By Lauren Huneycutt
Down a bumpy dirt road, just past the Bordertown exit on Highway 395 North of Reno, Nevada, squealing children interrupt the serenity of the 95.16 acre Girl Farm. People who are part of this farm’s program have a different way of shopping for their staple groceries.
Eight months out of the year, they are part of Wendy Baroli’s Personal Farmer Program. These families go to her farm, take care of the animals they will eventually eat, pick vegetables and participate in farming activities.
“I didn’t know how much I would love the interaction with the people coming out here,” Baroli said.
The brown farmhouse, with its big deck and waving American flag, is on high ground overlooking the pastures and animal pens. Mountains surround the farm, and the air is fresh — without the expected farm smell.
Sounds of the Irish Dexter cows, Jacob sheep, Berkshire pigs and heritage chickens echo across the still farm. All keep busy on their section of pasture. The sheep are free to wander from pasture to pen because Frankie the Border Collie watches and herds them.
Though Baroli does the majority of farming on her own, she gets help from her partner, Jill Heaton, assistant professor of geology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“When I come in screaming at seven in the morning because all the pigs got out of their pen, Jill stays and helps, thank goodness,” Baroli said. “Even though it’s hard sometimes, I’m so blessed that I get to be a full-time farmer.”
Girl Farm is interactive. There is no hired labor, only volunteers who want to see how the farm works. Baroli chose the animals knowing she wanted heritage breeds. This means the animal’s genetics have not been crossed in any way — they are pure.
In general they are stronger, and in Baroli’s words, they are “survivors.” “These animals thrive in extreme temperatures,” Baroli said. “They are clean and natural weed-eaters and foragers.
They are the type of animal that help make a small farm profitable. The marbling of their meat happens naturally when they eat the grass, and they eat sagebrush; that’s amazing.”
The women are resourceful and use their 30-year-old tractor when necessary, grow their own hay and never pay for their specialty fertilizer. “That 300 by 3 foot wall over there [on the back pasture] is a worm farm,” Baroli said.
“We use the worm castings as fertilizer, and the microbes in the castings replenish our soil.” The farm is on a plot of land that has naturally rich soil and its own water reservoir. Established for $12,000 in 1950, this reservoir supplies the entire farm.
“I cannot think of any other farm with something like this,” Heaton said. “We don’t have to worry about the drought in years like this one or last because the reservoir constantly collects water when it is available and stores it until use. It is self-sufficient.”
Just 30 minutes from their Reno market, Girl Farm has a convenient location. It is thriving, and Baroli has found a unique and steady way to pay most of the bills from the farm.
Baroli created what she calls the Personal Farmer Program. It is a hands-on program where families go to the farm every Sunday during season, take care of and name the animals, plant vegetable seeds and harvest produce.
“When people sign up for this program, they are successful if they become a part of the farm,” Baroli said. “The kids love it, and we are really popular with people who have celiac disease and other dietary restrictions because our food is untreated and fresh.”
To be part of the Personal Farmer Program, there is an application process. The fee to apply is $50, and the questions mainly ask about the family’s eating habits.
“Having a personal farmer is like having a personal trainer,” Heaton said. “The personal trainer is there to help you, but you have to do the work to lose weight. A personal farmer is the same thing. They are there to help you access better food, you just have to put in the work too.”
The application asks questions such as: How often do you eat greens? What four vegetables do you consider your staples? How often do you eat meat? What types? Do you frequently use herbs?
“It’s really important to ask them how they eat,” Baroli said. “If they are just signing up for this on a whim, or experimenting with eating healthy, this program isn’t for them.” Girl Farm accepts 30 “farm families” to be a part of the program, nearly 150 people.
After acceptance into the program there is a fee of $2,650. This income, nearly $80,000, keeps a portion of Girl Farm’s income predictable and steady. “One thing that’s important about the program is that the farmer doesn’t have to deliver,” Heaton said.
“When they have to deliver or go to farmer’s markets, they are a delivery service, not a farmer on the farm. With the program, the distance between the farmer and consumer is zero.”
This payment gives the farm family a choice between a quarter beef (avg. 65 lbs.), a goat (50-60 lbs) or two lambs (25-30 lbs each). On top of that, each family is guaranteed a quarter pork (30 lbs), a quarter lamb (8 lbs), the produce mentioned on their application, including their herb list, any fruits and berries that become available, six roasting chickens, one turkey (for thanksgiving) and a dozen eggs every week.
Baroli and Heaton are planning to add classes for canning, cooking, food preservation and more. “Farmers used to have customers,” Baroli said. “We don’t call them that. They are farm families, and they participate. They weed and help plant.” Sundays on the farm are family day.
The families are not required to come out every Sunday of the month but have the option to do so. The Personal Farmer Program is active eight months out of the year. “It’s a beautiful thing to see kids eating green beans raw quicker than they can put them in their bag,” Baroli said.
“They are getting so excited over healthy food because they are doing the work to grow and pick it.” The families can pick as many vegetables as they have the patience to harvest, help plant new produce and pet and name the newborn animals. “It’s a far more intimate relationship with your food,” Heaton said.
“A lot of the parents that are part of the program had farming in their background and want that experience for their kids.” BENEFITS OF A LOCAL FARM According to the Organic Consumer’s Association, small farms are 200 to 1,000 percent more productive per square unit area when compared to mass production farms.
“There are 36 million tons of food waste per year,” Baroli said. “That’s frightening. We use every inch of this farm, and reuse and refurbish a lot.” Girl Farm prides itself on having the healthiest soil, animals and practices. “Farm families want to not only buy local, hormone-free food that is not genetically modified, but also participate in production and harvest,” Heaton said.
Reno is in the midst of a local food movement, and buying locally grown food has been shown to promote food safety, help with allergies, preserve farmland, create community and improve the local economy.
“Creating a sense of place and community is so important to me, and that’s what we are doing through food; connecting to the community,” Baroli said. “People care about our farm, and we’re teaching people to care about what goes in their bodies. Everybody has to eat. Food is a good way to connect to people and a community. To feel that sense of place, sense of home.”
The list of applicants for the Personal Farmer Program is growing. There is now a wait list. “I never thought I would farm animals for food, and it’s still hard because I love and respect these animals so much,” Baroli said.
“I can barely kill a spider. But I’ve come to realize that giving the healthiest food possible to my community is the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for myself in terms of serving my community. I love what I do.”
Lauren Huneycutt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.