Alexandria, VA – The signs say it all: Farm Stand. Sweet Corn. Fresh Local Produce. Peaches, Blueberries, Tomatoes. Crazy Sweet Melons. (And they are crazy sweet.) Neighbors flock to the farm stand when the signs go up on Belle View Boulevard and at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Fort Hunt Road.
Belle View resident Linda Whitmore is a big fan. “I grew up in the country, and I love to shop here because the fruits and vegetables are so fresh and delicious, so close to what we enjoyed back then.” Leslie Rodriguez filled her basket, noting how much she appreciates the convenience of the farm stand. “I prefer to shop here because the bigger farmers’ markets are just too crowded.” Kerry Corley makes it a point to buy her meat at the farm stand, as “the quality far surpasses what’s being sold in the supermarket.”
“Here in Belle View, the stand is open 2:00 to 7:00 Thursday afternoons. Word on the street is you have to get there at 2:00 p.m. for the good stuff, but as the summer has progressed they have brought abundance, so there’s enough for everyone,” said shopper Gina Cavallaro. “It’s a wee bit more expensive than the local supermarket but the payback is the flavor and freshness you get from real farmers. It has definitely enhanced our neighborhood.”
The farm is Orchard Country Produce, located in Gardners, PA, owned by the Keckler family. So how did this little corner of Northern Virginia become its second home? Oliver Keckler explained, “We had sold our produce to certain markets in Washington, DC, for years. Then, in 2006, we joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and delivered boxes to businesses and residences.”
One of those residences belonged to Waynewood’s Suzanne Odom. Suzanne had been looking for a CSA to both support local farming and get fresher food that didn’t travel as far from harvest to her door. “I found them online, when they were delivering to locations in Washington. Because we’re just a few miles from there, Gregg (Oliver’s father) would deliver our box in the very early morning hours, and it was there waiting for me when I woke up.”
Suzanne spread the word about the high-quality products she was enjoying, and friends signed on. Eventually enough interest in having a weekly farm stand grew, and in 2012 the pastor at St. Luke’s agreed to host the site.
“I find it fulfilling to know the people growing the food,” Suzanne said. “And I like the simplicity of getting my food directly from the farmer, and eating seasonal food that’s grown closer to home.” She’s not alone, as sales have remained strong. After four years at St. Luke’s, the Kecklers added another location in Belle View, as well as a second day at St. Luke’s.
“We’re as busy as we’ve ever been right now,” said Oliver. “These days, people are home so much more. We’re selling lots of berries, peaches, and other products we’ve just picked the day before. Customers really appreciate how fresh everything is.”
Of course, all the freshness and vibrant colors of the farm’s bounty come at a cost: farming is hard work. This season, summer into fall, is the most challenging. “Everyone would love to take a break but this is crunch time. We’re scrambling to get the premium yet perishable fruits to market, but we’re also seeding and planting for fall and winter,” said Oliver. Not to mention packing, setting up, and breaking down all the tents, tables, signs, and tons of food a few times every week to run the bustling farm stands.
The Kecklers are grateful for the loyalty of their customers in the area, and the customers are only too happy to show up and show their love. At any time, there may be a dozen or more people perusing the offerings, chatting with neighbors and friends, and grabbing one more item while waiting on line. In addition to fruits and vegetables, meat and eggs, cheese and bacon, customers scoop up fresh honey and syrup, homemade jams and butters, custom breads, and cookies and whoopie pies.
“It is hard work but it’s rewarding, and it’s been really great for my whole family,” said Oliver, who grew up living and working the farmer’s life. “I love not only growing the food but also selling it directly to people who are so appreciative of it.”
Visit the farm stand at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 8009 Fort Hunt Road, Tuesdays 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. and Saturdays 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The Belle View farm stand is located in front of the gazebo in the 1200 block of Belle View Boulevard, Thursdays 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. For more information, visit www.orchardcountryproduce.com.