After-school farming for Fauquier teen

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Of all the rolling fields of Fauquier County, a quarter-acre plot belongs to Melanie Lawrence, for now. The enterprising 18-year-old farmer and parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville is part of a new Fauquier Education Farm program that allows people to try their hand at farming before purchasing their own land and equipment. Though still early in the season, tiny sprouts of broccoli, tomatoes and turnips already poke through the agricultural fabric on her little piece of land. 

“The program (exists) to help you learn and figure things out,” said Lawrence.  “The whole point is to really let you experience the time and amount of work and effort it takes to produce things and make a living off of it.” 

Lawrence, the third oldest of 11 children, lives in New Baltimore, near Warrenton, with her family. She and her siblings were homeschooled, which gave them ample time to explore interests such as farming, she said. “On a smaller scale, we grew things at home and raised animals, and I was able to spend a lot of time outside,” she said. “We started out with just chickens and then ducks and then rabbits and sheep. We hope to move out to an actual farm with a good amount of acreage.” 

Until then, her siblings help tend her plot. “I bribe them with ice cream. They enjoy being out here,” she said. Other times, it’s just Lawrence and the land. 

“It gives you some peace, being outside. I can spend hours not talking to anyone,” she said. “I feel a sense of worthwhileness knowing I’m doing something good. I don’t have constant, everyday worries — things that tear you away from God.

“If you work hard enough, especially outside, you don’t have time for anything that might bring you down,” she said.

Lawrence attends Lord Fairfax Community College and plans to graduate next spring. But she hopes that will be the end of her formal education. “Currently, I’m just trying to turn farming into a full-time career,” she said. In addition to school and tending to her plot, she works at Powers Farm and Brewery to earn money to buy land of her own. 

Jim Hankins, the executive director of the Fauquier Education Farm, mentors Lawrence and the other participants in the program, which is in its first year. The organization also provides critical equipment, such as drip tape to water the plants and electric fencing around the plot to keep deer out. Even with her practice working with plants and animals at home and on other farms, the experience has been enormously useful.

“For a long time, I wanted to farm and I didn’t really know where to start. How do you learn which tools are best, when to plant this kind of plant? It’s very encouraging and helpful, and I’m getting to meet people in the farming world who know what they’re doing,” she said. “(Without the program), I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

On a recent Thursday, Lawrence weeded the plot and planted a few tomato seedlings given to her by a friend from St. John the Evangelist Church in Warrenton. Nearby, tiny cabbage leaves soaked in the afternoon sun.

“I’m excited to see cabbage grow,” she said. “I've never grown it before so I don't know what it looks like. But it’s all about trying things for the first time.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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