At 9:30 on a Sunday morning neither the crowd nor the heat has started to boil over yet at American Farmland Trust's Freshfarm Market at Dupont Circle.
At the corner of 20th Street and Massachusetts Avenue is James Huyett's Sunnyside Farm and Orchards stand. Huyett is tending one of the cash registers and directing his helpers to keep the tables stocked. On display are mounds of vegetables, picked late the day before, brought to the market early in the morning and now spread out in the sun.
To many city shoppers who are just awakening and wandering down to the market, their visit will be just a brief stop, a diversion in a weekend of leisure activities. But Huyett has been at work for hours and is deep into what will be a rigorous, demanding day that started at his Charles Town, W.Va., farm.
By the last light of Saturday, Huyett, 51, and his helpers picked the produce bound for the market. They loaded the truck at 4 a.m. and drove 1 1/2 hours to the city, stopping briefly to grab breakfast at a bagel shop and arriving at 6 a.m., just as the nearby streets close down to accommodate the market.
Today it's Dupont Circle, but other days Huyett sells his produce at 10 different farmers markets in the area.
His wife, Barbara "Chipp," 46, stays behind to run the farm. "There's really no day off [during the season]," she says, "and sometimes I resent it," adding that possibly she can put her feet up on Sunday afternoons, but can never spare the time to cook like Grandma did.
But both Huyetts and her son, Christopher Robinson, 22, are happy with a life that many city folk would find downright daunting. The 245-acre farm, with its sloping land and antebellum main house, has been family property since the Civil War. There's a packing shed, greenhouse, two hoop houses (unheated and plastic-enclosed), fields, orchards and woods.
"It has been my family's business for my great-grandfather, grandfather, dad and me," says James Huyett, who took over the farm after his father's death five years ago. "When growing up, I farmed. After college, I worked other places, but I always came back. I love what I'm doing or I wouldn't do it."
Chipp Huyett explains it more simply: "Jim was born to do this." But she would not trade her place either, even on a day when the thermometer reaches 102 degrees and their fields are drought-stricken. "I spent the morning moving irrigation pipe . . . and I spent the afternoon hand-watering the tomatoes in the hoop house, where it was 120 degrees. But even after today, I can't picture us anywhere else," she says, listing the many pluses of farm life: watching nature's rhythms, appreciating starry night skies, enjoying delicate wildflowers and indigo buntings, spotting the hummingbirds in the Anasazi beans and thrilling to the growth of their plants from seed to fruit.
"In the big picture, we are very lucky," she says. "We eat very well."
But, of course, some aspects of their farm life are anything but rosy. Take the labor shortage. "We've been using a few local college students," James Huyett says, who come during growing season and help pick until noon. "We also offer internships from Global Outreach that bring in agricultural students from all over Europe to learn farming techniques in America. We have two from Estonia, one from Lithuania and two from Hungary," he says. "But last year was our best peach year and we left over 50 percent on the trees," he says. "We couldn't get enough help."
Then there are the pests--from molds, weeds and insects to birds, groundhogs and the two herds of deer roaming the farm. For just about every one of these problems Huyett has found a solution: black plastic sheeting over the soil to kill weeds, wind machines to blow away bugs, a portable foil-bedecked scarecrow for the birds. But the deer have him stymied. "Groundhogs can ruin an acre in a heartbeat," he says, "but deer take a bite out of a leaf and browse. They will walk through an entire tomato patch. . . . And deer rub the bark and eat the leaves off young peach trees." This can cripple or kill the entire tree.
For the deer, he has resorted to electric fences, chemicals, loud carbide cannon fire (that annoys neighbors) and, finally, responsible hunters.
Then, there's the weather. "We need enough snowfall and cold temperatures to kill the bugs and weed seeds," he says, "and we need the snow to insulate the plants and provide water in the spring."
In the spring, they hope it rains enough to soften the earth for tilling.
Come summer, they dread the possibility of hail, which can pierce or crush crops, wiping out a season's worth of produce, or thunderstorms, which can wash everything away. Chipp Huyett remembers one storm that hit during an open-house event at the farm several years ago. At first, hail shattered the roof of the greenhouse, destroying all the tomatoes inside. Minutes later, a thunderstorm hit. "It poured so much water that one of the visiting children picked up a turtle floating by," she says.
This year, it's the drought. "We might have to start cutting out markets," she says. "We can't produce enough, we are irrigating every day. The drought will greatly affect the quality of fruits, vegetables--and our income. The quality is not up to par and the yields go way down."
If all this sounds like farming is an uphill fight, James Huyett insists that the upside far outweighs these problems. "I wake up each spring and decide to throw all my time and money into it. I work day and night to produce something that's perfect," he says.
Achieving perfection takes careful work and plotting each year's crops takes up many winter hours, Chipp Huyett says, describing her basement as a sort of war room, with one wall covered by a field map. This helps them plan crop rotations and decide where they will experiment with new crops.
Later during the season, she keeps a logbook of each square inch of planted land. That is the extent of their overall business plan, she says, and as for their own daily schedules, these amount to farm work and dealing with routine headaches.
Before buying seeds, she says, she reads cooking magazines, food articles and cookbooks, relying on trendsetters like Martha Stewart to figure out what produce and ethnic cuisines are hot. "This year Martha's pushing yellow," she says, "so we have yellow peppers, tulips and squash."
So far, the Huyetts are pleased with what's growing: tomatoes, beans, corn, cabbage, squash, kohlrabi, potatoes, melons, many apple varieties, peaches, berries, flowers, exotic mushrooms and assorted Asian vegetables, plus much more. "We grow anything that's odd and different," he says. "And I don't grow anything I won't eat."
Customers' tastes are important, too. James Huyett often provides samples to market shoppers and he always stands by his product, giving the customers their money back if they are not satisfied. He won't tolerate imperfections and has even plowed under an entire field of unsatisfactory melons. "It's an ego and a reputation thing," he says.
He also patiently chats with customers, who may ask questions such as the difference between English and sugar snap peas or how to cook a certain vegetable, such as his flowering Chinese broccoli.
"Ninety percent of selling is education," he says, pointing to his stack of Sunnyside Farm brochures with plant information, recipes and his farmers market schedule.
And maybe 90 percent of his success can be attributed to his obvious love of the land. "When I ride to the top of the hill in my pickup when the sun is coming up, there's something there," he says.
Alexandra Greeley is the author of "Asian Soups, Stews & Curries" (Macmillan, 1998).
From Sunnyside Farm to You
Christopher Robinson's Stuffed Peppers
This filling entree is an ideal vegetarian meal.
4 large bell peppers
2 large avocados, peeled, seeded and diced
1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) ricotta cheese
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
2 tablespoons chopped thyme
2 tablespoons chopped tarragon or dill
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup cooked large-grain couscous
Grated mozzarella cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Fill a baking dish with 1 inch of water; fit a rack inside the dish.
Trim the stem ends of the peppers, leaving the peppers intact. Scoop out the seeds and discard. Stand the peppers upright.
In a large bowl, mix together the avocado, ricotta and feta cheeses, oregano, thyme, tarragon or dill, garlic, oil and pepper to taste. Add the couscous and combine.
Scoop a portion of the stuffing mixture into each pepper. Stand the peppers on the baking rack and sprinkle with the mozzarella cheese.
Bake the peppers until they are slightly soft to the touch and the filling is hot, about 35 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
Per serving: 382 calories, 12 gm protein, 25 gm carbohydrates, 28 gm fat, 38 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 367 mg sodium, 8 gm dietary fiber