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?”