Transcripts

Struggling Monks Partner With Farming Neighbors To Stay On Solid Ground

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, our theme is friends and neighbors. And when we started working on this show, we put a request out on WAMU's Public Insight Network or PIN to see what you, our listeners, had to say about your neighbors. And we were surprised by the intensity of the responses. People told us they were better people for having their neighbors in their lives.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:31
That they, quote, "remind us of a culture where people care about who you are and not what you do." One respondent even said her neighbor Jane is the epitome of kindness and generosity.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:48
Well after getting all these glowing reports about the people in your neighborhoods, it got us really fired up for today's show. So we hit the streets to bring you stories about all the different roles neighborliness plays in our lives, whether it's across the backyard fence, on a battlefield, even on the basketball court.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:01:10
First, though, last week we whisked you away to Clark 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 about 60 men in its heyday, now it's down to 13. And their average age is about 75. So the monastery has 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...

MR. JOSEPH VANTU

00:01:48
The land.

SHEIR

00:01:49
1,200 acres of land to be precise. And this Holy Cross resident.

VANTU

00:01:52
I am Joseph Vantu.

SHEIR

00:01:53
Or Brother Joseph.

VANTU

00:01:55
I'm 75 years old. Originally, I'm from Vietnam.

SHEIR

00:01:58
Goes so far as to compare that land to gold.

VANTU

00:02:01
Just like Middle East they have oil, that's gold for them.

SHEIR

00:02:05
But the key, he says, is using the Abbey's gold appropriately, which is why he's so excited about two brand new efforts here 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.

MS. KATE ZURSCHMEIDE

00:02:23
All right, so we're getting yellows, right?

SHEIR

00:02:24
Yeah, I've never had a yellow zucchini. Just across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:02:28
Look at this one.

SHEIR

00:02:29
Great Country Farms. Oh wow.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:02:32
That one got a little bit, this one got a little bit over.

SHEIR

00:02:34
How big would you say that is?

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:02:36
I don't even know. It's probably...

SHEIR

00:02:37
It's pretty giant.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:02:38
Isn't it crazy. That would definitely make a lot of zucchini bread.

SHEIR

00:02:41
Kate Zurschmeide co-owns Great Country Farms with her husband, Mark.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:02:45
I'm part of the Zurshmeide family, and we have been farming in Loudoun for about 40 years. And we're starting here at the monastery in Clarke, and looking forward to a long relationship.

SHEIR

00:02:54
And as it happens, that relationship came about in a most serendipitous way.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:02:59
One of our lifelong friends has been providing hospice care here to one of the older monks. And when she heard that the monks were looking to expand into growing crops and trying to have some sustainable use of their farm, said, hey, you need to talk to the Zurschmeide family. They're right across the river; they're 10 minutes away.

MR. ED LEONARD

00:03:19
Mark and Kate were about the fourth family we had spoke to about this idea.

SHEIR

00:03:23
Ed Leonard is the chief sustainability officer at Holy Cross Abbey.

LEONARD

00:03:27
We were looking in Maryland, we were looking in Pennsylvania, we were looking all over the place. And it was so incredible that Mark and Kate were in our backyard, and we didn't know it.

SHEIR

00:03:35
What's also incredible is that Mark and Kate had actually been seeking more land at the time. And what's more, Ed says.

LEONARD

00:03:41
They were compatible with all the values the monks had. They understand the value of treating this land gently.

SHEIR

00:03:47
Now 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.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:03:57
Instead of, you know, chemical fertilizers.

SHEIR

00:03:59
Growing plants on plastic.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:04:01
So we use a suppression technique rather than spraying an herbicide every week on all of the fields.

SHEIR

00:04:06
And using pesticides on an as-needed basis.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:04:09
Rather than every Monday, you nuke the squash, and every Tuesday you nuke the orchard, and things like that.

SHEIR

00:04:15
While Holy Cross Abbey has been providing the land, Great Country Farms has been providing the labor and infrastructure. So things like putting up deer fencing, tilling the land, and doing all the planting and harvesting. But instead of Holy Cross getting a flat rental fee, it gets a percentage of Great County farms revenue. Though, as Ed Leonard points out, there is no annual contract.

LEONARD

00:04:35
And so we're doing cost-sharing with the Zurschmeides. 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.

SHEIR

00:04:50
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. Kate Zurschmeide agrees.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:04:58
You know we would love to be in it for the long haul. And to me, if somebody says, 'Plant apple trees,' which have a, you know, 20-year harvest life span. That bodes well for a long-term relationship.

SHEIR

00:05:11
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...

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:05:23
We started the first week of June this year..

SHEIR

00:05:25
Which has been a pleasant, if profuse, surprise for Great Country Farms' 2,000-some CSA customers. These community-supported agriculture members order produce pre-season, and then get 20 deliveries between June and October.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:05:39
We've been inundating people with squash this year because they're just producing like crazy and so one of our members has actually started 104 Days of Squash Challenge. He's like taken on a blog where he's going to post up a new squash recipe for 104 days, just to deal with the volume that's coming.

SHEIR

00:05:58
But the CSA folks aren't the only ones who get to partake in that volume. Do you see any plans of providing food to the Monastery?

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:06:05
Well right now we do a regular stop by at the Monastery for the monks themselves.

SHEIR

00:06:10
Who, by the way, are all vegetarian.

ZURSCHMEIDE

00:06:11
So last week we dropped off some apples and apricots and squash. And I think they're all enjoying have some fresh produce from their own land.

SHEIR

00:06:21
And in the case of Brother Joseph, anyway, Kate's definitely right. He's been enjoying a lot more produce since becoming a monk nine years ago. And now bonus, it will be local. So you are 75?

VANTU

00:06:33
Oh, yes, I am.

SHEIR

00:06:35
You don't look like you're 75.

VANTU

00:06:38
You know why? Because I eat beans. Beans is my favorite. Before I entered here I don't know that food well. It was just beef, steak or some other, McDonald's. I didn't have bean at all. But over here, I like it. Now I feel young.

SHEIR

00:07:00
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.

VANTU

00:07:14
This is one problem we cannot solve by ourselves. In our house now we are old, so we had to need outside to come and help us to make an environment for newcomers to accept the life over here.

SHEIR

00:07:28
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.

SHEIR

00:07:51
To learn more about Holy Cross Abbey and Great Country Farms including how you can become a member of their CSA, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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