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COMPASS proudly presents the winner of the Reynolds student essay contest, sponsored by the Multicultural Enrichment Council.

by Kyle J Dosier

I dropped out of a four-year liberal arts college in 2008, after two years. Academics were not the issue – my grades were just fine – but my family and I were out of money after a bad year of many hardships, and I felt unfocused in the environment there. I joined the workforce while my partner finished her degree, and we began nearly a decade of hard work together, working and living in central Virginia, struggling to start a life for ourselves. For many years, school seemed a luxury that was always out of reach; it took too much money and too much time.

As I worked, I began to recognize and nurture a new interest in growing food. I discovered, through trying to treat my seasonal allergies, a wealth of knowledge about herbal remedies. At the same time I found a love for gardening, as I tried to grow herbs in a backyard city box. And at a community center in Richmond’s East End, I volunteered to help after-school youth learn about creative writing, making music, and eventually gardening. The center had a large raised bed urban garden that I fell in love with.

I began working with the non-profit to develop this into a sustainable food garden for the neighborhood, that would educate the children we saw and provide cheap food to the area, which was lacking access to fresh, healthy foods. I spent four years learning by experimentation, reading books and blogs and trying something out in this  environment. As I began to teach more and more, and began working with public schools in the area, it became clear that there was a vast wealth of knowledge to tap into. When I started working for a local farmers market, I began to admire the farmers and the complicated, beautiful process by which they grew and produced healthy food year-round. Each business had its own plan and methods, grounded in learning and  experience.

My gardens at home and work got bigger, and as my partner and I moved from rental to rental, I strove for more and more sunny soil in which to grow an increasing variety of vegetables. Plans became more and more complex, and I developed spreadsheets and databases to try and manage it all. As the work became busier and I scaled my operations up, I realized slowly that I was missing something here and there. There were some mistakes that I wasn’t learning from, and some things I couldn’t figure out. I reached a point both at the community center and at home where I couldn’t go further without driving myself crazy – I had hit a wall.

My boss at the farmers market encouraged me to attend the Virginia Association for Biological Farming’s annual conference one January. There, I ran into one of the farmers who sold for only a season at our farmers market. It turned out that she also taught classes at a local community college, and was there with students, and to advertise the college’s program. I found the students wonderfully engaging, interested in farming systems and excited about herbal medicine – they were starting up a Richmond Herbalism Guild, and I was invited. The speakers and workshops at the conference were likewise full of amazing energy that filled my notebooks for six hours daily. I picked up a flier for Reynolds’ Sustainable Agriculture Certification program just a few hours before leaving that weekend. A small fire had been lit somewhere in the back of my mind, that would turn into a bright blaze a few
months later.

Because my income was low enough, I qualified for participation in a Virginia state program called VIDA, run by the Department of Housing and Community Development. This program promised to match savings to be used for starting a new business, or buying a first home, or for going to school. Originally, I wanted to jump right in and start up a business making and selling herbal tinctures or other products. But after a few business organization classes, financial literacy trainings, and some soul searching, I knew that I needed to know more and to have more skills first. So I pulled out that old, crinkled sheet I grabbed off a table one weekend in January, after farmers traded stories and taught each other skills new and old in western Virginia.

The timing was now perfect – my partner was set to finish her round of schooling (she is now a registered nurse), and as it turned out, I was laid off by the community center. I could dedicate new time and effort to growing my skills and delving deep into a mature and direct dream – becoming a small, sustainable farmer in Virginia. Reynolds offered a teacher I already knew I respected; peers who promised to engage me with the same interest and excitement I brought; a flexible schedule allowing for me to still work at the farmers market; and a price tag that has allowed the VIDA matching funds to take a huge chunk out of my tuition and books.

I am here because Reynolds has always been ready for someone like me – because the college goes out of its way to seek out people of all kinds and of all levels of commitment, and works with their individual situations to make their dreams happen. And I’m glad I’m able to be a part of it!

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