In this series of articles, we spotlight vendors from the FRESHFARM Rosslyn Farmers Market, which takes place every Wednesday evening from 4-8 p.m. at Central Place Plaza in Downtown Rosslyn.
All in the family
A fifth-generation family enterprise, Hillside Meadow Farm cultivates home-grown produce and fresh, natural meats
Jason Gross, owner of Hillside Meadow Farm in Glenville, Pa., is asked a simple question while staffing his stand at the FRESHFARM Rosslyn Farmers Market:
"So, what's a typical day like for you?"
"Well," he begins, "I'm up by 4:30, in the field by 5, and back at the house by 10:30."
"Oh, that's not so bad," says the interviewer (who is largely clueless about what full-time farming actually entails). "So, you're done with all your work for the day by 10:30 a.m., then?"
Gross looks away for a second.
"No, I mean 10:30 p.m.," he says. "At night."
This man, who grew up on his farm, is now the fifth-generation owner and operator. He works six days a week, only taking a break for dinner in the evenings. Sunday is his day of rest and worship: He goes to church in the morning, then spends the afternoon with his wife and four children, who range in age from 16 to six. He is tall, broad-shouldered and strong, his skin deeply tanned from long days working in the fields. He is straightforward and looks you in the eye when speaking. He is proud of what he does.
"Everything we grow is home-grown. We bring absolutely nothing in," he says.
Hillside Meadow Farm consists of 137 acres where Gross and his family cultivate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including sweet corn, carrots, beets, herbs, lettuce and green beans, as well as nectarines, peaches, plums, cherries, berries and more. They also sell all-natural meats from animals born on the farm and raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.
To ensure the health of their crops, they practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an approach to pest management that aims to pose the lowest possible hazard to people, property and the environment.1 A scout visits the farm regularly to check the crops and recommend the best synthetic or organic sprays to treat pests. Not everything is sprayed; it's done on a case-by-case basis, and is dependent on weather. So, Gross says a drier spring means fewer pests, while a wetter one means there's a higher likelihood there will be fungus and other issues.
"Certain weather from the South can bring fungus into the area, but we can prepare for it," he says. "Sweet corn always needs to be sprayed for worms, and we know that. Some crops we treat, and some we don't."
The whole family pitches in to keep the farm running smoothly: Gross works in the fields; his wife, Jenny, manages the office; and their children help with farming and with staffing farmers markets in Maryland and Virginia where they sell their products.
Their two biggest challenges?
Labor and time.
"We have a lot to do, and it's hard to get it all done," Gross says.
Retaining good help can be difficult, too. Gross says they typically have six or seven people (in addition to family members) working on the farm. Many are seasonal employees, and although he says they currently have some really good ones, it's often hard to find them.
For Gross, maintaining the farm is a round-the-clock, all-encompassing labor of love, even if "love" isn't always the word he'd use to describe it. Take the night before: He was out in the fields with his 15-year-old son at 9 o'clock replanting sweet potatoes. It wasn't exactly an idyllic, father-son moment.
So, does he like his job?
Despite the challenges, the hard work and the uncertainty, he does. At his core, Gross is a farmer, through and through.
"If you don’t want to do this, you’re not gonna do it," he says simply.
That night, when the market closes at 8, Gross will pack up his produce, get in his truck, and drive the three hours back to his farm in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He'll be out in the fields again the next morning at 5, then back in D.C. for the Georgetown Farmers Market on Saturday, and out at other markets throughout the week. It's a busy, physically demanding, weather-dependent life. But Jason Gross and his family wouldn't have it any other way.
To learn more about Hillside Meadow Farm, visit their website. And be sure to say hi to Jason Gross and check out his fresh produce and meats every Wednesday evening at the FRESHFARM Rosslyn Farmers Market.
1 Learn more about Integrated Pest Management by visiting the U.S. EPA website.
Photo at top: Jason Gross, fifth-generation owner and operator of Hillside Meadow Farm, at the FRESHFARM Rosslyn Farmers Market.