by Rebecca Jackson
Michael Grantz and his wife Arden Jones combine youthful idealism and exuberance, tech savvy and reverence for the land at Great Day Gardens in Forest, VA, named for a grandparent’s favorite proclamation: “Great day!”The old Virginia saying declares surprise, awe or simply a good time for getting in a crop.
“Neither of us were brought up in agriculture, so there has been a big learning curve,” said Arden, a Virginia native who met her husband, a baker from Louisville, KY, at college (they graduated in 2013). Already, they’ve visited and worked on farms in Tennessee, Vermont, Central America, New Zealand and Spain, where they learned about many aspects of regenerative horticulture, including no-till cropping. Six years ago, the couple moved to a 24-acre swath of land, including greenhouses, owned by Arden’s family in Forest. They married there in 2016.
Early on, Michael and Arden developed a multi-faceted marketing strategy for their vest pocket, intensively cultivated farm, and it has served them well, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seventy-five percent of sales (garden plants, cut flowers – their newest product – and breads, with meats and eggs from nearby Mountain Run Farm in Big Island, VA) are conducted online. Bread products include hefty, wood-fired loaves, bagels, croissants and more, using a 24-hour sourdough process and sustainably grown grains from Virginia and North Carolina.
While Arden, also a potter and weaver, cultivates starter plants and herbs destined for nearby suburban gardeners and vegetables and seasonal fruits for the Forest Farmers Market and Lynchburg Community Market, Michael bakes artisan breads and bread products. In 2018, he became a founding member of the Common Grain Alliance, a Virginia-based consortium of bakers, millers and farmers working to revive the Mid-Atlantic grain shed. He has formal training in permaculture and is always thinking about adaptation and efficiency.
The enterprise, which also credits its success to a 30-family CSA, runs with the assistance of two full-time employees, one on the farm and one in the bakery. It has built a reliable, solid customer base. “The CSA community built out from the farm markets,” said Arden. “Our customers are great. People seem to appreciate the work we do. It’s rare to run into someone with complaints. And, while switching to online sales was difficult for some people, it wasn’t for us.”
The most popular vegetables, Michael and Arden learned, are baby greens, lettuces and arugula in spring, and tomatoes in summer. They post appetizing recipes on their website to inspire customers. “We try not to worry, and to focus on quality,” Arden said.
Their 25-week CSA program runs through Oct. 28, with one week off at the beginning of August. This year, there are two pickup locations: one at Great Day Gardens in Forest and one at a private residence near Virginia Baptist Hospital in Lynchburg. In addition to vegetables and fruits, the CSA offers, for an additional charge, a bread share of one loaf a week, a dozen eggs a week and one harvested whole chicken a week.
“Being a member of our CSA is a special commitment to eating healthy, nutrient-dense food for people who appreciate high-quality, fresh-picked flavors,” noted the couple. “You are supporting a family farm that cares about quality and you can support other local farms by signing up for chicken or egg shares.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the U.S. in March, they have noticed a growing interest in home gardens, as people seek more self-sufficiency. This opened up a larger venue for their starter plants and herbs. Many of these customers are novices who turn to the couple for advice on growing their own foods. “Several people ask me for advice at the farmers markets,” said Arden.
Like the fledgling gardeners, Michael is self-taught in the bakery. “I learned about breadmaking by doing, and had a good mentor with a wood-fired oven,” he recalled. “People are willing to share information.”
“We’ve had a lot of mentors, amazing farmers who have been very helpful. We’re also conscious of drawing on the experience of online groups,” Arden added.
They’ve taken a number of “working vacations,” including the trip to a New Zealand sheep farm, to learn from older, more experienced farmers. They’ve found, like others farming near urban centers, that product and service diversification result in an operation’s success.
The couple maintains a no-till, organic system with raised beds, adding organic content to eliminate the need for synthetic chemicals, pesticides and labor-intensive weeding.
“Overall, it works really well,” Arden said, “although weed pressure increases over time. It’s hard to outsmart nature. We try to work with nature.”