Being an entrepreneur requires one thing not taught in a classroom: a sense of adventure.
For Jason Pall and Sally Walker, it was their sense of adventure that transformed their Virginia Tech education into the beginnings of a successful, sustainable farming business.
Marriage of interests
Pall and Walker have been married for three years and started Glade Road Growing in May, 2010. The couple met in college playing ultimate Frisbee, and their relationship grew from such shared hobbies.
“We had similar lifestyles,” Pall said. “We both loved hiking; we would just walk from our house and find a good spot to hike.”
Despite their similar lifestyles, they came from very different backgrounds. Pall grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, giving him the freedom to explore in college without worrying about a job. Walker, on the other hand, felt the pressures of the economic crisis upon graduation.
Walker graduated with a degree in biosystems engineering and went back to school to get her graduate degree in the same field. Pall, after obtaining his degree in geography, moved on to intern at Greenstar Farms for two years.
After several years of living together, they finally decided to get married in an impromptu fashion.
“I came home one night and said, ‘The courts will close soon; we should go get our marriage license.’” Walker said. “I mean, we talked about having babies, why not get married?”
The same adventure that led them to go on weekend long hikes ended up leading them down the aisle.
Facing the recession
Once Pall finished interning with Greenstar Farms, he took a position managing Kentland Farms at Tech for one year. When Walker finished graduate school, the couple looked into starting their own farming business.
“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, building, problem solving,” Pall said. “I would rather work for a few hours and get a lot done.”
The couple was committed to a set of farming standards: having a plot of land within city limits close to the community and practicing authentic sustainable farming by using organic matter — like woodchips and leaves — for growing.
Pall was introduced to Pat Bixler, the current owner of their land plot, at a community event which, through his leadership and assistance, helped establish the business.
Despite starting their business in the heat of the economic recession, GRG has not been negatively affected.
“The recession is there, but local food is up,” Walker said. Walker added that many documentaries, like “Food, Inc.,” were coming out at about the same time, informing the general public of the hazards of agribusiness and the benefits of sustainable, local farming.
Pall added that while the Farm Bureau statistics can often paint the picture of farmers struggling, local farmers’ markets are growing every year.
Attracting loyal customers
GRG has been selling at the Blacksburg Farmer’s Market since its beginning. While there are some new customers, who come and go, Pall said about 75 to 80 percent of their customers are regulars.
Blacksburg has recently embraced the “Buy, Eat, Live Local” movement, promoting organizations like the farmer’s market, which has helped business for local farmers like Pall and Walker.
“Some (customers) come because they think they should,” Walker said. “That brings them out, but the quality (of the food) brings them back.”
Pall said the town being educated helps a lot. According to Pall, they do not have to spend much effort on marketing the benefits of local, sustainable farming because their customers know it already.
Not only have customers helped through word-of-mouth, but GRG gets many volunteers at its farm on a regular basis from the community, ranging from students to the elderly.
Surprisingly, its best volunteer has been Bixler, who Walker referred to as “an angel.”
“He has been a blessing to work with,” Pall said. “He’s out there every Tuesday evening. For him, it is a chance to get out of the office.”
A Day in the Life
GRG’s growing season is from April to December, but the majority of the hard work starts in February to prepare the fields and the infrastructure.
GRG is mainly known for its vegetable produce, which includes sweet potatoes, peppers, spinach, celery, broccoli, and carrots, among others. It also produces some fruit, pastured, grass fed chickens, and honey from its own bee colonies.
The typical week during growing season consists of selling days on Wednesday and Saturday, picking days on Tuesday and Friday, and working days — covering a diverse set of tasks — on Mondays and Thursdays.
The typical work day starts at about 8 a.m., when Pall and Walker prepare the farm for the volunteers. Together, the crew will pick and wash the produce in the morning while it is cool.
Around 1 p.m., Pall and Walker prepare a meal for the group, staying inside while the sun is at its peak. Once it cools down, around 3 p.m., they go back outside, where a new shift of volunteers will come, usually community members who have just left work.
Evening work can include a variety of projects, such as transplanting produce, tending to the fields, or maintaining infrastructure.
Despite having 50 acres of land to work with, only a few acres are suitable for their vegetable gardens because the rest of the land is not flat. They use an intensive, high-yield mulching system to account for the smaller plot, but they plan to use the land more efficiently in the future.
Pall aims to use the hills for chicken raising and growing perennial fruits. In addition, Pall said they are acquiring a neighboring property from community partners that they will be able to use for more vegetable gardens.
With plans to expand size and production, Pall hopes to have more than just volunteer help in the future.
“We are interested in hiring some regular workers who are interested in sticking around for a bit and learning about our sustainable growing system,” Pall said. “Our system can be replicated on a smaller scale.”
Pall is excited about the GRG’s future. He described the best parts of the business as setting his own hours, working outside and hearing positive feedback from customers.
Walker, however, emphasized being the “master of your own destiny."
"Working for (others), you can only be as high as the system," she said. "Here, we are the system and we can expand higher.”