Michelle Gulden and her team — Julie Peet and Ashley Morrow — unload freshly-picked produce from the fields of KelRae Farm off of the back of an old burgundy, 1967 Ford 100 pickup. At 10 minutes before 8 a.m., it’s balmy and a blanket of clouds has created a low ceiling over Merchants Square, the site of the Williamsburg Farmers Market.
“We’re running behind,” says Gulden, swiftly carrying crates of greens from the truck to their stand among dozens of other vendors, and glancing to the four customers already lined up before the 8 a.m. start time.
Gulden positions a few crates and Morrow tidies up the table one final time. Peet wraps a white apron around her waist and examines the line growing in front of her.
They all smile, wipe a few beads of sweat from their brows. They’d brought the farm to market and were ready to see the fruits — and vegetables and flowers, too — of their labor make its way to tables.
It’s go time.
Before the Market: Life on the Farm
On the outskirts of Williamsburg, in Toano, KelRae Farm sits on close to 90 acres. Owners Michelle and Randy Gulden inherited the farm from Randy’s great uncle in the mid-1990s and then began farming it in 2001.
It’s as close to what you’d imagine the quintessential home farm being.
Free-range hens scurry about eating scraps and insects. Two potbellied pigs — Jake and Roxie — roam around, calling the farm home along with Michelle’s daughter’s retired pony named Daisy, and a pair of goats named Peaches and Puddin.
Classic rock blares inside their white barn which doubles as the farm store every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Store hours vary seasonally. On the floor, bushels of newly picked cucumbers, kale, green peppers, squash, sunflowers, tomatoes and other varieties of vegetables are neatly corralled together.
“Randy is all about freshness,” says Michelle. “It’s picked the day before and is literally coming out of the field and being sold.”
Under the tutelage of older farmers, Randy and Michelle learned a thing or two about the agrarian life in the 15 years since they first turned soil. They admit that no two seasons are alike, neither are any two crop yields. Farm life means showing up every morning at 5:45 a.m. and working their best with Mother Nature, who has at times dealt them some crushing blows and then turned to show her true love.
“In our third year we had a really bad storm with high wind and hail. We came outside and the corn was laying down on the ground. I remember crying and Randy saying that the sun would pull it up tomorrow. I looked at him like he had three heads. Sure as anything by the next afternoon, the sun had stood it all right back up,” says Michelle.
Then there’s this year, which has been a crazy one, Michelle says, with the early spring temperatures dipping into the 30s at night, forcing them to plant tomatoes later in the season, and last year, when a month of rain nearly ruined an entire potato crop.
The lesson in all of it?
Home on the farm, more than anywhere, you learn to “keep going,” Michelle says. “It changes every single year. So every year you learn something new.”
Farming the KelRae Farm Fields Yearlong
From spring through mid-fall, the KelRae Farm fields produce seasonal vegetables. From November through March, the farm scales its focus to three fields and a cover crop of red clover is planted to feed the soil of the remaining fields. Described as a dependable, low-cost workhorse, red clover conditions soil during the cooler months making it prime for the spring growing season.
“Cover cropping in the winter is important,” Michelle explains. “We let the majority of the farm sit in the winter with the red tip clover in order to get the soil back to his potential again.”
Without this practice, and the practice of crop rotation, the land can become tired, less fertile, and decrease in its ability to yield each year, something sustainable farmers like the Guldens aim to avoid.
Sustaining their crops means satisfying their loyal customers and all the new ones they meet each week.
To Market, To Market
John Anderson, a regular who shops the market weekly with his wife, is KelRae Farm’s first customer this recent day at the Williamsburg Farmers Market in Merchants Square.
He approaches Peet, who weighs his produce.
“Twelve dollars,” she says as he pulls out a wad of crisp bills and pays her.
“We come here to buy from them every week,” Anderson says, smiling, explaining he’s been coming to KelRae Farm’s booth since 2013. “The produce is always great, and it tastes great.”
Retiree Vicki Hauser calls KelRae Farm her go-to produce vendor.
“I come here first,” the Williamsburg resident says. “I’ve been a customer since we moved to Williamsburg 11 years ago. They’re wonderful. They greet you and they always know you.”
By 8:24 a.m., the lines are in the middle of Duke of Gloucester Street and 15 people already have their plastic and brown paper bags and classic market cloth sacks stuffed with KelRae Farm flowers and produce to purchase.
As they get checked out and weigh their vegetables, Peet thanks them, wiping sweat from her brow every so often while pushing her red hair back from her face. Peet loves her job, but admits stumbling into the farm life. After getting laid off from her last job, a friend brought her to KelRae Farm.
“What I like [about working for KelRae] is seeing the repeat customers and getting to know people,” Peet says.
Unlike Peet, who staffs the market weekly, this was Morrow’s first time. Similarly to Peet, she’s a neighbor of the Gulden’s. Morrow came into farming because she rents a house from the family.
“I never thought I’d work on a farm,” Morrow says.
But when she moved into the home she rents from the Guldens, “I told them if they ever needed help, I’m here. Now I’m here and I’m full time. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
On the opposite side of the truck, a gentleman had his arm outstretched towards Michelle with empty egg cartons.
“We want to do some recycling,” he says. “You can reuse these cartons, right?” Michelle grabs the cartons, setting them on the pickup, “Oh my gosh, yes!” she says. The two talk eggs briefly before she is off to engage another customer.
This is why people love KelRae Farm. It’s not just about the produce, it’s about the relationship. Customers get to know the Guldens.
“There aren’t many farms as approachable as KelRae,” says Williamsburg Farmers Market Marketing Director Tracy Herner. “They partner with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), multiple farm stands at Williamsburg Landing, community groups and the farmers market. They’re doing so much and it’s amazing to me that they can do all they do.”
A Community Partner
Outside of selling produce in its farm store and at the Williamsburg Farmers Market, KelRae Farm supports several community organizations.
“We supply some local restaurants, Williamsburg-James City County Schools and the Farm-to-School Program. This year, we are working with Grove Outreach. We work with Culinary Connection, Williamsburg Meals on Wheels, and then we have a good handful of local restaurants that we provide food to seasonally. So yeah, it gets kind of busy, and there’s not enough hours in the day,” says Michelle.
One of the restaurants she supplies is Waypoint Seafood and Grill in Williamsburg.
“In the summer, we get the majority of our local produce from them,” says Waypoint sous chef Jonathan Brown. “It’s important for us to buy local because we’re in a time when people are concerned where their food comes from. When folks come to the market and they see us, they make the association between KelRae and Waypoint. It’s about building community and small business.”
Last year, KelRae Farm received an award from Williamsburg Health Foundation for community-building work with the Williamsburg-James City County Schools and Meals on Wheels. A video about KelRae Farm was produced and a cash award was given.
“We received $5,000…that we donated to Dream Catchers Therapeutic Riding Center,” she says. “I have a daughter with special needs who is in high school, so that money was used for her class to go out and take a therapeutic riding class. That’s very special to my heart.”
Despite the hard work, Michelle loves her customers, her employees and the community she serves. While she never fancied herself a farm girl, she’s found purpose and fulfillment through her farm.
“You know, my friends always say, ‘Oh my God! Twenty years ago did you think that you would have a farm with 150 hens? You of all people, a city girl.’ No, but I love it,” says Michelle. “It’s a good life.”
Originally appeared in The Local Scoop.