Selling herbs and tea is a far cry from captaining a sailboat in the Caribbean, but Iman Al-Sharkawi shows up every spring at the Wednesday Mount Vernon Farmers Market for her loyal customers. Come winter, she returns to tropical seas to sail and teach sailing. On May 3, her sister, Aliya, helped at the farmstand. Aliya is a race car driver in Tacoma, Washington.
Most are not sailing boats, but the vendors at the weekly market all say they are busy throughout the winter catching up on farm chores.
The market in the Sherwood Regional Library parking lot brings many delights, human and gastronomical -- fresh tomatoes, spinach, strawberries, scallops, mushrooms, salsas, bread, honey, pastries, pork, beef, chicken, pasta, coffee, ice cream and honey-based lotions. Market manager Bob Varela says that between 800 and 1,000 people shop at summer’s height of the season.
The vendors are wide-eyed and ready for retail at 8 a.m. on frigid mornings, rainy days and summer steambaths from mid-April to mid-December.
Wayne Pierson rises at 2 a.m. and since 2006 has driven two hours from Three-Way Farms in Warsaw, Virginia, to bring potatoes, greens, radishes, carrots and peppers to shoppers. Asked what he did all winter, he said, “I cut firewood and fixed our equipment.”
The Miller family, owners of Valentine’s Bakery and Meats in Orange, Virginia, has multiple tables and coolers brimming with products, from grass-fed beef to pumpkin chocolate chip bread. Young Dillon, age six, often comes when school’s out and tells customers about their rambunctious bulls. In the winter, the family repairs fences and feeds the cows hay that they bale in the fall.
Darletta, Veronica and Donovan make eight different products in their home-based bakery. Mount Vernonite Chris Morrison shops at Valentine’s market weekly because she says, “I’m confident their products are healthy and tasty.”
The farm is a five-family-member operation, raising chickens, turkeys, cows, hogs, lambs and sheep, plus a few rabbits and pheasants. Customers nab products like chicken breasts, ham biscuits, pork chops, country-cured hams, smoked and cured bacon, spareribs, sausages, dog bones and even chicken feet, most kept frozen in big coolers. The Millers' chickens and hogs are free range.
“Our animals have been raised to be happy and healthy, the way God intended,” Valentine says.
Paul Mangan’s tables from Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, bulge with many varieties of apples and in summer, cherries, plums, nectarines and pears. Their greenhouses produce tomatoes, cucumbers and greens all year and their fields yield onions, peppers, potatoes, carrots, squash and more.
What did Twin Springs’ farmers do all winter? “We pruned the fruit trees and grew vegetables in our greenhouses,” said Mangan.
Jeannette Moler offers customers samples of her cheddar garlic and sourdough breads. In her Lorton and Burke bakeries, she makes 800 loaves on Fridays, 500 on Saturdays, 200 on Tuesdays and 150 on Mondays. She has a 22-inch stone mill that can mill three bushels of Montana wheat a day. Her Dakota wheat bread and pesto parmesan sourdough are sure winners.
This is Frauna Bruns’s first year selling at the Mount Vernon market. At her Orange, Virginia, farm called Pork Stork, she raises free-roaming, large black and red wattle hogs that forage in the woods in 10-acre enclosures. Bruns offers sausages, pork chops, pork belly bacon, Boston butts, shoulders, ribs, ham hocks and jowls. She also raises heritage breeds of beef cattle.
Joseph Borghi offers wildflower honey products, beeswax-based lotions, sunscreen and lavender skin cream, products from the 300 beehives at Jimmy McWilliams’s Stafford County farm. Their motto: Making the World Sweeter One Sting at a Time.
Karen Arnest has a loyal following, locals who admire her glistening spread of scrumptious crab cakes, soft-shell crabs, rockfish, mackerel and scallops fresh from the Chesapeake Bay. Fishing is in the Arnest family’s blood, involving her father, husband and brother-in-law who both fish and crab, she explains. She leaves Hague, Virginia, at 4 a.m. every Wednesday and after the Mount Vernon market goes to the Wakefield market, which gets her home around 9 p.m. “Can I clean the crabs for you?” she cheerfully offers and in 20 seconds has snipped the briny softshells and handed them over to her customer.
Sabry Al-Sharkawi and his daughter, Iman the sailor, grow around 60 organic herbs, spices and flowering plants in Broad Run, Virginia. They make and sell 20 teas with names like Paradise Black, Fiji Green, Imperial Spice and Relaxing Tea.
When the senior Al-Sharkawi visited Virginia farmers’ markets in the early 1980s, he could find no homegrown, organic herbs, spices or teas so he started growing the plants in his greenhouse. Some customers, like Hollin Hills resident Roger Miller, buy herbs to attract caterpillars. Parsley, fennel and dill attract black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, for example.
Ethan Eddy shops at the Mount Vernon market because, “it’s a smaller carbon footprint than buying produce at the grocery store,” he explains. Nancy Hermann brings her food waste for composting and gets help from the master gardeners there.
“I like the people up here,” Pierson commented last Wednesday. The loyal locals no doubt like the farmers too.
Fairfax County’s 10 Farmers Markets, including vendors, https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/farmersmarkets/. Some take pre-orders.