COLUMBIA — Although Mark Clervi has only been the director of Jefferson Farms & Gardens for a month, the new vision for the farm has been in the making since October.
Jefferson Farms & Gardens, a non-profit educational farm owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, fell on hard times in early 2012, when it laid off most of its employees and stopped providing educational programs.
Clervi was appointed director on July 1 and is preparing for a reopening in the fall.
“I could write a book, and I probably will, about all the twists and turns I’ve taken getting to Jefferson Farms,” Clervi said.
The farm will open on Sept. 1 with little fanfare and will begin offering expanded educational programs. There will be a small fee per child on school tours, and the farm is working to form financial relationships with private companies, Clervi said.
Clervi, who has a degree in marketing from MU, hopes to revitalize the farm by approaching it from more of a business perspective.
With new management and a broader focus, Clervi hopes the farm will provide an agricultural education to people without degrees in agriculture.
"I'm not an expert in agriculture, I'm still learning," Clervi said. "And I'd like the community to learn along with me about the possibilities and challenges in the world of agriculture."
An introduction to farm life
It was a friend from college who first introduced Clervi to farming in 2011. A commercial real estate lender and consultant, Clervi had been working with companies on mergers and acquisitions.
“I was living in St. Louis and commuting a lot to Columbia, and I started going down to Pierpont Farms and picking tomatoes,” he said.
Clervi said he was a city boy who thought it would be fun to go play in the garden, but he soon found out there was nothing casual about it.
"I came back with scratches and hives all over my arms, and I said, 'I get it now! This is great!'" he said.
When work with his client ended, Clervi was looking for something new to do, and he started working with his college friend at Pierpont Farms, a small, family-owned farm outside Columbia.
“I got a taste of the lifestyle,” Clervi said. “It was organic, pardon the pun.”
Clervi said he became fascinated with reading books about the agriculture industry, researching local and organic food, and trying to find a scientific consensus about food issues.
“I really love to just keep learning," Clervi said.
With Pierpont Farms, he worked on finding more income sources for the business and supplied food to hospitals and grocery stores as well as Columbia restaurants including Sycamore and The Wine Cellar and Bistro.
When Clervi heard about Jefferson Farms & Gardens, he was sad to learn it was closing.
“It really started to break my heart," he said. "I see a beautiful piece of land here that’s not being used. It should have taken off, it should have worked. I don’t know why it didn’t.”
Being of a business mind, Clervi got in touch with the farm's mortgage lender, and they arranged a meeting with Jerry Nelson, president of the farm's board of directors.
“The seed was planted,” Clervi said. “I’m not a farmer, I’m not an academic, I’m not an expert in agriculture, but I have a lot of passion for all these issues.”
An educational resource
Jefferson Farms plans to be a resource for the community when it comes to questions about the food system, Clervi said.
"We want to take a broad perspective of all issues related to food production and how we feed ourselves," Clervi said. “We want to be a platform for trying out different solutions."
Clervi said the school tours Jefferson Farms is known for conducting are essential, and will continue when the farm reopens.
“We’ll get busloads of kids to experience and engage with agriculture, the process of harvesting and the biology involved,” Clervi said.
Leaia Walker will be coordinating the education programs, and is working with Columbia Public Schools to pull in teachers.
"We want to set up programs according to core competency and state requirements," Walker said. "We want to make sure our programs line up with the school's standpoint."
Jefferson Farms will tailor youth programs to various age levels. Some programs will be designed to meet the needs of the state curriculum or the lesson plans of individual teachers. Others will function as family and youth programs, offering trips to the farm and tours.
A long-term goal of the farm is to feature an adult program, offering cooking and gardening classes. Clervi said the farm wants to engage adults with lectures and opportunities to learn about the food system.
The farm is also looking for grants to provide educational programs such as farmer training and job training and plans to increase its social media presence.
"Food impacts so many parts of our lives," Clervi said. "We want to educate people about the food system. We want to tie local food issues to global food issues."
The future of the farm
The farm will open with limited funds, so in addition to relying on volunteers, the farm will be selling its services and programs.
If companies are interested in sponsoring a garden, Clervi said their employees would be able to come out to the farm and learn to grow their own food.
As in the past, the food grown by the farm will be used for demonstration purposes, showing tour groups how food is grown and harvested.
In the future, Clervi hopes to have the facilities necessary to preserve and store food, but the farm will not be competing with local growers to sell food.
Jefferson Farms used to donate a portion of its produce to local foods banks, and Clervi said he would like to continue that practice when the farm reopens.
"We want to carry the legacy of the farm forward, but we're also adding new elements," Clervi said.
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