Eli and Misty Cook’s Spring Valley Farm was featured in the October issue of the WVDA’s October Market Bulletin . Here’s their story.
Eli and Misty Cook own and operate one of the largest farms and orchards in West Virginia, Spring Valley Farm.
The pair are well known for their work ethic and the quality of the food that they grow. The couple says their measure of success all comes down to their customers.
“We don’t wake up and want to be the biggest and the best,” explains Eli. “We want to keep our customers happy, and to keep our customers happy, we have to make sure we keep them in produce and fruit. That’s our number one goal.”
The pair were both go-getters from early on.
“I started farming at an early age,” says Eli. “I was 12 years old when I expanded our family’s garden and started doing a little farmers’ market in Shepherdstown. That kind of snowballed from there. Every summer I’d grow a little bit more. By the time I was 17, I was farming about 20 acres.”
Meanwhile, Misty was growing up on a cattle farm in Augusta.
“I was used to working cattle and making hay. It was a different kind of farming. My work ethic was always there.”
The pair met in college at WVU. Misty was an agriculture ed major and Eli was majoring in business and was still farming on the side.
“I continued to do farmers’ markets in the summer. I would always hire people from college and have them come home on the weekends to help,” says Eli. “Misty happened to be one of those people. She came to help with the markets and help on the farm and a year later we were married.”
The couple knew they wanted a farm of their own, but property in Berkeley Springs, where Eli grew up was just too expensive. Instead they looked for land closer to Misty’s family in Hampshire County.
They purchased 52 acres in Augusta and named it Spring Valley Farm and Orchard.
“That first year Misty and I farmed about 17 acres,” says Eli. “We hired a couple young kids to help us out, but we were basically doing it on our own. We sold our produce in 2 or 3 farmers’ markets in the Washington, D.C. area.”
In order to expand, Eli knew they needed more help, but finding reliable labor was difficult at best.
They hired a man working at a local poultry plant to help out on the farm. He told his friends about the job and soon the Cooks had the labor they needed to expand.
“We’ve grown very rapidly from around 2005 up until today. We farm about 700 acres. About half of that is in fruit and half in produce,” explains Eli.
The farms’ fields are filled with everything from asparagus to zucchini.
“We grow lettuce, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, basil, beans, you name it. We do a lot of fruit – peaches, nectarines, apples, plums, cherries, berries, watermelon, cantaloupe, rhubarb. Pretty much anything you can grow in this area, we grow,” says Eli.
During the summer and fall, Eli and Misty sell their fruits and vegetables at eight farmers’ markets in the D.C. area and 2 roadside stands – one in Romney, the other in Winchester, Va.
They hire college and high school students.
“We meet here early, early in the morning starting at about 1:45 a.m.,” explains Misty. “It takes 34 kids to do the Saturday markets and 37 to do the Sunday markets. We all meet at the farm and load the box trucks. Then it’s about 2 hours to D.C. It takes 2 hours to set up and then the bell rings and everybody busts their butt selling our produce for 4 hours. Then it takes about an hour and a half to tear it down. Then we turn around and come home.”
The markets are the farms’ money maker. Eli says they’ve created a brand that people recognize. “We have a tight brand – red tents, red tables, red shirts. All our people are young, energetic and smile with manners. Whether you walk into Alexandria or DuPont or Arlington markets, you can recognize our Spring Valley stand. People recognize Spring Valley wherever they go and expect the same quality, the same courtesy and the same customer service,” says Eli.
Currently, the farm employs 90 workers during peakseason and they continue to expand. But Eli says it’s not something they set out to do.
“We’ll sit down in January and say, ‘We ran out of beans a lot. We ran out of corn a lot. We ran out of this a lot.’ We figure out how many more acres we need to grow the next year. That’s been the backbone of our growth, filling the void of those shortages that we had the previous year. We’ve kept that model.”
Eli gives a rundown of last year’s numbers.
“We pick between 15,000 and 20,000 bushel of peaches, 20,000 bushels of apples. We sell about 3,000 dozen ears of corn a week. It normally takes us 500 to 800 bushel crates of tomatoes a week, 100 bushels of beans a week, 80 to 100 bushels of cucumbers, squash and potatoes. We sell 55,000 pounds of lettuce a year. That’s a lot of lettuce.”
This season they added even more to their plate. When COVID-19 hit, they began selling seasonal market boxes through their website.
“We’ve never done a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) before but now we’re selling 2,000 to 3,000 boxes a week,” says Eli.
The Cooks keep in touch with their customers through the Internet.
“We keep in contact with 50,000 to 60,000 of our customers through our newsletter. We put our personal cell numbers on there. If they want to text me, I’ll answer them. Even though we have thousands and thousands of customers, they still feel a connection to us,” stresses Eli.
On top of the farms, the orchards and growing their business, the Cooks are raising three children who are involved on the farm. Their life is never boring.
Eli says they couldn’t make it work without a staff they rely on.
“That’s how it all gets done. I have good people under me who get stuff done,” says Eli.
“We don’t think of ourselves being that big because we do this day in and day out. We’re just hard-working farmers like everybody else,” says Misty.
Eli’s advice to young farmers who want to do what he’s done: “This business is very doable for a young farmer. You can get in for not a whole lot of money, not a whole lot of ground. But…you have to be willing to work.”
To learn more about Spring Valley Farm and Orchard, log on to www.freshfarm.org/farmers/spring-valley-farmand-orchard.