Saturday, March 5, 2011

Evolution of a Farm

I've been feeling a bit nostalgic of late. It was 14 years ago (March 24, 1997 to be precise) that this little bit of God's creation became ours. We were so happy, we felt so blessed, and well, so overwhelmed!

Our bit of creation is 12.03 acres of hill. When it became ours, it had perimeter fence and a septic system. No house, no barn, no greenhouses, no NOTHIN'! But, it was ours. We immediately set to work getting the builder on the job. He was an amazing guy that survived on cigarettes and Mountain Dew.He got the house finished in record time. He has since passed on, but he and Tom were my heroes that July!

By the time we actually moved in, the garden was already going. We learned a LOT on that garden. The weather and the wind here on this hill are much different than what we were used to. The elevation here puts us in a different growing zone. Yes, we learned that one the hard way. The local folks told us to wait..... But, NO.... that year we planted tomato plants at least twice!
Despite our struggles, we learned a lot AND managed to put food by for the winter. At this point, we were looking for a subsistence farm focusing on our own survival, never imagining that we would grow into a market farm.

The house and garage/shop were quickly followed by the barn. A hoophouse structure rose from the landscape in the fall of that year. Then a greenhouse was attached to the house. Several years later the shop grew a greenhouse addition as well. The barn has seen multiple renovation/additions. Three years ago, we got an amazing deal on a used hoop structure, and #2 hoophouse went into operation. Somewhere in there the garden grew into GARDENS and we put in an orchard and berry plants. Flower gardens sprouted up as well.

This piece of land has been home to cows, (milk and meat breeds), goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, sheep, pigs, dogs and cats.A had a pony for YEARS! (seemed like too many years) We even had a llama for a while. No, we didn’t have all the varieties at once. We learned a lot from the experiences with our menagerie. We’ve learned how to vet our own animals, aid in birthing and process them for consumption when appropriate.

Fast forward to today. This will be our 14th year as vendors at the Staunton/Augusta Farmers' Market. We no longer start our seedlings in old recycled egg cartons, or in the kitchen window Even with two greenhouses for propagation, I am always thinking maybe we should have MORE! We’re no longer looking to just survive here on the hill; we’re looking for ways to make our little operation thrive.

Opening day of 1998, we made a whopping $66.50.

We were thrilled because we sold out of the products we took. I can say without hesitation that I wouldn't even consider going to the Market for $66.50 these days! Honestly, I have MUCH higher expectations.

We've been contract producers of eggs and sold vegetables to fancy restaurants. After a short while, it became evident that the Farmers' Market was indeed our best option. For the Market we have baked bread, sold wool and handmade wool products (our girls’ handiwork), marketed milk-based soap, made turkey sausage, grown plants and vegetables and a number of other things. Our daughters each had their own money-making ventures at the Market while growing up. In the most unlikely turn of events, the youngest one is now a Market vendor herself.

When we first started doing the Market, it seemed that baked goods would be the easiest way to get fast cash-flow. Tom asked me to bake “just ‘til the vegetables come in”. Ten years, and over 10,000 loaves of bread later, I hung up my potholders when the price of flour tripled in the course of a single season. Honestly, none of us missed the flour wafting through the house, all the pans to wash, and the overheated kitchen (not to mention the overheated mama) every Friday afternoon.

Gone, too, are the milk cows.
It had long been my dream to have a milk cow. When we moved here to paradise, Tom found a cow for me and we began our dairying adventures. Experiences worth a whole series of entries, I might add. Ten years of that, and it was time to move on. Hmmm, takes us ten years to “see the light”. Guess we must be slow learners. The departure of the cows granted more “free time” to pursue the gardening aspect of the place. Good thing. With two propagation houses, and two good-sized hoophouses, we have absolutely NO reason to ever be bored!

Now, we focus on vegetables, lamb and chicken, and eggs. While it sounds like our range of products has decreased, and people STILL ask for bread….this is actually far more profitable. (and I really do NOT miss baking!)

Our girls have grown up, married and gone on to their own endeavors. As middle-aged empty-nesters, it’s interesting to see what we are able to do, now that our “help” is gone. We’ve come up with new operating procedures and found that we’re pretty efficient. We even manage to have a good time working together…even after all these years.

Now that it is “spring” once again, we are looking forward to another year of the Market. Planning and planting and working to make it the best yet! Come on down…and visit us Saturday mornings, April through November…spaces 15 and 16…Wharf parking lot….Staunton, VA.

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