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Struggling Monks Partner With Farming Neighbors To Stay On Solid Ground

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Holy Cross Abbey Chief Sustainability Officer Ed Leonard (left) says when he heard about Great Country Farms co-owners Kate Zurschmeide (right) and Mark Zurschmeide as potential farming partners, “it sounded like a marriage made in heaven.”
Holy Cross Abbey Chief Sustainability Officer Ed Leonard (left) says when he heard about Great Country Farms co-owners Kate Zurschmeide (right) and Mark Zurschmeide as potential farming partners, “it sounded like a marriage made in heaven.”

On last week's show, we whisked you away to Clarke County, Va., home of Holy Cross Abbey, a 62-year-old Trappist monastery in the midst of some major changes.

See, the Abbey's been losing money... and men. While Holy Cross housed 60 monks in its heyday, now it's down to 13. And their average age is about 75. So monastery's been taking steps to secure its financial - and social - future in more sustainable ways. It's hoping to rely less on its fruitcake bakery and beef-cattle operation, and more on one of Holy Cross's greatest natural resources:

The land -- 1,200 acres, to be precise. And as Holy Cross Abbey's Brother Joseph Vantu says, that land is the equivalent of "gold."

"Just like [the] Middle East [has] oil, that's gold for them," says the youthful-looking 75-year-old Vietnam native.

But the key, he says, is using the Abbey's "gold" appropriately. Which is why he's excited about two brand new efforts at Holy Cross. First, a green cemetery, which doesn't do embalming, or use non-biodegradable burial materials. And second, a fruit and vegetable farm, run by the Abbey's Loudoun County neighbors, just across the Blue Ridge Mountains: Great Country Farms.

Kate Zurschmeide, who co-owns Great Country Farms with her husband, Mark, says her family has been farming in Loudoun for about 40 years. And as they're "starting here at the monastery in Clarke, [we're] looking forward to a long relationship."

And as it happens, that relationship came about in a most serendipitous way.

"One of our lifelong friends has been providing hospice care to one of the older monks," Zurschmeide says. "And when she heard that the monks were looking to expand in to growing crops and trying to have some sustainable use of their farm, she said, 'Hey, you know, you need to talk to the Zurschmeide family. They're right across the river; they're ten minutes away.'"

Holy Cross Abbey and Great Country Farms: A partnership

Holy Cross Abbey's Chief Sustainability Officer, Ed Leonard, says the Zurschmeides were the fourth family the monastery approached.

"We were looking in Maryland, we were looking in Pennsylvania, we were looking all over the place," he says. "And it was so incredible that Mark and Kate were in our backyard, and we didn't know it!"

What's also "incredible" is that Mark and Kate had actually been seeking more land at the time. And what's more, Ed says: "They were compatible with all the values the monks had. They understand the value of treating this land gently."

While the fruits and vegetables grown here aren't certified organic, Kate says Great Country Farms does apply more sustainable practices here. Like using fish-emulsion fertilizer, growing plants on plastic to avoid having to use herbicides every week, and using pesticides on an as-needed basis, "rather than every Monday, you nuke the squash, and every Tuesday you nuke the orchard, and things like that."

While Holy Cross Abbey has been providing the land, Great Country Farms has been providing the labor and infrastructure -- that includes putting up deer fencing, tilling the land, and doing all the planting and harvesting. Though, as Ed Leonard points out, there is no annual contract.

"We're doing cost-sharing with the Zurschmeides," he explains. "For instance, these 2,000 apple trees that they planted on Good Friday, we're splitting the cost of that. We don't think they should have to financially bear the entire burden and risk, so with an annual contract, that was just too much to ask."

And though the partnership is no more than a few months old, Ed says it's looking more and more like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Zurschmeide agrees.

"We would love to be in it for the long haul," she says. "And to me, if somebody says, 'Plant apple trees,' which have a 20-year harvest life span, that bodes well for a long-term relationship."

A wealth of produce

Great Country Farms started planting on this mile-and-a-half stretch beside the Shenandoah River in March. And because this land is so loamy and rich, while you usually wouldn't harvest something like squash until July, Great Country Farms started the first week of June.

Which has been a pleasant — if profuse — surprise for Great Country Farms' approximately 2,000 CSA customers. These Community-Supported Agriculture members order produce pre-season, and then get twenty deliveries between June and October."We've been inundating people with squash this year because they've just been producing like crazy," Kate Zurschmeide says. "And so one of our members has actually started a104 Days of Squash Challenge. He's like taken on a blog where he's gonna post up a new squash for 104 days, just to deal with the new volume that's coming!"

But the CSA folks aren't the only ones who get to partake in that volume. Great Country Farms has been making regular deliveries to Holy Cross Abbey's monks - who, by the way, are all vegetarian.

"So last week we dropped off some apples and apricots and squash," Zurschmeide says, "and I think they're all enjoying have some fresh produce from their own land!"

And in the case of Brother Joseph, anyway, she's definitely right. He's been enjoying a lot more produce since becoming a monk nine years ago. And now, it will be local.

He says the secret to looking so young at age 75 actually stems from a particular kind of produce: beans.

"Bean [sic] is my favorite," he says with a laugh. "Before I entered here I didn't know that food well. It was just beef, steak or McDonalds. I didn't have bean [sic] at all. But over here, I like it. And I feel young."

Of course, the monastery, and its monks, aren't actually getting any younger. So Brother Joseph hopes the farm at Holy Cross will help his beloved home live on — both by raising revenue, and by making the Abbey more appealing to a younger generation.

"This is a problem we cannot solve by ourselves," he says. "In our house now we are old, so we need outside [people] to come and help us, to make an environment for newcomers to accept the life over here."

For now, Brother Joseph says he's praying for a positive future. One that's bright, one that's beautiful, and... just like the land itself... one that brings forth a bounty of "gold."


[Music: "All We Have Is Now (Instrumental)" by The Flaming Lips from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Instrumentals]

Photos: Holy Cross Abbey

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