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In the fall of 2018, when Susanna Wheeler was hired as the farm director of News Roots Community Farm in Fayetteville, she was its first and only full-time employee.
Despite being managed by several political bodies at the county level, including the Fayette County Commission, the Fayette County Urban Renewal Authority and the Fayette County Farmland Protection Board, Wheeler was really on her own when it came to physical boots on the ground at the former Whitlock Farm.
The previously abandoned 84-acre farm also lacked basic infrastructure, from fencing to working water and electricity to storage and office space, not to mention block out areas for growing crops.
“For years this farm has just been a blank field,” Wheeler said.
Fast forward to now, the farm has not only produced and sold crops for the for the past two years, it’s also run by a predominantly female staff of roughly half a dozen individuals.
“It’s exciting to bring a group of women together, who are mostly inexperienced and mostly don’t have the skills that are immediately needed to jump into the job but are willing to be vulnerable in that situation and try and learn what they don’t know,” Wheeler said.
“They really take ownership in the fact that they don’t have that knowledge and they’re also patient with each other as we figure that out because we know it’s part of the process in building this system.”
Wheeler, who earned a bachelors and master’s degree in agriculture, said her staff has a wide range of backgrounds from nursing to international studies to outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
However, the one thing they do have in common is a desire to advance the local food movement and supporting the community.
Muscles always grow,
just like plants
Emily Bonzek, 29 of Newport News, Virginia, said she initially started coming to New Roots last summer to buy produce after moving to the area from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“All last summer I was coming here to buy my produce and getting to know the folks here,” Bonzek said. “When I saw they needed help for this season and since I was still unemployed because of the pandemic, it was like a really perfect opportunity to try something new with a project that I was already familiar with.”
Since April, Bonzek has served as a farm production crew apprentice which involves planting and harvesting as well as general farm maintenance including pest control — all new skill she learned on the job.
“One of the things that I think is so cool about New Roots, it serves as a gateway for people who are interest in the world of agriculture that maybe never saw a door into this world before because of things like the apprentice program where there is no experience necessary,” she said. “Even by volunteering you can learn a lot just by coming in and helping out.”
While her apprenticeship will officially be over at the end of September, Bonzek said she has been fortunate enough to be offered the community food system coordinator role, a year-round position.
Bonzek said her new position will focus on their food access program, the community garden, events held at the farm and their education programs.
Prior to coming to the farm, Bonzek worked at a hostel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a job that she lost when Covid-19 hit. Although it was difficult at the time, Bonzek said she things have actually worked out in her favor.
“I never thought this was what I would be doing with my life but in a weird way it makes perfect sense,” she said. “Its super exciting to be joining the team early on and getting to watch the farm flourish over the next however many years I get to be here which is cool.”
Bonzek said she also feels empowered not only knowing that she is helping her community but also working with so many intelligent and driven women.
“There are more days that I leave just feeling super accomplished than I have experience at any other job,” she said. “I definitively feel like the femininity of it kind of contributes to that for me especially because a lot of the work that we do is work that boys told us we couldn’t do. That’s definitely a point of pride for me in this role.”
Though this job as well as her past experiences, Bonzek said she has learned the importance of feeling confident in whatever role she takes on.
“There is an extra level of intimidation for sure if you’re inexperienced and you’re a young woman entering a space that is a typically held by bunch of 65-year-old men who have done it forever,” she said. “But we all have to do that sometimes and I feel like a lot of the strength of women is in the bravery to be able to find a place where we feel empowered to do whatever level of work we are ready for. I also like to say muscles always grow, just like plants.”
Taking a leap
into a new career
Another new addition to the New Roots Community Farm staff is 32-year-old Flannery Mikusa of Ashville, North Carolina.
While she only moved to Fayetteville in April with her boyfriend, Mikusa said she had been coming to the area for some time to rock climb.
She said she actually learned about the farm while climbing. A fellow climber told her about Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective, an online marketplace for farmers and customers, and the pickup location for the online produce orders was the New Roots Community Farm.
“That was another desirable reason to move here,” she said. “Even though I have always lived in places with farmers markets I’m kind of a slacker when it comes to getting out Saturday morning so having a different setup where I could order online and pick up later was really cool.”
Prior to her move to Fayetteville, Mikusa said she spent the last six years working as a nurse but decided to take some time off towards the beginning of the pandemic last year.
“I wanted to make a change and hadn’t really planned what that change was going to look like — if I would move to a different type of nursing or something different altogether,” she said. “When I moved here, my boyfriend was working remotely, and he just told me to take the time to find the right job.”
With more time on her hands than she’d had in a while and having just learned about the farm, Mikusa said she started volunteering at the farm as part of its Tuesday volunteer program.
After a few months of volunteering, Mikusa was hired in mid-August as a farm production crew apprentice.
She said leaving nursing and not having a solid plan for what she was going to do next was scary at the time and also caused her to feel somewhat guilty.
“Leaving nursing I felt like I was quitting and then you realize there are so many other things you can do,” she said. “I was lucky to have a super supportive partner that helped me with the transition between jobs.”
Mikusa said through this transition she’s learned that sometimes taking a risk can pay off.
“I hate to tell people that stuff will work out but for me I was really surprised when I finally had the time and courage to not feel like a quitter leaving an industry,” she said. “I think that if you’re interested in changing what you are doing, don’t feel like a quitter. There are so many valuable ways to work and be part of where you live.”
While it may seem noteworthy to most that the New Roots staff is overwhelming female, Mikusa said it’s not really something she notices or pays attention to.
“If we were men no one would have paid attention to it,” she said. “But we also just really don’t think about it. We do joke about and laugh about how we somehow ended up with a whole staff of women. It’s random in a way but I’m sure next season when we have more people on staff we’ll end up with a lot more diversity.”
Once she finishes her apprenticeship Mikusa said she will move to more of a management role on the farm. She said her new responsibilities will include keeping track off all the seeds on the farm – when they need to go in the ground and making sure they have all the correct seeds ordered in advance as well as all the necessary supplies.
She added that she will also be in charge of the nursery as well as assist in training new apprentices.
“It’s odd to think that I’ll be training people when I was the one in training not so long ago,” she said.
Putting down new roots
Wheeler said she could not be prouder of the team she has assembled thus far.
“A lot of them came here through the same lens of, there are big global issues going on and what can I do to contribute to them on a scale that feels rewarding and not constantly overwhelming,” she said. “These people want to solve problems in their local community. Also, there’s a sense of shared values that allows us to be successful as a team.”
Wheeler said she is still looking to expand her team and will be adding two food access Americops members in the near future.
With the expanding of farm staff, Wheeler said she has big plans for the future of New Roots and hopes it will become not just a destination for locals but for tourists as well.
Wheeler said they’ll be installing an outdoor pizza oven soon, which is being paid for using grant funds, in order to be able to offer more community engagement activities.
In the more distant future, Wheeler said she would like to develop an entire livestock operation, a restaurant and walking trails featuring public art.
As she continues to plan for the future of the farm, Wheeler said she really hasn’t had any time to look back at how far they’ve come.
“Two and a half years ago there was literally nothing here and now we’re able to have a farm so who knows what our impact will look like in the future,” she said.
Wheeler said the farm has really been great at bringing people from the community together.
“People will show up from the community that I hardly get to interact with otherwise,” she said. “It feels very bubbly in Fayetteville at times with the different sectors. There’s people here for the water, for rock climbing and then you’ve got your locals. It’s exciting to see the different cross section of the community show up and be excited about this kind of stuff.”
Not too long ago, Wheeler said she was one of those locals trying to find her place in the community.
Wheeler said she actually lived just up the road from the farm in 2014 after finishing her undergrad in agriculture at West Virginia University.
She said she was still figuring out what her post grad life would look like. She knew she wanted to be in agriculture but also knew she had a lot to learn if she ever wanted to fulfill her dream off running her own farm.
“I lacked a lot of skills around communication, operating a business, contracts and things like that,” she said.
Trying to keep her dream alive, Wheeler went back to WVU to get a master’s in agriculture.
While she was getting her master’s, Wheeler said the Fayette County Farmland Protection Board was finalizing the purchase of the Whitlock Farm where the New Roots Community Farm sits today.
“Because I had lived in the community . . . they knew I was in grad school for agriculture and some of the folks at the courthouse started reaching out to me and asking me questions,” she said.
“So, I told them if they need someone to figure it out, I’ll be looking for a job soon.”
Wheeler said those talks continue until she was finally hired as the farm director in October 2018.
Even though the farm is turning into a successful endeavor, Wheeler said it hasn’t been easy.
“Keep in mind, you’re taking two really difficult industries, which is farming and agriculture and no profit development and we’re smushing these things together which are notorious for burning folks out,” she said.
She added that while she may be the director on the farm, it’s a multiple stakeholder project so almost everything she does, including hiring new people, has to be run by an approved by political bodies whose members change every few years.
However, the same things that makes her job so challenging is also the thing that makes her job possible.
“My hope is that we can show that the model that happened here could happen all across that state,” she said. “The way that the county got involved and the way they were able to play a leadership role and provide some cash flow to get an organization started and leverage grant funds to build out the network so we can protect land across the state and build the viability of having good land access and developing farms in the community. I think that’s a really exciting thing.”
Throughout this process, Wheeler said one of the biggest lessons she has learned is to trust her intuition. She said it’s the same advice she would give anyone who is looking to take on something new and challenging.
“Just trust yourself,” she said. “If there is something that you want to do and feels important to you then trust that you can share that with other people and you can find a group of folks that will encourage you and support you to do that. I would say that’ been critical for my situation. I was so set that agriculture was what I wanted to pursue, and I didn’t care about what that looked like or what people would think.
“Now I get to become part of pushing the conversation on the impact of local food forward because I trusted that it was important.”
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