By Bob Varela
Special to the Culpeper Times
Finding good help can be difficult at best, but Honey Brook Farms in Brandy Station needs their team not only to put in a regular (tough) work week but also to get up at 3:30 or 4 a.m. in the morning twice a week to sell their products at local farmers markets.
Every Wednesday from May to December, about three members of Honey Brook’s team get up that early to load a van with their products and drive about 90 minutes to the McCutcheon/Mount Vernon Farmers Market in Fairfax County. At the market (one of 11 run by the Fairfax County Park Authority), they spend an hour or so unloading coolers of meat and eggs and crates of vegetables, setting up their stand and displaying their products in time for the market’s 8 a.m. opening. Then, the two or three team members manning the stand will spend the next four hours selling their products and, more importantly, talking with customers and potential customers about their products and farm. After that, they have to take everything down, load the van and make the 90-minute drive back home.
On Saturday, everybody starts getting up at around 3:30 a.m. so that they then can fan out to six different farmers markets. They sell beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, eggs, honey, teas, baked goods and produce. A full list of their products is available on their web site, honeybrookfarms.com.
When it came to finding a team of good workers, Honey Brook Farms owners Mark and Alice Wilkes had a simple solution — their Christian faith and family. The farm is operated by eight of their children (Adam, Daniel, Hannah, Joshua, Kenan, Mark Christopher, Matthew and Sarah, ages 15 to 31) and two daughters-in-law (Amanda and Lisa). Five grandchildren (Annalise, Nathanael, Josiah, Peter and Titus) round out the household. Another daughter, Jennifer, now lives in Wisconsin with her husband, Derrick.
Everyone pitches in as needed, but they divide up the responsibilities. Adam is in charge of turkeys and the raw milk herd share dairy; Daniel, produce; Hannah, baking, flowers and baby animals; Joshua, fruit trees, honey bees and office work; Mark Christopher, pigs and guard dogs; Kenan, chickens and eggs; Matthew, beef cattle; and Sarah, baking and helping with the dairy.
Mark and Alice started their family more than 30 years ago.
“As our family grew, we looked for a way for all of us to work together, and farming was the answer,” Mark said. They bought the 90-acre farm in 2000 but — in order to remain debt-free — didn’t start farming operations until 2011. The land was overgrown but “with lots of family work days bush-hogging, fence clearing and weeding, we slowly took the property back,” he said.
Farming also fit with their strong Christian faith.
“Along with their spiritual needs, Christ met people’s physical needs,” Mark said.
Honey Brook accurately bills itself as, “A family farm for this generation and the ones to come.” That tag line has a double-edged meaning. The Wilkes employ farming methods designed to produce healthy food and maintain the land for generations to come. Their vegetables are “beyond organic,” grown with no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or other chemicals. Their animals are not just free range, but pasture-raised, feeding on grass and grain that has been tested to ensure it contains no GMOs or chemicals. Their baked goods are gluten-free and whole grain (they grind their own wheat berries).
They rotate crops to preserve the soil, and also rotate animals in their pastures. Cows, sheep and goats come first; they eat and trample down the tall weeds and their droppings provide fertilizer. The egg laying chickens come next; they scratch the cow pies for fly larvae, scattering the natural fertilizer. The chickens are moved from one spot to another in the pasture every day. A hen house built on a wagon makes it easy to move the layers. They use pairs of geese to guard their pasture-raised broilers. The geese can chase off foxes and alert the farm’s dogs if a coyote shows up.
Their approach takes a lot of labor, but the family sees as its mission the need to grow food as it’s meant to be grown and to maintain the land.
“It brings us a lot of joy to meet people’s needs for healthy food,” Mark said. “For us, it’s not just a way to make a living, it’s a calling.”
Bob Varela is a freelance writer. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org