Don and Shirley Become Farmers
The story behind Stony Farms and its proprietors, Don and Shirley Ward, is engaging. Don Ward worked as a business executive for a major southern California company, but always maintained a small vegetable garden at home as his hobby. Faced with health problems in 1988, Don decided to quit the business world to pursue his gardening hobby on a full-time basis. The Ward's sold all their possessions in the south and moved to northern California when Shirley had found an 8 acre "fixer-upper" farm in Santa Rosa.
Using Don's hobby gardening techniques and Shirley's Iowa farm upbringing, they launched a 8-acre organic produce farm and were among the first organic farmers to participate in the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market when it started in May 1993. On most Saturdays, the produce at their U-shaped stand is sold out well before the Market officially closes at 1:30 p.m.
Shirley calls them a "Ma and Pa Team" -- Pa grows and Ma sells. But in talking to "Ma", you learn that she also plays a key role in running the tractor to do tilling and furrowing. During the high season, when they bring two truckloads of produce to the Market, Ma drives one truck, Pa drives the other and Pa stays on to help Ma tend the stand.
Shirley is always eager to give you tips on how to keep her produce fresh after you bring it home and she'll gladly take special orders -- she's the only grower at the Market that I've found who will specially pick tiny cucumbers for making cornichon pickles. She loves the Market and her customers. Stop by to have a chat with her after she's sold out for the day. You'll learn a lot!
They Grow Over 80 Varieties of Produce
Shirley and Don keep meticulous records of the crops, yields and seasons. The Wards grow 80 varieties of produce, but the 2 items that cause long lines at Shirley's stand are the super sweet carrots and 14 types of tomatoes. Customers are wild about the sweet carrots and have even accused Shirley of adding sugar to the fertilizer to make them so sweet. Each year, Don grows and Shirley sells 15,000 lbs. of carrots and 25,000 lbs. of tomatoes.
At the Hands of Mother Nature
Talking to Shirley gives you a real feeling for the life and hardships a farmer faces at the hands of Mother Nature. All vegetables at the Stony Farms start their life in January in the Ward's heated "birthing greenhouse". After the plants are a few inches high, they're transferred to cell packs and moved to the "big greenhouse" to grow up. Before planting, they're put outside on shelves in their cell packs to harden off the tender plants. Root crops, on the other hand, are planted directly into the soil starting in late February, weather permitting. Cold weather and rains can delay (or stop) this planting as it did earlier this year.
The Wards are continually starting seedlings and planting so they can get 2-3 harvests a year from most of their 200-300 planting beds.
Following strict organic gardening techniques, they don't plant the same crop successively in the same bed. If carrots were planted first, then radishes or some other crop that is not susceptible to the same bugs would follow This is the organic way to control those nasty bugs that are attracted to particular a vegetable but don't find it in the same place planting after planting -- no chemicals -- the organic way!
Where to Find Shirley
Shirley brings the Stony Farms produce to 3 Bay Area farmers' markets from early April through early January:
San Francisco Ferry Plaza Markets (Tuesday and Saturday)
Marin Civic Center (Thursday)
Sunday is Shirley's stay-at-home day--a time to read books and to have "fun" with Don, her husband of 47 years! Shirley and Don have decided to slow down a bit starting in 2001. They will continue to have the four favorite items that their customers demand -- tomatoes, carrots, broccoli and cucumbers.
May 1996; updated September 2000
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