7/3/20

Ready for their close up: The Birbs of Arcadia

The gates at Arcadia are still closed to the public and to keep safe, Arcadia farmers wear masks, stay six feet apart, wash their hands obsessively. The birds, though? The birds have no idea there's a pandemic going on.

They're living their best life on the 56 acres tucked in between Ft. Belvoir and Richmond Highway that is Arcadia's Dogue Farm, our vegetable production farm.

The Bluebird boxes hosted eggs, chicks fledged and the next tenants have already moved in.

On a recent Sunday an amateur ornithologist and budding photographer took a sunrise walk on Dogue we just had to share @nature.birdy's photos with you.



If you spend much time at Arcadia, you've likely seen this guy or some of his friends. The Red-winged Blackbirds hunt among the fields closest to Richmond Highway; in the evenings and early morning hours they can be found perched on cattails swaying under their weight in the catchment pond. Last season we observed them hunting butterflies in groups and we weren't even mad. It's a tangible example of the ecosystem Arcadia nurtures by not using pesticides or herbicides. Everyone eats!


Her plumage is far more subtle, but the female Red-winged Blackbirds are also beautiful and they too helps with pest control in the fields. Wikipedia says Red-winged Blackbirds are the most abundant living land bird in North America: bird-counting censuses of wintering Red-winged Blackbirds show that loose flocks can number in excess of a million birds per flock and the full number of breeding pairs across North and Central America may exceed 250 million in peak years. The Red-winged Blackbird male is all black with a red shoulder and yellow wing bar, and the female is a nondescript dark brown. Seeds and insects make up the bulk of the Red-winged Blackbird's diet.


This female Tree Swallow is so cute you almost want to reach out and boop her on the end of her beak. At Dogue, tree swallows nest in the equipment barns, the Bluebird boxes from time to time and, we suppose though we haven't set out to find any, cavities in trees, too. Per the Audubon Society, these little marvels eat berries and insects, which gives them a survival advantage in the winter over other insect-only swallows.



This male Downy Woodpecker is exciting to get to see upclose-- we hear them sometimes, when the farm is quiet (not often midday but oh, that sunrise hour!) and we see the holes they leave in the trees but we don't often get to see them--perhaps because they're so small? Adult Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest of North America's woodpeckers, and very common. They are great insect eaters, which is why we love 'em. Natural pest control for the win!


This female Orchard Oriole was hard to see until our young birdwatcher pointed her out, and we're so glad he did.

Another super pest predator, with a side of seed spreading: In breeding season, they eat insects and spiders. Later, their diet also includes ripe fruit, which quickly passes through their digestive tract. She will be very happy to know we are planting a fruit and nut orchard this fall at Dogue!



The farm is also a home for romance: we couldn't resist sharing these shots of two Tree Swallows having a rendezvous. That romance, however, can lead to tragedy: do NOT look up Tree Swallow Infanticide. It's like Unsolved Mysteries on Netflix but you already know who did it: a male Tree Swallow.


Thanks for coming along with us on our birb walk. This isn't all of the birds at Arcadia--just the ones we encountered on a quiet quarantine morning. We have raptors too. 15 acres and no one remembers seeing a squirrel or a rabbit. Everyone eats! Leave us a comment if you want to see more of the wildlife at Arcadia and for more stunning bird photos head over to Instagram and check out @nature.birdy. We're so lucky to have this pictures and see the biodiversity we work so hard to welcome up close. We're practically Jurassic Park over here. You know birds are dinosaurs, right? Like, literal dinosaurs. Also, wash your hands and wear a mask!





6/19/20

Meet Mary Charlton, Arcadian of the Month (see also: panda keeper)


It was hard to get June’s Arcadian of the month to sit still long enough to answer some of our questions--and not because she typically runs 20 miles a week. She is truly a busy woman.

Mary Charlton in the Arcadia Groundhog Garden -- pre-pandemic! 
Nine years after leaving her job as a primate and giant panda keeper at the National Zoo to stay home and raise a family, Mary Charlton is a cherished member of the Arcadia family. She came to us by way of Stratford Landing Elementary School where she’s the Outdoor Learning Coordinator and Garden Teacher. Last Spring Arcadia’s outreach and education coordinator Juan Pablo Echeverria visited schools in the Route 1 corridor to assess their gardens for assistance, and asked for a tour of SLES’ outdoor space.
"I honestly didn't want to take the time to give anyone a tour of the garden --I didn't realize what he was looking for,” she admitted.

But she quickly came to understand what Juan Pablo was bringing to her program -- expert growing guidance, educational resources, and an additional set of hands.  Being affiliated with Arcadia has made a huge difference in the garden classroom, Mary says: "Just having someone else to bounce ideas off of--from planting to tending-- is valuable.”

“He [Juan Pablo] even helped water all summer. He shows up and works, and he’s a bit of a rogue gardener too. I look around sometimes and see a zinnia or a pepper growing that I am sure I didn’t plant--and I smile."

A November 2018 grant to Stratford Landing funded horticultural therapy in the garden at school --every one of the 800 children at SLES has had a hand in planting, prepping or tending that garden--and the resulting produce is distributed at a free farmers market at Gum Springs Community Center. Most of the children who participate in the free and reduced lunch program at SLES live in the vicinity of Gum Springs, and the vegetables she grew in the space tucked between buildings at school went home with the students. “We wanted to make sure the kids had access to fresh produce,” she smiled. It made sense to Mary to reward them with the literal fruits of their labor.

When COVID-19 closed Fairfax County Public Schools, one of her first concerns was for the garden and subsequently the free farmers market--where would the families get extra produce if the school and the garden were closed? Ever resourceful, she found a donor to fund produce boxes for a few weeks, teaming up with Arcadia to continue the program through the rest of the summer with a grant from Act for Alexandria.

Now she and a few volunteers and Arcadia staff distribute 66 boxes of produce a week at Gum Springs Community Center. Each box has enough produce to feed a family of four for a week, and they are supplemented with bags of fresh greens from Arcadia each week--kale, collards, spinach, ovation greens.
At Gum Springs, waiting for the students' families
She looks forward to the distribution each week, despite the amount of work it entails.

“It’s great to see the kids--I call them my kids-- sometimes when their parents come to pick up the produce,” she said. “It’s important for me to see they’re still getting healthy, local food to supplement their meals even though school is closed.”

Arcadia's farmers take pride in contributing to the weekly "market."

“A few weeks ago [Arcadia Farmer] Katherine gave us extra seedlings to give away at Gum Springs the reception was overwhelming,” Mary said, emotion in her voice. “It was so neat to talk to people about their own gardens and where they'd grow these plants. After weeks of being socially distant during the produce pick ups, we suddenly had a commonality--tomatillo, tomato and pepper seedlings closed the gap.”

Mary is more than just one of the teachers affiliated with the education program -- she’s become a fixture at Arcadia events and work days.

Mary, Farm Education Director Ivy, and Veteran Incubator Farmer Jennie take a break last summer

“Mary is always willing to lend a hand --even before she knows what you need help with,” said Ivy Mitchell, Arcadia’s Farm Education Director. “She’s usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. Arcadia could not function without good humans like her.”

She knows all of the farmers and staff, and she’s never afraid to show up and work hard for an hour --or four. And in just one short year of working with Mary, it seems like she’s been here forever. She’s FARMily.

“I love being here. I love the mission and the people and how passionate everyone is--but I love being on a farm,” she enthused. “I grew up visiting my grandpa's small farm in Chesterfield and I miss it sometimes. Arcadia brings that back.”

Because of the pandemic -- and the importance of keeping Arcadia's farm staff healthy -- the farm is closed to visitors and the public this year, and her girls grumble when they learn Mom’s day away from home included a visit to the fields at Dogue to pick up her farm share.

“I miss bringing my girls out to the farm--I know it's closed because of COVID but I think it's important for them to see where food comes from,” she said. "They loved walking the fields and tasting things throughout the season last year--we’ll be back when COVID clears.”

Until then we get to see her every Friday afternoon when she stops just inside the farm gate to pick up her shares. Someone asked,  why would an avid gardener pay for 25 weeks of fresh vegetables?

“I signed up for the CSA to support Arcadia and the people I know who work so hard on the farm and my family loves the fresh food,” she said. “Where else am I going to get Hakurei turnips?”

Now we know. Thanks shallot, Mary --we couldn’t do it without you!

5/22/20

Arcadian of the Month

Because we miss hanging out with you, we are doing the next best thing: shining a light on Arcadians who contribute so much to the community we are all apart of, and it's almost like we are hanging out together! So we're going to feature someone from Arcadia every month.  A farmer, an educator, a Mobile Market customer, a veteran farmer in training, a volunteer, a donor.  Let's call them the Arcadian of the Month?

This month we're introducing Jennie -- she started as a volunteer in 2017, then completed the Arcadia Veteran Farmer Reserve Training in 2018 and worked alongside Kenny and Katherine as a Farm Fellow in 2019. 

In 2020, Jennie is now farming her own plot as part of the Arcadia Veteran Farm Incubator. Jennie initially planned to grow just flowers and pollinator friendly crops;  she named her tiny farm Change of Plants. After agonizing for weeks over the Johnny's Seeds catalog in January she placed an order for 40 different flowers with plans for a summer bouquet flower subscription program and plenty of nectar for the pollinators.

But, true to its name, Change of Plants is changing. The Coronavirus prompted Jennie to grow food for humans, too. "If ever there's a time to grow food it's now," she said. What started out as  1/4 acre of flowers is now 1/8 an acre of vegetables she describes as "a salad bowl" destined for CSA subscribers. The remaining 1/8 of an acre will become a "pollinator experience" with cutting gardens, a walking path, a loofah house and a bench set in a thicket of sunflowers.

Jennie's journey to farming is about as straight as the winding path she she carved out with a tractor on her small farm last weekend. The child of heroin addicts, she grew up in foster care in Southern California. She signed Marine Corps enlistment papers at 16 to get herself out of trouble. After four tumultuous years stationed at a base in California, she left the Corps to get married and start college in New Mexico. September 11th interrupted her last semester; she found a recruiter to bring her back on active duty a few days after the Towers fell. She spent much of the next decade telling the Marine Corps story as a public affairs officer while her husband and friends went off to war.


After dozens of funerals and a divorce, she hung up her uniform for good in 2006 but continued as a civilian public affairs officer for the Department of the Navy. She then headed to Afghanistan to work on a communications project for the U.S. Army.

Home from Afghanistan and recovering from injuries sustained overseas, she met and fell in love with an active duty Marine. They dreamed of rural life and starting a farm --a life far away from the war, the military, and the city.  Love emboldened the self-described city girl, and they started looking at property.

The future changed abruptly when her fiance, battling with post traumatic stress, took his own life.

Jennie describes herself as "adrift, angry and trying to figure out what the next chapter held." A scooter accident left her with a traumatic brain injury; it wasn't her first head injury but it was the most significant. Still recovering, she accepted a job offer at the United Nations headquarters and moved cross-country to New York. The pace and cacophony of the city revealed the extent of her brain injury. Combined with the the grief and anger she'd shoved aside after her fiance's suicide, old traumas she hadn't dealt with from her time in uniform, and the overwhelming rush of life in NYC, she says she felt like she was drowning.

Reprieve came -- and the inkling of a new life dawned -- in the form of weekend visits to a farm in New Jersey. She left New York two years after arriving to "chase down that last semester of school" and find out what life away from the city held. That decision lead her to Arcadia -- and this time the farm dream was her own.

Spending time on the farm has been the perfect therapy -- and, she says, likely saved her life.

"Arcadia is the community I didn't know I was looking for. It's a place to learn and grow--a place where my deficits aren't glaring because they don't know me any other way. They answer my questions, even when I ask them again the next day, and the next," she laughed. "I'm excited to put some of my knowledge to the test on my quarter acre and can't wait to see what the season yields."




5/14/20

When the city shut down, the Arcadia Mobile Market opened up -- nearly two months ahead of schedule


Arcadia's Mobile Market Director Erin Close realized in March that thousands of regular market customers were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 quarantine restrictions.

Close knew the people who purchased more than 50 tons of fresh local produce at the Mobile Market's 10 sites across Washington D.C. in 2019 would struggle to access fresh food. In the best of times, getting food in these 10 neighborhoods is tough. Pandemic restrictions made it worse.

It hit home when -- pre-pandemic -- she announced a monthly "pop-up" market, a way to stay in touch with customers before the official season began in May. Within minutes of announcing the market -- just as the quarantine was about to go into effect -- she had more than 200 orders from customers otherwise unable to access grocery stores.

On a recent Saturday, Pam Curry, a retired legal secretary who's been a Mobile Market customer for two years, waited in line to buy "her" chicken thighs as she lovingly refers to the Ayrshire Farm poultry she's come to expect from the market.

"I'm a senior and I have health issues--I'm not going to a grocery store right now," she explained. "Erin and her crew bringing the market to these communities a month early like this was a real relief. People don't believe it when I say we get farm to table right here in our own neighborhood but it's the truth, thanks to Erin and the Market."

Close, in her third year leading the Market, understood what the pandemic would mean for her customers and swung into action. She swiftly created a safe food distribution training plan based on best practices for social distancing for customers and employees and implemented it for her March markets. And she quickly made plans to implement multiple weekly markets through April to serve her customers. When the mayor required outdoor markets to apply for waivers to operate, the Arcadia Mobile Market was ready: it received the first one granted, on April 9.


Erin Close stands with Patricia Williams, the ANC commissioner for 5E02 and longtime supporter and volunteer of Arcadia's Mobile Market in Edgewood. 

Close learned from her first pandemic market and implemented tweaks to her plan. She added employees to manage lines, calling up alumni staff to ensure she had a practiced team; she asked the farmer to pre-pack boxes for efficiency; and she built sneeze guards and distributed fabric masks that she washes for staff between uses.

Arcadia's long-time Mobile Market partner the Bainum Family Foundation then stepped in with the missing piece: the funds to cover operating these unexpected markets and the 300 fresh local produce boxes from Earth N Eats Farm in central Pennsylvania to be distributed for free every week. Supplemented with leafy greens from other local farms, these boxes included lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, beets, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Mindful of her customers' purchasing habits, Close also set up a socially distanced free-choice market, accepting cash, credit, and SNAP for customers who wanted to buy meat, eggs, and additional produce to supplement their boxes -- as well as for new customers who traveled across town to shop for local food in the fresh air, rather than a grocery store.


Customers at the Edgewood pop up market followed social distancing guidelines as they picked up produce boxes May 1.

The produce boxes, distributed free on a first come, first served basis, were a lifeline for some of the market's regular customers in neighborhoods where brick and mortar stores are few and far between. People lined up down the street, six feet between them and waited for their turn to step to the table and grab a full box and a bag before purchasing a la carte items, including eggs, yogurt, fresh honey, apples, beef and pork ribs, chickens, cutlets and thighs. 

Customers wait to buy a la carte items after picking up boxes of fresh produce. 

Customers who used SNAP/EBT (food stamps) or WIC received a 50% discount on a la carte purchases, making the pop-up markets even more important to customers quarantined without access to the myriad of food delivery options much of the country is using to fill their pantries. Many such services require credit cards, and some Mobile Market customers don't have them.

Lissette Ampara, back for her second season as a Mobile Market employee, acted as a personal shopper for market customers to help maintain prop[er social distancing. 



Close and her team marked distances off on the sidewalk, set up hand-washing stations, and handed out masks for customers who didn't have one. Arcadia staff served as personal shoppers so customers didn't have to handle anything until they walked away with their purchase.

Behind the scenes market employees were reminded to practice good hygiene while at the market and at home; to treat their cell phone like their third hand [how often do you wipe your phone down!?] and to limit their exposure to people when they weren't at work to diminish their chance of exposure to the Coronavirus.

Simple and effective: shoppers were encouraged to wash their hands as they made their way to the pick-up station.


Pam Curry waits in line as a Mobile Market employee gathered the items she selected.

Curry stepped to the front of the line to pay as one of the market employees bagged the items she selected for purchase. She didn't have a produce box.

"I got a box last week and it was so plentiful I don't need anything more today. I shared some with my neighbor and I still have some left," Curry said. "I see people here with a greater need than I have right now--let them enjoy the bounty this week."

The Mobile Market offered two pop-up markets per week for four weeks, giving out 150 bountiful boxes of produce at each site.

Gabriela Gomez, the newest employee on the Mobile Market team, said it was a long day and a lot of satisfying work. "It's a bizarre time in the world right now, and there are so many people in need," she said. "It's great to see people come together, to see everyone is welcome here. I'm glad to be part of it."

Setting the pace, Gabriela Gomez stacks more produce boxes and prepares to slide them to waiting customers.

Arcadia's regular market season, with financial support from Bainum, DC Health, the Family Alliance Foundation and the Cloudbreak Foundation, is scheduled to open the first week of June.  Erin and her market team have paused pandemic operations for the remainder of May to hire and train more staff and to revise the market model for the coming season.

The hastily recalled team of Mobile Market employees were proud to step in and serve their customers in a time of need.

For more information about the Mobile Market, a list of sites, sourcing partners and opportunities to get involved, visit our page and see why the customers are so excited to see us season after season.  See you in June!
All packed up and ready to go, the Mobile Market team wrapped up a successful stop.