Strong Women, Healthy Farms: Female farmers at the forefront of ASAP’s Farm Tour

Women have been integral to western North Carolina’s farming community for centuries. Working as farmers, entrepreneurs, artisans, and cultivators of all kinds, the region’s female farmers continue to be a driving force behind sustainable agriculture.

Farm1Many family farms throughout the region will open their barns and gates to the public for ASAP’s Farm Tour, held June 25-26 – a new weekend for 2016. Visitors can walk through fields, visit with baby animals, see demonstrations of all kinds as they learn about how food is grown, and meet the women and men who are dedicated to feeding the community. One of the most intriguing parts of the Farm Tour is getting to know the farmers that grow our food. ASAP spoke with three women on the tour about how and why they devote their lives to farming.

Robin Reeves of Reeves Home Place Farm

When Robin Reeves looks at the rolling hills on her family’s farm, she sees a legacy that stretches back centuries. Reeves Family Home Place Farm, located in the Little Sandy Mush community in Madison County, has been in operation since 1840. The family first began farming when Robin’s great-great-great grandfather married a farmer’s daughter. A few generations later, Robin’s great-grandmother Cornelia took over the farm when her husband passed away. Cornelia worked the land, raised six young children, and oversaw the farm store, which first opened its doors in the 1900s.

Farm2Robin says her family has always relied on “strong farm women” to care for their land and keep the farm running. “Farming has been such an important part of our family over the years,” Robin says. “It gets in your blood and you can’t get it out.”

Today, the farm produces pasture-raised chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, and beef for restaurants, farmers’ markets, and the farm’s meat CSA. Robin’s newest project is a U-Pick vertical hydroponic operation that will allow the public to pick their own produce. One of her goals is to provide senior citizens and people with disabilities the opportunity to harvest their own food, since the vertical growing method doesn’t require bending down or strenuous activities to participate.

If everything goes according to plan, Farm Tour visitors will be some of the first people to experience the hydroponic greenhouse for themselves. Farm Tour participants will also be able to see the farm’s many animals. Kids can climb aboard the Farm Bureau’s ‘farm simulator,’ a popular fair attraction that mimics the feeling of riding in a combine. The farm will also have its hay equipment on display so the Reeves family can answer questions about how they feed their animals all year.

Wendy Brugh, husband Graham, and two new piglets

Wendy Brugh, husband Graham, and two new piglets

The Reeves family is deeply dedicated to agricultural education, an issue she says is central to their mission as farmers. Robin notes that farming is at the core of society and when people are more aware of agriculture they can make informed choices about what they eat. Growing food is part of her effort to nurture the community and contribute to a sustainable local food system.

“As farmers, our charter is to feed the world,” she says. “That’s what our goal is and our mission is to make sure nobody’s hungry.”

Wendy Brugh of Dry Ridge Farm

Farming is a labor of love for Wendy Brugh. The hillsides of the 43-acre farm she owns and operates with her husband, Graham, are dotted with pasture-raised animals that depend on them each day. The chickens, hogs, and cattle they raise are not only an important source of income, they’re also part of their mission to provide the community with ethically raised meat that was treated with respect in every stage of its life.

“Taking care of so many animals is a big responsibility,” Wendy says. “It’s also something I really enjoy.”

With the exception of the chickens that arrive at just a few days old, all of Dry Ridge Farm’s animals are bred, born, and raised on the property. The hogs spend their summers wallowing in mud; the chickens have unlimited access to bugs and grass. The farm is transitioning from lamb to beef production in an effort to take advantage of rotational grazing techniques that replenish their land in Madison County.

Wendy says working on the farm nurtures her “motherly instinct” to care for living creatures. It’s a skill she honed as a new mother on the farm. When her daughter Mollie Mae was just a few months old, Wendy tucked her inside a baby carrier and brought her along as she worked with the animals. Wendy recalls the joy she felt her first full day on the farm after the birth of her daughter. “It was an amazing feeling going back to what I have loved for so many years, and really feeling comfortable outdoors on the farm getting things done.”

Stella at Hominy Valley Farm

Stella at Hominy Valley Farm

Dry Ridge Farm welcomes the public to visit just once each year. ASAP’s Farm Tour is the community’s only opportunity to see their operation up close; the rest of the time the Brugh family is busy raising animals and maintaining the farm. When Wendy thinks back to previous years on the tour, she’s reminded of the dedication of the visitors. She remembers people driving out in pouring rain and carrying umbrellas over their infants so they could see the animals. “It was impressive how committed folks were to seeing the farm,” Wendy recalls.

Dry Ridge will offer self-guided tours this year, with volunteers stationed by each animal species to answer questions. The public can walk around at their own pace and purchase frozen meat directly from the farm. The tour is part of the Brugh family’s efforts to educate and inspire the community to support local farms.

“Everything that folks consume is grown by a farmer,” Wendy points out. “I think keeping that connection to where food comes from is important.”

Chris Owen of Spinning Spider Creamery

Chris Owen has lived the farming lifestyle since birth. She grew up on a horse farm in Wisconsin and was first exposed to livestock as a young girl. After she moved to North Carolina to attend forestry school, Chris and her husband Jeff found a piece of property in Madison County that they thought was “just right” for their dairy goat and cheese-making endeavors.

“Livestock was something I knew well and the cheese making part was really fascinating to me,” Chris says. As their three sons got older, they too were drawn to the family business and started raising goats for 4-H projects. Today, their oldest son Cullen is an American Dairy Goat Association dairy goat judge and works full time on the farm, primarily doing herd management and cheese making. Their two younger sons, Sylas and Morgan, also help with milking and farm chores.

“The family is really passionate about the animals,” Chris says. “We all have a real vested interest in livestock operation and the goats are really important to us.”

Chris spent many late nights and early mornings with her goats as they gave birth this spring, sometimes as many as eight kids in one day. The kidding process is time consuming and highly unpredictable, but she took a break to talk about why her farm participates in ASAP’s Farm Tour.

“The Farm Tour is an important way for us to allow our customer base to get an educational opportunity, not just to see the animals but to hear us as family members talking about what we’re doing and why.”

Spinning Spider Creamery will offer milking demonstrations, opportunities to feed and play with the baby goats, and a Border Collie demonstration. Their youngest son has a forge and will share blacksmithing demonstrations with the public. Chris says the family “goes all out” to educate the community about farming and the ways that dairy goat farming and cheese making are intertwined.

“When people come here they’ll actually get one of us showing them, ‘This is how I make the cheese; this is where we milk the goats,’” says Chris. “Our goal is to show all the aspects of it in its full glory.”

See For Yourself on ASAP’s Farm Tour

Everyone is invited to join the Farm Tour. It’s a self-guided adventure through the region’s farms to discover how and why our community grows local food. People can stop by a few farms in one area or spend the entire weekend exploring many farms throughout western North Carolina.

Visitors go on behind-the-scenes tours, meet animals of all kinds, and get to know the farmers who grow our food. Some farms are only open to the public during Farm Tour weekend, making this a particularly special time to see the inner workings of local farms.

The 2016 tour will be held: Saturday & Sunday, June 25-26, Noon - 5 pm. Passes are available at www.asapconnections.org.

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