Friday, September 7, 2012

Homestead Hill Farm

Welcome Tom & Barbara Womack as our first farmers from Virginia to share their story! Tom and Barbara have a small diversified farm where they sell their produce at the farmer's market, but their real passion is for growing food!

Greetings from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia! 

We are Tom and Barbara Womack of Homestead Hill Farm. We own and operate a small, diversified farm specializing in seasonal vegetables, lamb, chicken and eggs. Our products are available for sale at the Staunton/Augusta Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. Since we are located just 12 miles from town, we can assure you that everything we sell is truly LOCAL.

If someone had told us twenty years ago that we would be able to make our living at the Farmers’ Market, we would have laughed. I don’t think we had even shopped at a farmers’ market twenty years ago. But, when life events caused us to begin from scratch in 1997, one thing led to another…and here we are. Our girls were very little when we moved here, and they had the experience of a lifetime growing up in the country on a small working farm. There have been some true learning adventures along the way. We have always worked well as a team, and now that our daughters are all grown-up, married and living elsewhere, it’s just the two of us working together here on the hill. While there are days when the work is hard and frustrating, I cannot imagine any lifestyle more rewarding than growing food.

Our farm is an ever-evolving entity. Over the years we have raised eggs for wholesale, sold vegetables to fancy restaurants, and baked well over 15,000 loaves of bread. (for ten years we sold bread at the Market) We have had milk cows and pigs and LOTS of chickens, for a long while our youngest daughter had a pony…and we even had a llama and a herd of goats for a while. We’ve been shepherds for the past ten or eleven years. But, the Farmers’ Market has been the one constant during all these ventures. Presently, we focus on our large gardening operation, two hoop-houses in which we grow greens year round, 2 small greenhouses for propagation, a layer flock, pasture-raised broilers in the summer, …and a flock of sheep. Our small farm is nothing, if not diverse.

Being vendors at a Farmers’ Market means that life around here revolves around Saturday morning Market. Our schedule and routine is far from typical. While most other folks are still in their warm and comfy beds, dreaming sweet dreams, we are up and packing our wares to get them to the Market. It’s still very dark at 5am when Tom heads out to the Market. He is also the Market Manager, so he gets there earlier than most of the other vendors to get things ready for the day. It’s my job to feed all the critters and make sure the farm is tended before I head into town as well. We may have the only sheep in the county that come running when they see a flashlight! 

While the five hours that the Market is open may not sound like a long time, when you add time for set-up and clean-up, we get a pretty intense workout on Saturday mornings before all the goodies are sold and it’s time to head back to the farm. It is rare that we bring much home, but any leftover vegetables are later processed for off-season sales.

I love the camaraderie of the Farmers’ Market. Since this is our fifteenth year in the same place every Saturday morning, I suppose you could say we have become fixtures in the downtown scene. We have seen a lot of changes over the course of all those years. There are a lot more folks concerned with knowing where their food comes from, and knowing who grows it and how than ever before. Items that no one had ever heard of are now becoming sought after and some new things have become immensely popular. Many of our customers have become friends over the years and it’s always fun to exchange recipes and learn new things. Our Market has live music a lot of weekends, so the atmosphere can be quite festive.

The human interaction at the Market intrigues me. In recent days, it has been noted that most folks are two to four generations removed from the farm. Most of these folks have NO clue what goes into farming or food production. There are those who think that small farms must be better than “big ag”, but I beg to differ. There are so many different ways to raise food, and all of them are crucial to supplying the demand. I love sharing our own experiences, as well as attempting to clear up some of the mis-perceptions about agriculture in general. To that end, I started blogging about our farm (and other random things) several years ago. It’s always humbling to meet one of my “fans” at the Market. I hope you’ll read it as well… follow at Homestead Hill Farm or LIKE us on Facebook

At the end of each Market, it’s nice to head back to the farm for lunch and a restful Sunday before getting back to work with our focus on the next selling day. Because, we don’t just sell stuff on Saturday… the Staunton/Augusta Farmers’ Market is a PRODUCER ONLY market… so, we must grow everything we sell. That means we are almost always starting seeds, transplanting seedlings, harvesting, or removing spent crops in order to plant new ones. If we aren’t in the gardens, or the hoophouses, we are feeding sheep, gathering eggs or processing broilers. There is always something to do.

A number of years ago, one of our customers suggested we consider selling year ‘round. We talked it over, changed up our growing patterns, and developed a customer list. This will be our fifth year of offering all sorts of farm products for downtown delivery in the off-season to a group of loyal customers. It works well for everyone….the customers get fresh greens/lamb/eggs/chicken/vegetables all winter and we are able to have positive cash-flow…even in the dead of winter. 

As much as I love selling at the market, I must say that lambing season is my favorite time of year. Our ewes are bred to lamb in January, so that we can get the lambs on the ground while things are relatively calm in the gardens and hoophouse. This timing also allows the lambs to be fairly good sized before they are turned out on grass in the early spring. I have often likened lambing season to Christmas morning on steroids. You never know what’s going to happen. While there are the occasional losses and frustrations, the winter lambing barn is a great place to spend some quality time. The sheep keep the grass mowed throughout the summer and provide some of the best lamb products any non-vegetarian has ever eaten!

While the sheep are great, and have earned a special place in my heart, I wouldn’t want to overlook the chickens. Our laying flock is quite productive, and farm fresh brown eggs are one of the most popular items at the Market. We also run a several batches of “broilers” throughout the summer months to provide our customers (and ourselves) with pasture-raised chicken to use in all their favorite recipes. The chickens also do their share by eating weeds, spent crops and vegetable waste. 

Yes, we might have laughed twenty years ago if someone told us we would be making our living growing and selling vegetables, but this is the good life…raising food. We will never be big producers, and some folks might discount farms of our size. That’s okay. There are a lot of folks that depend on us to grow good food for them. We haven’t been doing this for generations, but our daughters learned a good work ethic that they have carried into their adult lives.

At the end of a productive day, there is a great sense of accomplishment knowing that what you do for a living really matters to someone. Add to that living in a beautiful place, being with someone you love, and having time to enjoy it all…this is the GOOD life.

Thanks for the fantastic feature Barbara! It takes all kinds of farmers and advocates for agriculture to keep the food supply in this country running. Be sure to check out Barbara's blog and Facebook page. If you or someone you know would like to share your story on Faces of Agriculture, please contact us today! No need to have a blog or social media, we want to share everyone's story!