By Jenny Paurys, Photography by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields of Our Local Commons, Charlottesville
It’s a bright evening on the cusp of June. Holly and James Hammond sit at the dinner table, having already had a long day. The couple owns Whisper Hill Farm in Rapidan, Virginia, where Culpeper County and Madison County meet, and this is the point when the spring market season really takes off.
This table set for dinner is not in the farmhouse kitchen, but in the Glass Building in downtown Charlottesville, at APimento Catering’s studio and kitchen. Seated at the table with the Whisper Hill team — Holly, James and the season’s interns, Sam, Jennifer, and Kaitlin — are Gay Beery, founding chef and owner of APimento, and her husband, Josef. An adjacent table is filled with members of the APimento staff. It is Thursday evening, and everyone is eager to shake off the burdens of the week. Large salad bowls, passed from hand to hand, are filled with spring baby greens, thin slices of radish, and nasturtium blossoms — all from Whisper Hill — tossed with fresh local chevré and a simple citrus vinaigrette.
Forks laden with the farm’s treasures, and with market day just around the corner, dinner conversation naturally takes root in the bounty of spring. “I love June for this reason,” says Holly. “It’s like the great move through spring into summer veggies.”
Holly and James started Whisper Hill Farm in 2010, on the heels of an internship at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia — an experience they sought after years of dreaming of a life closer to the land.
“When Holly and I started gardening about ten years ago, I just fell in love with it,” James tells the assembled group. “I had always wanted to do something for a living that I felt made a difference in the world, that was satisfying and was a worthwhile profession, and I just didn’t feel I could do that in corporate America.”
In gardening, James felt like he’d found something he’d been seeking. “I loved every aspect of it,” he says. “I loved watching seeds germinate; I loved watching them grow. I loved putting compost into the beds and harvesting — eating foods that we’d grown.”
The couple considered homesteading but felt that no matter how they decided to pursue their vision of a more self-sufficient life, they needed to learn more about organic gardening. An internship promised that opportunity, and Waterpenny Farm seemed like the ideal setting for two people who had already hiked the Appalachian Trail and admired the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The year they spent at Waterpenny convinced them that this was a dream worth pursuing, and they began to look for a parcel of land on which to launch their own vegetable farm. They found it along Robinson River near Rapidan, and Whisper Hill’s ten acres have nourished their lives and livelihood ever since.
Of those ten acres, Holly and James have four under cultivation as well as a sixteen-by-one hundred-foot hoop house where they start all their plants. Each season carries with it a bit more confidence. “I think with each passing year there are not as many surprises, which is good in farming,” James says. Holly agrees. “The more years we do it, the easier it is. Experience helps. It’s nice to not be so reactionary about things; it’s going to work out. Every year’s been better than the previous one.”
The conversation turns to the next day’s harvest in preparation for the weekend markets. Savoy cabbages are looking promising, and perhaps the first of the green beans of the year. There are zucchini and yellow squash growing nicely on the vine, too. And they continue to have a late spring bounty of beets, a favorite that Gay has featured on the menu this evening. The APimento crew sets the next course on the tables, and Holly and James marvel at the roasted root vegetables on the platter, which are dished out onto plates along with citrus-basted chicken and green-herbed basmati rice.
The farm’s connection to APimento dates back to Whisper Hill’s earliest days and its first season at the Charlottesville City Market in spring of 2011. Gay — who visits the market on a weekly basis — came by the stand, and she and Holly struck up a conversation. It’s a dialogue that has continued for years, as each business has grown, leading to a partnership that now takes shape in weekly visits and orders.
Gay and her team bring out the dessert — goat cheese panna cotta with fresh strawberries. The sound of spoons clinking in glasses joins the timbre of voices filling the room. As the meal begins to wind to a close and other guests start to trickle out, Gay, Josef, and the Whisper Hill team are left to mingle at the table. The conversation turns inward, lingering on the rewards and pitfalls of owning a small business — the genuine love for what you do, constantly tempered by the gamble of embracing it.
“People seem to just have a romantic view of farming today,” Holly says, adding that when she and James first began to think seriously about the idea they, too, were naive about the tremendous work involved — not only the physical labor but also the complex business side. “You can want to farm, but if you don’t know how to operate it as a business it’s not going to sustain itself,” Holly says.
Gay, who has nurtured APimento’s growth over the past decade, nods emphatically. “It’s part of sustainability,” she says. “A huge part.”
It’s a roll of the dice — a chosen path that must be constantly tended and maintained. But the sense at the table tonight, with its rich conversation and camaraderie, is that this choice has led to a life of fulfillment for each of them. And it has led to a friendship, born on a spring morning several years ago, when Gay and Holly got to talking. Now here they sit, two points on the spectrum of the local food community, indelibly and beautifully linked.
A version of this story appeared in Our Local Commons — Charlottesville, Vol. II., where many of these recipes are available. Following its publication, Whisper Hill Farm moved to a new certified organic location near Scottsville, Virginia. The move has been a positive one. “We are excited to be working with folks who value organic production,” Holly says.