The Chief Milkmaid | It’s not over until it’s over!

Posted in Blogs, Culinary

BY VICKY BROWN
Oct. 29, 2014

You may have thought Farmers Market season was over. In most areas Farmers Markets are very seasonal, often not starting until May or even June and ending in September.

On Whidbey Island we are a heartier bunch.

The earliest Farmers Market starts in Coupeville, the first Saturday in April. The latest market has generally been Bayview Farmers Market, ending the last Saturday of October (I stand corrected; actually the Tilth Market on Sunday is the following day!).

This year is different. Bayview Farmers Market has teamed up with Bayview Farm and Garden to be able to offer a true Extended Season Market between the regular outdoor market and the acclaimed Holiday Market that starts the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The Extended Season Market and the Bayview Holiday Market will be housed in the comfort of the beautiful Greenhouse at Bayview Farm and Garden (hours for the market remain Saturdays 10 to 2 p.m.).

Pam Mitchell of Pam’s Place Produce talked to me about it when it was just an idea. Since I wanted to talk about Pam in one of my farmer blogs, it felt only fitting to tell you a bit more about Pam now, while she is gearing up for this extended opportunity.

I interviewed Pam as autumn was falling. We got to stroll around the remarkable grounds and flower gardens at Fireseed Catering, and then we returned to Pam’s market garden and greenhouse to get a little more harvesting done before market.

Pam Mitchell at Fireseed Catering's event gardens.   Photo by Vicky Brown

Pam Mitchell at Fireseed Catering’s event gardens  (photo by Vicky Brown)

VB: What is it you do?

PM: I grow, I’m a grower. From the moment I wake until the moment I go to sleep I am thinking about growing. It’s a constant source of fascination for me.

I’m now maintaining the event gardens for Fireseed Catering, where we currently have about an acre of flowering gardens.

I maintain gardens on two different properties, the largest of which is also on the property for Fireseed Catering, and I provide a lot of the produce they use for their catered weddings and events.

I also design and make my “woolies.”

VB: Do you consider yourself a farmer?

PM: No, because to me a farmer is someone who gets in a large machine and watches a movie while the gps drives up and down acres and acres of rows and does the picking or baling or whatever needs to be done.

I would call myself a Market Gardener and Plant Propagationist and maybe a Clothing Accessory Designer and Manufacturer, because I garden for market, sell plant starts and make the woolies.

VB: When did you start your Market Gardening?

PM: I started it for market when I came to Whidbey Island, which was 15 years ago, just around the turn of the century, 1999.

VB: How has your farming evolved since 1999?

PM: It’s been the little things. A friend of mine said “Pam you’ve got a great system going, you just have to tweak it a little bit.” And I’ve always remembered that. So I’ve evolved from mounded beds to boarded side beds and from growing beds of crops, just one crop to a bed, to breaking the beds up into various crops, which has really helped with successions.

Trellising has really changed, from wire which the plants really hated, to a Tenax system, plastic flexible square patterns that the plants really love to climb and I can weave them through where I want them.

I have added an orchard. I also have evolved away from labor intensive plants and making the beds so efficient that I can do most of the work by myself. If you have to pay someone you have to make enough money to pay them. Managing people not only has monetary costs; it takes a lot of energy.

VB: Are you able to make your Market Gardening fiscally sustainable?

PM: In the 38 weeks the market is open it does bring in enough to support me for the weeks market is open. In the past few years it usually gives me enough to support myself and tide me over the season the market isn’t open.

However, that’s only possible because I have a CSA, trade for my rent and drive 30+ year old cars.

I try to lessen my expenses every year and at this point the business expenses are much more than my personal living expenses.

The bottom line for me is being efficient and not paying payroll.

Also, I am trying to expand on my income with my woolies and wearable products that ship well and can sit in storage. They’ve been really well received and I’m hopeful they will continue to do well.

Pam making her "woolies" at market.   Photo by Vicky Brown

Pam making her “woolies” at market  (photo by Vicky Brown)

VB: So why do you do it?

PM: I do it because it’s the only thing that has continually challenged me for the last 15 years. I never get tired.

In fact, at the end of the season when I should be getting completely exhausted and thinking “oh I just want to sit and do nothing,” I’m getting excited about next season. As long as that continues I will be growing and researching and figuring things out.

VB: How could the community support you best?

PM: Continuing to come to the farmers market, rain or shine, and continuing to buy the produce. And in fact, they already do that quite well. It’s nice that a lot of my customers are now shopping for their whole week of produce not just for one special “market dinner.”

Delicious Delicata squash being harvested. Photo by Vicky Brown

Delicious Delicata squash being harvested  (photo by Vicky Brown)

VB: What is the best experience you’ve had farming—the “this is it” minute?

PM: I remember one time on a harvest day standing in front of a full 20’ x 3’ spinach bed just maxed out with huge spinach leaves. That was probably the lushest, most amazing sight as far as growth and vitality in the garden I’d ever seen. It was the first time I had seen spinach grow that well.

It was early in my transition from growing them in trenches from seeding and having them get to a certain point and just bolt.

To me that was the epitome of success, taking a challenging crop and really seeing the results of my efforts of constantly experimenting and pushing and evolving the process.

Not the spinach crop Pam told me about, but I thought it looked perfect this season too. Photo by Vicky Brown

Not the spinach crop Pam told me about, but I thought it looked perfect this season too. (photo by Vicky Brown)

VB: What is one thing most of your customers wouldn’t know about you?

PM: In the ’90s I did the whole corporate thing. I wore shoulder pads and permed and dyed my hair—blonde of course. I had little gold earrings, wore makeup, I even had nails! I did well, was promoted and I bought and wore business suits.

In spite of that I was always somehow connected to growing things. I always had a pea patch, containers on a balcony or grew things in a neighbor’s garden.

I grew from sweeping fallen leaves off of the walk paths to embracing the wonderful chaos of the growing environment.

VB: What is the best item(s) to get from Pam’s Place Produce at market?

PM: My salad mix is the most popular thing on my market table. I have a lot of loyal customers for my salad mix.

I have some beautiful peppers right now too. I have these purple peppers called Islander, so it’s perfect for Whidbey Island.

Pam picked a peck of purple peppers. (Yes, I went there.) Photo by Vicky Brown

Pam picked a peck of purple peppers. (Yes, I went there.)   (photo by Vicky Brown)

Of course it is squash season. I have some delicious squashes coming out of the garden right now.

But surprisingly, because of the greenhouse, I have a lot of items that you might not expect to see this late in the season at the extended market.

VB: What else would you say?

PM: I’d say… Thank you.

I have felt like an imposter sometimes and then I realize most people here have come from somewhere else and the people who have managed to stay here are adaptable and flexible and they value contentment and happiness in a place where they can be accepted.

I think contentment is having everything that makes you want to get out of bed every day, and I’m grateful I have that here on Whidbey Island.

Recipe from Pam:

Ingredients:

Everything that’s about to jump out of your refrigerator and into the compost heap.

Method:

Slice, dice, chop and throw in a sauté pan with olive oil, soy sauce and ginger to taste. Stir fry lightly and eat while hot.

Perfect for taking the chill off the cold fall evenings.

Harvesting for CSA members, Pam specializes in beautiful, delicious produce. Photo by Vicky Brown

Harvesting for CSA members, Pam specializes in beautiful, delicious produce.  (photo by Vicky Brown)

You can find Pam at her booth (Pam’s Place Produce) at the Bayview Farmers Market (now at extended season at Bayview Farm and Garden). You can sign up for her CSA for spring, but why wait? There is plenty of deliciousness still to be had this season… and maybe a hat, an infinity scarf, or fingerless gloves to keep you cozy this winter.

Vicky Brown, Chief Milkmaid at the Little Brown Farm, puts her passions on the page writing about food, agriculture and the tender web of community.

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