By Marilou Shea
Have you noticed that farm stands are few and far between these days with the success of our local farmers’ markets? I’m almost sure I heard a collective sigh when the popular Cool Slice stand shuttered its bins in Pasco two years ago. One of the reasons is that sustaining a small-scale operation is no picnic. It takes passion and sweat equity in equal measure.
Enter Antonio and Criselda Villa. The Villas started their family farm almost 30 years ago. Antonio had spent 25 years managing 400 acres for big-time grower Alford Farms in north Pasco and decided it was time to venture out on his own. The family’s goals were two-fold: become a self-sustaining farming operation and teach their four children a strong work ethic and the value of a dollar. The kids worked on the farm to help offset school supplies and clothing expenses.
Fast forward to today. Antonio and daughter Magdalena, who goes by Mogi, partner in managing the prodigious 10-acre Villa’s Fresh Produce in north Pasco. They’re the original DIYers. It’s only the two of them — no hired hands, no weeding crew and no college kid changing sprinklers. Whatever needs doing gets done between the two of them. Whatever revenue is generated goes directly to sustaining their lives — and the formula seems to be working.
Antonio sticks to operating the tractor and takes the lead on managing the farm, but Mogi is hands-on there, too. Her unofficial title is farm operations and sales, but her role is multi-faceted. She helps her dad plant, cut and pick the produce in the early morning hours and then sells the bounty within hours the very same day. They have two direct sales channels: the produce stand behind IHOP and Taco Bell on Road 68 in Pasco and at the farm in north Pasco by appointment.
Villa’s Fresh Produce grows 10 to 15 kinds of produce, from asparagus and tomatoes to cukes and apples. The duo’s claim to fame and top seller is some of the best-tasting asparagus in the Columbia Basin. They don’t spray their asparagus like some big-time growers and you can taste the difference in every spear. Customers agree. Mogi sells out of asparagus every day at the stand. Our family alone bought close to 100 pounds this year to put up our secret pickled asparagus recipe.
Apples come in second in terms of customer popularity. Villa’s grows Honey Crisp, Galas and Fuji varieties.
The business has grown due to a Facebook presence, with about 1,000 followers and a vast word-of-mouth network that raves about the quality of their produce. The story goes that one customer, customer A, told another customer, customer B, while in line at another store upon seeing their hands full of asparagus that the only true source for asparagus was to be found at the Villa’s Fresh Produce stand in Pasco. Customer B promptly exited the store empty-handed and sought out the stand.
Villa’s customer base is a well-rounded mix of all three cities and outlying areas, including Benton City and Burbank. Customers have been known to drop by, pick up a box of asparagus and pop over to UPS to ship the tender crowns to relatives as near as Idaho and as far as Texas.
The father-daughter team consistently strive to improve their operations. This season it meant meetings over the breakfast table to organize their daily schedule, divide and conquer where necessary and take the lead where appropriate. It’s paid off in creating efficiencies all around and streamlined their field and sales efforts. Antonio is also teaching Mogi different planting techniques, which will allow them to expand their product offerings in the future.
As you read this fine print, just a heads-up that they’ve partnered with other small family farms to complete their sweet suite with two popular products they don’t grow themselves but choose to sell: cherries and blueberries. It makes for a consistent presence for the Villa’s at their stand while providing a sales channel for the other growers that doesn’t exist.
Later this month, their uncommonly good garden rotation will make a welcome appearance and includes zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, all sorts of peppers, cukes, cantaloupe and watermelon. Come August, Gala apples will tip toe into the mix, followed by Honey Crisps. October beckons with butternut and the current culinary darling, spaghetti squash. The family has carved an immense reputation for their pumpkin patch, which makes its annual debut at the same time and is a perennial favorite. Last year, it produced a bountiful harvest of 2,800 pumpkins, and this year’s yield promises to be slightly more.
You don’t get a badge of honor to stop and shop at produce stands like Villa’s Fresh Produce. What you do get is so much more. An incredible flavor experience of fruit in its prime, a fun conversation about the produce — its origins, its fleeting reputation for being fine or a disappointment this year — and, hopefully, tremendous satisfaction that the dollars you spend go directly into the hands sharing the fruits of their labor. What’s not to love?
Food Love columnist Marilou Shea is adjunct faculty for Columbia Basin College’s hospitality program and Food Truck Academy, as well as the creator of Food Truck Fridays.
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