The Under-the-Radar Farmer

By Natalie Ermann Russell | May 28, 2014
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Charlottesville

It's three o'clock on a Friday afternoon, and there are already 30 people waiting in the lobby at Crescent Halls public housing in Charlottesville, each with a paper number in hand. They’ve assembled here to get 10-plus pounds of the 500 pounds of produce about to be given out for free by “Farmer Todd” Niemeier.

Niemeier is the driving force behind the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville (UACC), a local nonprofit that has been annually growing an average of 10,000 pounds of produce in its three Charlottesville urban gardens totaling more than half an acre. In its eighth year (first operating under the name QCC Farms), UACC distributes its harvest to low-income residents, thus proving its motto that “healthy food helps cultivate healthy communities.”

The people gathered at this afternoon’s “Market Day” are from all backgrounds and neighborhoods. There are Afghanis, Burundians, native Charlottesvillians, mostly from low-income housing. The point is to give everyone—no matter socioeconomic status—access to fresh fruits and vegetables. And people are into it. “Market Day is where everything comes together,” says 38-year-old Niemeier, a Missouri native who has been coaxing produce from the earth since his days in the Peace Corps. “Sometimes within the community, there’s tension among the different groups. But they all meet up here. It’s so cool to watch because this forces them to interact. They realize what they have in common.”

UVA Nutrition Services is also here, passing out small cups of simply prepared greens. Every week it’s a different recipe using some particularly bountiful item from the garden, and the patrons get to taste it and take home the recipe. “I can’t grow enough kale, collards, and mustards,” says Niemeier. “I could fill a field with brassicas and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

The bounty that is Market Day is just one aspect of UACC’s work. It’s a three-pronged approach, really. There’s the community component, which includes opportunities like Market Day, where people can log community service hours by helping to pass out the produce. Then there’s the agriculture education component, where UACC works with students—specifically those at Clark and Venable elementary schools—to teach them about the garden first-hand. Year after year, neighborhood children have made up the core group of volunteers.

And of course, the third prong is growing and distributing the food: the garden itself. Every Wednesday, volunteers from all over town stop by to help with planting, weeding, harvesting. A half-hour of work earns them each a wooden token good for $20 to $30 worth of fresh produce. “The cool thing about the currency,” says Niemeier, “is that if you want to volunteer, but have plenty of produce at your disposal, you can pay it forward. You put your token in a big jar. Then on Market Day, if a senior citizen in a wheelchair, who can’t work the fields, wants vegetables, he can take a token out of the jar. We’ve got him covered.” Even if the jar were empty, though, the vegetables would be passed out. No one is ever turned down.

This year, UACC was able to secure funding to purchase the supplies necessary for its crops. It also won financing through a successful Kickstarter campaign to pay for a new Niemeier-designed-and-built solar green house and an updated walk-in cooler, which will help keep the vegetables fresh longer.

As of press time, however, Niemeier hadn’t yet obtained enough funding to hire a new employee—or even to pay the existing one (himself). Meaning, he will be a volunteer this year as well, forcing him to devote less time to the good work at UACC and to find other parttime (paying) work.

Still, Niemeier will keep planting and harvesting, because UACC is making a huge impact. “Out of the thousands of things I do, this is the most important,” says volunteer Michele Mattioli of Open Gate Farm in Albemarle County. “I never will give it up.” 

Niemeier nods, but is clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight. He redirects that compliment to the volunteers, without whom, he says, there would be nothing. Even a modest farmer, though, can’t deny that the community appreciates the fresh produce. “People do bring me stuff they’ve made with what we grow,” he says. “My Afghani friends will come with a traditional green tomato salsa that’s really awesome. And they’ll share it with everyone else—along with the recipe. That’s another great example of all the cool community-focused stuff that wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t this unusual venue where it can all unfold.”    

To volunteer, go to uaccville.wordpress.com or call (434) 989-0150.

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