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"Learning From the Land" with Stephanie Miller of Mystic Pine Farm

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Stephanie Miller's love for family, community, and food planted the seeds that grew into MysticPine Farm. As a farmer and chef with over 20 years of experience, Stephanie grows ingredients with taste, health, and access in mind.


MysticPine Farm is a Black woman-owned, artisan farm that grows with natural amendments based in Campbell County, Virginia.


Stephanie sat down with Virginia Soil Health Coalition Director Mary Sketch-Bryant to share her stories about building soil health on her farm, community and personal health, and advice for beginning and fellow farmers.


Mary: How did you get into farming?

Stephanie: My family’s story is the foundation of how I ended up farming. My grandfather left during the Great Migration, and a lot of his cousins and some of his brothers. They worked construction in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. I was born and raised in Philadelphia.


When I graduated culinary school, I went to a three-star restaurant for three years. Then I moved to Saint Thomas, where my grandmother is from and met her family. I went to the University of the Virgin Islands, an HBCU. I loved living on the island. It just felt way different than it does like living here, because you're kinda just accepted wholly as who you are without any caveats. I lived there for six years.


On my way back, I stopped in Ithaca, New York, and then I ended up in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was like, “Well, I got to see that side of my family now I want to be able to meet the other side of my family.” I was at a point in my life where it was time for me to get settled in my house. I just decided that this would be a great spot to do that. I ended up buying raw land, and my great aunt knew the gentleman who had farmed on the property. The land had sat empty for 30 years.


But the biggest thing that made me want to farm is that I was diagnosed with diabetes, and I was on medication that I just could not tolerate. I did some research, and I realized that I could treat it naturally without a lot of the side effects.


I had been an aromatherapist on the island. I know a lot of the tenants of using herbs as healing medicine. Within about six months to a year, I was in remission from the diabetes, I was off medication. I thought to myself, “This is something that I can really offer my community, right? I can offer you healing the way we used to do it without a lot of side effects.”


I love cooking, I love people, I love festivals, and food just makes people happy. I always grew my own food because I just love the idea of putting something minuscule into the soil and then getting this amazing thing from it. I’m still mind blown every time something comes from the soil. I had a cherry tree and a fig tree on my patio when I lived in a third floor condo. Nothing was going to stop me from growing anything.


Mary: How did you begin to work with the land and the soil to improve it?


Stephanie: My goal is to add as much biological material from the property into compost so that I can create my own soil.


The first time I started working with my soil, I'm just like, "I don't know what to do about this." I got a soil test and my cooperative extension agent told me, "You have the most acidic soil in Virginia. You might as well just grow blueberries."


I already knew that I needed to amend the soil, and I knew that I would be doing it in the natural way. I was very intentional that I didn't want to add a lot of external off property inputs. I knew that the first couple of years I was going to have to work really hard to increase the viability of the soil and reduce the acidity in ways that I can grow a variety of crops, but part of me also has just accepted that that is what it is. I grow crops that like high acidity.


I grow on a slope and I had to be cognizant from the beginning of any type of erosion issues that will be caused by farming. One of the ways I mitigate that to some extent is I didn't push off the top soil.


Then I had to do my rows contrary to the norm, east-west instead of north-to-south. I wanted to have raised beds that would stop and slow down the flow of water. Because again, everything I'm doing, I'm trying to do in a way that won't hurt the land.


Land is just another entity that I have to work hard to preserve and to increase the diversity. I just wanted to live in harmony with the land.


Mary: You said you've chosen the crops that you grow based on that, too. What are some of those crops and what are your favorite to grow?

Stephanie: Blueberries. I took some cuttings last year from a friend who has these beautiful bushes. None of them survived, so that's obviously a learning lesson, but I love blueberries, I love fruit. I love peppers and peppers like acidic soil. I just grow a lot of different varieties of peppers. You can eat them raw. You can eat them in salads, you can stuff them. They add all these beautiful colors. You are supposed to eat the rainbow. That's just one of the things I sort of keep in mind when I'm cooking. You want it to be beautiful.

Mary: You recognize it’s a long process to get things started, both from a business perspective, and also managing the land and the soil. What advice would you give other young farmers and soil stewards, people thinking about getting in this business? What advice in starting a business like yours as well as getting land, taking care of land?

Stephanie: Yeah, it is a lot. One of the things that I thought was really important during this process was for me to observe the land for a little while, to get a feel of the natural ebb and flow- where things naturally presented themselves, and if they did well or they didn't do well. I wanted to just make sure that I had minimum impacts, projects that were blessing the land. The land blesses me.


It is difficult to buy land and a house, and it's expensive, but I would say to new farmers that it is incredibly rewarding. Having seeds germinate, that is amazing.


I would suggest people probably buy raw land or just land in a location that's important to you. Obviously being five minutes from my family land that's basically a century farm, It's just amazing because I get to drive past it and then have memories of it.


Farming is really rewarding. It is a lot of hard work. But I truly do think working with the land has really balanced my mental health and my ability to cope with stress.


Be intentional about what you're doing. I compost everything. I want to make sure that everything that's coming onto the property, as best as I can, is something that can be composted.


Mary: In Virginia we have a largely older, white, male population who are farming. But we are seeing more women and more people from minority communities getting involved in farming. What advice would you give to them?

Stephanie: I would say that you should take the time. I’ve been growing for probably 20 years at this point. Small gardens, large gardens, container gardens, patio gardens, or whatever. See if it's something that you really, really love.


Start small and then find the things that really bring you joy. Medicinal herbs are my joy.


It is difficult though, because you are surrounded by older white men for sure. You go to all these events and are the only color in the room, and, a lot of times, the only woman. But I have been in a male-dominated field for the majority of my career, so that part doesn't bother me. I think what bothers me the most is that some of the [resources meant] to help in the process are failing. I know it's a combination of things.


You have to be resilient and you have to persevere through the obstacles, because there are going to be a lot of obstacles. Not even talking about the soil and things that you're planting, but funding resources —all of those things can be draining if you don't really love farming.

Mary: You're very engaged in your community and working to provide free produce to low resource families and elderly. I would love to hear a little bit about that work and the intersections you see between community health, soil health, and our personal health.

Stephanie: For years when I first moved here, I had community events at the library. I was invited to churches to teach people how to cook healthy meals. As you know, women outlive their husbands, in general. There's a huge population of single women who never learned how to cook for one person. It started out with just me doing a food prep class and then I thought “This is great. I can just do this and this could be something that I can give to the community to help people.” That was the seed that grew into MysticPine Farm, and I loved it. I love people.


It's really interesting how everything is connected to the soil. It provides us with nutrition so that we can live. It does so much work with the other plants and the animals. I have found that the more I add amendments to the soil, not only does the food end up being more nutritious, the food actually tastes so much better.


I do companion planting because I don't spray herbicides, fungicides or whatever. I just deal with everything naturally. I tried to target whatever the issue is and not just the symptoms because I think a lot of people will just throw a lot of resources at trying to figure things out.

For me, soil is life. It is literally the life in me.

We came from the soil and we will return to the soil. If you really, really love farming, then you should have a spiritual respect for the land.


I think about how to cherish the land and how to make it better, like planning things like a pollinator meadow, planting native perennials and trees. I have been identifying trees on the property for years and I found two paw paw trees in the understory. I cleaned that area out so the pawpaws can thrive. Then I bought two other paw paw trees that are going to cross-pollinate with them. That's my intention: to help when I can.


Garden plants including corn, squash, and herbs.
Photo of companion planting on MysticPine Farms courtesy of Stephanie Miller

Mary: Anything else about your work or the connections you're seeing that you want to share?

Stephanie: I've seen such a growth in women farmers. Growing a diversity of crops is also super important.


I've seen a lot of women taking that path because they've realized that this is the food that feeds their family. They want to make sure that it's the best quality that it can be. I'm so excited to see the new generation of women farmers. I've seen young women, I've seen older women, I've seen people just retiring. We need more young people in farming, and I think the more women get involved, that's a natural progression that their children would also get involved. That's the opportunity to build generational wealth.


It's a beautiful life to have, that I can serve my community in a way that is really impactful. Because I'm healthier, I'm going to last longer, I'm going to be around longer. I am going to have less issues with other things that are triggered by certain conditions.


If I can offer the elderly population the opportunity to be a little bit healthier and get off a few medications, then I'm happy. If I'm able to bring more children onto the farm, then I’m happy. I introduced my nieces and my nephews to the food in the garden. Every time they come, the first thing they want to do is see the chickens and what's growing and put some seeds in the ground. If we spark that love of the soil and the land and how they benefit us as people, the better I think people will be.


If you feed the soil the best of the best, the soil is going to feed you the best of the best.

We have to go back to the land, we have to go back to the root. We have to address climate change or whatever we're calling it these days. Something is happening. It's very clear to most people we have to make those necessary changes. I definitely want to encourage more city dwellers- because I lived in the city for over 20 years- to come back to the land if only for a visit. As humans, that is where we're rooted from.


People are wanting to learn. We're hitting this kind of turning point where there is interest and excitement, at least in learning and being part of that journey.


You never learn everything when it comes to farming. I learn something new and valuable every single day. Part of the beauty of it, forever learning from the land.


 

To learn more about Stephanie's farm events, workshops, and happenings at MysticPine Farm, please visit:


Instagram: @mysticpinefarm

Facebook: @MysticPine Farm


Ready to take action and join the soil health movement? Take the pledge! www.4thesoil.org/take-the-pledge

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