From the Country to the City

Each week, Eli and Misty Cook bring produce from their farm in the hills of Augusta, W. Va. to the busy streets of Washington, D.C.

By Chelsi Baker | 08/21/2012

Each week Eli and Misty Cook, owners of Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, bring fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the countryside of West Virginia to the city streets of Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas.

The farm sells produce at six famers markets throughout the week, beginning with a small market near the White House. They also participate in other markets in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Silver Spring, Md., and end the week with their largest market in Dupont Circle back in the nation’s capital.

While Spring Valley runs a roadside market at Mountain Top two miles east of Romney on U.S. 50 that makes up around 5 percent of their business, selling outside of Romney is important, Eli said, because it’s difficult for traditional farmers to make a living without an off-farm source of income.

“It would be really hard just selling around here, but by going to D.C., where there’s a lot of people and a large clientele, we can make a pretty good living out of it,” he said.

Preparation for farmers markets begins in January with buying seeds. Then workers prepare the ground for planting in March, and the planting process begins. This process of ground preparation, planting and harvesting continues from March through the spring.

The Cooks and farm employees pick produce Thursday through Saturday to prepare for the week’s markets. Customers can be sure what they are buying is fresh – everything at a market on a particular day is harvested within 24 hours from the time it’s sold.

The farm also sells to wholesale organizations and restaurants outside the state in addition to farmers markets.

“We recently did an event with the DC public schools where they got 5,000 pounds of lettuce, 5,000 quarts of strawberries and each kid in the schools got a serving of strawberries and salad,” Eli said about the farm’s recent collaboration with Keany Produce Co., a company based in Washington, D.C.

Although not all the produce is organic, Eli tries to keep spraying at a minimum through the use of an integrated pest management approach. The farm utilizes an outside consultant, who uses bug traps when possible instead of sprays.

“When we meet a threshold where we’re going to start seeing damage, then we will apply chemicals in low rates of the least toxic things we can use. In this part of the country it’s extremely difficult to be organic. In the west where they have less humidity, they can do a lot better job than we can,” Eli said.

Eli got his start in the farming business when he was 12 years old helping his grandparents at farmers markets in Berkeley Springs. He also participated in the Future Farmers of America organization while he was in high school and has been selling at farmers markets ever since.

“We started out with that pretty much as an over-sized garden, and then we sold at a little farmer’s market in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and it just kind of snowballed from there,” Eli said. Every year we decided to grow a little bit more stuff and try a different market.”

He went on to get a degree in horticulture and business at West Virginia University, where he met Misty. She is from Hampshire County, and they decided to buy a farm here because of lower farm prices.

The Cooks bought the then 52-acre farm off Hickory Corner Road in Augusta in 2003, which has since expanded to 255 acres of produce and fruit trees. One hundred acres holds an abundance of produce ranging from broccoli to melons, and fruit trees grow on the farm and in a breezy orchard behind the high school on Hannas Road overlooking the mountains ringing Romney.

Twenty-two full-time employees help maintain Spring Valley Farm and Orchard by planting seeds, harvesting crops and working in the green houses in the summer. They also seek help from friends and local high school students, who work at the markets.

Eli works with agriculture teachers to recruit students, mostly from the FFA. Recruitment involves an interview process, and every student gets a chance to work on the farm to prove they can get the job done. Eli then chooses the hardest workers to continue on and travel to the markets.

The Cooks have two other workers – their children. The farm is a fun environment for 3-year-old Elijah and 6-year-old Mulledy Jane, providing them with fruit trees to climb and swing from and rows of vegetables to run though, but the children also help with farm work and pick crops.

The children have fun while they work showing off the largest vegetables they pull out of the ground while picking crops and searching through plants to find produce ready for the market. Elijah even rides on the farm’s new tractor, which has a seat for him beside his father.

“He will ride in there for 12 hours and just keep me company. My daughter likes to come and pick different things, and she likes the washing and packing process,” Eli said.

The Cooks put photographs of the children picking vegetables in the field and doing other farm work on the signs at their tent instead of only including prices and information, which gives customers a better understanding of the farm from which they are buying. The produce is also carefully arranged in colorful displays to draw people in.

Eli values his customers and enjoys building trust and forming bonds with people who buy his produce, and he says one of his favorite things about the farming business is being able to speak to customers at the markets.

“You have that direct contact with your customers,” Eli said. “There are customers I’ve had for 15 to 18 years, and it’s neat to form relationships with them. It’s all about doing your very best to please every customer that comes through your tent.”

Personalizing the Spring Valley tents at markets is just one thing the Cooks do to gain an edge over other farmers in the business. They plant and harvest year-round to provide their customers with fresh produce, even in the winter months.

Seven full-time workers help Misty and Eli grow plants in an acre of greenhouses during the winter, and the farm participates in markets after the weather gets cold. Braving the cold weather pays off, because customers still visit the Spring Valley tent at winter farmer’s markets.

“You can be out on the street when it’s 15 degrees, but there will still be 700 to 800 customers that show up,” Eli said.

Farmers in this day and age need to think outside the box in order to be successful, Eli said. For Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, this means growing in the greenhouses and selling in the winter, which is not done anywhere else in the Northeast.

Growing in the winter season forces Eli and his workers to adapt and learn how to produce healthy crops inside the greenhouses and make the transition into and out of each season.

“Every year there are new challenges and new things you want to learn about the business. You never get stuck doing the same thing every day because things change hourly, not just daily. Just about the time you’re getting burnt out on something it starts into a new season. It’s kind of like turning to a new page.”

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