- Adrian Higgins
Iraq war vet finds a new mission on the farm
Pleasant Dale, W.Va. — One of the more popular vaudeville songs to come out of World War I was the little number “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”
You have to think that it wasn’t the exotic novelties of Paris that turned the doughboys’ heads but the surreal slaughter of the trench warfare 150 miles to the east.
The song, though, captured the spirit of a society in profound change, when the city brought an alternative to the slog and hardship of life on the farm. A century later, the pendulum has swung the other way.
Today, the small farmstead offers the working stiff the allure of restoring his sanity and health while saving the planet, even if the only fertility there is in the imagination.
Calvin Riggleman is rooted in the soil of Hampshire County, W.Va., and grew up in a hamlet 25 miles west of Winchester, Va., but he’s the first to admit that a decade ago, in his early 20s, he had no idea where life would take him. At the time, he was learning the rural craft of taxidermy and helping at his grandparents’ farm and orchard. Of one thing he was certain: He wanted to be a Marine, like his dad.
In 2000, he joined the Marine Reserve and told the recruiter to put him down for the infantry: “I wanted to be where the action was.” His wish came true. The next year brought the Sept. 11 attacks and, in 2003, a deployment to Iraq for the invasion.
It was during that first tour that his Marine buddies planted an idea in his head that would keep him down on the farm. Hailing from the city and the suburbs, they told him about farmers markets and the trendy local food movement. Growers would load their produce on a truck and take it to a lot in the city, where people paid good money for the harvest. They also told him that he could convert his surplus into canned “value-added” products such as hot pepper jellies, fruit preserves and apple butter.
“It was a novel concept for him, people buying farm goods and not going to the store,” said his Marine comrade Brett Nelson, who lives in Cabin John. “He found it amazing that it was a hip thing to do.”
By 2003, the number of farmers markets in the United States had almost doubled over the previous decade. It was clear even then that the markets were not just a trend but part of a shift back to local agriculture. Since then, the numbers of farmers markets has more than doubled again, to more than 8,000.
The local-food movement has turned a lot of politically attuned social and environmental activists into revolutionary cultivators (those are the figures in this narrative who typically get the ink, including from me). But the phenomenon has also offered a farming livelihood for the sons and daughters of traditional and struggling small-farm families.
We think of farmers markets connecting city folk to the farm, but when you see Riggleman schmooze with his customers on a cold Saturday morning, you realize that the markets link the grower to the metropolis.
“I had never been to the city until I joined the Marines,” Riggleman told me. “I was [in Washington] in the sixth grade for a field trip, and that was it.” Now 32 and a former Marine, he is a big guy with a voice to match and a decidedly non-regulation beard and ridge of hair. He is not a traditional foodie, an opinion I formed after I asked him his view of groundhogs and he said they were tasty.