Phil and Deirdre Armstrong of Harvest Thyme Herbs

Brie Aronson

Brie Aronson › Brie Aronson came to Polyface from southern California. During college, she was diagnosed with food allergies ...

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They’re sitting there, telling me stories of chefs and herbs they’ve grown and how, just earlier today, a sous chef drove nearly three hours to pick up some of their lemon thyme for a collaborative guest chef dinner in Washington, DC. No one else in the area has lemon thyme in January.

I’m in Phil and Deirdre Armstrongs’ living room, the husband and wife team who make up Harvest Thyme Herbs in Staunton, Virginia, and there are several words that keeping coming to my mind. Camaraderie. Teamwork. Mutual appreciation.

These are the words that describe the Armstrongs’ relationships with local chefs and specialty market owners. Highly respected and sought-after for their variety, availability, and flawless presentation, the Armstrong’s six-acre herb and specialty produce farm is truly a labor of love.

Not only do they view themselves on the same team as their chefs, but also on the team of neighboring farms. They are graciously open source, willing to share ideas and business with other farmers.

Deirdre talks fondly of Nancy Farna, her Girl Scout leader who instilled in her a love of the outdoors at a young age. While working on her nature badge in fourth grade, Nancy helped her learn the names of trees, gave her cuttings from her own plants and taught her how to forage for edible weeds. When she was thirteen years old, Deirdre’s pastor gave her a blank space on the church grounds and a blank check to take to the nursery. She went on to major in ornamental horticulture and subsequently worked for the National Gallery of Art, designing, planting and maintaining the gardens. She reminisces about putting in an herb garden with Phil while they were still dating and toting a cooler of her homegrown herbs onto the metro to sell to a caterer at the National Gallery.

While Deirdre’s love of plants began in her childhood, Phil’s interest began with searching for exotic hot peppers, and never being able to find them in stores. He gave up and decided to grow them himself. He leaves the room for a moment to get me a handful of hot paper lantern habaneros to take home, and, when he returns, tells me which aspects of the farm are his domain – machinery, mowing, fencing, and delivering, not to mention the duties of planting, picking and washing that he shares with Deirdre.

They start discussing the way to interact with chefs: you only call a chef for orders during the slow part of the day; you never enter their kitchen without permission; and you keep it brief and professional when making deliveries. But removed from the pressure of deadlines, hot stoves and sharp knives, there are opportunities to get to know their chefs on a personal level. Some of their chefs even sit down with them during winter to go over seed catalogues and dream about what could be grown for their restaurant.

Deirdre goes on to say their partnerships with chefs are something they treasure. “We’re helping each other succeed and be creative, working in tandem. It’s deeper than a buyer-seller relationship. We know their families, their staff. They help us network. Our chefs understand the size of our business, and are willing to work with small quantities.” Phil and Deirdre see their role as being collaborators and supporters, and often use their budgeted entertainment money for dining at their chefs’ restaurants. “When they see you care, they become a fount of knowledge,” Deirdre adds.

The sense of chef and grower teamwork also extends to late-summer empathy: “When you are tired of picking tomatoes in the blazing heat, you can call up one of your chefs, who’s also been working in the blazing heat of their kitchen, and say, ‘Is it just me, or are you sorry you didn’t take up accounting?’”

Not only do they view themselves on the same team as their chefs, but also on the team of neighboring farms. They are graciously open source, willing to share ideas and business with other farmers. For instance, they decided to not grow potatoes for the upcoming year – so they told a neighbor she should up her numbers. They say there just aren’t enough small farms like them, and being willing to share with others is key.

“We’re all in this together,” says Deirdre, which for me, sums up exactly what Harvest Thyme Herbs is all about.

Harvest Thyme Herbs is a small, diversified 6-acre farm nestled in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Phil and Deirdre Armstrong grow herbs and vegetables for discriminating chefs and gourmet markets in Staunton and Charlottesville. “These chefs and small business owners have made a commitment to source their foods from small local growers such as ourselves. We feel privileged to grow for them.” You can follow their blog here.

Photo Credit: Harvest Thyme Herbs