SOMERSET, Va. — Liberty Mills Farm began in 2010 as the vision of owners Kent and Evie Woods. Kent Woods, the son of an Iowa farmer, was hoping to get back to the farm and his agricultural roots. For Evie Woods, this was a chance to explore her interest in sustainable farming, which developed during a stint as campaign manager of the Milwaukee Public Market.
Hoping to escape the harsh winters of Wisconsin but still enjoy a rural lifestyle with their two children, the couple looked to the Piedmont region of Virginia to realize their dream. They searched from Leesburg to Crozet, finally settling in Somerset, Orange County. The former sod farm offered fertile soil, a good school system and a quiet pastoral setting for their vision.
The couple wanted to “not only produce food,” but create a “place where memories are made.” Both Kent and Evie Woods recall childhood experiences of picking fruit and vegetables as a family activity and wanted to share those family adventures with the public. Their business motto, “Pick Fun,” reflects their joy in sharing their food and farm with the world.
The family operated business offers a variety of crops and services, including a CSA, you-pick fruits and vegetables, a pumpkin patch and corn maze, as well as regular visits to the farmers markets in Charlottesville and Madison. The couple and their two children, David and Shannon, operate the 50-acre spread with occasional part-time help.
The whole family is involved in the business. Kent Woods concentrates on the crops, while Evie Woods manages the business, updates the website and writes a newsletter for CSA members. David and Shannon Woods help with harvesting and distribution.
The CSA is the cornerstone of the farm’s business. Members pay for a share of produce at the beginning of the season. A share entitles them to a weekly selection of seasonal produce.
Liberty Mills CSA is a little different than other CSAs in the region. Members are offered the choice of a full or half share. The half share is ideal for singles or couples.
“The half shares are a big draw for us, a lot of couples and smaller families don’t need a big share,” Evie Woods said. The Woodses also take pride in knowing their customers. “Many of our CSA members are repeat customers, so we get to know their likes and dislikes pretty well.”
The Woodses believe in the core CSA concept of “knowing the farmer” and have made efforts for their customers to see and understand where their food comes from.
“Educating the consumer is an important part of the business. So many people today are removed from the process, a lot of people don’t realize what it takes to get that tomato or pepper on to the dinner plate,” Evie Woods said.
The Liberty Mills CSA also has a variety of delivery or pickup options. Members have a choice of on-farm pickup or delivery to Ruckersville, Charlottesville or Madison.
The farm has a website and Facebook page to share its happenings with the world, and Evie Woods produces a weekly newsletter for her CSA members. The newsletter focuses on the crops harvested that week and includes recipes and tips for preparing the fruits and vegetables of the week. Recipes have proven to be extremely popular with CSA members, especially for some of the less common vegetables. The newsletter also keeps CSA members up to date on future harvests — “the eggplant is flourishing” or “cucumber beetles have all but destroyed the yellow squash.”
Liberty Mills Farm is herbicide and pesticide free. Kent and Evie Woods plant with the emphasis on taste above all else. Varieties are selected for suitability to the region and taste.
“Often, growers select seed for good storage or good shipping,” Kent Woods said. “We pick our seeds for taste; there is no need for that when something is picked at 7 a.m. and served by 7 p.m.”
By selecting plants that are suitable to the area, the Woodses are able to keep costs down for the consumer, making their produce competitive with the grocery chains. There are a variety of crops grown on the farm “from arugula to zucchini and everything in-between,” Evie Woods said, with a laugh. “Sometimes they are a little put off by a vegetables size or color because it isn’t just like the grocery store, but they’ll come back and say it was the best tasting melon or pepper ever”.
The pick-your-own fruit and vegetables provide a gateway for new CSA members. Many people join after being lured by the farm-fresh produce. Word of mouth helps, too. Often, new CSA members are friends of older members or have come out to the farm during the corn maze and pumpkin-picking season. The CSA has a strong following; more than 60 percent of last year’s members have rejoined.
The farm’s first produce, strawberries, are now available. Summer vegetables go to the farmers markets and the CSA runs from June to October. Fall brings the pumpkin patch and corn maze. The 20-plus acre corn maze has been the largest in the state and the Woodses said it will continue to expand in order to keep the title.
CSA members and other visitors to the farm get the added bonus of seeing the family’s antique tractor collection. Kent Woods has long been involved with collecting and restoring John Deere tractors. Two of his restored tractors have been featured in past John Deere dealership calendars.
This will be the fifth season Liberty Mills Farm has been open for business. While much will be the same, The Woodses hope to expand a little in 2014 with the addition of raspberry bushes and apple trees.
“The pick-your-own strawberries have a strong following,” Evie Woods said. “Past customers often start calling early in the spring. We hope that by adding raspberries and apples we can get more people to keep coming out to the farm.”