Strong Women, Strong Farms
Three WNC women farmers share how they farm sustainably, for the health of their land, self, business, and communities
By Maggie Cramer of ASAP
Western North Carolina is home to a thriving local food scene like no other. And that’s not just a matter of opinion; there’s proof in the numbers. Over the last decade—during which ASAP has tracked farm/local food data via their Local Food Guide, Appalachian Grown certification program, and research—the number of local farms selling direct to consumers has increased a whopping 855%, from 58 to 554; the number of farmers tailgate markets has increased 184%, from 32 to 91; and the number of restaurants sourcing local food has grown 558%, from 19 to 125.
To maintain these impressive numbers, as well as to increase them, area farmers are doing more than ever to cultivate the health of their operations. They’re practicing sustainable farming in every sense of the word so that they can provide us with the highest quality fresh food, preserve our rural landscapes, and continue farming during their lifetime, hopefully passing their farms onto future generations.
So sit back, relax, and read their sustainability stories, then jump right up to buy their and other local growers’ products at farm stands, groceries, tailgate markets, and restaurants. After all, you make these businesses viable and keep the local food movement here growing and growing and growing…
ASAP and WNC Woman asked:
1. How did you end up in farming?
2. What efforts are you taking on your farm to be more sustainable: a) in terms of food production, and; b) in terms of the heath/longevity of your farming business?
3. What excites you most about this farm season? What scares you most?
Holly Whitesides, Against the Grain, Zionville
1. I attended college in the Midwest in the 1990s, surrounded by rapidly consolidating farms and eroding rural communities. It became obvious that the families who were thriving and the farms that were growing were choosing to farm in ways that were counter to the mainstream, corporate agri-business culture. I have farming in my family heritage but didn’t grow up on a working farm. The agricultural pioneers of the Midwest really spoke to my heart and before I knew it, I was working on a vegetable farm outside of the Twin Cities. In a sense, I became interested in farming because I saw the injustices of our commercial/industrial food and agriculture system. But I decided to become a farmer as a way to use my strengths and contribute to the growing social movement of local, sustainable agriculture.
I farmed in the Midwest for a few years before moving back to WNC in 2005. In 2009, I met my partner, Andy Bryant, who was already farming rented land in Watauga County. We farmed for three seasons together before buying a farm in the spring of 2012. Last growing season was my first year farming full-time. It really feels like by choosing to farm, I’m following the path of my heart. The fact that I live in a culture that affords me the opportunity to choose my life’s work is something for which I am truly grateful.
2. We grow using organic methods but cannot become certified yet, due to inputs that were applied before we purchased our farm. Farming organically means more than just the absence of industrial chemicals on our farm. We are committed to building our soil and nurturing natural ecosystems that are unique to the landscape. Toward the end of 2012, we were introduced to biodynamic methods of farming and knew we had to learn more. We are currently working with a biodynamic mentor who is an active participant on our farm, advising us as we work to revitalize our mountain soil. In establishing systems on our new farm, we are considering approaches to remediate climate change and dramatic weather events. In other words, we’re focusing on approaches to harvest rainwater and prevent soil erosion by restoring wetland areas on our farm.
The growing season of 2013 will be our third year saving seed for seed catalogs as a farm enterprise. By growing vegetable varieties for sale through regional seed companies that are suited for our climate, we feel as though we are contributing to the overall viability and integrity of our seed system. Our food system cannot be sustainable in the face of the decreasing genetic diversity of our seed stock, as well as the corporate domination and consolidation of seed companies. Farmers are stewards of all the potential contained in seeds! Additionally, we are finding that seed crops can be a viable source of farm revenue, contributing to the overall financial sustainability of our farm.
3. The most exciting thing about this farm season, and really every farm season, is the amazing possibilities in the unknown ahead of us. Of course, you enter a growing season with well-laid plans and goals, but at the same time, few expectations. Anything and everything is a possibility, which is really exciting. At the same time, this unknown is also what scares me most. The weather events in our area are becoming more severe and unpredictable. Good planning and hard work are things a farmer can do something about, but the weather is a total wild-card!
Holly and Against the Grain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; she and Andy currently sell at Watauga County Farmers Market and sell their products through High Country CSA and New River Organic Growers.
Wendy Brugh, Dry Ridge Farm, Mars Hill
1. My interest in farming started very simply: daily drives near where I grew up would often bring me past a beautiful cattle farm. I was drawn to that farm and felt a sense of peace when I drove by it. The year after graduating high school, I worked on vegetable farms in North and South America, which confirmed my love of working the land. After working on several farms and while working in the retail food industry, I met my now husband, Graham, in 2008 when he was managing a hog and cattle farm near Chapel Hill. We started looking for our own land in 2010 and decided to focus our search in WNC, where we both spent our childhood summers.
We started Dry Ridge Farm in February 2012, raising sheep, hogs, rabbits, meat chickens, and laying hens. That cattle farm that sparked my interest in farming has since become a treeless subdivision with monstrous houses. I’m grateful to have known that property when it was pasture, and I’m proud to be preserving our own property as productive farmland.
2. Our food production must be sustainable in order for our business to be sustainable, because we need healthy land that can sustain animal production for years to come. We use rotational grazing techniques for all of our animals, in order to keep our pastures diverse and naturally fertilized. We’re also careful to have appropriate stocking density; we can’t raise more animals than our land can handle! In terms of the health of our business, we’re aware of the margins we need and of our costs, and we know the prices we need to charge in order to make a living. Just as important as environmental and financial sustainability is a business’s social/emotional sustainability. In our case, maintaining our personal relationship is vital to our farm’s longterm success. With a farm, it’s hard to separate work and home, and when you work with your partner at home, it’s important to take time to have fun together away from the farm. Maintaining our social well-being is a crucial part of our farm’s long-term sustainability.
3. This season will bring our production level of hogs to our farm’s capacity and our production of sheep will double. I’m both excited and intimidated by that fact! We’ve raised a lot of our own breeding stock, so I’m excited that many of our ewes and new sows are reaching breeding age and that we’ll have a lot more product to sell by the end of this year. We’re also starting our first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and will be approaching many new potential restaurant customers. All of that is a bit scary, but I (try to) choose to focus on the excitement of it all.
Wendy and Dry Ridge can be reached at email@example.com or via the web at dryridgefarm.org; she and Graham currently sell at Asheville City Market and Asheville City Market South.
Cedar Johnson, Goldfinch Gardens, Celo
1. I became interested in gardening at a young age, while spending time in my parents’ large garden. My interest switched to farming after volunteering for a neighboring woman farmer when I was 12. Between high school and college, I took a year off to travel and visit farms around the world through the WWOOF program.
At Evergreen State College, I became passionate about the idea of farming. I loved studying soils, agriculture history, and the relationship between farms and community. After two internships, my husband, Ben, and I decided to start our first farm in Comus, Maryland, in 2002. Going from the youthful idealism of farm dreams to a farm reality was a struggle. Weed and fertility issues were much more challenging than we ever imagined. It was also difficult to integrate all the ideas we had read about into real farm plans.
After three years in Maryland, we decided to move back to Yancey County, where I grew up. We took off some time to build our house and have our babies. In 2009, we started Goldfinch Gardens in Celo, where we’re currently farming. We grow a diverse mixture of vegetables on three acres using sustainable practices. We sell to restaurants in Spruce Pine, Burnsville, and Asheville. We also sell locally through a hybrid online/CSA market.
2. We are constantly thinking about how we can best care for our soil. We use a mixture of manure, compost and cover crops to care for it. We hope to be on this farm for many years, so we are always thinking about the long-term effects of our actions on the land. We’re making investments in building up beneficial insect habitat to try and provide a supportive ecosystem for the “good bugs.”
We also think about sustainability in terms of our community. There is great security in knowing that a large portion of our neighbors are eating food we’ve grown.
Farming can be a very hard way to make money; it took a while for our farm to become profitable. We’re always striving to be better business people. I’m currently taking a QuickBooks class to improve our bookkeeping. I love the way farming challenges me to constantly learn a diverse set of skills.
3. Every year since we started, our farm has changed and expanded. Last fall we purchased a small tractor, and we’re looking forward to integrating the tractor into our small-scale farm. Mostly our farm isn’t changing very much this year, which is actually kind of exciting. I’d like to hone our skills and become smarter farmers, rather than bigger farmers.
Farmers are generally an optimistic bunch. I tend to think that every year will be better than the last. So, I don’t have too many fears going into this next year.
As a female farmer, I will say I have found it challenging to figure out the power balance when working with my husband. When we were young and newly in love, we both wanted to do everything together. As our farm and marriage have matured, we’ve learned to equally divide up the responsibilities of the farm. I’m in charge of most of the organization of the farm and overseeing our interns. Ben is in charge of the infrastructure and our website. I do more of the planting, while he does more of the ground preparation. At times being co-farmers has stressed our relationship, but working through those challenges is very rewarding.
When we have visitors to the farm, they often ask their questions of Ben, assuming that he is the primary farmer. Perhaps they wonder if I am more farm wife than farmer. Ben graciously directs many of their questions to me, which often clarifies the situation. I look forward to the day when women are equally expected to be farmers. With the number of young women I see entering into organic farming, I think that day is coming soon!
Cedar and Goldfinch Gardens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the web at goldfinchgardens.com. She and Ben currently sell their products to area restaurants and through their online farmstand.
Maggie Cramer is ASAP’s communications manager; she can be reached at 828-236-1282 or email@example.com. ASAP’s mission is to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food. Find them on the web with their brand new site at asapconnections.org. Also browse their 2013 Local Food Guide online at appalachiangrown.org; the print guide releases later this month, and a list of more than 400 pick-up locations can be found online.