If you build it, they will come

Field of Dreams farm owner Greg Riggs, at a greenhouse in western Henrico.

When First Lady of Virginia Maureen McDonnell held a luncheon in December for nominees to the "Opportunity Hall of Fame," Greg Riggs attended with his wife, Debbie – although he was quite certain that he was not among the winners.

So certain, in fact, that when his Field of Dreams Farm was announced as one of five recipients of the statewide award, Riggs readily admits that he "lost it."

As he stumbled toward the stage to collect the award, said Riggs, "I've got my napkin and I'm drying tears. . . I was in shock. I didn't think that that little bit of work that I've done [would earn such an award]."

"Little bit" of work?

In just three years, the novice farmer has developed his modest garden and produce stand into a farm, delivery service and mobile market that not only supplies truckloads of fresh foods to Henrico schools and his legions of fans, but also educates schoolchildren across the region about gardening, sustainable farming, the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, and the need to "buy fresh, buy local."

Even reading a partial list of "Farmer Greg's" activities in recent months is enough to tire the faithful Facebook follower of FoDF, as Riggs calls the farm.

"Thirty-five days and counting, over 6,000 seedlings growing in greenhouse," reads a February post, followed a few months later by, "Breaking ground tomorrow on our new field at West End Civic Association. We have over 1,200 plants (tomato, peppers, squash, zuccinni, cucumber) to be planted for a late harvest." In late August, Riggs notes, "Look for updates over the next couple of days as I worm my way around Henrico County and all 68 schools. After delivering 600 watermelons over the next three days I should look like Popeye by the time I'm done."

Among Riggs' other recent efforts were manning booths stocked with seasonal produce at the Hanover Tomato Festival, Varina H.S. health and wellness fair and the Henrico Recreation and Parks Kidfest; joining Crestview Elementary students for a half mile walk and breakfast; hosting summer camp field trips and church group visits at
the farm; starting several school gardens; joining officials from the Virginia Department of Agriculture to promote Farm to School Week; delivering peaches, watermelons, nectarines, apples, pumpkins, winter squash, sweet potatoes and decorative corn stalks to Henrico County schools; taking his Great Sprout About mobile market to numerous
schools; delivering produce to local restaurants such as Big Al's, Melito's, The Grapevine and Trak's; and throwing a school year kick-off party and picnic at the school board offices.

He also serves on the Career and Technical Education (CTE) Advisory Council for Henrico County Public Schools, works with anti-obesity programs that include Greater Richmond Fit4Kids, and participated with the Nutrition Services group at the recent Weight of the State Conference – all while working a regular job selling clothing and gifts at Brooks Brothers. Is it any wonder that, at the presentation of the The First Lady’s Initiatives Team Effort (FLITE) award, Maureen McDonnell called him "a machine" and a "one-man show?"

Catching the bug
While Riggs did not grow up on a farm (his father was a postmaster in West Virginia; his mother worked at the local A&P grocery store), he drew inspiration early on from his coal miner grandfather.

"He had a garden, lots of cows and chickens, and eleven kids [and they] lived off the land. That's probably where I caught the bug," said Riggs.

Every Sunday, his grandparents and their neighbors would hold a dinner social "in the holler," said Riggs, adding that a grandmotherly neighbor would kill the chicken from which his own grandmother fixed chicken and dumplings.

"I've never had chicken and dumplings like Granny's," he said nostalgically, noting that he was nostalgic not only for the tasty dish, but also for the holler's old-fashioned neighborliness where "everyone took care of each other."

Another childhood event that had a lasting impact was a disciplinary action when Riggs was eight. After getting into trouble at school, he was assigned to accompany the parish priest as he made the rounds delivering food collections to the needy.

"I will never forget," said Riggs, "taking that food to people [and seeing the homes]: one-room, pot-bellied stove, lots of kids -- and everyone was so grateful. When I saw the kids' faces, the mom's face, I got a sense of how fortunate I was. We were never without a meal."

For the next several decades, as he went to college and pursued a variety of careers in retail, computers and IT, Riggs was an active volunteer with food banks and food drives – most recently at his own church, St. Michael's in Glen Allen.

It was while he had a job representing a soil-boosting product that he first began thinking about "getting back to the land." While the business – in which he sold the product predominantly to country club groundskeepers – did not survive, the experience got him thinking about the ways in which gardeners and farmers could benefit from a product that revitalizes the soil. Eventually, he began operating a produce stand at the former Stone's Greenhouses in western Henrico; when that business was sold, he moved to his current site at the West End Manor Civic Association.

At Stone's, said Riggs, the seeds began to germinate into what he terms his "calling" as Farmer Greg.

One day at the greenhouse, a woman customer questioned him at length about what he was doing. The next day, she returned with her 11-year-old son, dropped him off and left.

"This little redhead gets out," he recalled, "and tells me, 'My mom says you're going to show me how to farm.' And I had a blast with him!" exclaimed Riggs, clearly relishing the memory.

Today Riggs' students number in the thousands, as he travels to local schools (teaming with Ann Butler of Edible Education) enlisting them in the Food Explorers program.

"Our mission," as he states on the web page, "is to create gardens in schools and grow all-natural plants and vegetables. We show kids K-12 how to grow their own and live a healthy life by eating all natural foods."

In a recent class, for instance, he engaged the youngsters in a conversation about turnips – the vegetable of the month – by asking them about their experiences with a favorite children's holiday. "Did anyone carry a carved-out pumpkin this Halloween?" he asked.

After eliciting the word "jack-o-lantern" from the students, he informed them that turnips were among the first vegetables brought to this country in the 1600s, since they store well and could survive the long trans-Atlantic voyage. What's more, they were the vegetable used for the original jack-o-lantern.

Bumper crops to come
Despite the farm's success, and honors such as induction into the hall of fame, Riggs readily admits that there are moments when he questions his sanity in tackling a project like Field of Dreams.

"You're sweating [in the field], you don't see anything coming up," he says. "You couldn't get there to water it, and it burned up in the heat. [You say], 'What are you doing this for?'"

Like any farmer, he has to deal with weather- and nature-related disasters (including losing 250 tomato plants to Hurricane Irene); but unlike most farmers, he struggles in addition with inexperience and lack of knowledge.

"I was in technology for 25 years," he says. "I'm not a farmer; I've been at this three years." He credits his mentor, Jim Kruize of Kruize Farms, with teaching him everything from farming techniques to tips on the best time to till the soil and how to be more efficient.

"I don't know what it means to have a bumper crop," Riggs says. "Not yet! But I will."

The central challenge of running FoDF, however, is not the knowledge deficit but the time deficit.

Although Riggs has gotten helpful boosts from people like Kruize, and the students from VCU's Marketing Department who devised his marketing plan, finding time outside of his retail job to practice techniques and implement plans is another matter. As a result, Riggs has focused more effort lately into writing grants that will help him achieve his goal: of turning his idea into a business "that's not just one man."

"I have so many thing I could be doing," Riggs says, "if I had funding to hire some people to do all these little tasks."

Among the activities he would like to expand is his Sprout About, which operates only sporadically.

"I wish I could do that every week," he says of the mobile market. "I set up at a school, usually when the parents are picking up, and I sell more in an hour and a half there than I do in a week's time at the farmer's market at West End Manor."

Growing taste buds
But while the challenges of time, money, and logistics are daunting, says Riggs, the rewards he receives for his growing and teaching efforts are more abundant.

As an amateur farmer, he still glows at the memory of a compliment from a regular customer who buys his tomatoes by the box. "I've been trying to grow tomatoes for 12 years," the customer told Riggs. "But I can't top yours, so I've given up."

He also mentions a text he received recently from his 24-year-old son in Chicago, who wrote, "Dad, I'm so proud of you and the work you're doing."

"Getting that recognition," remarks Riggs, "is even better than the First Lady's."

Riggs says that it's also especially satisfying to work with children through programs such as the Food Explorers, and to see them discover a new taste sensation.

"It's the look on their faces when you see them go from this" -- he screws up his face apprehensively and pantomimes holding food to his lips -- "to this," he says, shifting his expression into a tentative smile that slowly spreads from ear to ear.

When children react to a tasting opportunity by crying, "Ewww, I'm not gonna do that!", Riggs doesn't insist. He simply tells them, "Your taste buds are still growing. Try it again next week. What may not be your favorite food today may end up being your favorite food for the rest of your life."

Among the projects that Riggs eagerly anticipates launching in the coming weeks are holding classes for children from nearby YMCAs at the West End Manor kitchen, and establishing a hydroponic wall and international garden at Twin Hickory Elementary School.

Noting that THES has a melting-pot student body representing some 27 countries, and that children can't always converse with one another easily, Riggs explains that the garden will feature native foods from different countries and serve as both an educational piece and communication tool.

"What easier way to get kids to talk to each other," he says, "than food?"

To learn more about Field of Dreams Farm, visit http://www.facebook.com/fodfarm.
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