This week’s guest for Farm Women Friday is Becky Vanderwende, owner of Little Wagon Produce on the very busy Route 404 in Delaware – a main thoroughfare for Marylanders heading to the Delaware Beaches in the summer. If you’ve driven that way in the summers, you’ve probably seen the big green + white wagons sitting in front of the greenhouse and building. And you’ve probably seen a few vehicles out front, too.
But it didn’t start out like that. “We started the stand because we had an overgrown garden,” Becky tells me. “The kids had a 4-H garden, and we put the excess produce on a little wagon at the end of the lane with a money jar.” Over the last 20+ years, that little wagon has grown into a storage building with walk-in coolers and greenhouses to start their plants in the spring. “We’ve just grown very slowly,” Becky says. “Now we try to add something or improve the stand every year. One year we added some fencing, we’ve paved the entrances, and most recently we added a second cold storage cooler.”
They also participate in local farmers’ markets. Becky has been taking produce to the Milford Farmers’ Market on Saturdays for ten years now. They also bring goodies to the Seaford/Western Sussex and Georgetown markets. There’s been a steady increase in local farmers’ markets in the area, and she’s found a few that fit well with her offerings. “We have people that have started coming to the stand because they’ve seen us at the market, or vice versa.” She certainly has loyal customers, many of which have gotten to watch her family grow up through the years. (Her youngest daughter was only three when they set that first little wagon at the end of the drive.)
What other changes has Becky seen over the years? “We notice when there’s a dip in the economy.” She says people tend to buy different items during an economic downturn. Instead of vegetables, they buy bedding plants in the beginning of the year so they can grow their own. The more decorative items she sells, like mums, hanging baskets, and pumpkins don’t sell as well during those times. Canning is more popular though, so she’ll sell boxes of cucumbers for making pickles and packages of canning tomatoes. “We worried that people wouldn’t come to the beach (their main visitors on the weekends are beachgoers) when gas prices went up and the economy went down, but it actually helped our stand. It seemed that people decided to take short trips to the beach instead of a bigger vacation, to say, Florida.”
One question Becky says she hears all the time from customers is, “Is it local?” She’s even had people come who don’t speak English, but know the word “local”. It’s a growing trend in our country, this whole “buying local” thing, but what I find interesting is the definition of local. See, there isn’t one. Most of Becky’s produce is grown right on her farm behind the produce stand, which I think we’ll all agree is local. She gets her melons from the next county over, which I still consider local, but some may disagree. Peaches + apples come from Pennsylvania, and blueberries from Jersey. If it’s out of state, is it still local? I’d argue that it is – or maybe we could call it “regional” produce at that point. Let’s be honest, “out-of-state” in Delaware is likely to be five miles down the road. Regardless of original location, it’s definitely fresh and delicious.
Another hot topic for customers? Organic. As in, is their produce organic? The answer is no, though Becky did have some interesting insights into conventional farming that may surprise you. While she does apply some chemicals to their produce (and her husband is licensed to apply them commercially), they try to use as little as possible. “It costs us money to use pesticides and fertilizers, so we do what we can to avoid them.” How? Well, they have their summer help pick bugs off the plants instead of spraying pesticides, and use black plastic sheeting (think trash bag material, but thicker) over the vegetable beds to control weeds and limit the need for herbicides.
What keeps people coming back to Little Wagon Produce, especially when there seems to be a produce stand every mile on Route 404? Quality. “I don’t want to sell something that I wouldn’t buy myself,” she tells me. When I visited with her, she was grading strawberries that she had purchased from another farm and tossing some in the garbage. “My husband says I’m picky, but I don’t want anyone to be unhappy with their purchase from us. I guarantee all our produce. If someone is unhappy, say their cantaloupe is too soft in the middle, I’ll happily refund their money.”
It’s definitely all about customer service here. Her summer help, mostly high school girls from the area, always greet every customer with a friendly smile. Becky and her employees will answer questions about the produce or help someone find the perfect flowers. I love that they always ask me if I need help carrying my bags to the car. Since her main goal is always for customers to be happy and satisfied with their plants + produce, Becky also tries to educate her customers about their purchases. She is careful to make sure they know how often to water their flowers and if they need to be in sun or shade, and tells them how quickly to use their fruits + veggies to avoid spoilage.
She also makes an effort to talk about produce availability. “I’m surprised at how many people really don’t know when produce is in season,” says Becky. Most consumers (me included) are accustomed to being able to buy any fruits + veggies they want, year-round, at the local grocery. She says one big question is about strawberries. “People don’t realize that truly local berries are really only here in May, with some limited production in late April and early June, depending on the year and the weather.” She tries to refer people to the Delaware Department of Agriculture Availability Chart that she has hanging on the wall. And while many people expect berries too late in the season, she also gets requests for sweet corn too early. “We’re famous for our corn. I always say that if you have good corn, people will come back for that.” But early June? Forget about it. Their crop normally isn’t ready until late June, but they’re planning on a slightly early start this week, with a limited amount available this weekend.
Next time you’re heading down 404, stop in to Little Wagon Produce and say hello to one of our local farm women. She’s a great example of a wife and mother who is incredibly active in her family’s farm operation. As she says, “Women have always been the backbones of farms, but they’ve been in the background. Now we’re seeing more women moving to the foreground of farming.”
Farm Women Fridays is a series of interviews that will run through the summer of 2012. If you have any questions (for me or the other women), please leave them in the comments or tweet me @carabecca! You can see all the Farm Women Fridays posts here.