Photo Credit: Marilyn Estes
Mandy and Steve O’Shea
Peeking into the world of Mandy and Steve O’Shea’s 3 Porch Farm—which hosts the Athens Farmers Market booth that buzzes with people eating their organic Honey Pops popsicles—is like reaching into Mary Poppins’ carpet bag and pulling out one item after another.
At first glance, it just seems like they offer some locally grown fruits and veggies, with some flower arrangements and syrups and things. But after a few weeks at the market, you notice the occasional odd fruit or veggie has been replaced with another odd fruit or veggie. And the herb-infused syrup is now accompanied by flower-infused sugars. And then mushrooms—sometimes shiitake, sometimes oyster—appear fresh for cooking or dried in mixes. And the arrangements evolve from a variety of spring flowers to autumn branches to Christmas wreaths that feature honeycomb.
Just how big is 3 Porch Farm, and how many people work there? The answers are: nearly nine acres of beautiful farmland, and just Steve and Mandy.
“We have a slight division in identities out here, and then fuse where need be,” says Steve. “Right now I’m doing all the irrigation to get it automated, and I’ve been building a mushroom spawn room, pasteurizer and fruiting room. Mandy handles the plants and more creative value-added [syrups, flower arrangements, etc.] items.”
Friends from the community also pitch in, like local artist Lou Kregel, who has painted several of their banners and signs.
“Mandy and I have been friends for years, and she’s dreamed of having a farm for as long as I've known her,” says Kregel. “She has a deep knowledge of plants, animals and bees. Add to that Steve's experience with alternative energy systems and construction, and they make a good team."
Which leads to other items from Mary Poppins’ bag: 3 Porch Farm is completely solar powered—the first (and only) solar-powered business in Madison County, GA—with 18 solar panels. And the vehicles and farm equipment run on vegetable oil from their solar-powered veggie oil station that Steve built.
Mandy oversees the plants, including 35 fruit trees (apples, pears, plums, plumcots, pluots, peaches, kiwis, nectarines—you get the idea), strawberries, blueberries, and all sorts of flowers, vegetables and herbs, plus five beehives. Her flower arrangements are now featured at the Five & Ten restaurant in Five Points, and she does full design weddings as well as provides cut flowers for the DIY bride.
The young farmers have a dedicated following not only for their quality organic produce and variety, but also because they think about their farming in terms of what people would want. For example, they’re growing smaller onions than the grocery stores sell because, according to Mandy, “nobody wants a half an onion in their fridge.”
Mandy, a native Georgian, and Steve, from Northern California, met 10 years ago in Athens when Steve was traveling across the country doing renewable fuels presentations with Woody Harrelson and [activist and environmentalist] Julia Butterfly Hill. Three years later, they reconnected when Mandy moved to California to work on the organic farm where Steve worked. After seriously considering having their own farm in California, they decided Athens was the place they ought to be. They were thrilled when the owners of Dog Trot Nursery in Comer, GA not only sold them their farm, they and fellow farming friends left Steve and Mandy equipment that gave them a solid foundation.
“We worked our butts off and saved and saved and saved to buy this place,” says Steve. “Athens had a really good community, affordable land prices, a rural area that was close to town, a community that values small, local, sustainable businesses and healthy food, and an amazing farmers' market. Basically, our small farm dream to do something good and make a living at it needed a bunch of really specific attributes, and this place had it all.”
Their work schedule explains why the only time they get to see friends is at the Saturday and Wednesday markets, and why, in response to people asking to see their farm, they’re having a farm tour and plant sale this Saturday, before the Athens Farmers Market—and their busy growing season—begins.
“When the season starts, we’re not going to see anyone,” says Mandy. “So, this is our ‘We love you; everybody come hang out with us; let’s have a great time,’ and then let’s jump into summer.”
The tour will include talks about the farm and sustainable energy (at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.), and behind-the-scenes views like Mandy’s flower room (a sweet little cabin with shelves of her arranging materials) and Steve’s mushroom farm. The plant sale will feature six-packs of vegetables and flowers, including kales, herbs and lots of heirloom tomatoes. They’ll also have items like syrups, smoked sea salt shitake seasoning, gomasio, and chai tea, plus fresh flower bouquets for Easter.
As is typical of the efficiency philosophy of 3 Porch Farm, Steve and Mandy want their guests to get the most for their trip to Comer. In addition to the 3 Porch Farm activities of the day, Blackbriar Farm will be selling meat and eggs, the Comerian Bakery (a.k.a. Angel Cooper from the farmers' market) will be selling pastries, and 1000Faces Coffee will furnish complimentary coffee. There will also be music by the Red Oak Southern String Band, whose member Andrew Hinerfeld farmed with Mandy during her earlier days in Athens, and is happy to bring out the band to entertain their guests.
“Mandy and Steve are good friends that are doing great things on their beautiful piece of land,” says Hinerfeld. “Also, everyone in the band loves to play music and we all love to be outdoors, so to be able to do both and help out good people promote their farm is something we were all eager to do.” He adds, “People should expect to hear a slew of stringed instruments and several voices woven together to produce pleasing harmonies, while a guy with no singing abilities hits a wooden box with his hands and brushes to help provide a steady beat: that's me.”
In turn, the O’Sheas are also hoping those who visit the farm will make a day of it and visit local areas like Heritage Heart Pine Antiques & Books store.
“It’s not just an antique store,” says Steve. “He’s spent years finding old buildings that are going to be torn down, and salvaging just tons of amazing old treasures. It’s a whole block of stores filled with amazing things.”
“We also hope people will come to Watson Mill State Park [that backs up to their property], because it’s got a super awesome covered bridge,” adds Mandy. “We really want folks to just come and have a day in the country.”
And see what else is in their bag.
[3 Porch Farm sustainable farm tour and plant sale, Saturday Mar. 30, 10 a.m.–2 p.m., 135 Francis Hill Rd., Comer, GA. (Sorry, but, please, no dogs.) For more info, visit www.3porchfarm.com.]