By BRWIA staff intern, Leah Jalfon
I arrived almost half an hour early to Faith Mountain Farm, worrying I might miss it in the rolling hills of Ashe County. When I saw it, I realized my worry was naïve; there’s no way you can miss the beautiful, bustling home of the Wilkes family that is Faith Mountain Farm. I only had time to take in the scenery of the white house on the hill, the chalkboard on the porch advertising the Wilkes’ fresh eggs, honey, and baked goods, and the colorful array of toys in the front yard, when Sullivan Wilkes came striding toward me, ready to shake my hand. James and Shannon’s fifteen year-old son and farm manger informed me that James was still in town, but that he could start the tour without him. Slightly skeptical of what a fifteen year-old could tell me about the farm, I followed him down to see what Faith Mountain Farm was all about.
Sullivan introduced us to the chickens, grazing happily, protected by their movable fence and the creek that surrounds Faith Mountain. We heard about the diverse array of crops in the garden, from horseradish to blueberries and sunflowers. Walking back toward the house, we stopped in front of two boxes under a tree. The boxes held movable frames filled with bees. I asked Sullivan why these two particular boxes were separated from the long line near the driveway; he explained to me that these colonies were called “nukes,” meaning that they were split from another hive to create a new hive. He also explained the processes of catching swarms and integrating queens. For the rest of the day, Sullivan continued to teach me so many things I didn’t know before visiting Faith Mountain.
Sullivan was soon joined by his father, who was returning from campus; James Wilkes is the head of the Computer Science department at Appalachian State. Since we were already talking about bees, he offered to show us the honey processing system in the basement. The smell was wonderful. James and Sullivan explained that the different flavors of honey are based on which plants the bees pollinate. I asked what their favorite kind of honey is; both James and Sullivan agreed that sourwood honey is the best. When the sourwoods start blooming in a few weeks, they’ll take their bees down to the forest to capture the unique flavor. Based on their excitement, I know that I’ll be keeping an eye on their booth at the Watauga County Farmer’s Market so I can get a taste when the sourwood honey is ready.
After learning more than I ever thought I would about beekeeping, the Wilkeses showed us their adorable pigs, placed by the creek so they have plenty of mud to roll around in. James explained that each member of his family is developing their own special interest at the farm; his oldest son Galen takes care of the pigs, Sullivan enjoys beekeeping, and his daughter Margaret bakes the goods for their booth at the Farmer’s Market and local restaurants. Shannon and James are interested to see how their younger children will grow into their roles at the farm.
We retired to the rocking chairs on the porch to hear a little more about James’ particular interests. He has been able to combine his passion for both technology and nature through his web-based tool called HiveTracks that he launched just three years ago. HiveTracks (hivetracks.com) is a way for beekeepers to keep track of their management. The system allows you to enter your hive configuration, harvest and medical records, and other information about your colonies so that you can track your progress, compare your practices with other beekeepers in your neighborhood, and ultimately improve your management. The website has over 8,000 users from more than 80 different countries. If you are a beekeeper, I would highly recommend this site.
Finally, James’ daughter Margaret emerged from the house to introduce herself. I had to meet whoever was behind the amazing smells wafting from the kitchen. I asked her what she was baking today: blueberry muffins. I must have gotten too excited at the mention of muffins, because Shannon came back with a goodie bag for us filled with two blueberry muffins (still warm!), Margaret’s peanut butter chewy balls, and a bag of “Coco Loco” gluten-free granola. Margaret started with muffin mixes when she was twelve years old, but she has developed her baking skills over the years. She makes everything from bread and cinnamon rolls to truffles and wedding cakes, and she can make almost anything dairy-free or gluten-free. In the car on the way home, we devoured both muffins and all of the chewy balls; it took serious discipline to save the granola for the rest of the week. Describing them can’t do it justice; if you’re looking for something sweet, Margaret Wilkes is your go-to girl. You can find her baked goods at Faith Mountain Farm’s booth at the Watauga Farmer’s Market, Coyote Kitchen, or through the farm’s website: http://www.faithmtnfarm.com/organic-bakery.
Relaxing in the rocking chairs, in no hurry to leave this beautiful place, I asked James what he thinks is the most unique feature of his family’s farm. His words truly portray the essence of Faith Mountain Farm:
“My business model is not to grow faster than my children. Early on, we didn’t do as much, but everyone has really grown into their roles. We couldn’t operate without them doing their part. We’re growing food, yes, but more than that, we’re growing family.”
You too can have this experience by visiting Faith Mountain Farm on the High County Farm Tour August 3rd & 4th!
By BRWIA Interns Megan Biddix and Abby Bishop. June 2013
I’ll be the first to admit it, I wasn’t exactly sure what an alpaca was until I visited Landmark Farm Alpacas. Last Thursday morning, I pulled on my shoes, tugged on a sweater, and headed towards Grassy Creek, NC. In my mind I was imagining that corny llama named Tina, from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, with mangy fur and a tendency to spit at the least provocation. That was about the closest connection that I had to any type of animal resembling an alpaca. Lets just say I was in for a surprise.
As we turned onto Landmark Church Road, the winding drive led us to a field revealing these interesting creatures that looked gentle and serene, and INCREDIBLY cute. We were soon under the inspection of several alpacas, heads lifting up curiously, mid-graze. The previous image of the animal that I had created in my mind instantly dissolved. In fact, these guys and gals looked nothing like “Tina.”
Landmark Farm Alpacas is owned and operated by Ralph and Rachelle Bridges. Retiring from Florida and relocating to the mountains of western North Carolina, this couple purchased their first alpaca in 2008, and from what it seems like after spending the afternoon with them, it was love at first sight. Ralph told us that Rachelle had always had a strong interest in alpacas, so when it came time for them to retire, they were drawn to the idea of owning and operating their own alpaca farm. In October of 2010, they made their dream a reality and transitioned from Tallahassee, Florida to the small town of West Jefferson, NC, the gateway to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Their alpacas live in an immaculate barn that they like to refer to as the “Paca Palace,” (And let me tell you something, that barn was seriously one of the nicest facilities I’ve seen). Currently, the barn houses about 12 alpacas, and Rachelle excitedly told us there was soon to be a new addition to the family. As soon as Rachelle got to the barn, she and Ralph proudly ushered us over to a fenced area that they reserved for showing the animals.
"Making a connection and learning from local farmers is what the Farm Tour is all about."
With what took hardly any coaxing, four alpacas strutted towards us and into the fenced area, heads tilted curiously to the side. I was amazed at the variety of colorings and textures of the animals’ coats. Ralph and Rachelle rattled off their names (Speed bump, Nalah, Smudged in Black... just to name a few) and proudly cracked a few jokes about what this guy, or this girl, had once done. It turns out that alpacas each have very unique personalities. After spending about 20 minutes or so admiring these beautiful animals, petting their soft coats and listening to funny stories, Rachelle and Ralph let the alpacas out of the pen and back into their larger grazing area. Rachelle then led us back to the barn so that we could see their freshly sheered alpaca fleece.
“…down the road, we also hope to promote sustainable farming and agritourism, as well as the healing nature of these gentle creatures through the use of animal-assisted therapy.”
Alpacas are native to Peru, and when the summer months begin to approach, they are given “hair cuts” in order to help keep them cool. Once sheered, the alpaca fleece is sorted and stored in preparation to be made into fiber for a variety of goods. I was excited to learn that the Bridges’ had yarn available for purchase that was made from the fleece of their animals. The yarn included a small identification card with a picture of the alpaca, the animal’s name, and a fun fact about the specific animal. It’s so exciting to me to imagine being able to create a garment out of material from an animal that I’ve met, from a farm that I’ve visited.
Touring Landmark Farm was a great experience, and a lot of fun! From learning about an exotic, fuzzy animal that I hardly knew a thing about, to making connections with their knowledgeable care-takers, the trip out to Landmark Farm was well worth the drive. Afterwards, I found I was a lot more knowledgeable about alpacas and what goes into running an alpaca farm. Ralph and Rachelle Bridges are an inspiring couple who prove that retirement doesn’t just mean Tuesday morning bridge groups or a senior citizen discount (not that there is anything wrong with either of those). When asked about future plans, the couple said: “…down the road, we also hope to promote sustainable farming and agritourism, as well as the healing nature of these gentle creatures through the use of animal-assisted therapy.” Making a connection and learning from local farmers is what the Farm Tour is all about.
You couldn't ask to meet a more passionate, knowledgeable couple than the Bridges, so make sure to mark their farm as a stop on the High Country Farm Tour on August 3 and 4th!