Oftentimes the size of something does not always properly indicate its value. The same could be said of the sweet little family farm located in the backyard of a Sedalia neighborhood. Properly named, The Backyard Farmer is powered by the big hearts and ingenuity of the husband and wife duo Jay Vang and Nou Lee. Tucked behind the family home, you would never guess an oasis of abundant vegetables and lush flower gardens awaits. Just beyond the back door, colorfully decorated Koi swim lazily between the water lilies of a shaded pool. The serenity of the backyard, coupled with the delightful warm smiles of Jay and Nou makes this little backyard farm feel more like a nugget of paradise than a suburban neighborhood.
When asked why they’ve taken the effort to transform their quaint backyard into a high functioning urban farm, they smile and tell the story of their 5 children. Each of their children have either graduated from the University of Missouri or are currently enrolled at Mizzou. Every dollar they earn from their backyard farm goes to paying for their children’s tuition, books, and lodging in Columbia. Plus, selling at the Columbia Farmers Market gives Jay and Nou the opportunity to spend time with their children, as each of them have now moved out of the family home. “We love what we do and eat the food we grow. We hope our children might pick up the joy of farming but they help us sell at the market.”
When looking for The Backyard Farmer at the Columbia Farmers Market, the first thing many customers look for is Nou’s beautiful and abundant sunflowers. When in season, her cheerful flowers shade the delicious tomatoes aligned neatly in rows on their table. The sunflowers are Nou’s specialty. The whole family anxiously awaits to share a recipe with you, a cooking method or perhaps a friendly hello. Their five children: Jenny, Vicky, Nicholas, Daniel, and Crystal are often the face of the business, as their parents spend countless hours during the week tending to the farm. Nou also works a full-time evening job in addition to working on the farm. She’ll wake up at noon after her 9pm to 6am shift. “My children tell me I work too hard, but I just love working in the garden. My mom said you need a garden. She was an avid gardener. I used to hate gardening, but now I’ve just learned to love it. Seeing things grow, you wish the whole day started over again so you could go out and do the same thing. I lose track of time when I’m working in the garden.”
Nou claims that the farm is a hobby for her husband Jay, but his love for growing tomatoes seems more like an obsession. Jay grows enough tomatoes to bring 300 lbs. each week to the market. His larger tomato varieties include Red Deuce, Big Dina, and Purple Cherokees. As for the smaller cherry tomatoes, he likes to grow his yellow Sun Sugar variety and the red Super Sweets as well. When you ask him his favorite vegetable he won’t hesitate in telling you, “Tomatoes are my all time favorite.” Being that he feeds his family from his backyard farm, Jay and Nou never spray any chemicals on any part of their lawns or vegetables. “I eat right from the garden. There is no need to wash. I just eat the cherry tomatoes and big tomatoes as I work.”
From raised beds, a greenhouse, high tunnels, to a hydroponic system for his tomatoes, the farm consists of several growing practices. Jay uses a hydroponic system to grow his tomatoes in two large high tunnels. His tomato operation is impressive, to say the least. Located in the high tunnels, Jay’s tomato plants climb trellises over 20 feet tall. Some plants hold well over ten tomatoes at one time. All of the tomatoes hang weightless and in perfect suspension above the rich soil. By using the high tunnel, Jay is able to grow his tomatoes well into November. Although tomatoes are his favorite crop, he’s always planning the next stage of his farm and greatly considers the requests of his customers when planning, “I like to grow a little bit of everything.” Among Jay’s tomatoes and Nou’s sunflowers, you can find an abundance of Asian fruits and vegetables, zucchini, several different assortments of flower bouquets and much much more. Jay thinks variety is important in keeping his customers interested.
During the three years, Jay and Nou have been selling at the market, they’ve loved visiting with their customers. Jay perks up when talking about the joys of selling at the Columbia Farmers Market, “I enjoy seeing all the people. If we don’t sell a thing, we’re happy enough to be at the market and talking with the customers and vendors. They get to know you and what you sell. They learn about what we put in our soil and how we don’t spray. We teach them how to cook something new. I always tell my customers, ‘If you don’t like something, we’ll reimburse you, but most customers come back and buy more next week!”
You can find The Backyard Farmers and their lovely children this week at the Columbia Farmers Market.