By BRWIA Staff Intern, Leah Jalfon
When thinking about my day at Mollie’s Branch, one word comes to mind: reciprocity. Mollie’s Branch, Diane Price’s no-kill, family farm in Todd, is maintained through the balanced process of giving and taking. But before I get to that, let me explain how Mollie’s Branch became what it is today.
Growing up in Tennessee, Diane always knew she wanted to live on a farm, but she held a number of careers before moving to Todd. In 1996 when she and her family got the land over a couple who wanted to turn it into an RV park, Diane decided to take the “leap of faith” and begin life as a farmer. But it didn’t begin immediately. Because of its pristine, natural beauty, you would never guess that Mollie’s Branch used to be a girls’ tennis camp. When Diane and her family bought the land, it was covered with asphalt tennis courts. They lived in a mobile home on top of one of the tennis courts for two years while they built their house. Once the asphalt was gone and the house was built, Diane was able to immerse herself into the world of farming.
Diane started with goats, then raised chickens. After she fell in love with her first rescue llama, she added twelve more llamas to the farm. I got to meet the llamas on my visit. I was a little scared because I had heard rumors that llamas were mean, that they would spit on you or kick you if you came near, but I was completely mistaken; llamas are some of the kindest animals I’ve ever met. These fluffy, curious creatures greeted us as we came to the fence, and they seemed to love us petting their soft noses. Although I could clearly see that the llamas were a joy to have around, I had to ask what their benefit to the farm was. Daniel Meehan, Diane’s intern who is full of interesting facts and figures, told me that they use the llama’s manure as fertilizer for the garden. Dan says that llama manure is the only animal manure that does not need to be composted before it’s applied to the soil.
Dan moved to Boone from New Jersey last year to study Appropriate Technology at Appalachian State. He met Katie, Diane’s daughter, who mentioned that her mom needed some help on the farm. He recalls,
“I’d never farmed before, but it’s always been something I wanted to do. It seemed like this mystical practice, almost like witchcraft, but once I got here and got introduced to Diane, it just took off. We have great chemistry and have so much fun working together.”
Dan and Diane do not have your typical employer/employee relationship; they explained things to me as a team and laughed as they recalled their mistakes, like trying to grow camelina, a biofuel crop, four different times. Diane says that Dan helped her get back into farming after she took a few years off to handle family illnesses. Dan brings new, innovative ideas to the farm, and Diane’s experience helps them figure out what will work and what won’t. Dan now lives on the farm in a cabin that he has refurbished. As an out-of-state student myself, I see the value in having a family away from home.
The llama manure must be working because the garden was growing beautifully. Diane, Dan, and Diane’s daughter Katie took me on the tour, first showing me the grape vines, picking a few of the leaves for me to take home. Their non-GMO corn was springing up quickly; they use the corn to feed their animals. This is one of the many ways Mollie’s Branch mimics nature’s cycles of reciprocity: the llamas eat the plants from the garden, and their manure then fertilizes the plants. Diane and Dan are also growing fava beans, lettuce, chard, squash, potatoes (which I also got to take home), and hops that they hope to sell to local breweries.
Another way that Mollie’s Branch works with nature is through their micro hydropower system, which they were able to build through a community grant. The micro hydropower system uses the current from the creek that runs through the property to spin a turbine, generating enough power for the barn and the cabin. Completing another cycle of reciprocity between the farm and the community, Diane and Dan host student groups to educate them on this unique system of renewable energy.
Diane has received grants to grow shiitake mushrooms, host summer camps for children, and she even participated in Appalachian State’s “Farmer For A Day” program, where the chancellor of ASU came to Mollie’s Branch to harvest Diane’s sorghum, and Diane got to be the chancellor for the day. This past November, they received a grant to build cold frames with the Western Youth Network to grow greens for needy families in the community. Diane remembers building the cold frames in January, worrying that nothing would grow, but the project was a success and they were able to provide greens to a few local families.
One of the most interesting facts I discovered about Diane is that she wrote the grant that started Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture. Sue Counts, Judy Sharnes, and Diane noticed the lack of recognition and resources for female farmers in the High Country. Diane wrote the grant, not knowing if they would receive it or not. They surprised her at the market with the check for $30,000 and managed to snap a picture of her surprised face: eyes wide and jaw dropped, the picture made it onto the cover of the Mountain Times. Although Diane says it was one of the most embarrassing photos of her, she’ll never forget that moment. Without Diane, our organization could not be what it is today.
"We’ve had hard years, but you just have to pick up and move on. It’s funny because I’ve had a lot of professional careers, but I finally came full circle and realized that I’m the happiest shoveling manure in the barn! I still love to do other things but this is where my heart is."
Mollie’s Branch is a lovely example of the way that farmers and community members young and old can grow food sustainably and give back to their local communities. We hope that you’ll visit Mollie’s Branch on the High Country Farm Tour August 3rd and 4th.