If you’ve been to the Abingdon market and entered down the stairs from the street, you’ll recognize Amanda Stuart of The Sunshine Jelly Company right away! Her immediate friendliness and energy is captivating, and after a few conversations you’ll feel like you’ve known her for years. And then once you’ve tried her jams and canned goods? Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’ll be hooked.
Amanda and her husband, Mark, moved from Colorado a little over a year ago and since then have been building the life they’ve dreamed up. They’re in the beginning stages of building a homestead, and with that comes a hunger for knowledge. Like anything we truly love and want to cultivate, building blocks are necessary and growth can feel slow. But when you look back down the mountain, you see how far you’ve come, even if you’ve got a long ways uphill to go yet. Fences, fields, gardens and game–just a few of their favorite projects over the past year.
Tucked into the mountainside, just over the ridge from Laurel Bed Lake, we stood gazing out over neighboring turkeys as they trotted along in the distance. I was struck by the exploratory nature of farming. The tiny victories and miracles that you witness along the way. A single perfect stalk of asparagus, growing an abundant golden raspberry bush, even watching a chicken learn how to venture beyond the coop. Amanda gave me a tour of the hopeful fruits and vegetables in their early stages of life. Amanda is a black and white photographer, and Mark, a woodworker. With inspiration and supplies at hand, the beauty of the surrounding land doesn’t go to waste.
Amanda is currently working with Appalachian Sustainable Development to develop a product created locally for their label. The produce will come from their farmers, with manufacturing done by her, keeping everything local. Just the way we like it.
I implore you to try her strawberry mint jam or her chocolate covered cherry preserves. Heck, go for the pickles and cider too! My personal favorite is ginger peach jam…in case you were wondering. You can catch Amanda at Chilhowie’s market on Thursdays (3-6pm), the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays (3-6 pm) and Saturdays (8am-1pm), or on her website.
Sarah: Oh! Where in Colorado?
A: The western slope, over in a little town called Hotchkiss. Our closest big town was Grand Junction. Over near the Utah border. But anyway, so here’s his collection.
A: Big-horned sheep. That’s actually a dahlia sheep from Alaska.
S: I’ve never been to Alaska. I wanna go.
A: I haven’t either. I would like to go too, but I’m terrified of the idea of grizzly bears, so.
S: That’s fair.
A: So, this is our house. Now that elk came from Colorado. That was me and my husband together, that was my first year hunting.
S: How long did you live in Colorado?
A: I was there about four years, he was there about twenty-seven years. Here’s our view…now that ridge back there, that runs along Tannersville. Our road dead ends and if you went over [the ridge], you’d be in Tannersville.
S: How did you find this place?
S: So, you decided to move here from Colorado and just started searching?
A: Colorado is very expensive to live, and we wanted more land. We had three acres and beautiful log home that my husband had built, and we sold it and bought this place. This was seventy acres and we ended up having money left over. So, that’ll tell you about the price of living and land, here versus there.
S: That’s crazy.
A: But we looked all over the country. We were looking in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky. We were looking in this area anyway. It just so happens that I saw this house and I fell in love with it in the pictures and I said, that’s the one!
S: The view is incredible. It’s not just one, but you have this expanse of it. Hello!
A: This is Annie. She’s a retriever and she’s trained to retrieve, but what’s funny is she will not mess with our chickens. She won’t mess with them, but she will go out and fetch ducks. Somehow, she knows that these are off limits, but once he takes her out in the wilderness, then she’s okay. Ain’t that right, Annie? What a ham!
S: You’re so cute!
A: I have my babies over here. They’re just learning how to come outside. I’ve just been letting them out by themselves for the last couple of days. We got eight Bard Rocks, and six Leg Horns.
S: We had some Bard Rocks growing up. My brothers, they were really interested in building incubators in high school.
A: Now, I fear that we might have four little roosters.
S: Uh-oh, they’re gonna battle it out.
A: We ended up with four out of eight being roosters. Here’s the big one right here. What you doing, little chickens? Come here, little chickens. It’s so cute to watch ‘em because you’re watching them learn how to fly, and then they’re learning how to eat grass. And then they learn how to eat gravel, and you’re just watching them learn…
S: Figure out what is and what is not food. What does eating gravel do?
A: It helps them to digest their food.
S: He’s got a little personality there.
A: They’re starting to develop their personalities. So, we just built this because on my trunk I have the “crazy chicken lady” sticker. I told my husband, I can’t be driving around as the crazy chicken lady and not have chickens. Because then I’m just a crazy lady driving around. So, he built me this chicken house and now we’ve got our chickens and a man down the road is incubating ducks and we’ll have ducks soon…we’ll be putting a pond in.
S: For duck eggs, and all that?
A: Yeah. But like I said, we’re doing more homesteading than we are farming. I’m putting in fruit trees so that I don’t have to buy fruit for my business. And yesterday I bought a swarm, so I’m officially a beekeeper. Just put that out there yesterday. A guy that’s a local farmer around here, he called me up and said the bees are swarming—they’re on the apple trees. So, we went down there and we hauled them from over there to here and when we got home you could hear inside that box, they were just mad as hell.
S: Do you just kinda put ‘em in the back of the truck and then pray?
A: And we stuffed a rag in there. They were all closed up, and we put them out here and when they started getting quiet, we just ripped the rag off and run, just in case. At some point, we might get our own cows and pigs, but all for our own personal consumption.
S: So, you mainly do jams and jellies?
A: Well I do canned goods. Any canned products.
S: When did you start canning?
A: I just started canning about four years ago when my husband and I got together. I had never canned before. I’m from the city. I came from Houston, Texas, born and raised thirty years. I got out of Houston and then, you know, life circumstances, I ended up in Colorado. I met my husband and he grew up in Pennsylvania on the Amish farms. He’s not Amish, but grew up with the Amish, he worked for the Amish. He knows all about farming and animals and everything. He’s Daniel Boone. I married a man that was born a hundred years too late. I’m not even joking. So, he knows how to do all that stuff. He taught me how to do that stuff and then I grew this love for doing jams and jellies. I grew a love for creating off the wall recipes, and that’s where the whole business started. So, it started with a dandelion. I said surely there’s gotta be something I can do with these dandelions besides dig them out of the yard. I started making dandelion jelly and it grew from there. Sunflower, lavender, lilac, rose, everything.
S: I love the ginger peach and apple butter. I shared it with my roommates! So delicious.
A: I make it different than they make it out here. I guess they use red hots a lot for the cinnamon flavor. Mine’s got more of a fall flavor to it. Those are the maple trees that we tap for maple syrup this year.
S: Well, you definitely get your exercise going up and down hills here.
A: Everything’s uphill. We’ll come sit up here, come watch the deer come through. We actually put an apple tree up there for the deer.
S: Wow. And you can just go straight up through there and go hunting.
A: Oh yeah. I don’t know if you can see it…I’m not sure how high our mountains are, but that’s the top of our property up there. We’ve been up there and on this side of the mountain it is steep, there’s lots of leaves so there’s always a danger of sliding. But up there, there’s a little road that goes across and we share the mountain with somebody on the other side. We’ve seen bears up there. We’ll do some forest farming in here.
S: What is forest farming?
A: Black cohosh, ginseng…so yeah, you can use all of this area for forest farming.
S: You have so many different little pockets of resources here instead of the same thing.
A: Our goal in life is to make as much money without going to work full time. The more irons we can put in the fire, ya know, that allows us to be here. How creative and resourceful can we get doing this, that, or the other.
S: What would you say your favorite part of all of this is?
A: My favorite thing is basically coming up with the recipes. But it’s a labor of love, especially with the dandelions. You’ve got to pick all the dandelions and on each of them…you actually have to take all of this green off, so I’ve got to cut all of this yellow off of each one and it is a daunting task. Like I said, it’s a labor of love. It’s very time consuming. This is why I don’t do a lot of it, because it takes forever. But it’s fun and it tastes good. Tastes like honey.
S: How did you go about becoming a certified kitchen?
A: I was working at the Holston Mountain Artisans, and they were bugging me—hey, can you put your jams and jellies in here? Well, I can’t do that the way I am now. I can only do that at the farmer’s market. So Steve, who was running Holston Mountain Artisans at the time, said hey, you should look into doing the kitchen, so I looked into doing it and it didn’t look too complicated and so I went ahead. It was when I decided I wanted to start selling pickles and relish and things like that, that it became a little more time consuming. Basically, all I had to do was submit my recipes to VDAX, they send someone out here and inspect my house as it is…I don’t have to remodel or put in a commercial kitchen. They just come in and say, well, are your freezers the right temperature, is the refrigerator the right temperature, do you have all your stuff six inches off the ground? We say it looks good, you can now be a food manufacturer in your house. And that’s how that went about. Now then, I wanted to start selling pickles and you have to take…basically pickle school…”better processed control” school. That was expensive, and now I have to go submit all of my products and my recipes to the extension office. They evaluate them, they send me back a report that says, yes, you can do this. I send that to the state. I then certify myself with the FDA that says I’m a food manufacturer. The bulk of my recipes have been approved, but I am still in the process.
S: And each individually has to get approved?
A: I send two jars of everything to the extension office, and my recipe, and my process of how I make it. Come on, Annie!
S: Make sure to bring that stick! You’ll be lost without it.
A: She’s nuts. So, what’s nice about this, is that we can go out in the woods and pluck out all the trees that we want and bring ‘em down here and plant them where we want. We’ve got sugar maples growing, we got this little holly bush, some pine trees, he’s got cedar trees. All this area that’s tall, swampy grass? That’ll have a pond in it. He’s gonna get a track hoe and dig that out, and put it into a pond.
S: Is there anything about the Abingdon Farmer’s Market that strikes you?
A: What drew me to the Abingdon Market, number one, was the fact that it was a year-round market. I knew before I ever moved to Virginia that that was the market I was going to go to. I actually started this business in Colorado and decided I was going to move it here. But I had no idea I knew I was going to be able to get into retail or anything like that. We had a tiny little farmer’s market in Hotchkiss. You may have five vendors. Abingdon—it’s a great market. I love the diversity of products that you can get. It’s not just produce, produce, produce. Soap, pottery and woodworking. Really kind of shows off the area of talent.
S: Gonna get a few more pictures of Annie. The animals are always stars.
A: You ham! Come back in five years! This place is gonna be stunning in five years with fruit trees, and roses, and a garden, and a big pond. But you have to start somewhere, so today this is where it is. This is a year from where it was when we started.
S: It’s so amazing how gardening has taught me patience for things, too.
A: Because you can’t have a strawberry right now!
S: Yeah! And often, you have to wait a year or two years to get it.
A: That’s like asparagus. We’ll just let it go and maybe next year we’ll get something off of it. But again, I could sit here and go, I wish it was perfect for you to come out here but life is what happens while you’re planning it. It is what it is today and next year it’ll be more growth than it is this year.