“I didn’t choose farming,” said Mike Tabor, who had planned on finishing his PhD in social anthropology in Maryland and becoming a college professor before the dirt got under his fingernails. “It chose me.”
The 72-year-old became a civil rights activist in the late 1960s, deeply committed to social justice. In 1972, he and other like-minded “hippies” started a diaspora kibbutz in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains, and Tabor was hooked.
Tabor and his wife, Esther Siegel, run Licking Creek Bend Farm, 60 rolling green acres of certified naturally grown vegetables, fruits and flowers as well as a sustainably maintained, cut-to-order Christmas tree orchard.
Tabor sells to farmers markets, food co-ops and some 120 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers, a program Siegel oversees. They are especially proud of selling directly to customers in underserved communities, and they accept food stamps and WIC coupons.
Over the years, Tabor and Siegel have mentored many young aspiring Jewish farmers. A few of them were working with him on a hot Saturday in July at the farmers market in Adams Morgan, DC, where Tabor has been selling his produce for 40-plus years.
Today a new generation of Jewish farmers cropping up in the DC, Virginia and Maryland are following in Tabor’s footsteps.
The increased interest in farming among Jews in their 20s and 30s aligns with a growing global awareness of the benefits of organic, sustainable and locally grown produce. Many are also involved in advocating for “safe working conditions, living wage, humane treatment of animals, pollution prevention, and sustainable farming techniques that replenish rather than deplete soil nutrients,” according to “Jews and Farming in America,” published recently in the Jewish Women’s Archive.
“Tabor is a legend,” said Scott Hertzberg, who with his wife, Tanya Tolchin, and two small children run Jug Bay Market Garden, an organic vegetable farm in Upper Marlboro, MD.
The couple also juggles other careers. Formerly a policy wonk for the Sierra Club, Tolchin now writes her own blog, “On the Lettuce Edge,” about some of the challenges of being a Jew and a farmer while also raising a family.
“It’s not a job that’s easy, that will make a lot of money, that allows you to spend time in a large Jewish community,” her husband explains. But being in touch with the land, the seasons and the source of the food he eats feels at least as fulfilling as the stimulation and satisfaction he gets from his other job as a part-time librarian at the US Department of Justice in DC.
In mid-July, Hertzberg and Tolchin are growing asparagus, squash, eggplant and tomatoes, along with garlic and a variety of flowers which they sell at a market up the road and deliver to a loyal clientele of Capitol Hill CSA customers. They also recently started Israeli Harvest, a business importing and selling olive oil and dates from a family farm in Israel.
Another family that mixes Jewish life with farming is Pablo Elliott and Esther Mandelheiim Elliott. Earlier this month they hosted a garlic festival at their Stoney Lonesome Farm in Gainesville, VA. A klezmer band was part of the entertainment presented along with garlic ice cream.
John Norman and his brother, Jeff Norman, started a small vegetable farm in Howard County, MD, to supplement their farmer’s stands and CSA business. In 1987, along with their older brother, Steve, they began selling vegetables as high school and college summer jobs on the side of the road in Montgomery County. Now, most of the produce they sell comes from a stable of local farmers in Virginia and Maryland.
John’s wife, Eris, of Norman’s Farm Market in Howard County, MD, says farming means “going from 0 to 60 mph in the spring and summer, and back down to 0 in the winter months.”
This story is the first in a series of four featuring local Jewish farmers and vintners. Next week’s post will focus on a local Jewish vintner.
Read Mike Tabor’s testimony at the Food Safety Modernization Act hearings regarding the anticipated impact on local, organic and small farmers.