Farmers’ markets are a collection of businesses, a temporal grocery store where each shelf comes with a smiling face and a wealth of knowledge about the products they produce and sell. We’re giving our vendors the spotlight to share more about their role in the Hillsdale market community.
By Sarah West
Not too many years ago, the bend in Dairy Creek where 135 acres of Sun Gold Farm sit under their celestial namesake, there was, not surprisingly, a dairy. Charlie and Vicki Hertel, the owners and operators of Sun Gold Farm, ran that dairy (originally bought by Vicki’s parents in the 1930’s) for 22 years. Both Charlie and Vicki were raised on dairy farms, and both thought dairy would be their lifelong career. That is, until the late 90’s, when environmental concerns about runoff pollution from their manure pile forced the Hertels to make some difficult choices.
Rather than pay the exorbitant price of moving much of the dairy’s infrastructure up slope from the river, they chose to sell their cows and began to transition their land to vegetables. Though Vicki had been selling extras from the family’s kitchen garden through a consignment booth at the Hillsboro Farmers’ Market, they knew little about managing row crops or diverse vegetable production systems.
“Jack of all trades, master of none,” Charlie said of his operation on a recent tour of the farm. Looking out over the culmination of a 17-year learning curve, it’s hard to fully agree with him. Their operation works like a well-conducted orchestra: autumn-spread horse manure and lime, cover crops, and crop rotation account for their soil management and fertilization program. No pesticides or herbicides are used on the farm; instead, natural predators like coyotes and birds are encouraged to visit the farm and a profusion of wildflowers (some may wrongly call them weeds) attract beneficial insects. A four-person crew (three of them seasonal) assists Charlie and Vicki with planting, weeding, irrigation and harvest, and their two children, Chris and Stephanie, returned to the farm after post-high-school time away, contributing their business and marketing skills to growing the farm’s profit margin.
Starting in late winter, Vicki fills five of their unheated greenhouses with nursery starts and hanging baskets of flowering annuals, which they sell at their spring markets. Early summer is busy with planting and weeding 25 acres of vegetables, cutting and bailing 80 acres of Timothy hay, which they rotates around the farm to make use of resting vegetable fields, and ramping up for peak market season. By now, the crew is working hard to manage a dizzying number of succession plantings of their 160 vegetable varieties in order to supply a 500-member CSA and eight weekly markets. Though it is still the height of summer, farmers’ must think far in advance, and the Sun Gold crew already has a field of fall brassicas planted, with more going in soon for overwintering.
Fifteen years ago, not long after they transitioned to vegetable farming, the Hertels were trialing new tomato varieties for the Logan-Zenner Seed Company and ended up with sungold cherry tomatoes in their batch. The variety was a standout at the farm (and internationally!), so much so the Hertel’s changed their farm’s name, inspired by the delicious new tomato and the clever ring to its name. They’ve been selling pints of sungolds ever since, and the rest of the farm’s sun gold—a rich assortment of year-round fresh vegetables, fruits and storage crops like dry beans, potatoes and winter squash—continues to feed hundreds of lucky Oregon families twelve months a year.
Sun Gold Farm was the 2014 Edible Portland Local Hero Award in the Farm category. Find out more at: http://edibleportland.com/2014/04/farm-sun-gold-farm/. Learn about their CSA program, including their unique, one-time Thanksgiving share, on their website, http://www.sungoldfarm.com.