Regulars at the Falls Church Farmers Market at 300 Park Avenue know where to find Valentine’s Country Bakery and Meats every Saturday: Near center stage where its “grass fed, free range, no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no steroids, all natural” meats are sold in nicely-wrapped, heavy pieces of plastic with professional labels affixed.
Valentine’s sells all kinds of quiches, pies, pastries, cookies, breads and real butter, too.
And eggs of many colors – brown, white, blue, green – all from free-range chickens who get to eat pastry leftovers from time-to-time and are happy chickens which produce happy eggs.
Donovan Miller, the son of the husband and wife team who started Valentine’s in 1995, the year before Donovan was born, runs the Saturday show in Falls Church with his sister, Veronica, while their father tends the Farmers market in Reston. (“Sometimes we switch it up,” Donovan said.)
To a city girl, Donovan gave a quick lesson in chickens and eggs but he didn’t say which came first:
“Different breeds of chickens lay different colors of eggs,” he explained patiently.
“The Leghorn chicken lays white eggs, the Rhode Island Red lays brown, and the Ameraucana, green.”
(What about those blue eggs? Where do they come from? Are they from blue birds?)
The Millers recycle egg cartons, too. Bring them on!
Every week they go to five area farmers markets and have been coming to Falls Church six or seven years. They have the packing and loading assembly pretty well down to a science.
The night before market days, the Millers go to bed almost with the chickens, around 8 or 9 p.m.
They get up around 3 a.m. to load the vans (takes about an hour per van) and get ready for the 90-minute trip to Falls Church so they can arrive on time for the market opening at 8.
From their home between Orange and Madison, Virginia, which is below Culpeper, Donovan and Veronica’s mother, Darletta Miller, talked on the phone about the business.
She met Valentine Miller (yes, the source of the business name) at a nursing home in Virginia where she had gone to volunteer to cook for a year, and her future husband was in nurses’ training.
Before that, Darletta managed a bakery in Maryland, and Valentine Miller helped his father on the family farm.
The couple began their business with just baked goods and decided later to add meat.
“It was a big step since we didn’t know how it would go, and it really increased the work,” she said. The Millers have decreased their pastry output to keep up with the meat business.
The business “has grown a lot,” she said.
Darletta Miller has been baking for years and still loves it. Donovan and Veronica help their mother bake while their dad takes care of the animals and visits the slaughter house where the animals are butchered and packaged (everything has to be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
The Millers sell beef, pork, lamb, veal and chicken, but Donovan’s favorite is not listed on the slick brochure which touts their products.
His favorite is rabbit, an unorthodox choice.
“Well, it’s lean and has a lot of protein. It’s kinda like chicken, but it’s got its own taste and texture,” he drawled. “It’s one of the leanest meats out there.”
The Millers raise their own animals on 500 to 600 acres and have a bevy of animals. “I couldn’t tell you how many animals we have,” Darletta said.
When the market closes at noon, and it’s time to go home, it take the Millers about half the time to pack up since they sell about all of what they’ve brought and have few, if any, leftovers which they mostly give to family and friends.
Do the Millers “crash” after Farmers market day?
Darletta Miller laughed. “Yes, we crash! On Saturday [after the family gets home from the markets] we go in the living room and put our feet up, and we party. We have a real good time,” she said. “It’s family time and time to relax.”
Sunday mornings finds the family at the Gospel Light Mennonite Church, and the remainder of the day is devoted to rest and relaxation.
“We’re busy all week and have to keep up,” she said. “There are always things to do on the farm.” On Labor Day Mrs. Miller was cleaning house.
“My customers tell me I can never quit baking because they love what I make. It’s rewarding to go to the markets and see the people enjoy what we make.”
The chickens do, too.
“Sometimes, the chickens get a little of [the leftovers]. They love baked goods but they don’t get them very often.” Sigh. None of us do!