On an old dairy farm nestled between the Avondale neighborhood and Bonaventure Cemetery on Savannah's east side, urban farmer Christopher Molander tends about an acre and a half of some of the freshest vegetables served in the city. There's feathery fennel, stalwart leeks and a picture-perfect row of red and green baby romaine, among other offerings.
Molander, who calls his business Vertu Farm, sells his crops to local restaurants including Fox & Fig, Green Truck Pub and Pacci, where the chefs depend on its quality, preserved by a trip of less than 3 miles from farm to table. He mans a booth at the weekly Forsyth Farmers Market, too, and also sells mixed greens at Brighter Day Natural Foods Market at the south end of Forsyth Park. A self-serve "farm fridge" at the old Roberds Dairy site serves customers who find that most convenient.
All of which is to say that business is good and Molander is beating the odds that make it tough to be a small farmer. But he recently hit a snag.
One of his signature products is microgreens, including sunflower and pea shoots, as well as cilantro, arugula and kohlrabi harvested tender at just a month or two old. He grows them in inch-high trays packed so full they look like sod. Grown in a greenhouse to protect them from heavy rains, microgreens are in demand, like at the trendy Fox & Fig vegan restaurant, where co-owner Clay Ehmke praises Vertu's as "really fresh."
But Molander has only about another month to use the space in his current greenhouse. He's been sharing the space with owner Victory Gardens, a landscaping outfit which now needs its back to accommodate its own growing business.
Molander didn't have the cash to build his own greenhouse or the time to wait for a Farm Service Agency loan. So he turned to crowd funding, launching an Indiegogo campaign last month to raise at least $7,000 for the basic materials and up to $12,000 to also outfit the greenhouse and buy additional tools. He intends to build the greenhouse himself, with the help of family members.
Molander said he doesn't use social media much. "My Facebook response time is pretty bad," he said. And Indiegogo was at first a bit out of his comfort zone. But he sees how it could raise not only money, but also the profile of Vertu Farm.
"A lot of people don't know I exist," he said. "Really, they don't know a whole lot about the Forsyth Farmers Market, which is a really good farmers market. I realized people are interested in what I'm doing. A lot of people ask me about it. And a lot don't know about growing stuff, but people want to get involved."
One perk of donating at least $50 is a chance to learn more with a morning-long workshop and Vertu Farm tour in April. The name "Vertu" comes from the prologue of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," which talks about the April rains providing the "vertu," the power, to create the flowers, Molander said.
'It takes passion'
As of Monday, the campaign had raised more than $9,000 from 67 backers, including Green Truck Pub owner and Forsyth Farmers Market board member Josh Yates.
"It's a struggle for young farmers," Yates said. "The average age of family farmers is basically senior citizen, in their 60s. It's great to see young people try farming as a profession. It's not what young people are used to — getting up early, the long hours, being outdoors in the heat. And people are used to food being cheap. It takes passion to have a small-scale organic farm. It should be applauded."
Molander got into farming by happenstance. Raised in California, he moved to Greenville, S.C., after high school. He worked several jobs, including as a night janitor and a retail position when he heard about a nearby farm needing a hand. It was a good fit.
"It was peaceful," he said. "I really liked it." That farm grew microgreens and, though he mainly weeded and didn't tend them, he got hooked on the nutty flavor of sunflower shoots, and he tucked that idea away.
Returning to California to attend Thomas Aquinas College, he looked for a part-time farm job there to provide a change of pace from the intense reading required of the school's great books curriculum. Then he began growing sunflower shoots in a tray in his dorm room and selling them to restaurants.
A Savannah haven
He met Savannahian Mariana Langley at college and moved here with her after graduation. They married in 2017 and have their first child on the way in March. He started Vertu part-time at first, picking up a lease from the previous farmer, but quickly realized he needed to be all in to make it work. He's been doing that for two years now, paring down his offerings and figuring out how best to grow them here while making connections with chefs, restaurants and others interested in buying.
He grows without spraying, but isn't certified organic yet, saying he's too new to wade through all the bookkeeping required for the certification. He adds compost to the soil but avoids tilling, and uses almost no farm machinery. His is a manual operation.
Fox & Fig's Ehmke praised Molander as approachable and easy to work with, somebody who loads the produce in the restaurant's walk-in if he sees they're busy. Farming has contributed to his laid-back attitude, Molander said.
"If you're not, you'll just go crazy," he said. "My grandmom sent me a meme, it was like 'Farmers' most used words are 'Oh, well.'"
And his workplace doesn't hurt, either.
"This is still in middle of the city but it's a haven," he said. "It's really soothing."
Help Vertu Farm
The farm is raising funds for a new greenhouse at indiegogo.com.