There’s something about Hugh French that draws you in. It could be his warm, bashful smile. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is such a great host to people visiting his farm and gets joy out of showing them around – zipping from one field to the next on his “scooter,” as he calls it (I knew it as a quad or ATV growing up, but they are definitely going to be scooters from now on). For me, Hugh won me over when we took a detour from the farm to his front yard so that Amber could snap some pictures of his wife (Anita’s) lovely flowers near their driveway. I could tell that Anita loved her petunias, but Hugh loved her even more. If that’s the type of warmth going into my vegetables that he’s growing … sign me up.
Hugh French is a fifth generation farmer. He and his family own Sunnyside Farms in Cumberland, VA, about 150 miles southwest of Washington, DC. His four sons and eleven grandkids all live on the farm that is made up of 120 overflowing acres of vegetables. Their operation is a family affair. Three of his sons all work with him, and one grandson is particularly interested in the future of farming – it looks like the 6th and 7th generation of Sunnyside Farm are in the works. We sure hope so … though it wasn’t long ago that Sunnyside almost didn’t make it.
Mr. French and his family used to be hog farmers. They raised pork, and a lot of it. By Hugh’s last count, they had over 1200 pigs roaming their farm. Unfortunately though, Hugh was farming in a transitional period of agriculture here in the US that has been, arguably, the worst thing that could have happened to our food system. From the early 1970’s through the early 2000’s, farming became a “get big or get out” commodity business. It was during this time period that we lost the vast majority of small family farms to large agribusiness goliaths.
The French family was close to becoming part of that story: In the early 90’s, Smithfield was the nation’s largest pork processor and distributor (it is now owned by a Chinese agribusiness, state-owned company and is the largest in the world). The influence Smithfield was able to impose on the local markets forced Hugh to make a decision that would affect his farm, and all of the future generations that depended on it: Sell pigs as part of Smithfield’s operation (and lose all autonomy and control of his own farm), or, do something else. Hugh chose the latter. That something else? Vegetables. Lots and lots of incredible vegetables.
Today, almost twenty years later, Sunnyside Farms is a thriving vegetable farm. They grow cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, multiple watermelon varieties, endless squash, okra, and forty (yes, 40) different types of tomatoes and peppers. His teardrop cherry tomatoes are a sugar cube turned into a bursting gobstopper of deliciousness in your mouth. If you ever tour his farm with him on his scooter, he’ll make sure you try one, or two, or ten.
Farm boy French (part of his email handle) is one of the best, and kindest farmers we have had the opportunity of getting to know. You will likely see much of his produce in your 4P Foods bags throughout the Spring and Summer months. Know that when you do, you’re supporting an amazing family, the 45 people that live and work on the farm, a story that goes back many generations, and with your help, will continue for many generations to come.
Three cheers for Hugh and Anita French, their family, and their story. I learned a lot from my short visit with Hugh, but the biggest lesson I took away is this: Be sure to always take time to stop and smell the flowers. Especially if they’re your wife’s petunias.