by Laura Johnson
Jeanne and Wayne Berry of A Berry Patch Farm like to tell people how they first decided to grow organically. “We had a little small home garden 40 years ago,” Wayne recalled. “I tried to grow carrots, and we were sitting at the dinner table and I was griping because the carrots just weren’t growing well.”
No, their 5-year-old daughter disagreed; she’d been eating them every day on her way home from school. “And I had sprayed with (an insecticide) that day,” Wayne said with a dismayed laugh. “And that was the last day I ever used it.”
Now with more than 20 grandchildren, the Berrys are concerned about the health of young people. “Those chemicals I think are extremely bad, particularly as they go through a young person’s body,” Jeanne said. “I think the chemicals can do real damage in their later years.”
“I’d rather lose a few vegetables than use a lot of insecticides,” Wayne agreed. He applies this principle to the “niche” produce he and Jeanne grow on two acres of their four-and-a-half acre property in West Jefferson, where they’ve lived for the last 10 years.
Beginning with a garden for home use, as they’d done almost always in the past, they soon had enough surplus that they decided to sell at the Ashe County Farmers’ Market. Today they offer things like arugula, salad and greens mixes, honey, unusual cucumbers and special varieties of squash and peppers. Certified organic since 2006, they also provide specialty produce to the New River Organic Growers (NROG) cooperative.
Viewing the market as a good place to meet people and make connections while also bringing in income, Jeanne and Wayne love to introduce people to new foods and to teach them to grow it. “People love buying our German Hardneck garlic,” Jeanne gave as an example. “They love the taste of it and they love adding it to their food, and they come back and say how can we grow this?
“So we put together a little sheet on how to grow garlic in the mountains. And so that has shown people how to do it, and they come back and say, ‘Wow my garlic’s to the garlic scapes,’ or ‘I’m to the green garlic now.’
“We are friendly, and we like people to know that,” Jeanne added.
They spread their agricultural knowledge to local youth through on-farm jobs as well. Some have stayed with them through their high school graduation; earning a small income, they also learn self-reliance and the value of hard work, Wayne said.
Their second year on the Farm Tour, the Berrys are excited to showcase their specialty organic produce, their “gutter gardens,” their high tunnel and greenhouse and, most of all, the fact that visitors can do this in their own backyard.
“The biggest thing is that hopefully they can get an idea of what they can do on a small scale,” Wayne said. “So you know, it’s another way of reaching out to the community.”
by Laura Johnson
Carol and Lon Coulter moved to Ashe County 20 years ago to live a simple life. “And then I don’t know what happened!” Carol laughed. Far from simple, they now juggle jobs at ASU’s Sustainable Development Teaching and Research Farm and the National Committee for the New River with milking goats and making cheese – among a whole host of other things.
When they first bought their 20 acres in Crumpler, the land was overgrown. “We had a lot of multi-floral roses and briars,” Carol said. “It hadn’t been farmed in about 20 years.” After struggling to cut it back on her own, a friend advised her to try goats, and the rest is history.
“I went out and bought three dairy goats, two does and a buck, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” Carol recalled. “I mean I have no background, I grew up in New York City!” Soon the first two babies, Snow and Surprise, were born. “After they were weaned there was milk, and we like dairy so we made ice cream, cheese, yogurt and kefir.”
They gave cheese to friends who advised them to start doing it on a larger scale, and by 2009 Heritage Homestead had become a licensed dairy. They now make goat cheese and fudge, selling at the Ashe and Watauga farmers’ markets, in local shops, on-farm and online.
Lon runs the cheese kitchen while Carol gets up before 5 every morning, eight months out of the year, to milk the goats. “I’m really animal oriented,” Carol explained. “And I love baby everythings.” New babies, called kids, arrive every spring.
Lon, who Carol calls “Mr. Pioneer Man,” also has a folk art studio, a blacksmith shop, a woodworking shed and a garden. “He does hand-tied broom making, basket weaving, hide tanning, blacksmithing, wood-stove cooking, gourd making, candle making and soap making,” Carol recited. “He was born about 100 years too late,” she smiled.
The folk art studio and blacksmith shop will be featured at this delightful stop on the Farm Tour, along with the goats and the dairy. Their beautiful land, a blend of woods and pasture, is a sight to see as well. “We have great respect for nature and earth,” Carol said. Although there was financial incentive to clear more land for pasture, they chose to leave it wooded to protect the springs.
“We’re not driven by money,” Carol said. “We just want to live a good life.” While they may not have achieved simple, it undoubtedly is good.
by Laura Johnson
Amy Nelson of Nelson Family Farm in Zionville is a practical, down-to-earth farmer with a soft spot for animals. Having previously worked in commercial animal agriculture, she and her family now raise animals on a much smaller, personal scale.
“This is a really nice way to have them,” Amy said. “We love animals and we like having them here. We like interacting with them.” At the moment they have two breeding sows with a baby Berkshire boar coming to the farm next week, 20 goats, a sheep, three steers, chickens and four horses on their 20-acre farm.
Starting out with a horse, a small garden, eggs and honey, Nelson Family Farm continues to grow every year. A few years ago they received a Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture grant to do multi-species grazing. “Our pastures were unusable,” Amy said. “They were over your head, higher than you could reach your arms in blackberries and roses.” So they creatively used different species to serve various beneficial purposes on their land.
As USDA Meat Handlers they also raise their animals for meat, but that's no reason not to care for them and give them a nice life, Amy said. "I like teaching people that you can love your animals and take wonderful care of them and then, yeah, you still eat them, but that’s way better than them growing up with 30,000 chickens shoulder to shoulder, and then they just get sent down the pipeline."
"I think we don’t know a lot about what we’re eating.”
Amy grew up gardening in Burlington and was always “animal crazy,” she told me. She earned a B.S. in Animal Science from NC State before becoming a nurse. Concerned about health, she likes knowing what she and her family are eating. “I just like the idea of not having anything in (our food) that doesn’t need to be there, you know?” she said. "I think we don't know a lot about what we're eating."
She enjoys teaching people about what they do and how they do it. One of her pet peeves is misleading labels in the grocery stores: “People pay extra money for this label, and it might not mean anything,” she explained. “So that’s why it’s just so important to have somebody, me or anybody else, where you can go to their farm and see exactly what they’re doing, and ask questions.”
Beyond transparency, Amy and her husband, Kirby, do what they do for their 8-year-old son, Asa. “He’s another reason we do everything,” Amy said. “He’s a good worker, he’s learning a good work ethic, and he knows so much about the farm. It just impresses me, he knows enough to go around and lead a tour and tell people what things are…I love bringing him up here. This is so good for him.”
by Laura Johnson
The Farm at Mollie’s Branch is about love and experience, owner and farmer Diane Price told me as we strolled around her farm in Todd one June afternoon. Her dogs and black cat, Mystic, were always at her side as she fed the young chickens, introduced me to her goat and llamas and showed me her gardens, pond and the micro hydro-electric turbine that powers the barn. This serene, picturesque no-kill farm is a sanctuary for the more-than-human world.
Seated at a covered table in the yard, Diane told me about the swallows that come to build nests in her barn. “They come back every year,” she said. “I think they must get used to my voice while I talk to all the animals, and then when I go down there I just hold my arms up and they fly all in and out. It’s wonderful.”
I laughed and called her an animal whisperer. After humbly denying it, she went on to tell me that the swallows make sure to tell her goodbye every year. “After the babies are flying and the swallows are ready to fly away, if I’m not here they’ll wait on me, sitting on a fence row. When I come down they fly around me, it’s like oh, OK goodbye, see you next year! It’s sort of a mystical thing.”
“So when people come on the farm I like for them to have this connection with nature. I just think that’s so lost.”
With such a deep connection to the natural world, Diane is worried about some of the things happening in our food system and in the world today. “I’m concerned about the butterflies and the birds and the bees,” she said, love and grief blending in her eyes. “So when people come on the farm I like for them to have this connection with nature. I just think that’s so lost.”
She and her husband use no toxic chemicals on their farm, in part because of their proximity to two creeks – Pine Orchard Creek and Mollie’s Branch, named for Diane’s dog who passed away. “The creeks come together and go into the New River,” Diane explained. “And I’m really concerned about water quality … We try to do right by the earth and the next generation.”
She and her farm manager, Daniel Meehan, are always trying new, natural concoctions – some work beautifully and some fail miserably, Diane laughed. “We have a large diversity at this farm, and we’re really open to trying new things,” she said. “Things like golden beets and (different types of) lettuces, shiitake mushrooms and organic grapes, those things have been really great successes.” Always eager to learn and experiment, Diane finds lessons in unexpected places and things. Like Stinging Nettle.
"It grows all in the woods along the creek, and for years it was like, this is the most aggravating stuff because it was prickly and it took over everything,” she said. Later, in an interesting twist of fate, Diane found herself at a farm visit in Finland where she was served stinging nettle soup for lunch. “And it was delicious!” she said. “And so of course I had to come back home and try it and do more research on it, and now we use it for so many things … That’s what I’ve found with a lot of different things that I thought were weeds. They turn out to have great properties.”
Diane loves when people visit her farm, whether they be old friends or new. “Some college students my daughter’s age and older come back now just to visit the farm,” she said. “And it’s so neat that they remember; they remember the projects we did and things they learned.”
She especially loves when children come out and explore. “They ask the best questions,” she smiled. “They make me think. They really turn things around, and sometimes they’re the teacher and I’m the student, and I kind of like that.” But all are welcome here in this calming, loving space – living beings of the human and non-human persuasion alike.
by Laura Johnson
David Sengel and Susie Winters own about 12 stunningly beautiful acres in Boone. When you pull in you won’t see their house at first; their fantastic Civil War-era farmhouse is nestled in a shady, breezy spot down by the pond. First you'll see the organic gardens, where David is growing garlic, asparagus, beans, potatoes and lettuce, among other things. You’ll also see the sunny solar greenhouse that he built himself three years ago, which allowed them to grow straight through the cold winter. Inside you’ll find some unexpected things growing, like lemons and figs.
Wander down a bit and you’ll pass the shaded pond, the farmhouse across from it, and come to what David calls their “Holiday Inn” chicken yard. He’s thinking about getting a few goats, too, for their grandchildren to enjoy (he’s also recently put in a teepee where the grandkids can play). Circle the pond and you’ll see his workshop, where he has turned wood and discarded metals into crafty, unique art for many years, his work displayed in galleries across the country. He and Susie are both artists – their light, airy home is filled with Susie’s watercolors and portraits.
When she was younger, Susie always wanted to live a simple life in the mountains. “I wanted to live like I was born in the late 1800s,” she laughed. “I was into spinning and weaving and making pottery and old-time string music and learning those old ways.” The old-time string music led her to David; they met when she gave him a banjo lesson years ago. She let him move in and build a woodshop, and in return he helped her raise her children and transform her home, only 6/10 of an acre at the time, into what it is today. “That’s kind of the way we worked together,” Susie said. “He built his shop and did his woodwork and I taught and did my art, and time went along.”
"All I could think of was a place that was beautiful...It's really about loving a place."
It didn't take Susie long to find her place. “This is the first place I found,” she said. “It had no bathroom, it had no electricity, I had no job, so it was like a leap of faith I guess, or stupidity, but I knew that the only thing I could do was to be in a place that was my own, that nobody could take away from me, and that was beautiful … All I could think of was a place that was beautiful.” She said to her this place had soul along with beauty. And there was a place for a garden.
Over time they acquired more land, little by little, mainly to protect their place from encroaching development. And with more land came more room to farm. The soil was deep and loose, David said, and things blossomed and grew. “It turned out to be a really nice balance between farming a good part of the year and doing woodwork and art the rest of the year,” David said. “It’s also a chance for me to be outside while I’m still able, instead of in that dusty workshop."
They started going to farmers’ markets about 10 years ago, and they were hooked. “The market is our social life,” Susie said. “We know the people there and the customers and the vendors, and so it’s almost like a party.” David served on the farmers' market board for six years, and Susie, through the nonprofit PHARMN (http://pharmn.org/), also heads up the Kids’ Corner at the Watauga Market.
The artist in her loves the displaying process that’s involved. “It’s gonna sound silly,” Susie smiled, “but washing the carrots and handling the produce and everything is just so gratifying. And then setting up our little display, making it look really cool with antique pots and things.” Those few quiet moments before people begin appearing at the table are personal and special, she said. “Just for that little moment it’s like you’ve grown it, you’ve picked it, you’ve washed it and you’ve presented it.” All this love and care is reflected in the food that customers get to purchase and take home to eat and share.
To be at Fog Likely is to experience home, love, commitment and a deeply felt sense of place. “I think that’s why I wanted to be on the farm tour, to share this,” Susie said. “It's really about loving a place...I mean I planted that apple tree right there. It was this big, and now it’s an old apple tree.”
They’d also like to convey to people that living in this way, close to and with deep respect for the land and nature’s rhythms, is possible. “The idea of farming used to be that you had to have 100 acres and $300,000 worth of equipment,” Susie said. “And you don’t, you can do it on a really small scale, which means it’s open to many more people. You can make a dang good living if you own your land and you grow the right things.”
David said he’d love to talk to people about the day-to-day reality of farming and everything that’s involved. “How sometimes it can be discouraging,” he said. “And sometimes, joyful.”