WNC’s Women Farmers
are planting, picking, and planning for their farm’s futures… and they’ve got other things in common, too.
By: Maggie Cramer
“It’s a great equalizing force, doing what we do,” says Margaret McGinnis about being a woman involved in agriculture. “We all farm, we all get sunburned, we all sweat the same.”
McGinnis owns and operates Fork Mountain Farm in Marshall with her husband, Tim Charles. “We weren’t seeing each other and wanted to do something to spend our days together,” she shares about their decision to begin farming after leaving their other careers behind (hers as a clothing store owner, his as a research analyst). “Food is our number one love, so farming simply came out of our love of food!”
Although they bought their property 16 years ago, they began growing produce for the public around 2004-2005. Unbeknownst to McGinnis, both of her farming milestones were also milestones for women farmers in general here in WNC.
According to the USDA, from 1992-1997, the number of principle female farm operators in our region grew from 882 to 1,164. By 2007, that number had grown to 1,473. The number is likely even higher now; the next agricultural census will be conducted in 2012. In the same vein, the USDA reports that the number of male principle farm operators decreased by about one percent from ’92 to ‘07.
In McGinnis’s case, she works as a team with her husband to grow almost every vegetable imaginable—from tomatoes to beans, lettuce to peas—as well as fruits, herbs, and flowers. “We grow some unusual varieties of winter squash,” McGinnis says, adding, “We try to specialize in heirloom, French, and Italian varieties of our crops.” Not only does that please her husband, who is part Italian, but it also pleases area restaurants, like Bouchon and Posana, that buy from the farm for their menus.
Her hard work continues away from the fields, too, as president of the Weaverville Tailgate Market, which she rallied troops to start three years ago. “Shoppers there are using the market to educate their children about where their food comes from, which is really fun to see,” she shares.
As an educator of more than 20 years, engaging children with the source of their food is also exciting for Rita Stepp of J.H. Stepp Farm’s Hillcrest Orchard in Hendersonville. “The delight and amazement in the eyes of children when they see apples growing on trees and pick their own for the first time, never loses its thrill for me,” she says. While Stepp is reluctant to call herself a “farmer,” she retired from teaching in 2004 (coincidentally around the time McGinnis started her operation) to help develop, coordinate, and initiate the farm’s educational/children’s program full time. Her youngest daughter, April, began bringing school groups to the orchard for tours in 2003 after recognizing the benefits for the farm.
“Agritourism has become a major dimension of agriculture,” Stepp notes. Their pick-your-own operation has grown over the years to become a major part of their business. School groups, families, and all visitors can pick their own apples, of course, as well as peaches and pumpkins, and travel through a corn maze and soybean path.
Stepp’s husband, Mike, and his family have farmed for decades in Henderson County. Mike’s father, J.H. Stepp (who’s 91), has grown apples for seven decades. Today, the entire family is involved. Mike’s sister, Sonya Stepp Hollingsworth, also farms the 40-acre operation. “Right now, we have four generations who love the farm and what it represents,” Stepp says. She’s excited that those four generations include her daughters and that it looks like women will be the farm’s future.
Stepp has seen the USDA figures play out away from her own farm, too. “A tremendous resource in farming is getting involved in trade associations, meeting and talking with other farmers to learn how they operate, along with the new trends they’re seeing,” she says. “In these groups are women farmers who mostly have chosen to go this route after another career. They’re well-educated and hard-working women who are determined to be successful and make a difference. Their love for the land and the products they grow are evident in the presentations they give.” Stepp adds that they’re a resilient group—farming is not for the faint of heart.
Meg Lunsford knows that to be true. “In the beginning, we started farming 15 acres with borrowed equipment and only grew vegetables by hand,” she explains of her family operation. “One year, our borrowed irrigation pump didn’t work. We had to take a large water cooler and a cup and water 3,000 cabbage plants by hand to save them from a dry spell!” Lunsford owns and operates Lunsford Farms in Hendersonville, a fruit, vegetable, hay, Angus beef, and pork operation, with her husband and son, Kevin and Jacob. They’ve increased their acreage from 15 to 200 since their start, and they now have the equipment they need to ensure that watering 3,000 plants by hand won’t happen again.
Like McGinnis, Stepp, and the women Stepp meets at trade events, Lunsford had a career prior to starting what she calls her “farm adventure.” In fact, she still holds a fulltime job today, which allows her to provide for her family when farming can’t. But, as Stepp notes, women farmers are a hard-working bunch. And Lunsford doesn’t mind doing what it takes.
“After a long day at my job, I get to lose myself in the labors of the farm (seeding, plowing, laying plastic, cultivating, attending farmers’ tailgate markets),” she shares. She also handles marketing for the farm, fills online farmstore orders, and attends trainings in the off-season to help the farm be more productive, safer, and stay ahead of the curve.
She acknowledges that it takes a special woman to take hold of a farm at any capacity and run with it, and that in her case, she has an amazing team beside her. “It’s exciting to see women take on a stronger presence in farming and be able to work hand-in-hand in what has been such a male-dominated career. I’m blessed to work beside my husband and son. We are a team.” She concludes, “Everyone can add so much to the future of agriculture.”
The Local Food Movement
All three farmers credit a strengthening of the local food movement with the success of their operations.
“Each year, it’s exciting to see the movement continue to grow and grow,” says Lunsford. “We’ve found that our farm friends are extremely loyal and dedicated to purchasing local. They know they’re getting the freshest produce available.” She adds: “Now with an increased popularity of farmers markets and people being able to have the convenience of weekly produce baskets (CSAs), consumers have more control than ever of their food purchases.”
“The local food movement has given a boost to our farming community,” echoes Stepp. “Even though our guests come from a wide geographical area, many local residents are frequent visitors to the farm. The locals have been extremely positive about getting fresh-picked produce that is of better quality and supports a local farmer, and they enjoy meeting and talking with the farmers who grow their food.”
Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, or ASAP, has been behind a decade-long Local Food Campaign to bring awareness to the movement here in Western North Carolina. ASAP’s executive director, Charlie Jackson, sees just what McGinnis, Stepp, and Lunsford see: It’s working.
“There are more farms doing more things than ever before in our area, and more per capita than just about any place in the country,” he notes. “Businesses are opening to feature local ingredients. Farms are expanding and new farms starting operation. And farmers are trying new things.” It all works, Jackson says, “because we’re choosing to eat local and be a part of a transparent food system where farms have the support they need to keep farming, entrepreneurs can invest in local food ventures, and we have fresh foods.”
ASAP’s work over the last decade has focused on helping make sure that farms in the Southern Appalachians can continue operating. The nonprofit’s mission is to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food.
They work to accomplish that mission by providing marketing assistance and training to area farmers, connecting area chefs and foodservice buyers at schools and hospitals with the farmers who best suit their needs, and leading a Local Food Campaign. All three farms mentioned here have taken advantage of ASAP’s offerings, including attending their Marketing Opportunities for Farmers Conference (MOFF) and utilizing their funds to create signage and other marketing materials for their farms.
The Local Food Guide, a free print and online directory of the area’s family farms, farmers’ tailgate markets, and businesses that use local agricultural products (online at buyappalachian.org) is one element of their Local Food Campaign. Their campaign also includes the Appalachian Grown™ (AG) branding and certification program. ASAP created the AG logo as a tool to help shoppers easily identify authentically local food. Find it on fresh produce and packaging, as well as displayed by participating grocers, restaurants, and other businesses. When you see the logo, you can feel confident that the farm products were grown or raised right here in Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians, and that your purchase helps to support our local economy.
ASAP’s Growing Minds Program takes their work to area schools to foster the next generation of local food supporters. The program provides resources and training to farmers, teachers, chefs, school nutrition staff, parents, and other community members to encourage schools to provide the experiential education that will ensure children know where their food comes from and develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Part of that hands-on work includes cooking demonstrations that introduce children to the wonders of locally grown foods.
In addition, ASAP organizes Asheville City Market and coordinates the Mountain Tailgate Market Association, a network of 22 tailgate markets in eight counties throughout Western North Carolina, to provide locations for farmers to sell their products and for you to purchase locally grown foods while meeting and engaging with growers. Every summer, the organization also hosts the Family Farm Tour—a weekend where WNC farms open to the public and offer enriching on-farm experiences.
Find These Farmers
To hear more of the stories of these farmers and directly support them…
Say hello to McGinnis and her husband of Fork Mountain Farm at the Madison County Farmers & Artisans Markets Saturdays in Mars Hill and at the Weaverville Tailgate Market Wednesdays. Also enjoy their veggies on the menus of area restaurants like Posana, Fiore’s, and Bouchon. They can be reached at 828-649-3373.
Find Lunsford Farm products at the Saluda Tailgate Market on Fridays and the Henderson County Tailgate Market and Mills River Tailgate Market Saturdays. You can also buy direct from the farm at the Lunsford Farmers Market at Tryon Mountain Hardware Store in Lynn, and order weekly farm boxes through their online farm store. Visit lunsfordfarms.net for all the details.
Be a part of JH Stepp Farms Hillcrest Orchard 41st season and visit the Stepp Family to pick your own or purchase just-picked apples, pumpkins, peaches and more. Their 22 varieties of apples mature from mid-August through October, with peaches from the end of July through August, several varieties of grapes at the end of August, and pumpkins in October. The farm is located at 221 Stepp Orchard Drive in Hendersonville. You can also find their apples at the NC Apple Festival coming up Labor Day weekend. Find more information, plus recipes, at steppapples.com.
Maggie Cramer is ASAP’s communications coordinator. She can be reached at
828-236-1282 ext 113 or