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A Healthy Life 

By Alison Johnson

 

In many ways, Heidi Martin owes her business to a 7-year-old boy.

That child (her now 21-year-old son, Jacob) looked at the extra zucchini and squash he had nurtured in his family's garden- planted as part of his homeschooling science curriculum- and asked if he could sell it at his mother's gift shop in upstate New York.  Customers at the store, known for its handmade Amish quilts, rocking chairs and baked goods, couldn't resist Jacob's vegetables.

"People just loved his stand," Heidi says.  "Looking back, that's really how it all started."

Flash forward 14 years and Heidi is owner of Heidi's Homegrown & Organics, a cooperative of local farmers based out of her home in James City County.  With support from Jacob and her daughters Jillian and Emily, Heidi has built a business centered on fresh local produce from more than a dozen local and regional farms and her garden.  That includes selling Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Shares to customers who get weekly baskets of in-season goods- generally between five and ten different fruits and vegetables each time- from April to September.

Heidi's work has drawn on cherished memories of childhood summers on her grandfather's farm in Iowa.  It has given her plenty of time with her own kids and allowed her to educate customers on the health and economic benefits of local foods.  The farmers she helps support are from hard-working families and use sustainable agricultural practices that larger farms and businesses may not, she says.

"To me, 'local' means I can tell you what farm something came from and give you directions to drive there," Heidi says.  "At a grocery store, 'local' might mean it came from as far away as Florida.  The average fruit or vegetable has traveled 1,500 miles by the time it's on your fork.  You can definitely taste the difference."

Heidi fell in love with the outdoors early.  The middle of five sisters, she grew up in a rural area of Illinois where she could see cornfields in every direction.  Her parents grew fruit trees, had a garden packed with rhubarb and strawberries, canned its own food, and made bread completely from scratch, right down to the flour.

In the summers, Heidi ands her sisters travelled to her grandfather's 100 acre farm, which had no electricity.  She picked balckberries with her aunt, cooked pies with her grandmother, and rode into town in her grandfather's horse and buggy, where they delivered his produce to the local restaurant.  "Those were some of the best days of my childhood," she says.

Heidi took a detour before reaching her current career path.  After earning an associate's degree in human services, she worked as an at-risk youth counselor in New York for several years.  She later went back to school to study elementary education, but long hours as an intern and substitute teacher began to wear on her.

"I felt like I was putting so much time and energy into other people's children but not my own," she says.  "Lots of money was going to babysitters.  I wanted to find a way to be self-supportive, be with my kids, and teach them good values."

Taking a leap of faith, Heidi left school and opened an Amish gift shop near the New York and Pennsylvania border, where local craftsmen delivered their homemade goods via horse and buggy.  She homeschooled her children and incorporated lessons into their work at the shop.  Emily, for example, weighed candy to learn basic math at age 4.  Now 14, she can often make change in her head at the stand, without a cash register.

When the family moved to Virginia in October 2001, Heidi planned to open a similar store here.  Then the economy soured in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  She realized people didn't need quilts and rocking chairs, but they did need food.  She knew from Jacob's old experiment that the idea could fly.

After approaching local farmers about starting a market, Heidi discovered they needed someone to sell their produce so they could concentrate on growing it.  She now partners with about 14 farms, most near her home with occasional shipments from the Richmond and Virginia Beach areas.  She also sells some products that don't grow locally - bananas and oranges, for example - but doesn't ship from further away than Florida and she clearly marks the place of origin.  Other items in her inventory include baked goods, grass-fed beef and pork, organic pastas and soup mixes, pure raw honey, bulk spices, homemade soaps, and fresh-cut and dried herbs.

Heidi's front yard features eight raised garden beds, each 12-by-12 foot, with several types of tomatoes and cucumbers, bell peppers, squash, sweet corn, zucchini and more, all grown without pesticides.  She also has about 60 chickens - "my girls," she calls them - and a handful of Peking ducks.  "Most people say duck eggs have a richer, heartier taste," she says.  "They're excellent for baking.  They make everything lighter and fluffier."

Heidi's Homegrown & Organics currently has about 50 customers in its CSA, who have the option of weekly home delivery within the Williamsburg area or pick-up at the farm stand in Toano.  Heidi also offers fresh eggs and milk in glass bottles from pasture-raised cows given no antibiotics or growth hormones.  Contrary to what people may think, fresh eggs don't come with baby birds growing inside, she says with a laugh:  "You need a rooster for that, and I don't have a rooster."

The toughest part of her business, Heidi says, is finding time to do everything.  "When I get exhausted, it doesn't matter," she says.  "I have to keep going.  I have to tend to the crops, and the chickens need feed and water."

Thankfully she has had her children, all of whom have a strong work ethic and connection to nature.  Jacob and 19-year-old Jillian, who both go to school in New York, help whenever they come home.  Emily, 14, a freshman at Warhill High School, works on weekends and travels to farms to help pick produce.

"I like it because if my mom had another job, we wouldn't have so much time together," Emily says.

The benefits of healthy eating also have rubbed off on Emily:  She doesn't like eating processed foods.

"It's just not good for your body," she says.  "I like that people can come to our house to get food and see our chickens and gardens.  We just planted flowers.  It isn't that [much] fun when you're doing it, but then everything starts growing and it's so beautiful."

Heidi, who plays golf and sails in her rare free moments, imagines she'll keep her business going after Emily leaves home - although she jokes that her daughter is "not allowed to grow up."

"I love this," she says.  "It's a continuation of really great memories from my childhood.  It's a way of life that I don't ever want to see die out."

Williamsburg's Next Door Neighbor Magazine June 2011 issue.

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 Jillian, Heidi, Jacob, Ann & Emily (front).