Farmer Behind the Market Stand

Julia Sunkler 02In the 1980s, the 1000 block of Jefferson Avenue was occupied by several charmingly decrepit Victorian apartment houses. Almost every spare inch of ground between the buildings was worked by one of the residents, an energetic gardener named Julia Sunkler. The first money Julia made from farming was the reduction in rent her landlord gave her for the produce and the improvement in the looks of the block.

My wife and I were sorry to lose her as a neighbor, but Julia was moving on to bigger and better things. Through years of working on other people’s farms, she accumulated enough money to buy five acres of land and then to put a house and barn on what she named “My Pharm.”

Julia rises each morning at 6 a.m., has a cup of tea and then is off to feed the animals. She makes sure that the pigs, lambs, chickens, ducks, and rabbits look healthy and have enough food, and by 8 or 9 a.m. she has a chance to have breakfast herself. After breakfast, she’ll be about the tasks of the day, which are liable to be many. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, she has to get up at 5 a.m. to be ready to set up her stall at the downtown market by 7:30 a.m.

The land had been part of a Christmas tree farm which was being broken up into lots. When Julia arrived there was only grass and a couple of leftover conifers on the land. Now the property has apple and pear trees, and those stray Christmas trees have grown to an impressive size.

Julia planted vegetables for market, and built a chicken coop that rested on runners so the chickens could eat fresh grass and bugs. The coop could be moved periodically so the grass could recover and benefit from the nutrients in chicken manure. Julia learned what worked and what didn’t work, and learned what she preferred to do with her land.

All this while, Julia had been caring for her terminally ill mother. In 2005, after her mother died, Julia began working her land full time, and My Pharm became her sole source of income. Recently, I went out to see how she does it.

People sometimes ask Julia why she doesn’t have a budget or a plan. She explains that to have a budget, you have to have money, and that plans are what things never go according to. She prefers to speak of setting goals, which she clearly tends to accomplish.

Besides the laying hens, Julia also raises fryers, tiny quail (which lay tiny, speckled eggs), and enormous, meaty ducks.

In a long, narrow hutch Julia keeps 80 doe rabbits and 15 bucks. Like the coop, the hutch has no floor and is periodically moved on its runners to greener pastures.

When Julia moves a coop or hutch to a new location, the vacated ground is free of grass and fertilized, ready for planting. Usually there is no need for plowing. By breaking the ground as little as possible, she reduces erosion and keeps more of the nutrients in the soil. She can often plant two crops in succession without plowing: potatoes or tomatoes first, peas the next year. To plant a patch of ground that hasn’t been weeded and fertilized by a coop, she can usually clear it in a short time with black plastic. Lack of sunlight and trapped heat will kill grass and weeds without any need for plowing or herbicides.

Julia also raises steers in two pastures, one being grazed while the other recovers. In her barn, she raises lambs and hogs. The different species of animal make the Pharm’s income more secure; if one population doesn’t make money, another will.

Julia takes the same approach to the plants she raises: salad vegetables like lettuce and radishes; cooking vegetables like fava beans and Jerusalem artichokes; tree fruits like apples and pears; vine fruits like Marionberries and blueberries.

Cane borers, a hard species to evict, got into her raspberries, so Julia just quit raising raspberries. This is typical of her approach to farming—try something, see if it rewards the effort and money put into it, drop it if it doesn’t. Unlike managers of immense corporate-owned farms, she somehow manages to make a living without having to squeeze every last nickel out of the land.

Besides the Pharm’s own grass, Julia feeds her livestock on food production waste, such as stale bread, whey, and beer mash. She also buys bagged feed and vitamin supplements to provide all the nutrients the animals need. As I looked at a stack of empty bags, I noticed that some of them had really beautiful labels printed on them, like the labels on 1930s wooden fruit crates.

Winter was traditionally the time for farmers to mend their harnesses. Julia has no draft animals, and thus no harnesses, but she makes good use of free time making shopping bags and purses from those beautiful feed sacks. Like the Pharm’s meat and vegetables, these bags can be bought at Julia’s regular stall at the Saturday Market, along with rabbit pelts and whatever else she thinks is likely to sell.

 Julia has one more current project that does not involve raising, but rearing: she is the foster mother of 12-year-old Madison, who is herself raising chickens through 4-H.

By John M. Burt