The Farmers of the Warrenton Farmers Market
By Natalie Ortiz and Jessica Lesefka with Elizabeth Melson
Everyone knows what a jewel we have in our local Warrenton Farmers Market, which has actually been around for quite a long time! The 2019 season will be the market’s 44th anniversary; it began in 1975 via an act of the town council. Last year, there were over 30 vendors at the Saturday Fifth and Lee Street location and over 15 vendors at the Wednesday morning farmers market at the WARF (a 34 percent increase due to the updated market governance guidelines of 2017). Our Farmers Market is an excellent opportunity for local farmers to get their produce, meats, eggs, honey, crafts, and nursery plants to local residents.
Now overseen by a part-time seasonal manager, the market season at the Fifth and Lee Street location runs mid-April through mid-November. Early in the season, shoppers will find preserves, cold-hardy greens, storage crops, meats, eggs, and seedlings that have been carefully tended and are ready for planting. Not everyone who shops at farmers markets is interested in installing their own garden, but for those who love the joy of growing some of their own food, the market is a great place to pick up quality seedlings, as well as advice on how to grow them.
The Warrenton Farmers Market is heavily involved in addressing food insecurity in our community. Through the support of PATH Foundation, Warrenton Farmers Market and Fauquier FISH, in collaboration with a network of community partners, implemented the Farmers Market Coalition’s Power of Produce program. The program offers free family events, live music, and a voucher program (POP Bucks) that contribute to market vitality and addresses food insecurity. Over $22,000 worth of POP Bucks were redeemed at Fauquier County farmers markets last year, which is money that may not have otherwise been available to the farmers. And this year, the Warrenton Farmers Market will also be implementing the federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Households can use SNAP benefits to buy food, as well as seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat. They also hope to participate in matching grants that double or triple the SNAP dollars at the market.
At the market, there is a real sense of community and connection to the food, when shoppers get to literally shake the hand that feeds them. These farmers who not only provide access to fresh, locally grown and produced foods are also a wealth of information on growing your own food. We have spoken to three farmers that are regular vendors at our market that, in the spirit of our gardening issue, offer seedlings to those starting their own gardens.
Juaquin Medina, Gonzales Farm
Juaquin Medina, proprietor of family-owned Gonzales Farm has farming running through his veins. Born and raised in a family of farmers, Juaquin and his three brothers all kept with the tradition of working the earth to entice it to bear the great quality produce enjoyed by patrons of the Warrenton Farmers Market for the past 11 years. Medina said, “Farming with my father was our college experience.”
Medina’s wife Xochil has a big part in the literal roots of their business. Xochil lovingly and skillfully grows seedlings for the operation in the farm’s greenhouse, some of which are planted as crops on the farm and some are sold to customers at the market.
Xochil has a knack for growing herbs. Her advice for keeping potted herbs healthy includes well drained soil, organic plant food administered every 7-10 days, and making sure to give the plant plenty of soil space to grow in so it doesn’t become root bound.
Gonzales Farm sells many seedlings at the market, including flowers (zinnias, Gerber daisies, marigolds, sunflowers, snapdragons), produce (squash, zucchini, cucumbers, strawberries, peppers, cantaloupe), and herbs (over 30 varieties, including rosemary, parsley, tarragon, thyme, basil). Depending on the variety, the season to plant seedlings is April through mid-June.
What are their recommended varieties? “Cherokee Purple Heirloom tomatoes, which will yield harvest as early as mid-May, were very popular last year with our customers. We planted 150 five-gallon containers of this type last year and sold them all,” says Medina. Due to the farm’s care in developing a healthy root structure, this variety is healthy and low-maintenance.
The Gonzales family has enjoyed watching the growth and positive changes to the market over the years. Medina says, “Back to school time used to be slow, but now the market stays busy in the fall. The POP bucks program keeps families shopping with us. We have seen a lot of young families and new customers that have become repeat customers.”
Stephen and Amanda Day, Starstead Farm
Stephen says, “I started farming a couple years after college, and my wife joined me after she graduated. We had two main reasons to farm, and having the land right in front of me—and therefore the opportunity—made the most difference. When my sister and I were young, my parents made the unorthodox choice to relocate our family from Fairfax to 30 acres in the countryside, so we had ready access to a bit of north Culpeper hill-country with a few more-or-less fertile spots. The second most important reason is personal independence. We love being involved in all parts of a business enterprise of our own and blending our livelihood with our living space.
The Days sell not only their produce at the Warrenton Farmers Market, but a wide variety of both vegetable and flower seedlings (grown in their heated greenhouse) and have been doing so for four years, following in the footsteps of Stephen’s grandfather who had been a vendor here for about 30 years. Their biggest sellers are tomatoes, and peppers, squash, cucumbers, and edible greens are also very popular. The Days say, “If you are planting a garden this spring, come out to see us on a Saturday in Warrenton. We will have something you are looking for, along with advice on how to grow it.”
The Day’s favorite item to grow, they say, is greenhouse tomatoes. Stephen says, “Virginia weather has it in for tomato plants, so they benefit tremendously from indoor growing. In our case, this means they grow out of the same soil as everything else, but they are protected from rain, wind, and big temperature swings by transparent plastic enclosures. The result is healthier, longer-lived plants with better tasting fruit than anything we’ve grown outdoors.”
The Days recommendation for beginning gardeners: Plant for success first, and challenge yourself later. Hardy greens like kale and swiss chard might not be flashy, but they are survivors and they’ll make it to the plate as long as you protect them from deer and moths. If you want to plant the sun-loving crops, start with boring, reliable cultivars—success with a cherry tomato or a simple yellow squash is much more rewarding than failure with exotic varieties. The most important thing to a long career as a home-gardener is that you can pick something for dinner every night.
Matt Eustace, Willowlyn Farms
At the Warrenton Farmers Market, you can sometimes catch Farmer Matt Eustace of Willowlyn Farms running his own tent. Loyal shoppers know that by May, Eustace will have a gorgeous offering of produce that often includes sweet and crunchy snap peas, ripe strawberries, full heads of cabbage, and luscious salad greens. However, in April, before all of that is available to folks who would rather a skilled farmer do the magic of turning a seemingly humble plant into a nutrient rich, culinary delicacy, Willowlyn Farm offers home-grown seedlings to market shoppers, namely flowers (dahlias, marigolds, and zinnias) and vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash). Gardeners of various skill levels who want to grow their own food can count on Eustace’s expert advice on how and when to plant the seedlings as well as recommendations for maintenance for a successful crop.
His recommendations for beginning gardeners? “Plant tomatoes and peppers if you have an area that has full sun. There are very few pest issues with these. Although the varieties have slightly different needs, tomatoes & peppers are great for beginners.”
Eustace’s farm roots come from four generations of family dairy farming and he also holds a degree in Dairy Science from Virginia Tech. When considering his start as a produce farmer, he said, “I started with 15 or 20 shares of CSA (community supported agriculture) that I sold to family and friends. I grew that slowly & deliberately.” After five years, Willowlyn Farm now has 20 acres of fields with raised beds, usually about 12-15 of those in use during the growing season. Because he practices rotation of planting fields to restore the soil to health, Eustace has 5-8 acres that are “resting” each growing season.
His passion for educating the public shows. He believes it is important for consumers to know where their food comes from so that they and can understand what they are buying and don’t get swept up in labels. He says, “I work to educate my CSA & Farmers Market customer base by letting them know the problems and solutions I am working on to grow their food safely. Being forthright about what I grow and how I grow it lends more credential than a certified organic label.”