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.”
by Laura Johnson
Susan Owen was farming organically and selling at farmers’ markets long before it was cool. “It wasn’t a thing,” she laughed. “It’s hard to believe now.”
After identifying a market for Echinacea in the late 1980s, Susan set out determined to do it in a natural way. “It’s hard to believe, but people in this area were not aware or didn’t much care about herbicides, pesticides, poisons that go into the soil and end up seeping into the waterways,” she said. Because her farmland was shaped like a bowl, she knew anything she put onto the land would wash into the creek.
“(Everyone) was pushing chemicals,” Susan recalled. “Pesticides and herbicides, that was the new scientific stuff, it was the ‘the best thing.’” People she told about her plan to farm organically said it couldn’t be done. “And I thought watch me, yes I can,” she said. “I know I can.”
She could and she did – soon she was the largest Echinacea grower in the Southeast, also selling organic produce and cut flowers at the growing Watauga Farmers’ Market. Her daughters grew up going to market with her, Susan recalled. “Oh I loved it,” she smiled. “Such a great spot, oh it’s wonderful.”
Now, years later and after a number of changes and ventures, Susan is the Garden Manager of the F.A.R.M. Café Garden Spot, which she designed in the shape of a butterfly wing in tribute to the crucial relationship between pollinators and plants. Her artistic nature comes into play often in her farm work.
“I think art helped with my eye and the way I see things,” she said. “I was trained to use my eye with line and color and form and texture, and all that helps so much when you’re planting a garden. It’s another way to look at beauty.”
The Garden Spot, now entering its second growing season, provides organic produce to the pay-what-you-can restaurant in downtown Boone and educates people at the same time. And, being centrally nestled in the heart of Valle Crucis behind the Mast General Store, there are plenty of people around to talk to.
"That's what's feeding me - I know I'm doing good work."
“The goal is to grow really good healthy, organic food for the café, and to hopefully be able to grow enough food that it keeps their bills down and they don’t have to order as much (from elsewhere),” Susan said. “Another goal is just to be able to teach people – we’re so lucky to be right here because so many people see it, it’s so well exposed.” She said she loves talking to people about organic gardening and food-security issues.
“People will say, 'wow I never thought if it that way,' or 'gosh you think we have these problems at home?'” Susan said. “Or they’ll say, 'I wonder if we could do something like this at home?' Now that’s what I get really excited about, when they take this idea and go.”
Once more immersed in her passion for food and farming, Susan said she couldn’t be happier. “That’s what’s feeding me – I know I’m doing good work,” she said. “I’m doing good work for the café to feed people of lesser means, and I mean, this is my office – look!” She raised her face to the Valle as sunset approached. “This is the magic time,” she almost whispered, as if telling a secret. “Isn’t it incredible?”
by Laura Johnson
The goal of the FIG (Farm Incubator and Grower) Farm, located on Dutch Creek Rd. in Valle Crucis, is to help beginning farmers get a foot in the door via access to resources and reduced start-up costs.
“The idea is to give them a piece of land for their first few seasons with some of the amenities that you wouldn’t be able to afford starting out,” explained Caroline Hampton, a relatively new farmer who grows her Octopus Garden at FIG. “We have a really nice tractor and a lot of different tools and a wash station, so all of it is pretty nice, and it gives people a chance to decide whether they want to actually be a farmer or not.”
Started by Maverick Farms in partnership with ASU’s Sustainable Development Program and the Valle Crucis Conference Center, the program launched in early 2012. Things are going so well that there may be plans for future expansion, Caroline said.
“We’re trying to maybe transition to a cooperative model so that not only is it bringing in new farmers but also being able to support landless farmers if they don’t want to or don’t have the money to get their own property.”
At the moment three ripening farmers are growing vegetables, flowers and herbs and raising pastured pigs. Matt Cooper of Lively Up Farm, also on the tour, has strong ties to FIG as well. “All of us are becoming part of the process now,” Caroline said. “It’s becoming less hierarchical and more of a collective.”
Caroline raises her vegetables organically, infusing her Environmental Studies background with a hopeful outlook. “Most of what we learned in my coursework was very doom-and-gloom type stuff about where the world is going,” she said. “My feeling is that the only way that there is to affect change is in your own life and in your own community.”
She strives to find ways to lessen the tension between local, ecologically grown food and cost, making good food more accessible and affordable. “Right now it seems like there’s no good way to do that, to make it possible for people to make a good living at this, which they deserve to be able to…and then to be able to reach people who can’t afford this food.”
Caroline sees farms as centers of community and aims to strengthen this relationship. “If I have the time in the next few years I’d like to develop that more,” she said. “Making people feel like this is a space that they are part of, in terms of getting them involved in coming out here.”
The food and farming community in the High Country is vibrant and co-dependent, she said. “I really just feel honored to be here and to be a part of it.”
"My feeling is that the only way that there is to affect change is in your own life and in your own community."
Caroline’s business, Octopus Garden, at the moment selling mainly at the Watauga Farmers’ Market, will be one of those featured at the FIG Farm on this year’s tour, while a former FIG farmer who has moved her farm to a few acres just down the road will also be featured, making them natural Farm Tour counterparts.
Kathleen Petermann, a recent ASU graduate, began Waxwing Farm two years ago at FIG. “That was definitely a really crucial year in my life and really helped me decide that this was what I wanted to do,” she said. “That the route I wanted to go down was farming.”
Having grown up in Raleigh without a farming background, Kathleen said she came to agriculture in a roundabout way. “But I really loved animals and taking care of plants and animals,” she said. “I always really liked that.” Initially interested in farm workers’ rights and agriculture-related international development, she looped back around and put down roots much closer to home.
“I want to be a good steward of the environment, hopefully actively enriching the land that I’m living on and building my life on instead of just taking from it,” she explained. “And to think about my management of my small piece of land in the larger context of the holler, or the valley, or whatever.
“It’s hard to do, to keep feeling like you’re making any sort of impact when everything around you is not that conscious of its environmental impact,” Kathleen continued. “But we still feel like it’s really important work, even if we’re all just maintaining these small plots and building some sort of connection regionally of environmental stewardship.”
Like Caroline, Kathleen hopes to find more of a balance between good food that’s accessible and high-quality lifestyles for farmers and agricultural workers. “It’s important what we eat,” she said. “But it’s also important that we not exploit the people that are growing for us, and being a small farmer it’s interesting to figure out how to grow food and not be exploiting yourself or the people working for you. That is something that drives me, to figure out how to make that kind of system.”
At her new Waxwing location since December, Kathleen is raising chickens and growing a market garden guided by agro-ecological principles for the Watauga market and the High Country CSA. “I try to create an on-farm ecosystem and use that kind of thinking to guide my work she said. “Lots of different companion planting, intercropping practices and integrated pest management.”
As a new farmer, she’s excited to make connections with people and to highlight what she’s doing during the Farm Tour. “I’m just excited to show people what it’s like to be a beginning farmer,” she said. “And to talk to people about my background, and where I came from, and why I’m doing this.”
by Laura Johnson
Highland cattle, a Scottish breed known for their long horns and shaggy coats, are incredible mothers.
"They have babysitters,” said Tim Miller of Bear Pen Farms in Lansing. “I’m serious! You’ll see a group of four of them laying around with one mother cow standing there, and all the other mothers have gone to graze or go get something to drink.”
They also co-mother, said Carolyn Miller, citing examples of a mother cow who helped to raise another calf after losing her own baby, and a group of four mothers who all feed and take care of a little orphan named Norman.
These are just some of the things Carolyn and Tim have learned since they recently decided to reside permanently in Lansing, living on a century-old farm that they’ve renamed Bear Pen Farms and starting the Highland Meadows Cattle Company.
“These are the kind of things I never knew until I started watching them,” Tim said. “It’s amazing to watch them,” Carolyn agreed. “You fall in love with them.”
Originally from Florida, Carolyn and Tim have long-time connections to the area. After raising a couple of Highland cows on land in Lansing for a number of years, they finally purchased the farmhouse adjoining the property and began raising about 70 cows as their main livelihood – and source of joy.
“We knew nothing, oh my goodness,” Carolyn said. “And now we have all these cows and the gardens and bees and chickens, and we love it. … We’re both born and raised in Orlando, Florida, and a farm never entered our mind.” Her friends at home are amazed at the lifestyle change, she said. “They call me Lisa Douglas from Green Acres,” she laughed. “Because I was so not the farm type.”
“But she’ll be out there with me working with the cattle,” Tim said. “And I’ll look at her like, who are you?” he smiled.
"Most of all I want to make sure the animals are taken good care of."
While there’s been a definite learning curve, Tim said that this type of cattle is a good “novice-type cow.” “They’re easygoing, great mothers, good foragers,” he explained. “We’ve got one area that was grown over big time, and they’re trimming it down to be a nice pasture. They’re just good to be around.”
The community has also provided them with a crucial support system as they learn and grow, they told me. “We were told not to tell anybody we’re from Florida because they won’t like us,” Carolyn said. “And that’s not true, the local people here have been lovely to us…We’re so appreciative of that, and of their knowledge.”
Highland Meadows Cattle Co. began producing meat last fall and selling their product at the Ashe County Farmers’ Market. “And we can’t keep it,” Carolyn beamed. “If we’re not at the farmers’ market people will call and they come out here. We have had the most amazing response to the beef, it’s just wonderful.”
Stress levels, genetics and feed account for the incredible flavor, Tim said. “We keep them on good clover during the summer and keep them nice and calm. And I believe we have good genetics.”
Their aim is to provide the community with high-quality, healthy and humanely raised beef, Carolyn explained. “The meat that you buy in the grocery store can be so unhealthy,” she said. “And the animals are treated so poorly. Even if it says grass-fed beef, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“Most of all I want to make sure the animals are taken good care of,” Tim agreed. “I almost consider that I have 70 pets…my cows see me daily.” They get excited when they hear his voice, Carolyn added.
“We love them,” she smiled. “And they live in a beautiful place.” She’s right – their 140 acres of lush, rolling pasture and breathtaking mountain views, grazed by these gorgeous, sweet animals, is truly something to see.
To read more about Highland Meadows Cattle Co., visit http://highlandmeadowscattle.com/
by Laura Johnson
Before finding the perfect place to call their own and raise their alpacas in Grassy Creek, Ralph and Rachelle Bridges lived very different lives in Florida. They both had long-term ties to North Carolina, though, and they both loved the mountains. Their lives were destined for a turn when Rachelle caught her first glimpse of an alpaca about 15 years ago and fell in love – before she and Ralph had even met. Later, they made trips together to alpaca farms on both coasts, somewhat spontaneous visits that Rachelle calls serendipitous. “I was totally hooked,” Rachelle recalled.
Years later, she and Ralph decided to raise alpacas in the mountains, where they could find a “rural, more placid and slow-pace life,” Rachelle explained. After boarding a few alpacas for a couple of years, they finally found their place in Grassy Creek. “We just fell in love with people in this town,” Rachelle said, explaining that she and Ralph felt welcome and at home in the beautiful West Jefferson area. They own approximately 18 acres, mostly wooded with two of them cleared for the barn and the alpacas, of which there are now 15. All different ages, sizes and colors, there is one word that must be used to describe them all: cute. (I must have said it at least 75 times during my five-hour visit to their farm in May. You just can’t help it.)
That Ralph and Rachelle deeply love and care for their alpacas, just as they do for the land and the community, is clear. “These animals we love like our children,” Rachelle beamed. “We know each of their personalities, and they’re fun and we get a lot of enjoyment out of that.” Taking care of them in a way that keeps them happy and healthy is reflected in their end product: beautiful, quality fleeces. Their fleece has won a number of awards; the blue ribbons can be seen lining the walls of their on-farm Paca Palace Fiber Shop, along with their award-winning (and internationally circulating) alpaca photographs. The shop features yarns from their own alpacas, both hand-spun and mill-processed, along with a variety of yarns, scarves, gloves, hats and more that were imported from Peru. Ralph and Rachelle said that local fiber artists have been thrilled to find such gorgeous, quality materials to work with in a variety of natural colors, right here in Ashe County. At the same time, local farmers can use the “Paca Poo” as organic manure, feeding into the health of the land and the community.
The Bridges welcome year-round visitors to their farm to meet the alpacas and browse in their shop – just give them a call to check first! They’ve participated in the High Country Farm Tour in the past and are really looking forward to it again this year – for their tours they set up with educational displays, allowing visitors to see before-and-after shearing photos, learn about the shearing process, touch different types of fleece, watch regional artists working with the fleece, browse for gifts or souvenirs and, of course, meet the alpacas – including their newest addition, Fellaman, just born in May!
"These animals, we love like our children."
Ralph and Rachelle hope to educate the public about what alpacas are used for and how easy they are to keep. “They’re a gentle, easy animal,” Rachelle explained. “And they can be raised in a way that’s easy on the environment … They are a green animal, they don’t require a lot of vet keep, and beside the fiber you also have this end product of incredible manure, which can be turned around and used in produce farming as well.”
Beyond that, the cute factor just has to be re-emphasized. And the fun factor. “Introducing the alpacas to people is fun,” Ralph said. “Like watching you meet your first alpacas today, that was fun!” Fun indeed. I could have spent hours with these adorable creatures – especially Smudge, who immediately took a liking to me and showed it with kisses and some heavy ear breathing. But I won't take it too personally - Rachelle says that Smudge "gives kisses to babies, old folks and everyone in between!"
by Laura Johnson
Horse Helpers of the High Country is technically a place where humans rescue horses, but president Amy Hudnall said it goes both ways. “I thought we were rescuing horses,” she said. “And it has ended up that this is a place where people come to be fed. And I never anticipated that.”
A lover of all animals, Amy said that horses are different. “Horses have a spirit that is really different from any other animal I’ve ever been around,” she explained. “They’re incredibly healing.”
While horses can help heal and teach us, the horses at Horse Helpers often come from precarious situations and are in need of help and healing themselves. “Usually it’s starvation, that’s the majority of what we deal with,” Amy said. “It’s always amazing to me that people can look at a horse every day and not recognize that they’re starving it to death, but they do.”
Having grown exponentially since Amy became the organization’s third president about six years ago, Horse Helpers currently houses 21 horses. “I wanted to professionalize and create a lasting organization,” she said. “And we’re huge now! We work with law enforcement, we work with animal control, lots of people.”
Beyond providing a safe place for horses to recover, receive care and hopefully be adopted, Amy said it’s one of her goals to help horses reclaim a sense of purpose. “Horses are cool as pets, but if they have no function then they feel useless,” she explained. “They are happier and healthier if they have a function. So for us, we are big advocates for horses having jobs, and also for controlling breeding because there are too many horses and not enough people who can afford them.”
Horse Helpers has been well received and supported by the local community, Amy continued. “There are so many farmers here that support us,” she said. “If we run out of hay, they’re bringing us hay. If we need any help, if we need pasture, they’re opening up their pasture. We have so many locals that support us, and that makes me feel good.”
"Horses have a spirit that is really different from any other animal I've ever been around.
Although not a farm per se, Amy said Horse Helpers is happy to be included on the Farm Tour in order to connect people with a livestock animal, to raise awareness about livestock abuse and to highlight their sustainable practices. “We do a lot of things that are sustainable, like rotating pasture, maintaining pastures organically,” she said.
“We have chickens, which we initially got because they have been shown to lower horses’ heart rates…and we only do heritage breeds. So we’re really pushing responsible breeding of any kind of livestock, heritage breeds of any kind of livestock to promote genetic diversity.” Also, she said, visitors to Horse Helpers can move closer to the roots of farming.
“Horses are considered livestock, and they are not being cared for because of the replacement of horses by tractors,” she explained. She hopes visitors take away a new awareness and connection to animals and the farm setting: “I hope we raise awareness in general about horses, about us, about the abuse they can be exposed to, the need to be responsible for all farm animals.
“And just giving people the opportunity to feel the joy of being around farm animals and the land.”
by Laura Johnson
One visit to Apple Hill Farm in Banner Elk will show that its slogan – “A place where animals talk and people listen” – rings true.
“The goal is to connect people with animals,” said Lee Rankin, owner and farmer. A year-round working farm and agritourism destination, Apple Hill Farm offers a public tour featuring their many animals everyday from mid-May through mid-October – last year they welcomed about 3,000 visitors to the farm.
“We walk all around the farm,” Lee explained. “So people get a chance to see every pen we have animals in, every kind of animal we have, meet all the animals and hear the stories of the rescue animals that have come to us. With animals there are always funny stories of stuff that’s happened.”
There are goats, donkeys, ponies, horses, alpacas, chickens, honey bees, dogs and their resident rescue pig, Mr. Pickles, who bunks up with Snickers the cat. Visitors of all ages and backgrounds can meet and interact with the animals, getting the chance to pet and feed them and to make a valuable connection with the animal world.
“It becomes this experience of an animal farm that connects them,” Lee explained. “And I know it transforms them. You know, it has to.” Many visitors have never been on a farm or had personal interactions with different kinds of animals, Lee said.
“We’ve had people say, ‘You know, I never thought about it but animals do have feelings,’” she recalled. “And they get that, and they see how the animals are this working organism within our farm. Everybody has a job, everybody has a name. … People can’t imagine that we know all the names of the animals, and they all have personalities. So they get to see that first-hand.”
"It becomes this experience of an animal farm that connects them."
The farm wasn’t always an agritourism destination – Lee and her son, now 14, moved to their scenic mountain-top property in 2001 and began raising animals in 2003. They started with alpacas and quickly added donkeys, llamas, goats and horses. “It was crazy,” Lee laughed. “It was a crazy year.
“Then people started hearing about it, and they would come up and want to meet this crazy lady up on the hill,” she smiled. As interest from the public continued to grow, they decided to host a daily tour from May-October. “Last year we did 341 tours of the farm,” Lee said. “Which is pretty impressive I think, for a working farm.”
Visitors would be hard-pressed not to be impacted by the love and respect given to the animals living at Apple Hill. “We’re kinda crazy about the way we treat the animals,” Lee said.
“I come out every night and I tuck the horses in. Last night I combed manes, and they get tucked in with a carrot and a kiss. Mr. Pickles gets a little something, and the cat gets a little something. And then on Christmas Eve we read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ to the horses, and everybody gets a stocking. We’re nuts!” she laughed. “We’re nuts.”
The High Country Farm Tour fits in seamlessly with the farm’s visitor-friendly design. “It’s really fun,” Lee said. “The Farm Tour visitors are so supportive. They’re like keep doing what you’re doing, this is fabulous. You know, it’s different.”
Collectively, the Farm Tour highlights a vibrant community of farmers that Lee said is crucial to survival and success. “I really feel like farming is a community activity,” she said. “There are times I feel alone, moments I feel alone, but I really feel like there’s this real community of people here…I couldn’t do this alone.”
by Laura Johnson
Lively Up Farm is back on the tour again this year, but you’ll have to wind a ways farther up the mountain to find it. Farmer Matt Cooper, his wife, Natalie, and their two little girls have finally found their own land after 7 years of searching. They still lease the land off Dutch Creek Road in Valle Crucis, featured on last year’s tour, but now they’ve got a place to share that’s all their own.
If the gorgeous, curvy drive up to Upper Crab Orchard Road or seeing the house that Matt built, perched naturally atop a lush green slope on their 66 acres, isn’t enough reason for a visit, then meeting Matt and seeing what he has in store is an opportunity in itself. I got to hear a bit of his story one evening in early June; he seemed to feel most comfortable seated on the dirt outside his new home. He resourcefully turned over a bin to serve as our table, and there we sat and talked.
Matt first came to Boone from Nashville, Tennessee, in 1999 for school. He received two degrees from ASU and considered a third, but this time he opted out of the diploma route and headed for an experiential one. Having become interested in renewable energies and agro-ecology, he spent six months in New Zealand working on 12 different farms through the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) program. “I learn the fastest through experience, which I think almost everybody does,” Matt said. “So I went and just did my own thing and taught myself with people who were willing to open their door to strangers. Now I’m here, I came back to do what they’re doing over there.”
“Water, food, earth and sun...let’s keep all those things healthy, and everybody’ll be just grand.”
When Matt came back to Boone, he continued on his personal path while trying to teach others as well. “I just kept on teaching myself how to grow food and then started trying to get people involved,” he said. At age 24 he started the Leola Street Community Garden, by the Wal-Mart in Boone. After that he started farming his leased land off Dutch Creek Road, got involved with FIG (Farmer Incubator and Grower) Farm and, finally, found a place for his family to call their own. So far they have an acre plowed and the house built – a huge undertaking, Matt said.
In Valle Crucis Matt’s been growing a variety of vegetables organically – garlic, two kinds of kale, swiss chard, winter and summer squashes, collards, onions, peppers, specialty pumpkins. The plan for their land is to keep that going and add to it. “The goal up here is just kind of continuing what we’ve been doing down there, staying diverse in the vegetable world,” he explained. But with the extra space, they’ll add fruit trees, berries and livestock. “Those are the main goals for food production – chickens, pigs, goats, vegetables, fruit-bearing plants and mushrooms. And that’s pretty much the long-term goal, just to get it to where we’re almost eating everything we raise.”
Matt is passionate about healthy food and sustainable agriculture “because it’s what keeps us alive,” he said. “Water, food, earth and sun. So let’s keep all those things healthy, and everybody’ll be just grand.” He cares most about fostering awareness, relationships and connection. “(I want) consciousness to rise and kindness to shine,” he smiled. This is his mission, his passion, his drive.