Thursday, December 13, 2007
On Christmas Day, Sam and Uta Brown, proprietors of Crooked Run Orchard in Purcellville, plan to jump into their car and head south for a week-long vacation. After handmaking about 400 wreaths and swags, they'll be ready to hang up their clippers.
For them, Christmas blew into town just after the last of the Halloween pumpkins were picked. They began November and December days on their 97-acre farm cutting armloads of fragrant boxwood, white and Scotch pine, arborvitae and juniper. Then they worked into the evenings, weaving them into wreaths and swags to sell at their farm stand and local Christmas tree lots.
For some Loudoun County families, picking up nature's holiday bounty from the Browns is an annual tradition.
"People like our products because the public is finally getting much more locally oriented. They know that our things are fresher and last longer," Uta says. "It's like cooking: The freshness of the ingredients makes your recipe have a great flavor. Everything here is natural and comes from our wonderful soil."
Jonelle St. John from Middleburg is an annual customer. "Everything in these wreaths and swags is gathered from where we live," St. John says. "It gives you that sense of place that you strive for."
Greenery is the last crop of the year at Crooked Run, the farm settled by Sam's Quaker forebears more than 240 years ago. He and his wife are passionate about their land and their commitment to natural farming. "We do what we like to do," Uta says. "It's a simple if demanding life. We're both bookish. But the farm puts us in contact with lots of interesting people."
The Browns spend most of the year tending to their orchards and garden plots and running a pick-your-own business. In April, it's asparagus; June and July produce cherries, blackberries and plums; fall is the time for apples, pears, pumpkins and gourds. Sam brings some of their harvests to farmers markets, and some are sold at their small farm stand, where today you'll likely find boxes of apples, baskets of pine cones, bouquets of English boxwood and yule logs. Neighboring farms often provide organic lettuce, eggs and honey. Money is collected in an old fishing tackle box.
Sam started farming about 25 years ago on his family's land.
"He was already making wreaths before I arrived 17 years ago," says Uta, who grew up outside New York and has a background in biochemistry and genetics. "And then we started making them together."
During holiday time, they have a loose division of labor. "He makes his things on a ring; I do mine freehand," says Uta, who masses greens of various textures to create festive 20- to 30-inch swags that sell for $15 to $18. "I grow things as well as forage for natural materials. Virginia is a wonderful place to forage," she says, cautioning a visitor not to step on a pile of bittersweet. "I'm always finding myself getting into thorny bushes."
During high production season, the front yard of their 1908 farmhouse is piled with all the traditional greens as well as sumac, milkweed pods, goldenrod, coral berries and sweet everlasting. She prefers to let the colors and textures of the pine, cedar and boxwood be the main ingredients. "The greens speak for themselves," Uta says. "Who needs a lot of other stuff?"
In a weathered barn in back, Sam bunches wreaths near the warmth of an ancient kerosene heater and to the sound of a pair of pigs grunting in the background. (That would be Conan the Warrior Pig and Spots. Regulars ask about them by name.)
Sam deftly wields a pair of clippers as he builds each wreath on Kelco clamp-on wreath makers he orders from Maine. He puts a handful of greens on the wire form and clamps the two pieces of wire shut, using a special machine built into the farm table. The 22-inch wreaths of pine or mixed greens with added bow and pine cones sell for $20; decorated with dried materials, $25. "I try to make about 15 a day," says Sam, who tracks his output on a wall chart. "I have tendinitis, so that's about all I can handle."
The Browns will probably shut down wreath- and swag-making operations next week, as the season comes to a close. They say they don't decorate their own house or exchange gifts. They're too busy in the barn and the garden. "Our work is never exhausting," Uta says. "It's really a joy."
And when they return from their vacation, joy will come in the form of propagating seedlings for next year's harvests.