It’s a Thursday morning on a farm in downtown Silver Spring, just 1 mile north of the Maryland-D.C. line. You can hear the sounds of traffic and construction in the not-too-far distance, but all you see is green: rows of winter greens popping up, deep green vines dripping with kiwis, and collards so bushy it’s hard to walk through the rows. Scattered throughout the gardens is a team of, as they call themselves, “little old ladies,” each elbow-deep in the rows of crops.
This is Koiner Farm — the oldest urban farm in Montgomery County, established by Charles Koiner in 1983 and managed by Charlie until he passed in January 2019 at age 98. Since his passing, the farm has been operated by a local nonprofit land trust, called the Charles Koiner Conservancy for Urban Farming. The nonprofit was created by volunteers who worried that Koiner Farm might be lost to development without Charlie at the helm.
The nonprofit now has a staff of 6 and a volunteer base of 30+. “We laugh that it takes like 30 of us to do what Charlie once did,” jokes Kate Medina, one of the founders of the nonprofit.
But Koiner Farm, under the nonprofit’s stewardship, has become much more than a private garden. Koiner Farm is now a bustling place offering weekly farmstands, educational programs, food assistance partnerships, and regular community-building events.
Most of the volunteers who work at Koiner Farm are young professionals or high school and college-age interns who come to the farm on weekdays after school or work to meet up with their volunteer crew and cooperatively work in the gardens. Koiner Farm is a 1-acre, single-unit (not individual plots), volunteer-led farm, growing nearly $15,000 (or about 4,000 pounds) of produce annually and donating half of it to those in need.
Only one of the Koiner Farm volunteer crews works the morning shift, and that is the Harvest Crew. After all, morning is the best time to harvest crops since during the night vegetables will regain their moisture, and convert their starches into sugars. These conditions make morning-harvested produce crisper, juicier, and sweeter.
However, morning volunteer shifts can be difficult for students and working adults to commit to. So at Koiner Farm, all of the produce (4,000 pounds of it) is picked, washed, and packaged by a powerful team of retired “little old ladies.”
Evelyn Jemionek, 75, originally from southern Pennsylvania, started volunteering at Koiner Farm over 15 years ago after retiring from a career in government. As Evelyn recalls, she first met Charlie in the early 2000s and was simply a customer before Charlie let her start helping him prepare for the farmer’s market, which at the time was at the old Silver Spring Armory. Evelyn worked for Charlie every Friday for over 10 years. Evelyn remembers her days with Charlie fondly,
“One day a group of elementary school students were brought to the farm for a tour. Charlie and I were busy harvesting lima beans so we didn’t pay much attention. But then we heard their teacher say “who can find Charlie” and it turned into a game of hide and seek, with Charlie burying himself in the limas.”
After Charlie’s passing, Evelyn helped advise the founders of the Charles Koiner Conservancy and was instrumental in transitioning the nonprofit’s young and inexperienced staff into farmers.
Today, Evelyn leads Koiner Farm’s Harvest Crew, alongside her neighbor and friend, Anna Mizani, 73, originally from Austria. Anna grew up on a farm in the Austrian countryside, but was dissuaded from staying on the farm, and moved to Vienna at age 15, and eventually to the States where she married and raised her family. Years later, the pull to have her hands back in the soil drew Anna to Koiner Farm, and she has been volunteering with the Harvest Crew for the past five years. Anna says it’s the comradery that keeps her coming back and lures in new neighbors.
Catherine Rogers, 83, moved to Silver Spring from Dallas, Texas, in 2021 to be closer to her daughter. She saw the farm while strolling through her new neighborhood. She walked up to the farm and inquired about volunteering, recalling “I knew I had to make friends after moving here.” Catherine has been working at Koiner Farm ever since and feels like it “gives me a nice sense of community and I enjoy getting to work amongst people with similar interests for 3 or 4 hours each week.” Catherine’s daughter confirms that her mom looks forward to her farm shifts.
“I get up and put on ‘old doggy shoes’, gloves, and a backpack with some water. Evelyn has a list of things that need harvesting. She’ll tell us to get two buckets full of this or that and we work through the list. Some of the veggies have to be washed, then we weigh it or put it in a bag or box. After about 3 hours we put it in the fridge for the Thursday evening market. The vegetables are always really fresh for market, which is nice for customers.” — Catherine Rogers, 83
The harvest crew is one of the steadiest and most reliable groups of volunteers working at Koiner Farm. This allows Evelyn to train her crew and help them become specialized in specific tasks such as harvesting the brassica greens and monitoring the various kinds of natural pest deterrents that have been set up. According to Anna, even with the newly added fencing, “the deer are still an issue and eat the Swiss chard and beets… [pest control] is an ongoing process”.
Their day starts around 8 a.m. and ends around 11 a.m. if all hands are on deck. Evelyn starts by filling up the sink to wash the greens. Once her team arrives, she then doles out assignments, as each volunteer has a crop they focus on picking. The crew brings back their fresh-picked produce, where Evelyn is stationed to weigh and record what was harvested.
The role of the team has now expanded beyond the farm to bringing produce into the community. While most of the produce is left on the farm for the Thursday evening farm stand and market, the harvest crew delivers 10 grocery bags full of fresh veggies to nearby affordable housing complexes owned by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC), one of CKC’s nonprofit food assistance partners.
Without the dedication of volunteers, like the Harvest Crew, none of this would be possible. According to Kate Medina, CKC’s Executive Director, “healthy, nutrient-dense produce is expensive, but with the nonprofit model and relying on volunteers, we can keep healthy food affordable, distribute it equitably, and do it sustainably for both the planet and our bottom line.”
Thanks to volunteers, Koiner Farm comes alive every Thursday evening with the hustle and bustle of neighbors coming to buy their produce for their evening dinner. Residents from the HOC buildings also join in, especially on the Third Thursday of each month when live music, artisans, and local food vendors come to the farm. Third Thursdays at Koiner Farm are a great time for volunteers to fully understand the impact of their work and join in the fun. According to Evelyn,
“I have observed a diversity of age(s) at events and think it’s great. Things like this is what keeps the mind and body stimulated. I love being able to offer people who are willing and anxious to work and commune a place to do so after retirement!”
In line with CKC’s mission to train the next generation of sustainable food innovators, Anna enjoys seeing how the generations work together and learn from one another at Koiner Farm, and how this also continues at home. Anna says:
“We grew up eating healthy food, especially as children, making our own apple juice and marmalade. I want to provide my community and children and grandchildren with this knowledge. . . I think urban farming will help current and future generations be more connected to the earth. . . Whenever there is something living around, there is more life. Plants give us company and energy, they bring life and oxygen to a place. They help us be more connected and more grounded — it’s important to “ground yourself” and absorb the sun for at least 15 minutes every day.”
To learn about opportunities to volunteer on a neighborhood farm like Koiner Farm, reach out to CKC and they’ll help get you connected! ckcfarming.org
Photos: Hannah Sholder / CKC Farming