Season’s Best - A Green Thumb at Red Wagon Plants03/25/2022 11:22AM ● By Phyl Newbeck
Becoming a farmer was not Julie Rubaud’s original plan. It was only a week before she was about to begin her doctoral studies in the sociology of philosophy at the University of Quebec that she decided to put her academic career on pause and take some time to travel. Inspired by the gardens and farms she visited, she opted to ditch the classroom in order to work the soil.
At first, Julie worked part-time at Diggers’ Mirth, a vegetable farm in the Intervale. Looking for an early-season farming option, she began growing herbs and selling them at the Burlington Farmers Market. Soon, retail establishments were buying her herbs, and in 2005 she founded Red Wagon Plants in Hinesburg. The company started as a wholesale business, but so many people stopped by in the hope of buying from her directly that she opened for retail, as well.
“We grow a little every year,” Julie says, “but we are still true to our roots. We want to facilitate people being able to grow their own food and feel confident growing plants.” The wholesale side of Red Wagon Plants is almost entirely edible plants for the kitchen or herb garden. On the retail side, she has added ornamental plants. Red Wagon also has an herb farm that provides herbs for processors, grocery stores, and restaurants. Lastly, the farm has begun making value-added products like herb salts and vinegars. By adding the culinary herbs, Julie has been able to extend the growing season into December, and the value-added goods create further opportunities for her staff.
Retaining Staff Year-Round
Julie feels strongly about creating a diversity of experience for her employees, and one way to do that is by using the winter months to plan for the summer, a process that keeps five staff members employed year-round. “We’ve added the whole curriculum program with lectures and workshops that are hands-on,” Julie says. “Our staff learn how to use social media and write a press release. It keeps the work interesting.” Perhaps that’s the reason one staff member has been on board for 14 years, another for 12, and several for five or six. Julie is pleased that some of last year’s new hires are coming back for a second year this summer.
Still an Educator
Her sociology of philosophy degree would likely have led to life as a professor, but Julie is still an educator, even without that degree. Red Wagon Plants started holding workshops in 2008, and the number and scope have grown over the years. “This year,” Julie says, “we’re bringing in more outside presenters with a really great range of topics.” Thanks to covid, she missed holding the make-and-take workshops that used to be held on summer evenings. “People learned to make planters and crates for herb gardens,” she says. “It became a fun social thing. It was BYOB, and sometimes it turned into a happy hour. People brought family and friends, and once a group of 11 from a book club showed up.” She hopes the workshops can be held outdoors and in person this year.
Julie feels strongly about partnering with local community groups. Pre-COVID, those community-building events were held in person, but due to the pandemic, Red Wagon has been restricted to donating plants or money to organizations like the Vermont Community Garden Network, Burlington Area Community Gardens, and New Farms for New Americans. Aside from curtailing in-person events, Julie says COVID did not negatively impact business. “So many people turned to gardening,” she says. “We were lucky to be in this industry.”
Keeping it Fresh
Julie has been working in agriculture for almost three decades, but she still enjoys it. “I love what we do,” she says. “I really believe in it. Helping people garden and grow their own food is so meaningful, and that mission is still inspiring for me and makes me excited about the business.” Additionally, Julie enjoys learning new ways to do business, including the use of social media and technology like productivity software. “There are always new things to learn from a marketing standpoint,” she says. “And I love learning.”
Julie is also excited by the fact that these days, customers are becoming more concerned about ecological design, and planting for pollinators and other small creatures. “It’s a fun aspect of gardening and an infinite amount to learn,” she says. When spring rolls around, Julie says she might be tempted to be a little bit jaded, but her customers don’t let that happen. “Our customers are so great,” she says. “There is always the excitement they bring because they want to get out in the garden. Everything feels new again.”
Red Wagon Plants
2408 Shelburne Falls Road