Growing and Feeding as a Creative Endeavor
“My grandparents would no more let a neighbor go hungry than they would neglect their own children.” The particular grandparents in question were the Hamners-the real life versions of the fictitious Waltons, the TV family beloved by many in the 60s and 70s for its wholesome, loving, and simple approach to life. Jim Hankins was born into this famous family. He understood from an early age the importance of being a good citizen. Fast forward almost 50 years and it would seem that he has landed in the perfect place to be that on a daily basis.
Hankins is the executive director of the Fauquier Education Farm located in Warrenton. Established in 2010, Jim has been head of the fields and more since 2014. The farm aims to do just what its name suggests: to educate farmers on every aspect of growing food, from soil content to selecting plants to applying fertilizer. The programs Hankins implements cater to the local home gardener as well as small for-profit farms throughout Virginia. While education remains its primary function, it is a working farm in every sense of the word and currently has over seven acres in cultivation. From the beginning, the farm’s mission was to donate all produce to local food banks. For Hankins, the chance to contribute in this way drew him to the job. Under his supervision, that outreach has grown considerably. “I am very proud that between 2014 and 2017 we went from 16,000 pounds of produce to 60,000.” That’s a lot of tomato picking.
Jim learned to love being in the fields as a child growing up in rural Virginia. His famous family was close-knit. The youngest of five brothers plus a younger sister, he recalls, “As long as I can remember, we had a big garden.” While he acknowledges that his relatives on “Walton’s” Mountain, were not farmers, they always grew food for their large extended family. When pressed for a specific memory, he recounts his father harvesting a big patch of cantaloupe and filling a wheelbarrow to feed the pigs. “I was just a barefoot kid in the garden, with my pocket knife, eating a cantaloupe,” he says, recalling the simple goodness of a childhood spent outdoors.
Since growing food was just something that was a normal part of growing up, Hankins didn’t entertain any farm dreams as a kid. He jokes today that part of his job as executive director is to be a “grief counselor.” He knows first hand how hard farming can be, and sometimes has to deliver the tough love to would-be farmers. Working 60 hours a week from sun up to down is not for the faint of heart.
His early vocation since the second grade was to be an artist. “Art class was a refuge,” he says with certainty. Once awarded an engraved silver bowl for “most outstanding artist,” he later studied sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. After art school, he was hired by a furniture company to do lathe work and began making furniture as a way to make a living. He found he loved it. While furniture design satisfied his creative urge, Hankins found the uneven income too precarious. He misses some aspects of his creative life, but maintains that his work on the farm parallels aspects of creativity. Art creation is a multi-layered process that requires thinking, planning, inventing, and making, and Hankins applies many skills once devoted to creating art in his job. “I learned to love the process of nurturing something from preparing the ground to planting the seed and tending the plants to maturity. Farming is like performance art on a grand scale.”
While still making furniture, he found himself little by little moving back to his roots with stints as a flower farmer in Massachusetts and Agricultural Agent for Virginia State University. The transition from art to farming was made complete when the position at the Education Farm was offered first part-time, then permanent in 2014.
Part of the decision for the move dealt with Hankins’ lifelong battle with depression. Working as an artist is a solitary endeavor, one that requires a mental state that is capable of and thrives on being alone. By contrast, he discovered that being in nature and surrounded by people was a better fit for his personality and well-being. Some people suffering from depression find it beneficial to remove the focus from themselves and direct it towards someone else. The farm fulfills this fundamental requirement. Hankins is proud that the work he does contributes to helping thousands of families in need, but also admits that they contribute to his overall mental health as well. “Working with families, kids, and volunteers feeds my soul.”
The Blue Ridge area food bank serves over 30 counties in Virginia, with Fauquier helping over 3,000 families receive fresh vegetables. While food banks most often receive donations of canned goods and other non-perishables, the Education Farm considers it its mission to supplement these foods with fresh vegetables, so important to rural areas with limited access to fresh food. “Food deserts” in the countryside are compounded by lack of transportation for many people. Rural communities can be isolated with few employment opportunities. Many people depend on food banks to feed their families.
Jim Hankins is busy. His job requires him to do everything from teaching classes to analyzing soil to writing grants. Luckily, he has been able to hire two part time employees to lighten the load a bit. His excitement and enthusiasm clearly inspires them. “The Education Farm is an amazing cause that I deeply believe in. I can learn about farming, all the while helping those in need in my community,” says Gabrielle Altman, who began working at the farm this summer. “I know the work that Jim is doing is appreciated by so very many people.”
While he has his hand in every aspect of the farm business, Hankins is quick to point to all the help he receives everyday, especially during harvest season. Jim likes to put the emphasis on education in the Fauquier Education Farm, and takes the teaching seriously. Bethany Harvey, a frequent volunteer agrees, “His heart is truly for educating others.” School groups and working with all the volunteers (10-65 a day) are his favorite part of the job.
Sometimes kids as young as three and four come with their parents. “Even a toddler can dig potatoes,” he says. Hankins likes to think that he is helping future generations know the difference between the taste of a fresh vegetable just picked and one packaged in the grocery store. Understanding where food comes from helps promote good nutrition and eating habits. He says, “I encourage what I call garden grazing: if you see something you want to eat right there in the garden, please help yourself!” His own favorite pick off the vine is a yellow sweet pepper name Aura. “I will eat a half-dozen at a time. Gorgeous, perfect abundance.”
The many programs offered by the farm bring a sense of purpose and generous spirit to the community, already qualities that are part of living in rural areas. In addition to helping the home grower, creating opportunities for livelihood is an important part of the farm’s work. This year, Hankins launched a farm incubator program that allows farmers to have a quarter acre of their own and access to equipment. He is dedicated to providing hands-on experience to all aspects of the business to encourage new farmers. “We want folks who are going to use this information to grow food to sell.”
Food banks provide an important and essential service to people in economically challenging areas of the country. In the northern Piedmont area, senior citizens, working families, single mothers, and people with disabilities all benefit under the tutelage of Jim Hankins at The Fauquier Education Farm. His genuine kindness, patience, and gratitude are apparent, as well as his dedication. Keeping his hands in the dirt, surrounded by other loving hands, provides a purpose for a man who sees first hand the creative results of his labor. He makes the connection to his legacy and the mission to provide food for those in need: “Being able to provide fresh vegetables to literally thousands of families is tremendously rewarding, and exactly how my family would want me to behave.”
About the author
Linda Laino is an artist, writer and teacher who has been making art in one form or another for over 35 years. Holding an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, she enjoys playing with words as much as form and color. Since 2012, she has resided in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where the surreal atmosphere and sensuous colors have wormed their way into her paintings. Some of her essays and poetry can be found on Elephant Journal, The New Engagement, Sheila-Na-Gig Journal, and Life In 10 Minutes. lindalaino.com.