Gus Jones, 39, and his partner Mary Walton, 35, are the owners of Small Axe Market Gardens, a small-scale local producer of chemical free fruits, vegetables, and flowers. We discovered them at the Old Capitol Farmers Market in downtown Springfield, where we bought a beautiful bunch of flowers tied by Gus’ grandmother.
Tell us about your business?
We grow fruits like heirloom tomatoes and peppers, and vegetables, such as scallions, radish and lettuce mix. We operate a small Community Supported Agriculture program, attend a weekly farmers market, and sell to a few chefs in town.
Where are you located?
Small Axe Market Garden is located on the north side of Springfield, IL. The land has been used to grow food for my family for over one hundred years. My great grandpa settled on this spot because after tasting dirt from other locations across town he decided, "this dirt will grow good potatoes". For many years my great uncle had a roadside stand that offered old-timer garden staples like tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, and kohlrabi. My grandmother used the land to grow flowers for drying and arranging. Like her mother, she grew cabbage every year to make sauerkraut. Mary and I will use the land to experiment with different crops and cultivars until we find a winning combination that enhances the farm’s ecology while helping to supply our communities demand for freshly picked chemical free food.
When was the business established?
I began farming the land in 2003. I was inspired to do so after living in San Francisco. While there I worked for the west coast's largest wholesaler/distributor of organic produce. Through my job there I met and saw many organic farmers and their fields. I was drawn to farming immediately sensing, I believe, my innate urge to be a producer. After two years driving a truck and sitting in city traffic, I headed back home to the north side of town to try my luck and take my turn coaxing a living from our small slice of heaven.
Who is on your team?
All of the labor, planting, harvesting, weeding and watering etc. is accomplished by Mary and I. My grandmother will often help by making floral arrangements for us to sell the day before the market. My mother, aunt Marilyn, and grandmother will help preserve the harvest, as well as turn the produce into delicious pies or soups. My uncles will help us with building projects such as greenhouses and walk in coolers.
Tell us what makes your business/services/products stand out from your competitors?
Our products stand out from our competitors because we choose to grow varieties of fruits and vegetables that people have rarely seen. Purple 68 carrots, Round of Hungary And Aji Dulce peppers, Mei Qing Choi, Emerald Evergreen, White Tomesol, Purple Calabash and Japanese Black Trifele tomatoes. Benning's Green Tint patty pan squash, Scarlet Queen Red Stem turnips, and Fun Jen Chinese cabbage all contribute to the wow factor. Variety and good quality control of chemical free food, produced in "small batches" give the customer the sensation that they're buying the best, and indeed they are.
What do you grow and when?
We grow spring and fall crops like arugula, radish, Asian vegetables, carrots, and lettuce. Peppers, tomatoes, squash, garlic and cucumbers, in the summer months. Crops specific to fall are parsnips, winter squash, and rapini. Spring harvested flowers are iris and peony, while in the summer and fall we harvest, statice, snapdragons, zinnias, sunflowers, celosia, rudbeckia, feverfew, gomphrena, and cosmos.
Where do you sell your product?
This year we sold our products through a 14 member community supported agriculture program, a weekly farmers market and direct sales to a few restaurants in town. We also do special orders for floral arrangements and provide a twice-weekly delivery of kale to a locally owned health food store.
Can we order online?
We are in the process of developing a website so people can place special orders, or find out where our products are being sold.
What is your professional background?
Since I began market gardening in 2003 I have managed a market garden on an avocado grove in Florida. Built half a dozen community gardens in three of the five New York City boroughs. I also built and managed farms at New York City institutions; one at Kingsborough Community College, and the other at Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Gardens. All of which are still producing for and educating their communities to this day. In 2010 I attended The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California Santa Cruz and received a certificate in Ecological Horticulture.
Why are you passionate about what you do?
I am passionate about what I do because of my family history with market and subsistence gardening. I enjoy the challenge of seeing and meeting the biological imperatives within the farm’s ecology. Gardening to me is the perfect blend of art and science, hard work and leisure, disappointment, and satisfaction.
Your products are very ‘on trend’ at the moment – how are you going to ensure the longevity of your products?
As long as people need to eat there will be a demand for locally produced food. As long as people wish to and are able to brighten others days, say thank you or congratulations, there will be a market for fresh cut flowers.
What’s the best thing about what you do?
The best thing about what I do is honoring my family’s heritage as producers, working for ourselves, and building the diversity and resiliency of the soil we tend.
Why do you think you are so successful?
We are successful because people respond well to something a little different. People recognize quality, freshness, and our talent for displaying our wares. We are successful because we work hard at it. We are successful because of our families’ constant love and support and because of our passion and interest in cottage industry.
-Images by Kari Bedford Photography.