There has been an incredible influx in young farmers across the nation in the last ten years. Here in rural Northern California, I have known many people who have gone off to college following high school to study at prestigious ivy league colleges, like Stanford University, only to return home to begin a career in organic farming. Many have started or gone to work for small CSA (community supported agriculture) programs. If you ask me, farmers are modern day super heroes because without them we simply couldn’t survive. I believe as a society we really need to get back to growing our own food– it’s a way of reconnecting us to the land, allowing us to reap the benefits from our hard work and, it puts real (plant-based) whole foods in our bellies. If you ask me, farming, while not a glamorous career, is one of the most rewarding jobs one can have. Growing fruits and vegetables can be fulfilling, fun and of course, delicious.
Meet Jenna Brownell, 28 year old third generation farmer. I met Jenna quite serendipitously on a trip to rural Washington, Virginia last fall. It was only by circumstance that I happened to be taking an afternoon birthday stroll through the sleepy little town of Washington, Virginia (appropriately named after George Washington who supposedly surveyed the town in 1749) when I spotted her amongst the winter greens at the renowned Inn at Little Washington’s backyard garden. It was her Black Labrador, Shady Grove, who greeted me first. Jenna kindly stopped to talk to me; she told me about what she was growing and a bit about her job as Farmer-in-Residence at the prestigious Inn at Little Washington. It was then that I noticed a plaque standing on the outside of the garden fence that noted Jenna’s recent Zagat 30 Under 30 award. Jenna was one of thirty “rock stars” who was recognized for her outstanding (farming) abilities in the Washington, D.C. area in 2015. The list included young chefs, restaurateurs, cocktail gurus and all-around superstars, but Jenna was the only farmer, and the only female one at that! Come along with me as I share Jenna’s story, background and love for organic farming in the interview below.
Interview with Jenna Brownell
Cowgirls & Collard Greens: Can you tell my readers how you began your love affair with farming and got started at such a young age?
JB: My love affair began with farming because I was born into it as a third generation and the first female farmer! I grew up milking cows every morning, doing farm chores (feeding chickens, stacking hay, picking and planting) before school, and working every day after I got home with the farm’s crew. The comradery was an influential aspect, it gave me strength and pride in my work. Also, the joy of spending time doing those things with my family – like shelling greens beans with my grandmother or making hay with my grandfather and father.
C&CG: I understand that not only do you have a background in farming, but also a degree in it. Can you share your experiences and college education as it relates to farming and plants?
JB: I obtained a bachelor’s degree from Prescott College in 2009, and thoroughly enjoyed every ounce of my schooling. I was able to do a lot of traveling in the southwest in my classes studying different agricultural techniques and also studied abroad to Italy and Germany. I joined the WWOOF program (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) which is a worldwide program that encourages people to live with and work alongside organic farmers and learn numerous hands-on techniques. This kind of experiential education is imperative in farming. I believe using all levels of body and mind are the best ways to find that connection in nature which is key to growing food.
C&CG: How did you acquire your current job as the Farmer-In-Residence at the Inn at Little Washington (one of the most prestigious eateries in the nation since 1978) and what exactly does your job entail– can you give us a rundown of a typical work day and what’s growing on the farm?
JB: I got my job at The Inn through various connections I had to the previous farmer and she thought I would be a great fit for the position. The role of the Farmer-in-Residence entails a variety each day. Mornings begin with a copious amount of green tea (for me), feeding chickens, collecting eggs, feeding the sheep, and then watering greenhouse, cutting the micro greens, and sowing new micros every other day. Usually we begin harvesting by 8:00 AM and pick until about 11:30 AM, then process the veggies for the kitchen – cleaning, washing, rinsing, soaking, etc. Afterwards we deliver everything to the kitchen’s back door. Then after lunch there is always plenty to do including weeding, watering, pruning and planting.
C&CG: I’d imagine that everything that goes on at the Inn at Little Washington is very detail oriented seeing as though it’s frequented by presidents and the like, not to mention run by world renowned chef Patrick O’Connell. What kind of farming practices does the Inn use? Are the veggies grown organically?
JB: I believe in the attention to detail, love and care that’s put into our products speak for themselves. The end product of all of our vegetables, flowers, fruits and berries must be as close to perfect as possible. I use strictly organic practices and incorporate integrative pest management and companion planting.
C&CG: While I have visited the Inn at Little Washington, I have yet to dine there. I’ve heard it’s a once in a lifetime experience. I understand Chef O’Connell’s emphasis is on French Classical Cuisine which isn’t necessarily vegan or vegetarian friendly. Is it true that one can enjoy a dining experience no matter what their dietary restrictions are?
JB: Our Chef/Proprietor Patrick O’Connell is a self-taught chef who pioneered a refined, regional American cuisine in the Virginia countryside. His alliance with local farmers and artisanal producers was an adaptation born of necessity more than 30 years ago when nothing but milk was delivered to the tiny town of “Little” Washington, VA (population 133). Long before the farm-to-table movement had a name, he began cultivating fruitful relationships with his neighbors – many of whom have a strong connection to the land and a heritage of self-sufficiency. We have a full vegetarian menu available every night and are able to accommodate most dietary restrictions. We can make your experience seamless if you let us know at the time of your reservation what your dietary needs might be.
C&CG: What was your experience and reaction to receiving Washington DC’s 2015 Zagat 30 Under 30 Award?
JB: I was surprised, flattered, and elated! Last year was first time Zagat featured a farmer, so I was very happy to see that people are beginning to understand that farmers are such an important part of the culinary world.
C&CG: Have you seen changes in the farming movement since you’ve been involved? Where do you see the future of farming going?
JB: Some of the biggest changes that I have seen in farming is that people are starting to become much more conscientious about where their food is from, how it was grown, and who grew it. This revolutionary food awareness has been on the back burner for years, and I think it is finally coming to light. Also the face of farming has changed so much; many farmers are younger and women are finally getting the recognition as equally competent in the farming field.
C&CG: Do you think you’ll still be farming in ten years?
JB: I hope to be farming for the rest of my life. It’s what I was born to do, I have no doubt in that. Plus, it’s a tradition in my family to be out in the fields working and driving tractors in your 80’s, so I guess I have that to live up to!
C&CG: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions and for setting an inspiring example for organic farmers especially for women. It’s been an honor featuring the great work that you’re doing at work at The Inn at Little Washington and I certainly hope to be reading about your future accomplishments in years to come.
If you’d like to reach Jenna, she can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org
All photographs used with permission and submitted by the Inn at Little Washington