by Rebekah Postupak
Bob Blair, chairman of the World Foundation for Children at Woodstock’s Volunteer Farm, is no stranger to disaster. He worked as the Director of Public Affairs for the White House Office of Emergency Preparedness, which eventually transformed into FEMA, “from Nixon to Clinton,” he said. “Shenandoah County became my sanity clause.”
For thirty years the sprawling land Blair purchased off Back Road in Woodstock served as a Christmas Tree farm. But one morning in 2004, the retired Blair woke up with a revelation. Combining his professional expertise in crisis management with his love for farming and helping others, he would use the land to grow food for needy families in the Shenandoah Valley. Thus the Volunteer Farm was born; an effort that, 12 years later, continues to grow.
In 2015 alone, Blair said the farm distributed over 55 tons of food to local food banks, including 2,000 pounds of potatoes just before Thanksgiving. From the initial 50,000 people helped per month, the Volunteer Farm now supplements the pantries of 150,000 per month.
The numbers are astounding.
“More people are hungry now,” Blair said. “We may not have a starvation problem in this country, but we have a nutrition problem. Poor nutrition leads to diabetes and other health problems—but Twinkies are cheaper than apples.”
With food pantries across Virginia struggling to survive due to lack of funding, Blair admitted that despite its tremendous success each year, the Volunteer Farm battles funding and expense challenges too.
“The amount we grow is based on the amount we collect,” he said. “Farming is expensive.”
The Volunteer Farm is not detached from the Shenandoah residents it serves; its lifeblood consists of donations and volunteer labor from caring people and organizations in the Valley and beyond.
And goodness knows there is always plenty to do. Even in February?
“Oh yes,” said Blair. “In February we need people to help with fundraising, to work in our office. If the weather’s dry, we’ll start prepping the field for planting, and trying to get potatoes, turnips, and beets in the ground as soon as possible.”
Adult supporters often cherish personal reasons for donating to or working at the farm. “The vast majority of our donors have been hungry at some time in their lives,” Blair said. “For example, maybe they were on food stamps for a while. They know what hunger is all about. It’s much harder to convince people to help who have never been hungry.”
However, of the more than 20,000 volunteers who have served at the farm over the years, representing 42 states and 27 countries, the vast majority are under 18. Many come from local schools and homeschool groups; a steady stream of helpers come from Harrisonburg’s James Madison University. Church groups, both local ones such as the United Methodist Church in Woodstock, and far away, such as Presbyterian churches in Georgia and Pennsylvania, may design mission trips around working at the farm.
“They come here to help us feed our own neighbors,” Blair said, amazement tinging his voice.
This past year the Volunteer Farm was successful in attracting several classes with special needs kids to join the effort.
Cindy Ritter is a paraprofessional assistant in a special education class at Woodstock’s Central High School. “We volunteer there every week,” she said, “and the difference in these kids since the beginning of the year is amazing. They’ve learned independence—they know where to go, to sign in, what to do. We work on social skills, on teamwork. You should see all the smiles.”
Blair smiles right back. He said serving at places like the Volunteer Farm when they are young will hopefully translate into “a lifetime habit of helping others.”