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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Fairfax County farmer promotes local, healthy food for children

Chickens on the Guerre farm.
By Marie Reinsdorf

While Fairfax County farms have virtually disappeared into local lore and historic records, the story of farmer Chris Guerre brings the promise of fresh food grown nearby.

It’s a promise of vegetables you can buy directly from the grower; the opportunity to ask questions and get answers about how the crops are grown; fields you can see; and children tasting and delighting over fresh-from-the-fields vegetables—and even edible flowers—in the school cafeteria. All this gives us much to yearn for and appreciate.

Chris Guerre on the farm.
Former Annandale resident and Woodson High School graduate Chris Guerre is one of a handful of full-time farmers in Fairfax County.

Guerre and his wife Sara run their farm in Great Falls full time, year round. They also own and operate Maple Avenue Farm Market in Vienna, where their sell their own produce and that of other local growers.

They raise most of their crops on a fenced-in 2.5-acre plot. A greenhouse built from reclaimed materials serves as the seed-starting nursery in the winter and as growing space for lettuce and other greens year-round. The pots rest on a network of small pipes through which circulates water warmed by a nearby heater.

Chris Guerre, formerly director of public relations for the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, practices organic farming and says the key to feeding his vegetables is building good soil. He plants cover crops of rye, buckwheat, and clover to till back into the soil and supplements the soil with composted manure, lime, and rock-dust, an environmentally friendly source of minerals. Water is carefully used, distributed with drip lines controlled by a valve at each row.

The Guerre’s farm produces 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of tomatoes a season, along with cucumbers, okra, beets, carrots, and bitter melon. Winter-harvested crops include lettuces, broccoli, and kale.

About 150 hens produce eggs – dark-colored eggs from the Cooper Maran variety and multicolored eggs from Araucana chickens. 

The On the Gourmet truck brings produce to farmers markets. [Photos by Marie Reinsdorf]
Formerly residents of Vienna, the Guerres were still working at regular full-time jobs when they began selling and distributing their own and other locally grown farm food from a truck called  “On the Gourmet.” It was an old plumber’s truck they remodeled by hand into a walk-in store they brought to county fairs and other events, eventually graduating to regular slots at farmers markets. 

In 2009, they spotted a “for rent” sign on a storefront while driving through Vienna. They signed a lease and completely refurbished the building and opened the Maple Avenue Farm Market. Not long after that, they learned of a landowner in Great Falls seeking a farmer to preserve what had been a large cattle farm.

At that point, the Guerres found it was no longer possible to continue their 60-hour work weeks while farming and selling produce “on the side,” so they quit their jobs to devote themselves to farming and becoming advocates for local, fresh food.

In addition to the Maple Avenue Market, they also sell their produce at farmers markets in Alexandria and Great Falls and to Arlington Public Schools (APS). 

About half of the produce bought by APS is eaten in cafeterias; the rest goes to the Farm-to-School Program jointly developed by the Guerres and the school system’s director of food and nutritional services. The Guerres visit elementary and middle schools and serve food they’ve grown and prepared while talking to the students about healthy eating and nutrition. The students, from diverse backgrounds, enjoy and devour beet soup and other dishes from fresh edibles. Chris says the key to their success is, “we keep coming back.”

The Guerres launched the National School Farms Foundation, which has the mission of  “reinventing school food programs by creating local, community-powered organic farms and kitchens from the ground-up to provide our schoolchildren with the superior, healthy, real foods they deserve.”

May the farm, market and foundation prosper, along with its ideals and practice of hard work and devotion to our health and the health of our natural environment. 

1 comment:

  1. Neat story. Thanks for telling it.