It’s finally the time of year when folks around the Hilltowns are actively getting their hands dirty, digging deep, and setting themselves up for their future harvests.
This is certainly the case over at Windy Ridge Farm, an organic nursery situated in Hawley, MA, just twenty minutes from the Creamery. This time of year is the height of activity at the nursery, seedlings have grown into starters and are ready to find more permanent homes in gardens across Massachusetts.
Historically, the home garden has been an invaluable resource for so many. Providing simple joys, bringing beauty to the land and table, as well as crucial nutrients during the harsh winters. These days people can sit at their computers and dream of summer gardens during the cold months, CSA programs and online pre-orders make it simple for both gardeners and nurseries like Windy Ridge to plan ahead for the coming spring.
Founded in 2009 by Julia Lemieux, then a new mother looking to spend more time with her son, Windy Ridge Farm quickly escalated to selling plants wholesale at local establishments. The business gained Organic certification in 2013. Certification is especially important for wholesaling plants, when she can’t sit and chat with folks about her growing practices, being able to express them wherever they are sold is crucial.
Seated in the rolling hills of Hawley they are not in a great position to host a farm stand, and selling to retail outlets, such as the Old Creamery Co-op, still makes up the majority of their business. In fact, the Creamery is their oldest wholesale customer working together for roughly twelve years, since before the Creamery transitioned into a Co-op.
By 2013 Julia had also left her “off-the-farm” job, doing office management, to focus on Windy Ridge. But that didn’t stop her from also starting to help coordinate three community gardens at elementary schools in Pittsfield. Then in 2015 the farm got a matching enterprise grant to build a greenhouse which would provide twice the space, and the business continued to grow in a manageable manner. These days she oversees roughly 5500 sq ft of growing space, and while she would love to have more space, it’s important that it stays practical.
Theirs is a seasonal business, with a spring heavy focus. The busiest time of year starts in February, and lasts through till the end of June. Then things shift a bit, slowing down as they move twards selling veggies at the farmer’s market in Pittsfield, through the late summer and fall. November and December are for planning and purchasing, which is where their CSA model comes into play.
January and February is when they see folks ordering online, and Julia’s planning is increasingly based on those markets. The funds from these sorts of programs come in when the farm’s expenses are also coming due. The shift of folks imagining their gardens in January and ordering plants over the internet has truly changed the game for Windy Ridge over the past few years.
Since 2020 Windy Ridge Farm has found an increasing number of folks reinvesting into their gardens, in fact they’ve doubled their direct sales.
At first it seemed like a bubble, with so many folks stuck at home it made sense, but the volume has sustained. One of the biggest factors has been the delivery service they began to offer, in conjunction with CSA and Mass Food Delivery programs.
Before this influx, inclement weather on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend (or any Saturday in May) could be the harbinger of misfortune for the whole season, but with pre-orders the guesswork and variability of the growing season is greatly reduced. Funds from CSA members can help defray costs at the time when most of the season’s spending happens.
While the majority of their business is still wholesale, this key element balances potential crushing losses at washed out market days. Windy Ridge Farm is even able to access WIC, HIP, and SNAP benefits, allowing people to get help purchasing plants.
Their delivery service is offered across Western MA, but their reach extends throughout the entirety of Massachusetts by working with Mass Food Delivery. Breaking down the difficult accessibility issues of both funding and transportation is so important to families who want to grow their own food. Ordering through their CSA program before April also provides a hefty 30% discount on seedlings, so the benefits are mutual.
There are so many small businesses and folks out here in the hills who are going through the same issues as each other, by supporting each other everyone has a chance to grow. Such was the case last year in March, when disaster struck. The second greenhouse at Windy Ridge was destroyed in a windstorm, but when Julia put out the call and started a Go Fund Me she was amazed to have the necessary funds to rebuild within two weeks.
The year before that, in 2021, she received a Food Security Infrastructure Grant for a wash and pack station, keeping her and her two employees out of the sun. With the climate change it’s important to have a cool space to work away from the hot summer sun. It just goes to show, with a little support from the community and state programs, a lot can be accomplished.
Julia’s favorite plants include hibiscus, both for their beautiful flowers as well as the tea that can be made from it, and a multitude of pepper varieties. The peppers range from sweet to hot and everything in between, with so many vibrant colors. And that’s where the joy is, in the natural beauty and incredible variety growing provides. One of her pet projects is her Scotch Bonnets, originating from southern climates they have a harder time in our growing zone, but by saving seeds each year she can encourage a heartier and earlier maturing strain.
Windy Ridge Farm’s hearty starters have been at the Old Creamery but starting this weekend tomatoes and many more offerings are on their way!
Just in time for Mother’s Day.
Windy Ridge Farm
42 E Hawley Rd,
Hawley, MA 01339