By RUSSELL JONES
Just a mile or so south of downtown Brandon, John and Courtney Satz and have been using sustainable growing practices — and a steady team of knowledgeable farm help — to grow delicious organic vegetables, beautiful bedding plants and mouthwatering strawberries, tomatoes and sweet corn, for the past 19 years.
That’s when they bought Wood’s Market Garden from Bob and Sally Wood, and took over what has long been a beloved business in the community and kept its focus on growing nutritious, locally grown food.
“Everything’s always evolving and changing on a daily basis,” John said. “I just love growing plants. The flowers are gorgeous, but food has its own essence.”
Looking at his job, John said there are two sides to what he does — farming and retail.
For the farming, John has a crew of dedicated employees that he brings from a very unlikely place to help him every year — Jamaica. Raymond Marshall and Renaldo Blackwood have worked at Wood’s since before John bought the business. They arrive in Brandon every March before heading back home in October. Their sons, also from Jamaica, join them in June.
“It’s cold, a lot of snow,” a smiling Blackwood said when asked what he thought of Vermont. “I come here to provide for my family, it’s my livelihood.”
Blackwood went on to explain that jobs were few and far between in Jamaica and to send their children to good schools and eventually college, they have been coming to work the Vermont farm for more than 20 years.
Marshall said when he is in Vermont for eight months out of the year he doesn’t really miss his homeland.
“I miss my family when I’m here,” the 74-year-old farmer said. “But this is my home now too; since ’92, this is my home.”
Marshall and Blackwood were planting tomatoes in the greenhouse when we spoke. Wood’s starts early tomatoes at a farm in Dummerston in January. The first week of March, they start heating up the greenhouses in Brandon. They use a process where they graft tomato plants with strong roots to a plant that produces good fruit.
“The plants that have strong roots have small, bitter fruit,” said Courtney, who is only on her twelfth year at the farm. “The ones with good fruit have weak roots, so we put them together.”
The tomato greenhouse the Jamaicans were working in was a comfortable temperature, ranging from the mid-60’s at night to mid-70’s during the day.
“We can manipulate their growth with the day and night cycles,” John said. “We can make them flower by changing the temperature.”
John and the two Jamaicans carefully tie the maturing plants with ropes to keep them stable and upright. The six rows of 160 plants should be ready at the end of May.
In addition to the Jamaican farmers, John and Courtney also have a crew of local helpers on hand to help with all manner of things. Beth Wimett, Elsie Sherrill and Sherry Crawford help the Satz’ each year and Jerry Quinneville takes care of maintenance.
They grow flowers and bedding plants as well as over 50 kinds of vegetables on 60 acres of farmland, but the sweet corn, grown on 15 acres, strawberries, grown on 3 acres, and tomatoes, grown in two of their seven greenhouses, make up two-thirds of their yearly profits.
FRUITS OF THEIR WORK
The couple sell only half of their harvest at the Brandon market, while selling the rest at off-farm markets such as the Middlebury Co-op.
“They have been great to work with,” John said. “They know what they want and it doesn’t fluxuate much, so I always know exactly what I need to grow for them.”
Wood’s Market Garden is also part of a CSA, or community-supported agriculture program called Muddy Boots.
“This is the seventh year we’ve been a part of that… collaboration with two other growers,” John said, adding that the CSA sells their products in Waitsfield and Boston.
“Retail is rewarding,” John said, “but it’s very demanding.”
Wood’s Market Garden will host an open house on April 27 before they open their doors for the season the following weekend. Courtney said they would likely have some products for sale for the open house, if anyone were interested, but that it’s mainly a welcoming back of friends and customers.
“It’s those good relationships you develop with your customers that I love,” Courtney said. “Our customers are always excited when we open for the spring. I don’t think they would miss us if we didn’t have to close for the winter.”
As their business continues to blossom and they prepare for the spring opening the first week of May, John says he finds ways to keep the job interesting.
“Some days, I’d rather drive a tractor than cut a head of broccoli,” he said. “Thankfully, most days I get to do both.”