It was a hot day when we arrived at Paradise Hill Farms. We rolled past the Westport Vineyards’ grapes in all their beauty as we traveled down the windy dirt road and onto the property. Shirley greeted us right away, a hard smile and a hand over her eyes as she squinted against the sun. She cracked a joke at JD, our produce manager, the second his feet touched the ground. He chuckled, and gave it right back to her. Their sarcastic humor flowed back and forth like a rhythmic dance. They vented about local produce problems, and suddenly it felt like I was a guest at someones dinner party. JD and Shirley going back and forth, while I observed and followed. They could be mistaken for relatives if I didn’t know any better.
“So, what do you want to see?” Shirley asked me, “it might take a while to show you the whole farm, but I think you’ll like the salad mix process”. Blunt, and to the point. That’s just how Shirley was. Mixed in with that sarcastic humor, of course.
So off we went, our journey taking us right by the new beautifully built farm stand with plants outside the front door swaying in the slight breeze.
While walking to the salad processing station, we met Molly and Ashley, who helped out around the family business. We smiled and said hello to the familiar faces, they had both worked at Lees at some point over the years…but that’s Westport for you!
Ashley, Shirley’s daughter, led the way to the field, chatting to Molly about life as we walked behind. There were a few other people working quietly as we walked to the field, going about their work undisturbed by our company.
Standing in the middle of the field was an experience. It made you feel so small in such a magnificent space, surrounded by neat rows of lettuce and crops, the smell of soil and the sounds of the leaves moving in the hot breeze hitting you all at once. You take a deep breath, and just feel so present and peaceful.
As I crouched down to get this shot below, I smiled as I caught JD and Shirley in the corner of the frame chatting away. They were in their own world too, it seemed.
Ashley and Molly got to work on the lettuce, hand cutting each head with a knife and hand-chopping it right there on the field.
Molly held the basket as Ashley chopped and loaded it, and talked to each other as they went. They seemed to barely notice we were there as they went about their routine. The shot below of the lettuce freshly chopped in the basket for salad mix was mouthwatering to look at. The smell of fresh lettuce mixed with soil is something I will never forget. There’s nothing better than produce picked fresh that day, and it’s something we are so fortunate to have in this area. Moments like this, with families like these, really solidify the beauty this small town has.
From the field to the baths we go. As the just-cut lettuce gets a dunk in the cool water, I know we are all silently wishing we could take an ice cold bath too. They get triple washed by hand, always.
They are swirled around the water by Ashley’s expert hands, and it’s fun to watch. The lettuce hangs out in the whirlpool, washing off the dirt and any bugs that may be on the leaves.
Once the swirling is sufficiently done, Ashley picks up each pile of lettuce and lets it drip before putting in into the next station. By the time they reach the salad spinner, they are clean, crisp, and cooled.
As the salad is spinning, we talk a bit about bugs in lettuce, and Shirley mentions that, “when you buy local produce, it isn’t loaded with chemicals, so you are going to get a bug every once in a great while”. It’s all part of eating real, fresh-cut produce, “that’s how you know the produce is good for you”, she says. She jokes a bit with JD about the seasonal produce that’s coming in soon, as the quiet hum of the spinner goes on in the background.
When it’s done, it’s time for packaging. Again, by hand. Everything from harvesting, to washing, to stickering is done by the family of Paradise Hill workers. Shirley chuckles, “you should see this space when we have to package salad for Lees and Clements, it looks like a lettuce bomb went off!”.
Each salad bubble is filled with salad mix and weighed to a precise weight so that each bubble has the same amount of lettuce inside. Ashley turns to us as she’s packaging lettuce with her freshly gloved hands and states that, “the bubble packaging is amazing, I’ve had lettuce last in the fridge for almost two months.” She gives a slight smile and keeps on with her task, you can tell they have a lot of pride for all parts of the process, from hand cutting the lettuce right in the field, down to the choice of packaging.
When our store manager Matt Cummings came around, I spotted him in the field and said, “Matt is here!”. Shirley’s face lit up, and she yelled out to him, “there’s Matt, I’m surprised we didn’t find you dead out in the field”. Matt smiled ear to ear. These two go farther back than you might imagine. Over 20 years, to be exact.
They had a witty, sarcastic banter that was all fun and games. She called him handsome, Matt would laugh and blush, and those two really just led the way after that.
“Let me see the peach trees, why are you hiding them from everyone?” Matt joked. So on we went to see her peach tree field.
It felt like summer in Italy, the peach trees fruit swaying in the summer heat. It was like being transported somewhere else, right in the middle of Westport. Their fuzz was just sprouting on the outsides, “it won’t be much longer until they are full size” Shirley remarks, peach in hand.
Last summer, the fruit never got to fully mature because of the drought. The peaches had dropped off the trees like flies as the tree frantically tried to preserve itself by cutting off the fruit supply. The drought had cost them about $40,000 in produce, and the insurance didn’t cover a fraction of the money lost.
Shirley seemed unfazed by it now though, she was a tough woman who had been through a lot. She knew the weather was unpredictable in this type of work, but you could still hear the heartbreak sneak into her voice when she talked about the amount of money that had been lost. This land was her living.
As we were walking back to our cars, I knew I couldn’t leave without getting a picture of the three girls who had spent time with us that day. Their body language in the picture below really shows how close they are. As Shirley was putting her arms tight around their waists, she said with her voice full of affection, “come here my lovelies”.
Ashley is on the left, Shirley middle, and Molly on the right.
You can find their fresh cut salad mixes and lettuce heads in our produce department, and plenty of their other crops throughout the harvesting seasons. Their peaches should also be in soon, so keep an eye out for those locally grown (and delicious) gems.
Our managers have been friends with Shirley for so long now, that she feels like family to us. We think it’s time you got to meet the extraordinary people of Paradise Hill Farms that we get the pleasure of talking to every single day.
Until next time, at your favorite local farm,
Kelsey of Lees and Clements’ Market