On a beautiful Sunday morning, Lizzie and I drove on a scenic route to Charles Town, WV. Along the way were large farms with an abundance of corn and wheat, moo'ing cows and galloping horses. We made a quick turn off of the main highway and climbed a steep hill to reveal the main house sitting high on the bluff. Stepping out of the car, we were quickly greeted by a smiling Gale Livingstone welcoming us to her farm.
Gale is the owner of Rainbow Hill Farm, which she has run with her mother since moving to and converting it from a horse farm to an organic vegetable farm in 2011. Originally from Guyana, Gale has a background in business consulting which she bravely left to become a full-time farmer. Although she misses her 9 to 5 and the many perks it provided, Gale had a longing for the simple life and the overwhelming desire to add value to the world in a meaningful way. One of the perks she now gets might just be sweeter - walking out of your front door and picking your breakfast fresh off of the vine.
Gale shakes my hand firmly, nods to Lizzie - they are old friends from the market - and begins leading us towards the chicken coop as she recounts her recent possum citing around the fenced in area. The little chickadees get all kinds of inquisitive visitors to their hen house - possums, raccoons, weasels, groundhogs and even the occasional cat have been known to stir up some trouble. Pests are seemingly a big issue when it comes to protecting both crop and chick. Many harvests have been noticeably smaller due to vermin munching on everything from tomatoes to ochre. Along with currently having both chickens and a small flock of ducks, Rainbow Hill once had a family of goats. Unfortunately, it didn’t go very well and in the end they were auctioned to a neighbor. However, Gale has every hope of trying again in the near future.
As we continue our tour, a strange looking something catches Lizzie and my eye and being as perceptive as she is Gale quickly says “Egyptian Walking Onions”. These tall, bluish-green onions are so top heavy they are basically falling over. Gale informs us that they grow up to 3 feet high and when the “fruit” on top gets too heavy it begins to pull the plant down, takes root and basically walks across your garden bearing more fruit as it goes. “Wow!” is all both Lizzie and I can say. I have gotten to cook with this thing! It not only smells amazing, but is the strangest thing I’ve seen in awhile and my inner foodie goes nuts!
We continue walking with Gale pointing out the various vegetables she grows – baby greens, beets, cabbages, squash, rainbow chard, cucumbers, eggplant, herbs, various berries, beans and an incredible assortment of tomatoes to name a few. Heavy rains drowned most of the tomato plants this past year, but the remaining are now beginning to bear fruit. They are purple and red and everything in between. Gale mentions that she only grows single stem tomatoes allowing for all of the plant’s energy to go into a small amount of fruit rather than dispersing over numerous stems. It not only bears more fruit than a regular plant, but as she picks a few cherry tomatoes from the vine handing them to us, you can taste the difference almost immediately. They easily pop in your mouth releasing sweet juice warmed from the sunshine. This is why supporting small farms is so necessary. Straight from the ground to your belly = A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!!!
At this point, the heat has us all sweating from head to toe, although Gale looks a little more comfortable with it than Lizzie and I, we decide to head inside, grab some water and talk some more. We gather around Gale’s beautiful country kitchen island as she pours each of us brown sugar sweet tea, I begin by asking her about being a certified organic farm and why she chose organic vs. non-organic. Gale smiles again and says that she knew she wanted to be certified organic from the beginning firstly because the farm had never been farmed for food before which would easily allow for the organic certification and secondly because she’s a firm believer in leaving food the way nature intended it to be. She sees her farms purpose as helping to keep the soil and veggies as natural as possible and let nature do what it wants to do uncorrupted.
But what does it really mean to be “certified organic”? To paraphrase the definition from the USDA website, it is a farming standard allowing for certain “amendments” used in the normal act of growing food. In laymen’s terms you can only use substances that are found naturally in the environment and are not chemically altered in any way. That’s from seed to harvest and everything in between. Additionally, farmers must cycle their vegetable plots after each harvest and not replant the same veggie in the same space within a 5 year time frame to allow replenishment of nutrients in the soil. Gale happily complies.
As we begin wrapping up our visit, I ask Gale what advice she would have for those who would be farmers. Laughing to herself, she looks at me and poignantly says, “Start small”. “You can always buy large acreage, but only farm a small plot until you get everything up and running and have the labor to accomplish what needs done”. I’d have to agree with her that it’s much easier to go bigger from a small space than the other way around! She also mentions learning as much as you can about what you need before starting including the large overhead that most don’t consider when thinking of farming. Do your research and then do it again!
On the flipside, although Rainbow Hill Farm encompasses 19 ½ acres only 5 acres are currently in production. This may seem small, but Gale points out that farming is a very labor intensive activity and even producing on a smaller scale can have its’ drawbacks. On larger farms the use of trackers to do seeding and weeding is a huge advantage because of the space allowed between crops. However, for smaller producers who are producing more in smaller spaces, all of that has to be done by hand. This means the need for a larger and more regular labor force and in turn means larger payrolls, longer hours or the main farmer and more stress to get all the necessary work done. In 2013, 90% of Gale’s staff were Future Farmers of America (FFA) members or students from Washington and Jefferson high schools in Jefferson County. And even with additional volunteers, it can still be difficult to cover all 5 producing acres. Sometimes weeds overtake large areas of the farm due to this lack of labor to continually harvest, weed, seed and water. But the use of no weed killer allows Rainbow Hill to remain a certified organic operation. Something Gale takes in stride knowing she’s doing what she feels is best for her vegetables, her farm and her customers. “It’s the nature of the business,” she continually says knowing she’s right where she’s supposed to be.
Lizzie jumps in and asks Gale what’s next for her. Gale’s eyes light up as she says she would like to start girls in agriculture program right on the farm. She would erect housing close to the main house - sleeping quarters and kitchen included - and invite high school aged girls to spend their summers with her learning about the various facets of working in agriculture. Subjects such as general farming techniques, the science behind farming, soil life, GMO seeds vs. heirloom and organic seeds and food appreciation would be covered in the weeks’ long curriculum. Gale hopes this program would not only encourage more women to go into agriculture, but to also give girls a positive activity – along with a stipend of course – to do over their summer breaks. Both Lizzie and I think it’s an awesome idea and volunteer ourselves to help in any way we can.
Gale looks at the time and with a deep sigh says it’s time for her to get back in the dirt and get set up for today’s roadside market. Having spent the morning with her and her infectious spirit, we happily say goodbye and thank her profusely for being so generous with her time. As I’m preparing to walk out of the door, Gale hands me a bag full of goodies – including the Egyptian Walking Onion (shrieking inside and out) and tells me to have some fun! Seriously?! I love her!! Again, I thank her and we part ways. Just a perfect day at the farm!
If you’d like to learn more about Gale and all her goodies, visit her on the web at www.rainbowhillfarm.com
or simply stop by her stall at FreshFarm Ballston Farmers Market on Thursdays from 3p-7p. And just in case you can’t get enough, Rainbow Hill Farm also offers a CSA Program from May to October every year. Yes!!Featured recipe: Fresh Summer Salsa
1 Little Finger Eggplant
¼ Medium Yellow Squash
2 Small Heirloom tomatoes (any color)
1 bunch Small Egyptian Walking Onions
1 Glove Farm Fresh Garlic (regular can be substituted)
5 Mini Sweet peppers
1 Lemon for juice – (freshly squeezed to taste)
Salt (to taste)
1 TB Parsley (finely chopped)
Finely dice each item in a large to medium sized bowl. No need to be particular about which order you chop them. They will all be mixed in together.
Once diced, slowly add a little lemon juice to start, add a small sprinkle of salt and gently toss to combine. You’ll want to make sure that each veggie is evenly spread out in the mix and kissed with the lemon juice and salt.
Taste and add more lemon juice or salt to taste.
Gently chopped parsley being careful not to smash it as you chop. It will leave a lovely green spread on your cutting board if you’re too harsh. Doing this at the end will also give your mix some time to allow the flavors to combine. Also be sure to only chop enough parsley for the amount of salsa you are going to serve immediately. Fresh herbs are always best!
Once your parsley is ready, portion your salsa and mix in a small portion of your chopped herb to finish. Add more to taste.
This salsa will go great with summer tacos, any meat fresh off the grill, topping cooked fish, or even to freshen up a warm soup. I used it to top a breaded seared pork loin along with buttery spiced string beans. Yum!!
Article and Recipe by Jewell Fears