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.
by Laura Johnson
The idea behind the gardens at the Hospitality House, Sam Brown told me at a picnic table in their upper gardens, is community and connection. His charge as garden coordinator is to connect Hospitality House with the greater Boone community, using the gardens as the link. “It’s about relationships,” Sam explained. When people from the community come to volunteer, he hopes that relationships will be forged with the residents, allowing them to reconnect with the community and foster community involvement. “That’s one of the biggest things we’re working on here in the garden,” he said.
But not only that; Sam is dedicated to educating people about real, nourishing food. “Showing them that this food is good, it’s from here, it’s free, and hopefully when they leave Hospitality House they can go and have their own garden and enjoy it,” he explained. “I hope some of the residents take away that gardening or farming is a serious lifestyle for some of the community here in Boone, and they understand that and maybe take something away from that that’s bigger than themselves.”
"This garden is supported by many hands, and I think that's the big point."
Sam sees gardening and farming as a part of a healthy lifestyle, an art form and a kind of therapy. “It’s a lost art really,” he said. “I want to show people that through this lost art you can find a lot of value.” Sam believes that by integrating gardening back into people’s lives, some people may find a joy that they would otherwise never have known. “We facilitate that,” he said, “and if we don’t, then there’s a chance that person who would be into farming or gardening would never have that as a part of their life. So it can bring joy and energy back into somebody’s life. That’s my job, what I’m trying to do for all the residents here.”
He’s doing a fantastic job so far. Since its inception about 2 ½ years ago, the garden program has evolved into an upper garden area with donated, wheelchair-accessible raised beds and a lower garden with two hoop houses, 10 raised beds, fruit trees and composting. All kinds of produce are grown organically and with care by residents, staff and community volunteers. Anyone is welcome to help out, and many of the residents are excited about it. Those who help out can get tokens to buy meals at F.A.R.M. Café or produce at the Watauga Farmers’ Market. The goal for this year is to use a grant to purchase a large walk-in cooler to store the food. “People that need food can come in and make a food box and have fresh food whenever they need it,” Sam said. The leftovers will go to the Hospitality House kitchen. “So all the residents can really see what they’ve grown, and they can eat it and see what it tastes like. So it’s definitely full circle.”
While not your “traditional” farm, Sam is excited that Hospitality House is highlighted in the High Country Farm Tour. “I think it’s important for people to come to a small space and see that if you have a 12x12 space you can make enough food for a small family,” he said. “I think it’s cool when people come and are like wow, this community of residents and people in Boone just want to help out, they’re supporting this and caring about this…This garden is supported by many hands, and I think that’s the big point.”
For more information about the Hospitality House: http://www.hospitalityhouseofboone.org/
by Laura Johnson
Faith Mountain Farm is all about family. With eight children now ranging in age from 2 to 22, James and Shannon Wilkes moved to their farm in Creston eight years ago. “We thought this would be a great environment to raise them and to teach them responsibility and how to live life,” James said.
The farm has grown gradually, their business development paralleling the growth of their kids. “I only grow as fast as my children grow,” James smiled. They started out with bees, laying hens and some produce that James remembered growing as a kid – potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins. The soil was rich and produced easily.
A spirit of curiosity and creativity fueled them on, blurring lines between family, business, education and farming. They farm the creek bottom of their 65 mostly wooded acres, and in addition to their chickens (eggs and meat) and bees (75-100 colonies), they now often keep pastured pigs and grow a variety of produce – sprouting at the time of my visit in May were horseradish, garlic, zucchini, radishes, kale, sunflowers and fruit trees. At times they’ve also gotten into shitake mushrooms, firewood and medicinal herbs, gathered from the surrounding woods.
"If you live on a piece of dirt, there's dirt. Plant a seed."
Their products can be found at the Watauga Farmers Market and many local restaurants and businesses, things like meat and eggs, produce, sunflowers, honey and baked goods. Their daughter Margaret, 22, heads up the home-based bakery, Little Red Hen Bakery, with the help of Shannon and other family members. Fresh cinnamon rolls, cookies, cakes and muffins are just a few of her specialties.
The Wilkes philosophy is rooted in their faith. James said his role is to assist in the natural cycles, helping things to grow and flourish. “My job as a farmer is to facilitate that process in a responsible way,” he said. “Being a good steward of the land and these gifts that the Lord’s given us…My children likewise are a gift and a blessing to us, so this was a great environment to help those blessings grow and develop and mature. Those two work very well together.”
James’s philosophy extends to encompass diversity and creativity. “It’s an ongoing fluid environment,” he laughed. “We’re not insulated from problems, you have to be creative. If something doesn’t work it’s not like, 'Oh well we’ll just call off the day!' You have to deal with it the best you can. So I think that fosters a resilience and a problem-solving skill set.”
Always trying different things, being observant and developing new specialties has allowed Faith Mountain Farm to thrive. And with eight kids who are all encouraged to find their own niche and develop their unique talents, Faith Mountain can’t help but be a diverse farm. “They’re created certain ways, with different gifts,” James said proudly. “You can put things in front of them and try things out, give them opportunities and see what they go towards.”
James said that the High Country Farm Tour is about enhancing their business, but more than that, it’s about connecting with customers and strengthening relationships. Awareness and education are key, he said. “I think it enhances the whole local food movement. All the farms that are on the tour are benefiting everybody in some respect.
“It raises awareness, whether it’s your farm or somebody else’s; people are understanding that there are real people out there who are pouring their life into carrying these products,” James said. “And everybody oughta be growing something, I think! If you live on a piece of dirt, there’s dirt, plant a seed. It’s something everybody can do.”
by Laura Johnson
Elizabeth West and Lisa Redman of Woodland Harvest Mountain Farm are true activists. While in one sense they’ve “retreated” from mainstream society to their off-the-grid permaculture homestead in Ashe County, they continue to reach out to the community – from the local to the global scale – to spread and grow their vision of how to live a natural, sustainable life.
“Elizabeth is an action taker,” Lisa told me proudly. “And I think it often takes someone who’s willing to just go for it, you know, to do something so different than everyone else is doing it. You’ve just gotta go for it sometimes.”
Originally from Louisiana, Elizabeth moved to the North Carolina mountains, where she’d spent time as a child, in her early 20s. Active in the U.S. environmental movement and working as an environmental educator in the 1980s and ‘90s, she harbored a vision of caring for her own land.
“It was always kind of a dream to have and preserve land, to be able to tend or steward land,” Elizabeth explained. When she finally purchased her land in West Jefferson about 15 years ago, she began to apply the tools of land stewardship that she’d gathered, drawing upon the support of others and emphasizing community in many senses of the term.
“We want people to learn about our footprint in this world and the resources we consume and how maybe we can start to shift our collective consciousness and mindset.”
“Community is something that’s really important to the vision here,” Elizabeth said. “Not just teaching but teaching and learning and bringing people together. And not just for education (in the usual sense), but for learning about how to be in this world, to be happy and work together, to be resilient and heal.”
“We want to share what we’re doing so that people can see it’s not impossible to live with a really low impact and without a lot of money,” Lisa added. “We want people to learn about our footprint in this world and the resources we consume and how maybe we can start to shift our collective consciousness and mindset.”
Elizabeth and Lisa reach out to the local community by continuously hosting workshops and work parties, allowing them to share with others while collectively adding to the workings of Woodland Harvest. “We have an expert on site and we do a big project and everyone learns something new and we continue to build our infrastructure,” Lisa explained. “That’s how we do everything here on the farm, through work parties, work traders, different forms of trading rather than the dollar.”
Extending beyond the High Country, Woodland Harvest has a regional, national and global pull. They have spread their model for living and co-existing while gaining the support and labor needed to make it possible through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program.
“Our WWOOFers come from all over the world,” Lisa said. “We’ve had people come from New Zealand, Australia, England, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Israel and all over the United States.” Last year they also became an Alternative Spring Break destination for two major U.S. universities.
“So that’s one of the coolest things about living this kind of life,” Lisa said. “It’s a unique sort of community, and every person that comes through this farm learns something from us and we learn something from them, and we all continue to grow and learn and love together.”
Woodland Harvest uses low-impact, off-the-grid technologies and practices such as solar panels, a micro hydro-electric system, compost, permaculture and biodynamic agricultural practices, greywater and natural building techniques. They make a few products such as healing salves, recently hosted their first overnight kids' camp and have even learned to make their own fuel from vegetable oil to power vehicles.
“We’re out here as sort of a beacon of something completely radical and different that can be done,” Lisa smiled.
by Laura Johnson
New Life Farm is aptly named – while I failed to get Cory Bryk’s explanation of where the name came from during my July visit to his farm, I can imagine several.
When Cory got out of the Marines in 2007, which he had joined after finishing high school in upstate New York, he wasn’t sure what to do next. But, knowing he wanted to make a peaceful and purposeful life with his new wife, Jenny, in Boone, he started a home garden.
"It was really therapeutic and purposeful,” Cory said. “As a Marine or a soldier you’re trained and taught that your job is to defend this country…you’re protecting the innocent, you’re protecting our American ideals, but I think just as important as protecting people is feeding them, providing for them.”
The transition from the military to agriculture was a natural one, Cory explained. “The way you’re conditioned as a soldier translates well to this occupation because it’s long hours, it’s physically demanding, it’s a lot of problem solving, critical thinking and overcoming hard obstacles,” he said.
“And that’s a lot of what you’re trained to do in the military. There have been times over the past three years where had I not been trained physically and mentally the way I was in the military, a lot of things would have overwhelmed me…so it was a good way for me to transition and find something that still fulfills me.”
Cory knew from the start that an office job would never fulfill him. “There’s kind of this grassroots movement of us young, first-generation farmers who are realizing that all this luxury and comfort and wealth that are emphasized as imperative, they aren't important. We’re realizing they're not really that satisfying.
“As a small farmer I’m a business owner, I’m an entrepreneur, and in some ways I’ve limited myself to a job that’s solving a problem,” he continued. “A genuine problem, a real-world problem like hunger, poverty, things like this, those are the things I want to devote my life to. I don’t want to just work a job so I can retire one day and live happily ever after. I want to leave a legacy and feel like I’ve contributed, and I feel by doing this that’s what I’m doing.”
Cory first put his hand to the ground on New Life Farm in fall 2011 after slowly but surely teaching himself the skills he’d need to make it as a farmer. “We gradually replaced things off our grocery list with things we produce,” he recalled. When he and his family wanted fresh, organic produce, he planted seeds. When they sought free-range, local eggs, he got chickens. When Jenny wanted honey for baking, he installed some beehives.
“So I kinda jumped into it. I put the cart before the horse sometimes,” he laughed. “But I learned to do it eventually.” He sought advice from the farmers at the market, who were eager to offer their help and support.
“There’s kind of this grassroots movement of us young, first-generation farmers who are realizing that all this luxury and comfort and wealth that are emphasized as imperative, they aren't important. We’re realizing they're not really that satisfying."
“It kind of snowballed over time,” Cory said. “And I knew I really liked what I was doing because the only thing that frustrated me about it was that I couldn’t devote more time to it.” He was earning his degree in Sustainable Development from ASU at the same time, which broadened his perspective and understanding of issues related to agriculture.
“I started learning about the economic, environmental, social implications of our industrial food system,” Cory said. “I classify myself as a problem solver, and the way I perceive our industrial food system is as a problem. It requires a big solution, and I knew that I single-handedly couldn’t solve this big problem, but I wanted to be a small part of it.”
New Life Farm is now producing organic chicken, duck eggs, Thanksgiving turkeys, pastured pork and a variety of field crops on 20 acres. “Anything that our climate will allow us to grow, we try to grow it,” Cory said. He sells his products at the Watauga Market and also offers a mid-week community supported agriculture (CSA) program.
New Life Farm, then, offers new life in many senses – it provided a new life for Cory and his family (which has grown to include three children), for the land, and for his customers who come to learn the value of eating and supporting local, sustainably grown food. He’s participated in the Farm Tour since 2012 to tell his story and spread his message.
“Even if people were seeing us week after week at the farmers’ market, they were just seeing the product,” Cory said. “They didn’t see really what went into it or where exactly it came from. And there’s little time at our farmers’ market to really have a conversation with people where I kinda get on my soapbox here and tell our story,” he smiled.
“So the Farm Tour provides an opportunity to have people come out here and in some ways I can finally talk about it and show it, and people can get excited or at least gain some degree of appreciation for what I’m doing.”
He challenges visitors to New Life Farm to begin the process of questioning: “I kind of charge you to ask yourself - where did this come from, and who and what am I supporting when I buy this?” he said. “Whether it’s a bag of coffee, a tomato, clothes. But food’s a good place to start.”
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.