Sheltered and Nurtured Growth
Bob Shelley was raised in Baltimore city, never expecting to farm. In fact, he had a house in the Bolton Hill neighborhood with a postage stamp size yard when he met Lorrie Schoettler. Lorrie lived in a Baltimore suburb, on a typical lot. In discussing a future together they began to think about life away from the urbanized area and were looking at Vermont when Lorrie suggested a weekend getaway in Shepherdstown. Bob summed it up: It looked like Vermont without the snow and they switched their focus. The search lead them to Harpers Ferry and Lorrie says the land found them. They originially were not planning to farm but Stony Ridge Farm was born when they bought their 5 acres July 4, 2009 and married on its hillside in 2010.
Like many of the farmers I have met, Lorrie and Bob still have other jobs. Both are consultants and can work flexible hours out of the house, permitting them the time to expand their farming activities slowly.
The first year there Bob was pulled away a lot because of family issues so Lorrie’s emphasis was to build the soil. The land originally had been an apple orchard and more recently a horse farm. While that meant there were no chemicals in the soil, it also meant the mostly clay ground was hard packed and beaten up. They read about other places where soil was built up, such as the Aran Islands off Ireland. Lorrie spent that first season building “lasagna” beds, layering material on to the dirt to add fiber and organics.
After attending the Small Farm Conference and listening eagerly during the workshops on high tunnels, they decided the better option for them would be low tunnels. They felt that the expense and management would fit their level of expertise better. Bob built four low tunnels for about $100 using electical conduit for the framing.
For this past growing season they added more low tunnels to supplement the open beds. They now have 6,000 feet in low tunnels and will increase for next season to 14,000 square feet. They will continue to expand gradually and carefully to keep within the limits of their abilities.
One of their neighbors has her own certified organic farm and considerable experience. Lorrie and Bob appreciate her weekly time with them as she is instrumental in reducing their learning curve. For example, she helped them deal with pest control issues. One thing they did successfully last fall was to move praying mantis egg sacs that they find and place them in key spots in the gardens to have the beneficials help by doing what comes naturally. Lorrie and Bob do not expect to pursue organic certification but are following the practices.
They have 2 goats who help with weed control and a flock of 30 heritage breed chickens that provide eggs and help with additional bug control. The chickens are cooped diligently at dusk as the area is overrun with foxes. They have lost only 4 chickens in the past 2 years to predators.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~The garden beds are nutrient rich and 10 everbearing strawberries spread so well this year that Lorrie plans to transplant them to spread in another area. It was amazing to eat fresh picked strawberries in September! ~~~~This year’s crops, planted in a biointense gardening pattern, included cabbage, romaine, broccoli, Brussel sprouts with lettuce underneath, chard, peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, spinach, parsnips, beets, celery (which they said was looking great and highly prized but now is stunted because of lack of water but excellent for soups), and heirloom carrots, including Parisians which are the size and shape of golf ball. They intend to switch to 100% heirloom vegetables next year. Their shitake logs have a following that line up to purchase the mushrooms.
I was introduced to Lorrie and Bob by Patti Miller who is co-owner of the Panorama on the Peak Restaurant in Berkeley Springs. I know how carefully Patti gets out to meet local producers and she was happy to provide the connection. Lorrie and Bob provided romaine lettuce to the restaurant. Chef Scott prepared a grilled romaine salad as a special and it became a menu item as more people ordered it. Another nearby restaurant, the Chow House in Harpers Ferry, uses their poblano peppers. Their basil crop is purchased by a local chef.
Lorrie and Bob provide produce and eggs to two local farm markets in Harpers Ferry and where they are one of the first farms there in the spring and the only one there in the winter. They have built quite a regular following and people know to come early before the eggs sell out. Lorrie said that sometimes the older people will sit with her a while and the conversation often goes to longing for the taste of something eaten long ago but no longer available. Lorrie and Bob, aware of the benefits of being responsive, add the new item to the plans for the next season if appropriate.
Plans for the future include expansion of the low tunnels each year as much as their energy and aging bodies will permit. They would like to start with bees. Perhaps the most exciting new marketing plan is a concept they developed: Washington DC rail commuters will pre-0rder and Lorrie and Bob will be there to deliver the ingredients (from their gardens and nearby producers) for their dinner when they get off the train in the evening in Harpers Ferry. They said one of the largest challenges is balancing the requests for expansion with their own personal needs to balance the farm, their other businesses and the still continuing renovation of the farm house. They are excited about what life holds in store.
Lorrie Schoettler and Bob Shelley
Stony Ridge Farm
1308 Engle Molers Road, Harpers Ferry, WV