It's June, and our corner of the world is bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables. For more than 20 years, Amy’s Garden – founded in a South Richmond backyard and now based in Charles City County – has been a leading supplier to local farmers markets.
The USDA Certified Organic family farm started supplying the 17th Street Farmers' Market in Shockoe Slip in 1999. Today, it packs its trucks and heads for the Birdhouse Farmers Market in Randolph on Tuesdays and the South of the James Market and the Williamsburg Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Amy Hicks owns the farm with her husband, George Ferguson. We asked her about Richmond’s thriving markets, the challenges of farming, technology and more.
After 20-plus years, what's different about the farmers market scene?
The number of people who attend them! More and more, people are seeking out quality local produce, and they’re recognizing the value of establishing a relationship with their local farmer or producer.
Do customers ask for different things now than they did a decade ago?
Today, we’re getting more questions about GMO produce (genetically modified organisms) because it’s frequently in the news and on people’s radar. The great thing is, if you choose organic, you know that it’s non-GMO. (But non-GMO does not always mean organic.)
Also, people always and forever ask about how to prepare the produce we sell. Today, we find they’re more adventurous cooks and open to different recipes and techniques. We can thank all the food shows on TV for that!
Do customer tastes influence you? Or do buyers go with your flow?
We always respond to customers’ wants and needs, but we also keep an eye out for trends we think they’ll like, such as “new” vegetables getting a lot of attention in restaurants.
Padrón peppers, for example, are small, mostly mild specialty peppers used in Spanish tapas. They’re easy to prepare: You just blister them in a hot pan with olive oil and then eat them whole.
We’re also big on growing varieties for their flavor. A tomato variety may be productive and beautiful, for example, but we won’t grow it if it isn't tasty.
The Cherokee Purple is a perfect example of a gnarled-looking heirloom tomato. And because it’s purple, it’s nothing like the round, red balls you see in the grocery store. Despite its looks, the Cherokee Purple is one of our most popular sellers.
Sungold cherry tomatoes are another variety that’s wildly popular with our customers. Its skin cracks every time it rains, so it’s not “perfect” – but its flavor is amazing.
What might surprise people about the challenges of working markets?
The long hours! We wake up at 4:15 a.m. on Saturdays and finish packing our trucks. We have our stand set up by 8 a.m. sharp. The markets are busy as soon as they open, and smart shoppers arrive early for the best choices.
Tell us about a typical week during the spring season.
* Monday: Do field work and prepare for Tuesday’s Birdhouse Farmers Market and distributing Community Supported Agriculture produce. CSA is our member-supported program through which our customers get a bag of fresh produce each week during the growing season.
* Tuesday: Work all morning and do the market in the afternoon.
* Wednesday: Prepare CSA distribution for afternoon pickup at Williamsburg Farmers Market on Saturday.
* Thursday: Do general farmwork.
* Friday: Prepare for two Saturday markets – always a long day!
* Saturday: Do the markets.
* Sunday: Do field work.
We don't have a day off from the middle of March through the end of October. Thank goodness there is a winter here!
You also supply Sub Rosa Bakery and Ellwood Thompson’s market. Do they have input into what you grow, or do they follow your lead?
Both. They’re receptive to any produce we present to them. But Ellwood Thompson’s has a special interest in varieties of produce that are more nutrient-dense, whether they’re heirloom varieties or modern varieties that have been shown to be naturally more nutritious.
Your garden initially took root in your Westover Hills backyard. What early lessons did you learn?
The biggest is that farming is risky! The weather can make or break you. Plus, farmwork can be difficult physically and mentally. The challenges are constant, which is a great in a way because you never stop learning.
What’s the vibe like among local farmers? Competitive? Cooperative?
It’s completely cooperative! We’ve formed great friendships with our fellow growers, both organic and conventional.
We’re all in this crazy business together, and we troubleshoot growing issues with each other, compare harvests and visit each other’s farms to learn. Only so many folks are willing to do this type of hard work, and there’s plenty of demand for local produce. In fact, it’s increasing all the time.
How has technology changed your operation?
We use social media all the time now, and I really enjoy the feedback we get.
Farming can be somewhat isolating, since we’re in the boondocks and don't get off the farm much except to go to farmers markets. During the offseason, social media connects us to our customers. During the growing season, we use photos on social media to show what we’re harvesting and bringing to market. We used to send emails to our customers, but now we rely on Facebook, Instagram and, occasionally, Twitter.
What's your advice for a customer new to the farmers market scene?
Talk to the farmers! Ask about how they grow their products and how they like to prepare their vegetables. Farmers are great at fast and easy meal prep!