Lessons to help the bayPublished 10:11pm Wednesday, August 13, 2014
In a part of Suffolk thriving with all kinds of crops, Al Whitener’s farm on Old Myrtle Road has sprouted some of the more unusual vegetables and fruits over the years.
Most of Whitener’s 152 acres are timber, but a large enough portion is a vegetarian’s smorgasbord, with edible delights not easy to find.
“My dad always headed for what he called the dark corner of the market, where there’s nobody there,” Whitener explained to 20 teachers, most from Suffolk but also two from Gloucester County and one from Virginia Beach.
It was the penultimate day of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s four-day Locally Grown Classrooms, a professional development program for teachers.
The idea, according to the foundation’s Yancey Powell, is to arm teachers with the knowledge needed to teach students about how buying locally and cultivating backyard vegetables can improve the water quality of the bay.
Monday saw the educators gather at King’s Fork Middle School to learn about the environmental impacts of mass-produced food and the farming practices it requires.
On Tuesday, they clambered aboard foundation vessel the “Bea Hayman Clark” for an informative cruise on the Nansemond River.
Wednesday morning, before visiting Whitener’s farm, they inspected the school garden at Booker T. Washington Elementary School and discussed community gardening and other related topics with Suffolk’s agricultural extension agent, Marcus Williams.
Whitener talked about a range of crops he grows on his farm, including elephant garlic, sunchokes and sour cherries.
His modus operandi, he said, is to root out what customers want but no one’s growing, and then to grow it.
This requires experimentation that doesn’t always end well, according to Whitener, like the couple of times he tried to grow blackberries.
After that, Whitener said, when a customer from Richmond he works with, The Farm Table, requested blackberries, he referred them to his cousin in Roanoke Rapids with 13 acres of the fruit.
“You have got to cycle the market,” Whitener said. “You have got to know what people are looking for (and) grow to the market.”
Many of Whitener’s customers are restaurants, such as Suffolk’s Harper’s Table. He said he sits down with them and they tell him what they want.
“We are very good at growing grass and weeds,” he joked. “We probably have a bumper crop every year.”
Tayloe Brooks said she was getting “a lot of good information” to share with her students at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School.
“(I’ll) be able to show students how to start gardens at home,” she said.
Williams has helped the school start a garden, and they’re enthusiastic planting vegetables, Brooks said.
The group was scheduled to visit Virginia State University’s Randolph Farm in Petersburg on Thursday, the final day.