If you take a short trip down Shepherd’s Mill Road this summer you may wind up at Oak Hart Farm where Shawna Rinker Hartsook will be hard at work farming, teaching children about gardening, and preserving the family farm.
Oak Hart Farm’s on-site produce market opens May 15th in a newly-built pavilion where she will sell her locally grown vegetables and cut flowers. Three educational camps will be held this summer to introduce youngsters to the joys of gardening. Oak Hart Farm’s website will offer online ordering. In addition, produce will be for sale through an online business called Farmer Girls. Not enough? The farm will offer pick-your-own opportunities for adults and children to tromp the fields together. What you will find? “Everything,” said Hartsook. There will be corn, tomatoes, beans, squash, spinach, melons, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and peppers, to mention a few.
Preserving the farm is where it all starts. As a youth growing up in the 1970s on a 111 acre farm in Clarke, Shawna thought all families went out to pick fresh vegetables from their garden for dinner and canned like crazy at harvest time for the winter. As an adult, she began to appreciate the unique experience she had growing up. With her parents aging and her mother needing care, someone was needed to step in and keep the family farm operating. Shawna took on the challenge, selling her husband on the idea as well as enlisting her adult children and a niece to provide support.
From the start, Hartsook made sustainable farming her guiding philosophy. Pesticides or petroleum based fertilizers? Forget it. Oak Hart Farm is one of a growing number of farms in the Shenandoah valley dedicated to sustainable agriculture where eco-friendly practices are used to maintain the nutritional value and safety of the produce as well as the quality of the soil and ground water. Good taste? That’s a given. Hartsook’s use of heirloom varieties such as Brandywine means tastier tomatoes than the modern hybrids found elsewhere.
It should come as no surprise that she was influenced by Michael Pollan’s best-seller, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” which kick-started the â€˜field to fork’ movement. She outlined the practices that make her desire a reality, “I’m sustainable, not certified organic, but I do all sustainable gardening. Sustainable to me is treating your garden so that what I grow I will eat. I use neem oil for aphids. I companion plant. I use basil and marigolds around my tomatoes. I use beet molasses which is like Blue Miracle Burst. It’s the same but it’s organic. I’m doing plastic mulch, which they call plastic culture to keep some weeds at bay but if you come back in July, it’s a pretty farm but the rows are not as manicured any better than what I can do as a person. We don’t spray. We don’t treat the fields prior to planting any of the vegetables.” Her motto is, “Treat the land the best that you can.” Hartsook attended an educational conference of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working group in Chattanooga this winter to learn the latest sustainable farming techniques and to network with like-minded farmers.
Hartsook’s career encompassed eleven years as an elementary school teacher in the Clark County Public School system. Though she gave up the traditional classroom, she gained the farm as a laboratory for her budding agriculturalists. She developed three educational camps divided by age groups with 20 slots available per camp. “You can’t beat the experience of getting kids outside,” said Hartsook. “That’s what I’ve told parents who’ve signed up. Don’t send them in anything that you want to send them to church in. Send them in boots. And most of the clientele that I’m getting are totally forward with this whole idea.”
The first camp is Magical Nature for ages 4 – 5 which runs June 28th – July 2nd. Children will explore enchanted places such as a sunflower playhouse. The second camp is Spirit of the Farm for ages 6 – 8 which runs July 26th – 30th. The Zuni Waffle Garden is the centerpiece of the program that introduces youngsters to the companion planting practices of early Native Americans. The third camp is called Eco-Exploration for ages 9 – 11 which runs Aug. 9th – 13th. “These are my eco-explorers,” said Hartsook. “We’ll get into stream testing,” She hopes they will develop a lasting connection to the land that will awaken a sense of stewardship for the environment.
Hey, who likes to admire gigantic pumpkins? The Garden of Giants will satisfy everyone’s love of the humongous. Bring your camera. Enrollment is still open.
Beginning May 15th, the farmer’s market at the pavilion will be open from 3pm to 7pm everyday except Monday. Gardening at Oak Hart Farm began early this spring when Brandywine heirloom tomato seedlings from Gabalot Farms in Strasburg were transplanted to the farm’s hoop house. A variety of cold weather crops will also be ready for the opening. Find out what sustainable farming is all about by visiting, asking questions and doing some pick-your-own.