Sunshine Acres Farm â?? growing the business
This is the fourth in a series celebrating Culpeper’s rural and creative heritage.
About 10 years ago, Monica Briggs and her husband Tim never envisioned their gardening operation would expand from three plots, one gas-powered tiller and wheel barrow into 18 plots, two tractors and three root-tillers today. They still have the old tiller.
When the 52-year-old former bookkeeper turned gardener takes a break from tending all those plots, she likes to relax on her front porch looking at one of the first garden plots closest to the house, which she tries to keep â??clean.â?
â??When I can relax on the porch and I see weeds, I am not relaxing,â? she joked.
But tending to the many gardens is no joke to Monica. She takes it seriously and makes money doing it.
The woman has a very green thumb.
She and Tim sell the fresh produce they grow at the two local farmers markets. She maintains two spots at Saturdayâ??s Farmerâ??s Market in downtown Culpeper and also in the parking lot with other local vendors at Wednesdayâ??s market at the Culpeper Farmerâ??s Co-Op along James Madison Highway.
What started out small in 2003 â?? three gardens comprising about .25 acres â?? began to slowly expand. The 18 plots now take up about two acres.
From dozens of tomato plants a decade ago, this year the couple planted 350 plants.
An early planting in the various gardens consists of lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower.
â??If you can plant it in Virginia, I put it in the ground,â? said Monica about her gardening philosophy. â??I try something new every year and see what works best.â?
Since the number of plots grew, the couple this year began using modern technology â?? a computer software program.
â??We plotted it all out on the computer,â? said Monica.
Crops are rotated to keep the land fertile and productive thanks to the computer program.
After working a 12-hour day at his construction job, Tim spends another hour or more helping Monica garden at night. He also helps on weekends.
Labor of love
Growing produce for the farmerâ??s markets took off. But managing all those gardens has a downside. It is time consuming and hard work.
Monica spends eight to 10 hours a day working the soil. At times, she has help from family members.
â??I like doing it.â?
Besides enjoying gardening, growing fresh produce wasnâ??t just a hobby.
Tim said the couple talked about growing produce and selling it, but he never expected it to grow so quickly.
â??We never imagined it would take off like this,â? said Tim, who grew up on a farm.
The sale of produce allows for additional things outside the family budget.
â??It was always intended to be extra income,â? said Monica, who holds a bachelors degree in economics from the University of Maryland.
Monica reached a deal with Tim when the gardens started growing and the farmerâ??s market had the potential to provide a viable outlet.
The money earned at the markets would be used for Monica to purchase a new truck.
â??I am not going to sit around on my husbandâ??s paycheck,â? she said, smiling. â??I had to make enough to cover the tractor and truck payments.â?
â??During the summer, I do,â? Monica said, laughing.
She noted that money from the gardens starts coming in about April and throughout the season.
Growing the crops may be seasonal, but selling the fresh produce builds clientele who come back year after year.
James Clements and his family have been purchasing from Monicaâ??s stand at the downtown farmerâ??s market on Saturday since she started.
â??We go see Monica first,â? said Clements. â??Itâ??s a force of habit.â?
Clements stressed confidence in a quality product builds customer trust and loyalty.
â??Everything looks like it should look,â? Clements said about Monicaâ??s produce. â??You can trust what she is selling.â?
Monica is so enthused about growing things that she takes her green thumb on the road helping others tend to gardens. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday she helps other small gardeners three to four hours a day.
â??I like playing in the dirt,â? she said.
This winter, weather wreaked havoc on Sunshine Acres Farm. The broccoli and lettuce was snowed on three times.
â??It was the first time I lost plants in 14 years because of the weather,â? said Monica. â??We plant early.â?
Cold weather and wet springs cause problems. Strong winds knock over tomato plants that must be re-staked to continue growing. Dry summers also take a toll.
Rainy day fund
Several years ago, drought conditions turned the gardens to dust. With only a well on site, the couple decided to recycle, collecting rainwater in barrels connected to downspouts as a reliable secondary water source.
â??We only use the well when we have to,â? she said.
Plus, she noted, well water is colder and not ideal for the plants.
Like a tree, the couple is branching out. Two years ago, they began raising pigs. They buy piglets at three months old, and raise them to slaughter weight. Of the five pigs on the farm, four have already been sold and they plan to keep one for themselves for meat. Cattle may be in the offing.
The hens produce 30 dozen eggs a week, triple the number form years ago.
In the woods, what looks like a Civil War era fence line actually serves as a mushroom garden. The wooded area is dark and moist, perfect for growing mushrooms. The tasty fungus grows on tree limbs felled during winter storms.
â??They are selling really good at the market,â? said Monica about the mushrooms. â??They always sell out.â?
Even though they have increased production at their home, Tim and Monica set their sights on growing even larger. In April, they purchased 65 acres along Sheads Mountain Road. The couple planted an acre of corn and tomatoes on the new property, which has a spring house for water. A barn is the next project for the new land.
In three years, they plan to build a house and live there full-time after Tim retires, producing 25 acres of vegetables.
Monica is quick to point out that as the gardening operation continues to grow, immediate and extended family – children and grand children – pitches in when they visit. Two grown stepsons assist at times and a 7-year-old granddaughter happily gets into the dirt with her grandmother.
â??I plant tomatoes,â? said Monica. â??She plants tomatoes,â?
As a reward for helping, Monica prepares a big meal as a way of saying thank you.
Growing peppers, white potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, squash and okra may prove time consuming, but it is rewarding.
â??Itâ??s very satisfying,â? Tim said, but he quickly gave credit to his hardworking wife. â??She puts her heart and soul into it.â?
If the weather cooperates, Monica and Tim will load the truck up Friday night in preparation for setting up the produce stand Saturday morning. If Friday night is too hot, Monica gets up early so that she can pull into the farmerâ??s market lot at 6:15 a.m. Sunshine Acres produce goes on sale.
Basking in the success of the past decade and looking to the future, it appears that the sun has indeed shone brightly on Sunshine Acres.
Wally Bunker is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org