Following two farmers to market, from Rappahannock to Reston
By Bob Varela
Special to the Rappahannock News
It’s 4 a.m. Saturday morning and Mike McCormick of Ladybug Mountain Farm is up after working until 9:30 p.m. on Friday. Over at The Farm at Sunnyside, three young women — Cassandra Hunsdon, Jordan Richardson and Shira Steinberg — are getting up around the same time, also after a full day of work Friday.
They get up that early every Saturday (except one) from May to December so they can sell their products at the Reston Farmers Market, one of 11 run by the Fairfax County Park Authority.
Last Saturday, Mike packed his van to the gills with cut flowers, herbs and organic vegetables (onions, potatoes, garlic and shallots), while Cassandra, Jordan and Shira loaded a truck with dozens of crates and baskets with an impressive variety of certified organic vegetables and herbs, plus honey and eggs.
After driving more than 60 miles, they’ll spend an hour or more setting up canopies and tables and putting out their products in time for the market’s 8 a.m. opening. Mike will be joined by an assistant, Avery (the daughter of a customer and a recent high school graduate) and her boyfriend Nate.
They’ll spend the next four hours selling their products.
Despite plenty of competition from other vendors at the market and from supermarkets, the Reston market is a money maker for The Farm at Sunnyside and produces an income stream for Ladybug Mountain’s Mike — although he quips that he’s the only person on his farm who makes less than the minimum wage.
(Sperryville’s Waterpenny Farm is the county’s other most-frequent traveler to farmer’s markets in the populous suburbs east of here, trucking its organic produce every weekend to sell at markets in Takoma Park and Arlington.)
A retired science teacher who has been selling at the Reston market for 19 years, Mike knows how to get customers’ attention, with goofy hats, funny signs (“Do you need to get into trouble or out of trouble?? Buy flowers!”) and carnival barker-style patter (“We have French tarragon, French. Ooh la la!”).
The Farm at Sunnyside, on the other hand, entices customers with its carefully arrayed displays of beautiful vegetables. Rather than simply piling produce on tables, the Sunnyside vegetables are arranged in rows in baskets, boxes or metal tubs that are tilted up to catch customers’ eyes. Some are on shelves at eye level and everything has a clearly labeled sign.
Having excellent products to sell is clearly important. The Farm at Sunnyside offers more than 50 different vegetables and herbs, including six varieties of heirloom tomatoes, five varieties of lettuce and five types of summer squash — all in prime condition. At the Ladybug Mountain stand, Mike can’t match the abundance of larger farms, but his flowers are spectacular. The herbs and flowers are in water and he won’t put rubber bands around his basil because that would bruise it. No chemicals are used at Ladybug Mountain Farm.
The most important key to success at the market is hiring good people, who not only work hard but are friendly and personable, says Casey Gustowarow, who with his wife Stacey Carlberg co-manages The Farm at Sunnyside.
A few hours observing Mike, Avery and Nate and Cassandra, Jordan and Shira dispels any notion that “hiring good people” is a cliché in this case.
Talking with a long-time customer, Mike asks about his recovery from a recent knee replacement and commiserates on the customer’s loss of his wife last year. Meeting people who appreciate his plants is the best part of the market, he says. One nice thing about being at the Reston market for 19 years is that he now has young adult customers “who used to get pulled around the market in wagons as kids.”
Cassandra, Jordan and Shira aren’t as flamboyant as Mike but they have an easy rapport with customers that any store would envy. It shows in the loyalty of their customers. One asks when ginger will be in season and adds that their ginger “is so much better than you find in supermarkets.” Another customer advises her to buy a lot in season and freeze it “so you can have their ginger year round.”
After the market closes at noon, the vendors must take everything down, donate some remaining produce to local charity, load up the rest, clean up the area, drive home and unload everything back at their farms. Mike says he finishes at 4 p.m. — ending a 12-hour workday that began at 4 a.m.
And next Saturday, rain or shine, the trucks will roll from Rappahannock all over again.