Meet Clay Yapp and Traci Barkley of Sola Gratia Farm

By: Molly Gleason

Traci Barkley is washing stacks of bright green and white leeks when I arrive. She greets me warmly and points me to Clay who is stacking boxes of mesclun mix in the shed, tender leaves of lettuce peeking out from behind the black plastic crates. It’s business as usual for Sola Gratia Farm as they prepare for their last CSA pick-up of the season, but Sola Gratia is not your average farm, and Traci and Clay are not your average farmers.

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Now in its third year, this 4 acre plot of ground tucked behind St. Matthew’s Lutheran church in Urbana has the heart of an urban farm and the spirit of a non-profit. It’s mission is to grow produce using socially and environmentally sound methods, be economically sustainable (in other words break even on their budget), and donate as much as possible, a minimum of 10% and closer each year to 25%, of all produce grown to regional food banks and charities. It’s a lofty mission. Where most beginning produce farmers are trying to make ends meet, Sola Gratia’s farmers are trying to make ends meet not only for themselves, but for members of the surrounding community as well.

Sola Gratia Farm is  the creation of both St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, the owners of the land, and Faith in Place, a non-profit that inspires religious people of diverse faiths to care for the Earth. This year it is carrying out it’s mission with two new farmers, Clay Yapp, a first-time farm manager and mechanic extraordinaire, and Traci Barkley, a renegade water scientist applying non-profit management skills while learning the ropes of sustainable food production.

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“We want to make fresh, locally grown food available to everybody, not just those who can afford to shop at the co-op or shop at the farmers market,” says Clay, the production manager of the two-person farming team. He also remarks that the goal isn’t just to supplement poor diets and nutrition often found in lower income households, but to actually get more lower income families to want to start eating fresh fruits and vegetables, which are sometimes a hard sell compared to convenience food. “We are hoping that by increasing access, we can also increase the demand for this kind of food among lower income folks and hopefully start to broaden that market as well.”

Growing with sustainable practices, being financially viable, and donating at least 10% of what they grow to local hunger abatement programs is not an easy feat. There is a whole mess of complicated factors that have gone into making Sola Gratia work. And everything from natural ground squirrel pest control techniques (they built hawk stands to alleviate their problem) to detailed vegetable planting schedules must be accounted for.

One of the many factors that has made Sola Gratia successful this year is their crop production and marketing plan. Over 50 varieties of vegetables and fruit are grown at Sola Gratia, most of which go to their weekly CSA shares, their biggest source of income. Full shares are available for $600 a year and half shares at $350. In addition, you can also find Clay and Traci packing up produce and heading to the Urbana Market on the Square nearly every Saturday, as well as selling produce at their own farm stand on Thursdays between 3-6pm. And if that weren’t enough to keep them busy, they also have to manage their crop production a little differently than your normal farm on account of their partnership with the Eastern Illinois Food Bank and other food assistance outlets, such as the TIMES Center. While mesclun mix and salad greens are enjoyed by the CSA shareholders, it’s not a first pick for food banks. Storage crops like onions, potatoes, and winter squash, as well as tomatoes and a few of the heartier greens, are the items in highest demand among families coming to food banks. That means that Clay and Traci have to plant a variety of crops to satisfy their CSA members, but also account for planting extra storage crops for donation. “So we’re going to grow fewer beds of salad mix and more beds of onions just to make sure everybody gets what they want,” notes Clay. This year they’ve donated 5500 lbs of fresh produce to various programs, approximately 27% of their total harvest!

Another factor that allows the farm to be financially viable is volunteer labor. “Our volunteer support is what allows us to have that donation component. I mean, that’s what allows us to save the money on labor, which is of course on any small farm by far the biggest expense. Instead of having to sell 20-25% of our crops, we can donate it.” Knowing that the farm is heavily dependent on a volunteer work force, Clay and Traci have set out to make the best use of that labor as possible, most of which comes in the form of retirees. They’ve set up specific days for volunteers to come to the farm and have invested in ways to accommodate volunteers of all capabilities and make sure that they are comfortable and content.

“We’ve invested a lot in our harvest wash-pack system and really making it a comfortable place to work,” says Clay.  “There are some folks who come in and they are awesome and have great work ethics and great attitudes, but they just can’t be out in the fields for physical reasons. So we’ve set it up so that a lot of hands can be at wash-pack, and a lot of hands can be effective at wash-pack. It’s things like that, and it’s things like these little hand tools that we’ve built from electrical conduit.” He holds up a bent metal tool that he made himself which can be used for weeding. “They’re super cheap, but we can send a whole fleet of them out into the field. We can put tools in a lot of people’s hands and make sure that they are being effective.”

The final and most critical piece of the puzzle are Clay and Traci themselves. Both bring a unique set of skills to the table when it comes to managing Sola Gratia.

Clay Yapp hails from the outskirts of Madison, Wisconsin where he grew up helping tend his family’s garden and completed an internship on a vegetable farm in high school, a trigger that led him into the farming industry. After graduation he embarked on a series of adventures, including an AmeriCorps position that let him travel to different cities throughout the Midwest and experience their local food scenes, a stint as a bicycle repairman and as a bartender, and three different farm apprenticeships.

It’s clear Clay was made for this line of work. We weigh out bags of lettuce as we talk. Clay quickly and nimbly ties off the bags of greens and stacks them neatly into boxes as I fumble slowly to get the right measurements for each bag.  “I don’t love working outside, I need to be working outside,” he explains. “I absolutely have to be doing this kind of work. Same with physical labor, I need to be using my body day to day otherwise I go crazy.”

He was saving up money to lease his own land when he found the Farm Production Manager position at Sola Gratia last year. “So I applied, interviewed in the first few weeks of February, and two weeks later I was planting onions; so it’s kind of been a whirlwind,” he remarks. Now that the season is winding down, Clay is already starting to think about ways he can plan and prepare for next year.

“I think one of the reasons they hired me on was because I have some pretty crazy ideas, and one of those is tool building. That’s one of my strong suits. I was a bicycle mechanic before I started farming seriously. So I’ve always been really curious once I started doing this, you know, seeing the small-farm equipment that people are using, and being like oh wait, that’s just the front fork of a kid’s bike.”

I have to smile at that because who looks at a bicycle and imagines it as a farm tool? But Clay does. And he is brilliant at it. “We’ve built a fleet of super weird but really effective tools,” he says, pointing to a wall of warped bicycles that look like they’d received the torture treatment from Sid in Toy Story. Wheels are missing and spikes and blades shoot out at odd angles.

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He pulls a bike from the wall and begins to explain how he morphed it into a wheel hoe, a common farm implement that generally costs about $400. Clay’s version cost around $40.

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 A wheel hoe is pretty standard fare for a lot of small farms. Push it down the space between the rows of crops and it cuts through the top layer of soil and kills weeds. Clay built this $400 tool for $40 bucks using an old kid’s bike and some hardware. It has interchangeable blades to account for different row spacing for different crops.

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Another one of Clay’s bike tool creations is designed to put a whole every 18 inches for planting transplants.

“By far my favorite part of my job, and one of the things that’s made the season really fun and also really efficient, is just being able to put something like that in somebody’s hand and seeing that really skeptical look in their eye, and then when they get out in the field they’re like, ‘oh that’s awesome.’”

Traci Barkley, on the other hand, is by training a water scientist. She has a background in stream ecology and has worked on river advocacy since 1996. She’s worked for both the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and spent the last 10 years doing advocacy work at Prairie Rivers Network.  After 10 years of advocacy though, she was looking to shake things up with work that is a little more down to earth, literally.

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“I went into ecology and biology because I wanted to be in touch with the natural world and food has always been a strong theme, and even more so now that I have kids,” says Traci, who is also the mother of an 11 year old son and 8 year old daughter. “I started having these farm dreams, like so many people have. My husband and I have been looking for land for a while and thinking what it would be like to start a small farm.” Traci herself actually grew up on a family farm in Iowa. “We always had a big garden and appreciated good food and that’s always been a part of me.”

So when the Prairie Rivers Network partnered on some climate change and energy projects with Faith in Place, Traci became very interested in their Sola Gratia Farm project. Two years later, when the position opened up for a farm program director, she applied.

“I’ve worked in a world where you can be chipping away at something for the long haul, and you may never see the full, desired results,” notes Traci, who has been enthralled by the direct, tangible results of farming. But she’s also quick to note that being a scientist and being a farmer aren’t so very different, “Here, we know what the inputs are and there are lots of moveable parts and lots of variables, but that’s also one of things that I think is awesome. There are so many things to work with and so many things to pay attention to, and I think the scientist in me loves that, loves seeing how things come together and what works and what doesn’t. And I really like that we are providing a service that’s as basic as food.”

In addition to helping Clay in the production and sales of their produce, Traci’s main responsibilities lie in outreach, volunteer management, fundraising, and community relations.

“Hiring Traci on has been huge, just to share the load, especially the outreach component,” notes Clay.  Field work and email communications don’t often go hand in hand, making outreach a neglected element of most farms. But for Sola Gratia, which plays such a huge role in the neighboring community not only through supporting regional food banks and charities, but also through educational activities and partnerships with community gardens and volunteers, outreach is essential.

And for Traci’s part, she couldn’t be happier. “I love it because it’s not just growing food, its growing food with purpose and its bringing people in . You know it’s not just a farmer and some land with some hired hands. There’s a whole group of people who believe in what we’re doing and we’re doing it together.”

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Clay finishes up washing the leeks as Traci leads me out into the fields to take a look at the last of their harvest and discuss plans for next year. The sun is sinking down as we wander past the bee hives and beds of radishes. “Sola Gratia,” it means by “grace alone.” Looking at the purple and green foliage studded fields though, it’s not hard to see that grace came in the form of two very dedicated farmers this year.

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To learn more about Sola Gratia in order to volunteer, purchase a CSA share, or donate a CSA share to regional food banks and charities, please visit www.solagratia,org or email solagratiacsa@gmail.com