Michael Sponaugle grew up on the family cattle farm. When asked how long he’s been farming he laughs, “All my life. It’s all I’ve ever known.” While helping the 4-H livestock judging team grow sweet corn as a fundraiser, he realized how much he liked planting and seeing the growing process from start to finish. When the fundraiser was discontinued, he wanted to keep going– but he wanted to grow more than sweet corn. He wanted to farm everything! “People said it couldn’t be done in Highland,” Michael says. “But I like a challenge, especially when I’m told it’s impossible and I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Today, Michael and his wife Kari grow season fresh produce and berries on roughly 10 acres in Doe Hill and McDowell, Virginia; from “u-pick” strawberries to tomatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, onions, and of course, sweet corn. They are also in the process of establishing a variety of fruit– including plums, cherries, blueberries and grapes. Because the growing season is short in Highland, the Sponaugle’s start seeds in their kitchen under grow lights. They use low tunnels over raised beds covered in plastic mulch with drip irrigation after transplanting outdoors to help extend their season. In addition, they practice crop rotation and keep honey bees to help with pollination and produce honey. The Sponaugle’s also raise beef and partner with Michael’s brother Matt to sell lamb that’s fed on pasture and grain; the meat is processed at nearby Allegheny Meats.
Church Hill Produce is a true family operation – Michael and Kari get help from Michael’s mom and dad Caroline and Jim Sponaugle, as well as other relatives and their blue heeler dog Amos, the mascot of the operation. “Kids and adults both visit our stand just to see and get an update on Amos, and it’s a joy to share him with our customers,” says Kari. In the Spring of 2014, they welcomed a son, Jasper, into the family business and he could be seen helping dad sell produce ‘on the corner’ and at the Friday farmers’ market. In addition to this help, the Sponaugle’s employ a few local residents and work with local students who wish to learn more about agriculture and food production first hand. They have also hosted field trips and donated produce for Highland Elementary School as well.
Church Hill Produce is available during the growing season at roadside farm stands in Monterey and at The Highland Farmers Market. Their produce is always popular and it’s not unusual to see lines of people waiting to purchase their fresh produce. “People come to us because they know they are going to get good produce and a fair price” Michael says. In a county that lacks a full service grocery store, this availability of produce and meat products fills an important void. Kari also notes that their produces helps Highland residents continue cultural traditions of food preservation; many of their customers can no longer garden on their own, but because of Church Hill Produce, one can buy in bulk so that they can put up food for the winter knowing it’s locally grown right here in Highland. Church Hill Produce can also be found on Facebook and the Virginia Grown website.