold their produce wholesale and requires an additional set of skills. Many of Chesapeake’s fruit and vegetable farmers now maintain websites, Facebook pages, newsletters and even Youtube videos to communicate with their customers.

Not far from the Lilleys, Wayne Clarke is the fourth generation of his family to farm his slice of Chesapeake. In 1987, the family moved from corn and soybean crops to growing produce, and they’ve recently added pick-your-own blackberries. Their stand offers seasonal vegetables—greens, onions, turnips, collards, tomatoes, snap beans, butter beans, corn, squash and more—across the street from rows of suburban homes. Their annual pumpkin patch in October attracts families and groups from all over the area to enjoy hayrides, pick pumpkins, and see the animals.

Of course, fruits and vegetables require pollination. Pam Fisher, of Bees Knees Apiaries, lives in South Norfolk, but she maintains her beehives in the agricultural areas of Chesapeake. She determines the appropriate number of hives and places them in the fields just prior to the plants’ blossoming. Because honeybees don’t hibernate in winter, they need food to survive until spring—but they make more honey than they need, “which is lucky for us,” she adds.

Jacquie Grubb of Grubb Grove Horse Farm always wanted a horse as a kid. Today she has 14, which she uses to provide low-cost riding lessons in Chesapeake through her weekly classes and summer camps. “My dream is to get more kids coming from the city,” she said. Though most of her students range from 7-18 years old, she also gets some older adults fulfilling their childhood wish of learning to ride.

On an even smaller scale, Chesapeake’s “urban homesteaders” plant vegetable gardens, grow fruit trees, and now even raise chickens on small suburban lots. Lanette Lapper of the Butts Road area used to be an avid couponer, until her sister-in-law’s cancer diagnosis led her to question her consumption of processed food. Today she is an administrator for Virginia Urban Homesteaders League, a group that encourages self-sufficiency and supports the local economy.

Wendy Camacho is a transplant from New York City to South Norfolk who once thought food came in packages from grocery stores. Now she has developed an attitude that “fresh is better” and cites sustainability for her interest in local foods. Lapper and Camacho are both involved with “4 Chesapeake Hens,” a group that advocated for the ordinance change to allow suburban homeowners to keep hens. The council will review the change in one year before deciding whether to make it permanent.

For those who don’t have a green thumb but still want the benefits of homegrown food, lists local farmers markets, farm stands, and pick-your-own locations. New for 2013, Chesapeake will have two farmers markets operating on Wednesdays and Saturdays, one at City Park in Greenbrier and one at Battlefield Park South in Great Bridge.

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