By Terry Harris
The picture that comes to mind when most area folks hear the name Ray Phelps likely is of the Surry County Chief of Emergency Services who has scurried around tirelessly for a year and a half making sure that every single Surry County resident has access to a COVID vaccination to hold down the spread of the pandemic in his county. But as he and wife Kim described how the young Eagle Scout and the rising Miss Virginia candidate became high school sweethearts at 16 and subsequently have gone on to build Dragonfly Hill Farm together, it quickly became apparent that his dedication to the health and well-being of the county they call home is only the tip of the iceberg, and that the main ingredients in their recipe for success are hope, hard work, and love.
First, Kim shared her perspective of Dragonfly Hill Farm’s beginnings.
“We got married in 1988,” she began, “and for years, Ray was a firefighter and then with the Sheriff’s Department in Chesapeake while I ran our landscape contracting business in Virginia Beach. In 2011, we knew we wanted to do a vineyard or B&B or something of the sort, so we decided to leave the beach and started looking for a place where we wanted to be. He used to hunt here in Disputanta, and I found a 200-year-old house on 25 acres, which we bought in 2012. I did some research and found that apples do well here in Surry County. In fact, most folks do not know this, but in colonial times, Surry County was the Apple Capital of the World!”
“I took some classes with the man who did the orchard in Monticello and wrote Apples of North America,” she continued, “and he gave us a list of varieties of apples that will thrive in Surry. We planted 640 trees in varieties he suggested, and that is how we began this labor of love - redoing our 200-year-old home and babying our trees.”
Ray laughed, then said, “The real story is that I dragged her butt here. She followed me because she is awesome. She really wanted a simpler life, and she knew it was going to be a heck of a lot of work, and of course, living with me can be chaotic as heck, but she realized the potential. She loves it here now, and we really enjoy working together. And it’s great that now she can see her work begin to really shine as more and more opportunities arise for her to use her creativity and her Wedding and Event Planning certification from the University of Richmond to bring our dreams to fruition.”
One of the ways the two use their combined strengths is in experimenting with raising fruits and vegetables and creating unique products from the results – often with very old family recipes – to sell at Farmers’ Markets. She explained that they continue to add to their many already-mature blueberry bushes, and between their 2100 square foot greenhouse and acreage on the farm they are currently raising many varieties of hot and sweet peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, kale, onions, potatoes, cucumbers, green beans, bush beans, watermelons, cantaloupes, squash, and zucchini.
Adding that one of her interests for the future includes the possibility of converting the greenhouse to hydroponics, Kim said, “We have been making jams and jellies to sell at Farmers’ Markets, and now that the apples and blueberries are coming in, we’re making things like Apple Butter and Spiced Apple Cider Jelly! Ray presses the apples for those, plus I make an Apple Blueberry Pecan spread that’s really good on a sweet potato biscuit with a piece of salty ham!”
Other ways they are branching out include fermenting their apples into vinegar and infusing their homemade vinegars with things like their Carolina Reaper peppers or locally grown lavender from Dreamweavers Lavender Farm in Winsor. And their Backwoods Nut and Honey Company, which they partnered with a local beekeeper to begin, provides not only local honey but also the bees needed to pollinate all those 640 trees out in the apple orchard.
Both expressed excitement about their newest project – cohosting the first Farm to Table event in Surry County.
“After nine years, we’re partnering with Simply Prepared for You out of Sedley, and their chef - grounded in nutrition – has put together a very special evening right here on the farm!” Kim said. “Everything from the ingredients in the dishes to the wine to even the citronella candles for the tables will be coming from local producers! We’ve tried to bring together as many people from this area as possible to showcase what our area has to offer because we believe strongly in supporting the community in which you live and the surrounding area.”
She said that the June 26 event will serve as a milestone on their journey toward promoting fresh, wholesome, delicious, locally raised food as guests will be served from a specially planned menu featuring items from Red Barn Berkshires, Sycamore Springs Farm, Hampton Roads Winery, The Claremont Candle Company, Dream Weavers Lavender Farm, Northwest Crumbs, and Backwoods Nut & Honey Company.
Yet another thing that the two are excited about is their new LOVE sign, part of the statewide LOVEworks program growing out of the 50-year-old Virginia is for Lovers tourism effort.
“There are more than 275 signs across the state now,” said Ray, “And we’re really proud to have the first one in Surry County. This will really put us on the map – literally – as part of the LOVEworks program includes an online map showing locations across the state where the signs are located and urging locals and tourists alike to visit each one and have their pictures made with the signs for backdrops for special occasions such as engagements, family photos, and memorable road trips.”
“We got our permit from planning and zoning to make sure we’re in compliance with the county,” added Kim, “and everything on our LOVE sign came from the farm. The wings are made from tin from an old building on the farm, the wood is old barnwood from the farm. I wanted to use repurposed items to reflect that it represents how Ray and I have made a labor of love of everything we’ve been putting into the property along with items that were already here from long ago. We’re finishing up the paperwork now to get on the LOVEworks trail throughout the State of Virginia.”
When asked how the two feel about how things are finally coming together after all their hard work, Kim said, “I’ve always been interested in Agritourism, so this just ties it all together with more to come. It’s exciting, it is nerve wracking, it’s a lot of hard work, but it is really great to be able to see your goals and dreams come to fruition, hopefully in a legacy we can leave for our children and grandchildren. I’m just really excited that not only is this the first Food to Table event in Surry County, but that we also have the first LOVE sign here, all set up so that people from all over can pull over safely and have their picture made – especially since one of our yet-to-be-accomplished dreams would be to convert one of the farm silos into a gift shop where we could share the things we have made.”
“I just think it’s great that we’re being able to create a business where we can work together as a family with the potential to have our extended family work on here also,” added Ray. “I wanted to create something we could pass down to family, so if they wanted, our son Hunter – who is already working with us on it - and our daughter Chelsea could pursue it as well.”
“It’s awesome how well Kim and I work together, teeing off of each other’s ideas,” he continued. “It allows us to capitalize on both of our strengths. This woman has always been my rock and my biggest supporter and has allowed me to dream this business into existence with her. She is the love of my life. She deserves the recognition, because without her this would not be happening.”
“On a lighter note,” he added, “she also keeps me in check. She is a real stickler for details and has always said her OCD balances my ADD. Sometimes I think she wants to get me tested!”
And as the two laughed together, it was easy to see that, just like their pickles and jellies and that special apple butter made from Kim’s Grandmom’s recipe, the main ingredient for the burgeoning success of Dragonfly Hill Farm is LOVE.