by Laura Johnson
Sally Thiel and Joe Martin moved to the High Country in 2006 and brought along some of their South Louisiana heritage, to which they paid homage in the naming of their certified organic farm – Zydeco Moon is named after the Cajun French word for green beans. A visit to their farm, however, might leave you wondering about the Cajun French word for tomatoes; that’s their specialty.
“We grow a lot of stuff, but tomatoes is our biggest thing,” Sally told me as she sorted through the different varieties she had harvested one July afternoon. Some are bound for the Blowing Rock or Watauga farmers’ markets, while others are destined for distribution by the New River Organic Growers (NROG) cooperative.
Sally and Joe grow about 20 heirloom tomato varieties, of all shapes, sizes and colors. “People are fascinated by the different ones,” Sally said. They like to educate people about different produce varieties at the markets, offering samples and emphasizing diversity, seasonality and the value of local, organic agriculture. In addition to tomatoes they grow cantaloupe, lettuce, beets, carrots, bok choy and winter squash, among other things.
Certified organic since 2006, Sally and Joe jumped right into farming after moving up to Ashe County that same year – with pretty much no farming background. A social worker and attorney in another life, they decided to retire in the High Country, where they’d been visiting since the mid 1990s. They took a class on organic agriculture, and one thing led to another.
“We started out with one acre, this and our fields across the road,” Sally explained. “Now we have four more acres up on top of the ridge. So it just evolved, it wasn’t really a plan…we tried it and we liked it!” Their five-acre farm bordering Helton Creek now has a passive solar greenhouse, three high tunnels, 11 fields and cabins available for rent.
“As we’ve gotten more into (organic farming) the more we see the perks,” Sally said. “I think it makes a big difference in terms of how the soil is, how things grow, how they taste.”
Now the president of NROG, Sally has also served as the Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture president and was instrumental in BRWIA’s continuation of the Farm Tour, initially put on by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. “It was really hard for them because they weren’t (local),” Sally said, explaining that the tour was almost canceled entirely before BRWIA took it on.
“We decided it was important to do,” she said, emphasizing the importance of children interacting with agriculture and understanding where food comes from. “I think people appreciate it so much.
“Coming from Louisiana we love food,” she continued. “It’s important to us…it helps the farms continue on. There are so many farms around here that have helped bring people back to the land, or to start farming land that hasn’t been in production in a long time. There’s a lot of land around here that just sits. So we think it’s important to support local food.”