Working Over Thyme on a starter farm
Couple’s farming adventure begins with too many seedlings, not enough space
Story by Conni Leigh James and Priscilla Wentworth; photos by Conni Leigh James
Several years ago, Ross Margulies and Leah Puttkammer were searching for better quality—and better tasting—food. After a bit of research, they bought dozens of packs of heirloom seeds and started them all in a small room of their downtown D.C. townhouse.
“There were lots of seeds in each pack, and they all grew,” said Margulies, who now had more potential produce than their small backyard plot could ever hope to handle. Neighbors eagerly stepped up and the couple was able to find homes for the hundreds of plants; more importantly, they got their first inkling of the large demand that existed for pesticide- and chemical-free products…. for simple food that tasted good.
“We did 96 varieties of produce in our first year,” Margulies said. “We wanted to do a variety, but we may have gone overboard.”
For awhile, they funded their veggie enterprise via an annual seedling sale, but soon found they were ready to take the business to the next level. In 2012, the search for suitable (and affordable) farmland began, preferably land in Maryland or Virginia.
They searched online and found Maryland FarmLINK, a program that matches those selling farmland with those looking to lease or buy, and a similar program in Virginia. Maryland FarmLINK got back to them first, and they were introduced to Yates Clagett, an established farmer with a small plot of land complete with cozy farmhouse on the banks of the Patuxent River in Brandywine that he was looking to lease.
“We figured this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start our farming career,” said Margulies. “We could lease land, keep our seedling customers, and gain technical expertise and resources from the landowner, who is also a farmer, which was helpful.” Throughout the two-year lease, they have made improvements to the soil and added infrastructure that will remain when they leave, which benefits the landowner as well.
Like many beginning farmers, both have full time jobs off the farm, Margulies as a health care policy researcher and Puttkammer as a professional photographer. Farm work is squeezed in around their day jobs, making for late hours and long schedules, and inspiring the business name, Working Over Thyme.
They had experience with growing produce, but they needed a mentor farmer to help them with a few specific issues like scaling up and pest management. They turned to Maryland FarmLINK again, this time to FarmLINK’s Mentor Match program, which pairs new/beginning farmers with experienced farmers with similar business models. Through Mentor Match, they met Rebecca (Becky) Seward of Prickly Pear Produce.
“Once we started the Mentor Match program, we looked to Becky for growing information and for assistance with becoming Certified Naturally Grown,” said Margulies.
“It was great to have Becky as our mentor because she hadn’t been doing it forever, although she had been farming 13 years. She was younger and it made it easier to ask her basic questions. We were able to text Becky too, which allowed us to talk more frequently. We would send her pictures of bugs and get a quick responses back while in the field.”
FarmLINK also arranged for the couple to work for a day on Next Step Produce Farm, a larger scale, certified-organic fruit and vegetable farm nearby in Charles County. “It was great to see their operation and work on the farm there for a day,” said Ross. “It was great to witness first-hand a farm that we aspire to be like.”
The couple widened their distribution to include CSA shares, and continued to offer seedlings for sale. Their greenhouse, a modified sun porch off the house, is outfitted with humidity control, shelving and grow lights. “We grow seedlings from February through August. Beets start in February, and in July we start seeds for crops like kale for a fall planting. We have an intense spreadsheet that my math friends put together for us that has been very useful,” Margulies said.
“We have our spreadsheet for plantings, harvest dates, etc. but we needed to do better record keeping with it.” Margulies brings organizational skills he has gained in his day job to the farm; he believes farming involves “if/than” scenarios and complex cause-and-effect situations that are “just as cerebral” as the legal work.
“Farming is constant problem solving, not being able to be in control of that, remembering that Mother Nature is always in control,” addedadded Puttkammer.
On this April day, customers are arriving to pick up seedling orders. The couple walks out to the field where overwintered garlic is growing tall and green for a local restaurant customer.
After two years of leasing this land and learning all they can, it’s time once again to move on. The couple plans to leave Maryland at the end of June and move the farm business south to the Tennessee area to be closer to family. “This leasing opportunity helped us to refine what we ultimately are looking for in permanent land,” said Margulies.
Networking has played a big part in growing the farm. “We had read all these books about Vermont and other parts of the county doing this kind of farming, but we actually have a great support system here in Southern Maryland too and FarmLINK helped us find that. We are a little nervous because we don’t see the same support network in Tennessee yet.”