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.”