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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 als