climate farm

Vine & Fig’s new climate farm started in early March.

On a quiet road surrounded by green pastures, cows bathing in shallow ponds and horses’ manes blowing in the wind, a group of five people named Tom, Irma, Maricruz, Caroline and Abraham kneel beside what looks like small mounds of dirt.

These mounds of dirt are annual beds — plants that complete their life cycle within one growing season — designed to sequester carbon. Tom Benevento, a member of the team of five, explained that they put cover crops of rye and clover into these beds to draw down carbon immediately as the crops improve the soil. The beds will act as “carbon-capturing machines.” They’ll draw carbon, because their biomass is made of it, and pull it down into the ground. This process of building more carbon into the soil will cause trees to resprout continuously.

Benevento is the Harrisonburg site director for Vine & Fig, a local nonprofit that combines its goals of environmental sustainability and social justice to “ensure a peaceful human community,” according to the organization’s website. Vine and Fig’s new project, which started in early March, has become one of the first climate farms in Harrisonburg. The plot of land was gifted to Vine & Fig from a couple named Gene and Gloria Diener, who also own the old country home located directly across from the farm. 

Part of the farm’s design is to provide land access to recent immigrants and refugees who come from farming backgrounds, Benevento said. 

Harrisonburg is home to a “multiethnic and multilingual” community, with 16.7% of residents born outside the U.S., according to New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center. With such a large population of immigrants, Vine & Fig has pledged to help them in whichever ways the organization can, and in this case, it’s by providing farmland. 

“We’re providing compost tools,” Benevento said. “All they do is bring their seeds and their labor to farm.”

The immigrants are able to grow their own food at the farm, which they can either sell or provide for their families. The climate farm already has Congolese, Eritrean and Guatemalan families who will be using a portion of the land provided by The Dieners.

Irma, an immigrant and Vine & Fig employee who didn’t reveal her last name for safety reasons, smiles at her coworker, Maricruz, as she describes how planting and spending time outside helped her recover from an illness she was battling around the time she began working for Vine & Fig.

“I started to come to Vine & Fig when my Guatemalan friend invited me one day to do some volunteer work,” Irma said through a translator. “In that time period, I was having some health issues, and I found out that this type of work was making me feel better.”

The farm has had a positive effect on not only the workers’ mental and physical health, but also the environment.

In 2019, the United Nations (U.N.) warned that the agriculture industry and deforestation accounted for about a third of human greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists said the only way to achieve any reduction in greenhouse gases is through reforestation and reducing the amount of methane and other gases that come from raising livestock. Because of how much land it takes to grow food to feed livestock, meat production has been a leading cause of deforestation, according to the U.N. report.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” NPR reported in an article about these findings. “As Earth gets hotter, farming gets more difficult in many places, which forces farmers to clear more land to grow food.”

With Vine & Fig’s climate farm, harvesting and growing trees is at the center of the nonprofit’s mission, Benevento said. Instead of clearing land to raise animals and grow grain, Vine & Fig has used this land to create more vegetation and plant more trees.

The sound of a stream rushes faintly through the plot of land as the team of five harvest willow tree branches nearby. Thirty feet from the edge of this stream is what’s known as a riparian buffer zone. This type of zone “serves as a buffer to pollutants, controls erosion and provides habitat and nutrient input into the stream,” according to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Benevento said they’ll be planting fruit-bearing and medicinal trees, such as Elderberry, in this area because they grow faster with the humidity near the stream. 

“The neat thing about riparian zones is they have a higher capability of capturing carbon because the soil is much more moist, and there is a denser intensive root growth,” Benevento said.

The farm will also follow an agroforestry practice called silvopasture design which “integrates trees, pasture and forage into a single system,” according to Project Drawdown, an environmental nonprofit. Benevento said this design is beneficial in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and improving land health.

“We’ll be having rows of Asian Persimmons, Asian pears, berries and hazelnuts,” Benevento said. “And in between those rows, we’ll probably have sheep.”

Near the silvopasture design, the team is making a forest ecosystem with layers of what Benevento calls “multi-layered tree cropping” on the steep slopes of the land. According to an article about cropping systems written by the University of Massachusetts, multi-layer cropping or multi strata is “a system of growing together crops of different heights at the same time on the same piece of land and thus using land, water and space most efficiently and economically.” In this section of land, Benevento said they’ll plant a variety of fruit trees and herbs because of the denser area. 

Benevento stands in his gray bucket hat, green T-shirt and cargo pants at the top of the plot of land looking on as Irma, Maricruz, Caroline and Abraham push their shovels into the soil. Irma doesn’t speak English natively, but nonetheless, she motions toward the camera and the crew gets together for a picture next to the annual beds with wide grins on their faces, seemingly proud of the work they’ve done so far.

Upon driving past the farm, the sound of Latin music plays in the background. Five people — all of different nationalities — dance and laugh as they dig holes and plant a variety of trees. Visually absent from this scene is the environmental and social impact these team members are making in Harrisonburg. Perhaps more important, Irma said, is the humanity in their work which brings them closer to each other and closer to the Earth.

Contact Isabela Gladston at gladstia@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.