What was once a family homestead and left abandoned for ten years, Johnnie and Julann James have turned a plot of 39 acres in Bethel, North Carolina into a beautiful berry farm and vineyard. After thirty years of serving agriculture clients as a CPA in Florida, Johnnie developed a passion for farming and decided to endeavor a farm operation of his own. In 2011, he purchased the overgrown land in Bethel and spent the first six months transforming it into something new. A pond was dug onto the property for irrigation and a new barn was built using scraps from the old one.
Today, Bethel Valley Farms, LLC produces raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and grapes. They are currently in their third year production of raspberries and first year production of blueberries. While they used to supply Lowe's Foods, now they have transitioned to "you-pick." Bethel Valley continues to sell to wineries and breweries, including Grandfather Winery. When interviewed, Johnnie expressed pride in "taking a raw piece of land that was really overgrown and abandoned, and turning it into a producing farm. It's been very rewarding."
Bethel Valley is involved in many organizations, including the North America Blackberry Raspberry Grower's Association, the North Carolina Blackberry Raspberry Association, and the High Country Wine Growers Association.
"You-Pick" days are every day with the exception of farm maintenance days and bad weather. Changes in the "you-pick" schedule are updated and posted on the farm's Facebook page.
by Laura Johnson
Sally Thiel and Joe Martin moved to the High Country in 2006 and brought along some of their South Louisiana heritage, to which they paid homage in the naming of their certified organic farm – Zydeco Moon is named after the Cajun French word for green beans. A visit to their farm, however, might leave you wondering about the Cajun French word for tomatoes; that’s their specialty.
“We grow a lot of stuff, but tomatoes is our biggest thing,” Sally told me as she sorted through the different varieties she had harvested one July afternoon. Some are bound for the Blowing Rock or Watauga farmers’ markets, while others are destined for distribution by the New River Organic Growers (NROG) cooperative.
Sally and Joe grow about 20 heirloom tomato varieties, of all shapes, sizes and colors. “People are fascinated by the different ones,” Sally said. They like to educate people about different produce varieties at the markets, offering samples and emphasizing diversity, seasonality and the value of local, organic agriculture. In addition to tomatoes they grow cantaloupe, lettuce, beets, carrots, bok choy and winter squash, among other things.
Certified organic since 2006, Sally and Joe jumped right into farming after moving up to Ashe County that same year – with pretty much no farming background. A social worker and attorney in another life, they decided to retire in the High Country, where they’d been visiting since the mid 1990s. They took a class on organic agriculture, and one thing led to another.
“We started out with one acre, this and our fields across the road,” Sally explained. “Now we have four more acres up on top of the ridge. So it just evolved, it wasn’t really a plan…we tried it and we liked it!” Their five-acre farm bordering Helton Creek now has a passive solar greenhouse, three high tunnels, 11 fields and cabins available for rent.
“As we’ve gotten more into (organic farming) the more we see the perks,” Sally said. “I think it makes a big difference in terms of how the soil is, how things grow, how they taste.”
Now the president of NROG, Sally has also served as the Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture president and was instrumental in BRWIA’s continuation of the Farm Tour, initially put on by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. “It was really hard for them because they weren’t (local),” Sally said, explaining that the tour was almost canceled entirely before BRWIA took it on.
“We decided it was important to do,” she said, emphasizing the importance of children interacting with agriculture and understanding where food comes from. “I think people appreciate it so much.
“Coming from Louisiana we love food,” she continued. “It’s important to us…it helps the farms continue on. There are so many farms around here that have helped bring people back to the land, or to start farming land that hasn’t been in production in a long time. There’s a lot of land around here that just sits. So we think it’s important to support local food.”
by Laura Johnson
When Holly Whitesides and Andy Bryant found the land in Zionville that would become Against the Grain farm, they knew it immediately. “We found this place and felt right away that it was home,” Holly said. “We know that this is our place and we’re not going anywhere. This is it.”
After farming together on rented land for a few seasons, Holly and Andy realized that they wanted a place of their own. “We wanted more of a long-term commitment to really invest in the soil,” Holly explained. “We wanted to be able to invest in a place and put roots down.”
Having farmed together for six seasons, this is their third summer in their place at Against the Grain. They own about 20 acres but farm approximately 25-30. They grow mixed produce, sorghum for molasses and dry corn for grinding into cornmeal, and they raise pigs, chickens, ducks, goats and Thanksgiving turkeys. Their products are sold at the Watauga Market, directly to local restaurants and through the New River Organic Growers cooperative and the High Country CSA.
“We wanted to be able to invest in a place and put roots down.”
Holly, Andy and their farm interns employ organic and biodynamic practices, aimed to improve the vitality of their land holistically. “The purpose of biodynamics is sort of looking at the farm as a whole organism,” Holly explained. “So trying to balance what goes out and what comes into that organism; it’s not just constantly being depleted. And thinking about having a relationship with that farm as an organism.
“I feel like places have kind of a feel to them, a spirit to them in a way,” she continued. “It’s just like going to your favorite place that you like to hike – you like it because it has a certain feeling, a connection in some way, and this farm really resonated with us. So we’re engaging in farming with a little bit of that perspective in mind.”
In sharing their food and, during the Farm Tour, their farm with others, they hope to pass along some of this sense of connection. “I just think it’s so important to really be connected to your food,” Holly said. “We as farmers are connected to our farm and have that sense of home here, and for communities and people to start to have that, even if it’s just a little bit, through some of the food they eat - I think that's a really powerful thing.
“As humans we gather around food,” she went on. “We get together for potlucks, we get together for holidays, we eat you know. And when that food is not only fresh but connected to where we live…it just makes the whole experience that much more, it adds so much to it.”
2014 marked Against the Grain's second year on the Farm Tour, and they plan to continue highlighting their farm, food and practices through the tour. “I think it’s a really cool way for people to connect to individual farms,” Holly said. “I’m excited to keep participating in the Farm Tour as our farm changes and grows and becomes a little more settled in who we are and what we do here.
“I hope visitors have a better understanding of where their food comes from…I think it’s just a really cool way for people to connect.”
by Laura Johnson
The ASU Sustainable Development Teaching and Research Farm began 14 years ago in Cove Creek, moved to Valle Crucis and has finally settled down in Fleetwood. Their new land, gifted to them in 2011, is 157 acres and provides an opportunity for ASU students to live on-farm.
“It’s a major experience that I feel really proud to be able to offer,” said Brooke Kornegay, ASU farm manager and lecturer, who had a similar experience when she was in graduate school. “They get an immersive experience, and they also can help us guide other students when they come out for classes or labs. They’re good resources and help us teach.”
Whether students choose to live on the farm or not, all Sustainable Development majors are required to come through the farm at some point and take part in hands-on learning. “It’s just to complete the picture,” Brooke explained. “Because we teach agro-ecology, you absolutely have to have a hands-on component for it to work.”
“It’s not a question of can we feed the world organically. It’s we have to.”
The farm’s aim, Brooke said, is to teach people how to grow and provide food sustainably. “How to create systems that are self-renewing, self-enriching and self-fertilizing,” she elaborated. “We try to close our nutrient loops as much as possible and provide as much on-farm fertility as we can, and really the goal is providing this place for students to learn this. Because we can’t send them out in the world with this degree without having set foot on a farm.”
The farm teaches diversity as an important component of sustainability; Brooke said they’re always experimenting with different techniques. “We try to keep it fresh and try new things,” she said. “I try to incorporate a lot of permaculture into my management where appropriate, which involves creating beneficial, mutual relationships between different elements on your farm.”
At the moment, they’re experimenting with an integrated livestock situation – pigs, cows and chickens living together. “It’s going pretty well so far!” Brooke laughed. “The pigs are pretty happy about everybody coming into their pen. And it’s a way to biologically mow that plot, we don’t have to use the tractor and fossil fuels.”
Brooke believes in sustainable agriculture and local food for a multitude of reasons. “It’s important for nutrition, it’s important for decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, it’s important to support your local economy and not just the few giants, and it’s important to preserve your genetic seed heritage of an area. All areas are different no matter where you are.”
Plus, she added, there are the benefits of community building and just plain good food. “People find that working together on a farm is a beautiful way to build community,” she said. “Not to mention you can eat so well out here. When you learn how to cook and grow your own food, you can just eat some amazing meals.”
Brooke and the ASU Farm are big supporters of the High Country Farm Tour, having participated for a number of years. “Many of these farms are small, and it’s neat to see how they operate, to see how they survive, because it is a skill to survive in this kind of a field," Brooke said.
“I love to be able to demonstrate that there is a way to do this sustainably, that we can provide a heck of a lot of food without anything genetically modified or synthesized, that it is not only possible but completely necessary,” she continued. “It’s not a question of can we feed the world organically. It’s we have to.”
Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture
PO Box 67
Lower Level, 171 Grand Blvd
Boone, NC 28607
Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture (BRWIA) is dedicated to strengthening the High Country's local food system by supporting women and their families with resources, education, and skills related to sustainable food and agriculture.