Every Saturday morning, the Williamsburg Farmers Market is filled with the smiling faces of local residents enjoying fresh food and meeting the farmers who feed them.
But these farmers have chosen a different professional life, one where the office is a field and their boss is mother nature.
“This type of work is labor-intensive 24/7,” said Michelle Gulden, owner and operator of KelRae Farms in Toano. “But it’s a good life, it’s a clean life.”
Gulden’s typical work day begins at 5 a.m. as she prepares to go out onto her 90-acre farm for upwards of 12 hours during the peak of the season. But she has enjoyed every minute she has worked the land over the past 17 years, despite the long hours in the sun, she said.
Local, healthy food is what drives Gulden and other Williamsburg farmers to do the agricultural work that feeds a growing community.
“There’s something special about growing your own food and providing that to the community you’re apart of,” said Amy Hicks, co-owner of Amy’s Garden. “It gives you a strong connection with people when you’re providing them the food to feed their families.”
The start of something good
For Hicks, life on the farm started because of her husband’s interest in gardening. As their interest in agriculture grew, Hicks and her husband started selling items at area farmers markets. In 2000, Amy’s Garden grew from just 3 acres to 140.
“Both my husband and I enjoy the challenge of farming; there’s always something to fix and do better,” she said. “The Williamsburg market was so good to us right from the beginning, and I think it was the market that really enabled us to make a living.”
Similarly, Gulden also began farming because of her husband. When Gulden’s husband, Randy, inherited his family farm in 2001, she had never thought of becoming a farmer. But as time went on, she found that what had started as a part-time hobby continued to grow into a full business.
Now, KelRae farms supplies food to a number of restaurants, works with William & Mary students to provide locally-sourced produce for the college and also helps with Meals on Wheels.
“Sometimes people grow up in a farming family, and sometimes this kind of life just chooses you,” Gulden said.
For Clint Allen, owner of Allen’s Farm, the past 50 years of his life has been rooted in growing healthy, local produce on the family farm where he worked as a youth.
In 2010, Allen inherited the farm and left his life as an auto mechanic for one of sun and dirt.
“I just couldn’t stand working on cars anymore, and with farming you get to see it from beginning to end. You plant it, care for it and watch it grow,” Allen said. “But it’s not easy. There’s a lot of back-breaking work and picking involved. It’s not a life for someone who isn’t ready for that.”
Growing unique tastes
Each of these farmers spends their life outside working in the field. But the crops from each harvest are different from the next as the farmers cultivate the earth and hone in their agricultural skills.
Hicks has been doing this work for almost two decades now, but she said each season teaches her something new. She tries to grow a variety of produce, from okra to a spectrum of eggplants. For her, it’s exciting learning how to grow interesting things and introducing them to locals at the market each week.
“We tend to really focus on vegetable varieties with exemplary taste and flavor, uniqueness and varieties you won’t see in the grocery store,” she said.
Buying produce from local farmers as opposed to simply purchasing from the shelves of a chain grocery store means that shoppers can know exactly where their food is coming from, Allen said. That is what makes to coming to the Williamsburg Farmers Market each week so appealing, he said.
The relationships with customers encourages the farmers to keep coming back each week with new and interesting produce to sell, Gulden said. On her farm, she tries to introduce her customers to products like yellow seedless watermelons or cupcake squash. The response from the customers is a long-lasting relationship with the people growing the food that feeds their families.
“I like to just throw a twist in there to make people try new things,” Gulden said. “And that’s what makes the farmers market so fun. You’re watching kids grow up over the years that you’ve been growing food for. You’re growing good, clean food and it shows.”