Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Treva Watson]

Connecting with someone after having only talked for a few minutes doesn’t happen everyday. Treva Watson shares herself with you, her trials and her triumphs, and pours her heart and soul into the molds that form her gloriously transcending soaps and candles. Hard-working, determined, partnered with love, hope and prayer by her side, she’s created Diva Treva Soapworks & the newer Bohicket Apothecary, always drawing customers back for more. Soaps, candles, lotions, deodorants, bath bombs, laundry detergent, lip balm, skincare products, and more…

I’ve began repeating a mantra lately, “every second of my life has led up to this moment”. Intense as it sounds, I mean that everything before today has lead us to where we are now. Some creative impulses or business endeavors take years to discover, with obligation and resistance taking the front seat. But for those who continue listening to the creative voice inside, there’s bound to be fruit. For Treva, she’s loved candles and the power of scent for as long as she can remember and finally decided that she’d like to try her hand at creating scents and colors to match her creative inner being. We each possess our own unique way to communicate and the power of smell is Treva’s. I would definitely say that it’s a gift to all of us.

Our hippie souls connected this warm summer afternoon (yes, twas a while ago), sitting on Treva’s couch as she recounted her journey. Her house smells divine, by the way, with various stations of operation. Both basement and garage are scent factories, detailed with machinery, some newer and some old school, bottles, bags, and baskets. My personal go-to items that Treva has created? “Honeysuckle Patchouli” lotion, “Vetiver” & “Hippie Chick” candles, and her “Lavender” and “Barnwood” laundry detergents. OH, her laundry detergents are divine.

As far as I’m concerned, Treva is craft vendor that you cannot miss out on this Holiday Season! You can find her products at the Abingdon Farmers Market every Saturday morning and online!

Sarah: I was wondering your background and why you wanted to make soaps?

Treva: Ok, yeah. So, I moved here for Emory & Henry. I work at Emory, I’m in food service. So, I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, actually a small place called Goose Creek, which is near the naval weapons station. My ex-husband, that was his home. I also had family, and still do have family that’s at John’s Island. Are you familiar? I’m originally from San Diego and my Dad, when he left high school, he went into the Navy and he did the Vietnam and then he just planted right there in San Diego. Now, my Mom is from San Diego and so that’s where I grew up. And then I was fortunate enough to come to the East Coast and I went to Johnson & Wales (culinary arts school).

S: Oh my gosh! My ex-boyfriend went there.

T: So, I have a huge interest in cooking. Love cooking, I love food. So, I kind of dabbled into the culture that I did not get in San Diego, and I guess my Dad was trying to instill that with his children. It’s only three of us. So, food was part of it and the atmosphere and family traditions. Anyways, I left my ex and came up here with five kids and my intentions was just to be here, not sure how long, but to just be here as a transition onto a better life. Different life. So, my first trip up here I thought I was gonna be on the coast where the water is. From San Diego, I love beaches. Went from one beach, you know, to the other end.

S: Complete opposite spectrum!

T: Yes! Yes. And so, when I came up here I’m like, if I don’t get this job it’s gonna be ok. I’ll just go back to Charleston and we’ll be fine and I’ll find something else and I’ll stay where I’m at. I used to work at the Citadel and then I left the Citadel and went with Burger King and I’d done the Citadel (military college) for three years and Burger King for about two, and I realized this is not for me, I need to get back into campus dining, especially raising children. Ok. So. I come up here and I say it’s okay if I don’t get this job and I seriously prayed about it. I was parked right in front of McGlothlin Street, the building, and I said a little prayer and then I went on down to my interview and I interviewed with the GM at the time, the Dean, and then our regional…So, I got the job and I’m still tryna figure out the area, and there were certain things that I enjoy…one was burning candles, burning incense. There was no place around here for me to get it and then I discovered Johnson City, and Pier One was one of my favorite stores in Charleston. So, I would drive all the way down there to get candles, but one particular day I took a different route and I saw a shop and it was a soap shop and it was a woman who ran it out of a home. She did nothing but soap. I developed a great relationship with her. So, I started making candles. You take the base and you melt it in the microwave and all you had to do was add your fragrance oil and you put it in a mold. I was like, this is it? It was really easy and it made a great hard bar, but I wasn’t feeling it because at that point I’ve already tested natural soap at this woman’s shop and I said, I am so interested in learning how to make soap. And she’s like, I’ll tell you what, go on to the library, like you said you taught yourself how to make candles. I’m not gonna give you my recipe, and I’m like, I respect that. She says, find you a basic recipe, go ahead and make it, bring it back and I’ll critique it. She says, and when you come back, we’ll make soap together but I’m gonna have all of my oils already in the batch and just ready to go and we’ll mix and I’ll show you some tips.


S: I love it! She’s a mentor, but she’s also like, we each need to find our own way. Our own voice.

T: Yes, yes! So she was great. So, there was a company called Tennessee Candle Supply, which was in Jonesborough, TN. I’d go there to get my supplies. Everything I’ve done has been self-taught until later I found out that there were groups, like organizations. There’s, like, soap groups, candle associations.

S: And did you just look online to teach yourself? (is my millennial showing?)

T: I went to the library. I went to this library, picked up soap making books and candle making books. I would go to the bookstore that was in Johnson City. But mainly, I relied on our local bookstore, and then I got online. I guess I’ve been doing this now…it’s been twelve years total, and blogging was a big deal twelve years ago and you would follow other candle makers, other soap makers, and they would blog their journey. They would even give you tips and I guess if you’re dedicated and you wanna learn, you might have some mistakes, you just keep at it and then that’s what I did.

S: Just failing and…

T: Yep, I wasted a lot of product. But I just kept going and I didn’t give up and I didn’t sell anything for a long time. I was giving it away at work. Do you Monica Hoel? She does a lot with alumni. I would give her samples and stuff and she was like, oh, Diva Treva! And then that’s how “Diva Treva” came about. And then I wanted to switch, so later it comes to be “Bohicket”. I wanted a name that would be able to sit on the shelf at Heartwood and that was more professional than just Diva Treva. And then Bohicket is a road that’s on Johns Island, where my family grew up at.

S: That’s beautiful.

T: And the whole objective of that is that I said to myself, with Bohicket I would do more mature fragrances and I would work with more essential oils. I’m not a strictly essential oil person. I like to blend.

S: Where do the scents come from? And how or why do you come up with them?

T: Yeah, so like, lavender. It’s not just lavender. It’s a bulgarian lavender and then I would take a lavender 40/20. And then pumpkin spice. We know there’s not an essential oil in pumpkin spice so I just find a good pumpkin purveyor and it’s pumpkin spice.

S: And what is a purveyor?

T: Purveyor are companies that you choose for your supplies.

S: I see, that have the scent that you like. Does it come in little drops or something?

T: No, no. So, you have hobbyists, and they’ll get the little small bottles and then you have…

S: Big old honkin’…

T: Yeah, and it gets expensive. And I’m gonna say this because I think it’s important. So, a lot of times I order items and it’s too expensive to even think to sell, but I do it anyway because when you put something out you want to put something out that you love and hoping someone else will enjoy it. Like, this is another company and this is someone I look up to. I always support other companies. She’s called Future Primitive. I get a lot of my inspiration from her. You can smell this one.

S: Ooh, yeah.

T: She’s very earthy. I’m not a fruity person but if I do use fruit, it’s gotta be a really good one.

S: Oh, I love that! What I love is that scent is so powerful and that particular scent just took me back to a moment in my childhood, and I can’t remember what but I know that if I sat with it, I would be able to…it’s the most interesting thing that, like, scent takes you back to people or places.

T: It does. Yes, it does.

S: It’s so powerful.

T: It is. And I like her so much because her favorite oil is patchouli. I love patchouli. I love things like palo santo, but not everyone is into that in this area.

S: Asheville, maybe?

T: Yes, I love Asheville.

S: I’m sure you go to a lot of festivals there.

T: Yes. If I sneak patchouli in anything here, it’s gotta be something with citrus and then that seems to fly.

S: Like honeysuckle patchouli, which I have that. I love honeysuckle, it’s my favorite. We had a lot of honeysuckle around our property as kids, so we called our driveway…our driveway was really long and we called it Honeysuckle Lane.

T: Yes! Used to suck the honeysuckles?

S: Mmhm, so good. So, I love the honeysuckle patchouli. What is your current workload?

T: So, my typical nights are, I task it out…maybe one night I’ll do four to six batches of soap and then I take a break from that because it has to sit in the mold. When I first started out, I started out with a shoebox. A little plastic shoebox just making whatever work, and that was great but there were a lot of failed batches from that because wooden molds actually help the soap heat up. It gels, it goes to a phase of saponification and it has to get really hot so that it gels and that’s the beginning of the curing process. It’s that lye interacting with the oils.

S: The science behind it.

T: Yes, yes. So, where I sold my soap at first was at the Tobacco Flea Market. I did candles and soap. It was dark and gloomy inside.

S: Those flea markets are a place to behold and I’ve gotten some really cool stuff there.

T: And the people there, the staff there was so good to me. And I know that when I walked in they saw, we gotta new face here, and knew immediately I wasn’t from here. I guess from the moment I opened up my mouth. The guy there, he was so generous. And at the time, it was a struggle when I first moved here ‘cause it was one income, not two, and I was raising five kids, I’m renting a house, it was not as cheap. So, make the candles out of love but it also helped make my ends meet. It did. The babies are now eighteen, so now it’s getting a little easier.

S: And I saw that they just graduated high school?

T: They did, yes. Ok, now jumping back. So, I did the flea market for a couple years and then I was doing one show and this one show was Independence. Molasses Festival? They sold a lot of apple butter. I can’t remember…it was so long ago. And then I occasionally used to go to the wine store and I would treat myself to a bottle of wine on my payday at work. There was a young lady that worked in there…

S: Is that Catbird’s?

T: It is, uh huh. And she worked there. She was there all the time. She happened to see me up there that one show and she’s like, you know what? Farmer’s market is moving. I said, moving? She said, yeah, they’re building a pavilion in Abingdon and this would be a perfect time for you to get in. So, I applied. I started up the soaps there and the candles, that’s all I did. Soap and candles. When I got to the farmer’s market, I was the only one there exclusively making soap and candles. And then there was another young lady. She was selling shea butter. She was doing great and she knew that I sold it. I said look, we’re two different crafters so there’s no real threat there. You do you, I’m a do me, and stick with it. I guess the moral of the story is, I may be a soap maker there and candles but there’s not a threat because all of us are different in their own way.

S: Do you have a favorite process or a favorite product or something that resonates with your heart the most?

T: I love scent, so candles is gonna be number one. I love scent, I feel like I have to burn incense all the time.

S: Just to calm…

T: To calm down, yes. I would say candles first and soap relaxes me, to make the soap. I get to get creative. With candles, you’re not so creative, it’s more getting creative blending the scents but not with colors and it’s not as visual. When I started out I was doing a lot of my shopping at the health food store when it was across from Cargo.

S: Oh, yeah! Where the Choice is now? Where do you see your business going?

T: Of course you have dreams. I’m like, someday I want it to be sitting on a shelf at Whole Foods. And then I’m like, ugh, but I like it small because I’m not ready. Especially when you’re raising kids, you’re not ready to be…I think I’m just really comfortable with being small. It can be stressful, it’s demanding, if you’re having to push orders. It’s expensive, so if you go bigger, be prepared to spend more money and then with this, I spend a lot of money and sometimes I have to buckle myself down.

S: I think there’s a beauty in the simplicity of smaller businesses because of that. I think people have more control over it. And having some control, when there are so many things in our lives that feel like they’re out of our control is a really lovely thing. To have the freedom to say, if I keep it a little simpler then I get to call the shots on this thing. I don’t know. I think that’s why I love living in a smaller town, too.

T: I’m learning to love that. At first I’m like, this is not for me.

S: I was the same way.

T: But I don’t miss the traffic.



Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Kling sheep farm]

Life is unpredictable. It can leave you breathless; by nature’s beauty one moment, and by nature’s cruelty the next. The trick seems to be in how we maneuver through unforeseen circumstances and curveballs. Farming teaches a person patience, acceptance, strength. It is not for the weak of heart or soul. But then again, I don’t really believe anyone is truly weak of heart or soul. I think that where your raging passion and conviction is found, therein lies the strength you need to muddle through.

But I digress…I was greeted by Silan, Bonnie, and Noel, the warrior watchdogs, from the top of the hill as I turned off of Grandview drive and made the ascent to the Kling Family home. I had been there two weeks prior to witness the spring sheep shearing, and had figured out where to expertly squeeze my Subaru. Barbara Kling came out and introduced me to the nearest group of sheep, curious as to the newcomer with a clicking device so close to them. A wily bear had recently made its presence known, and as Barbara gave me a tour of the farm, she pointed out where it had made its grand entrance into their pastures. Nature, you sly cat. Or bear in this case.

The Kling family raises sheep for both wool and meat, ranging in variety from Icelandic to Cotswolds. A medical family originally from Northern Virginia, the bulk of them now resides in Southwest Virginia, everyone helping out in some way or another on the farm throughout the year. We connected over our Maryland/Northern Virginia affiliations and about the history of my hometown, Frederick, while we drove up to visit the teenage watchdogs, Max and Maria, as they attempted to herd me. They are very dedicated workers.

Barbara strikes me as a woman of strength and dignity. She joked that she used to hike all over these hills, but that those days are over and she’s okay with that. I gathered that she takes life like she takes farming, all in its stride.

You can find stunning multi-colored yarns, all things wool, garlic, lamb biscuits, and meat at their table on Saturday mornings at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market. Keep reading to meet some of the sheep and find out about how they arrived here…

S: You guys are good watchdogs, aren’t you?

B: He’s a Karakachan from Bulgaria. And I got her because she’s supposed to be good at things like bears and we were beginning to have a bear come in. It’s better now. Doll and her two little boys. She always looked like  Dresden doll, so that’s why we called her Doll. She’s pretty old now and we hadn’t bred her for a couple of years, and I said, why don’t we just breed her and if she doesn’t do well, she doesn’t. But she’s been very happy and as you can see, she’s a good mother. Do you see that kind of chunky one that just went that way?

S: Yes, yes!

B: He’s half Texel and this is his mother. The Texels are supposed to be worm-resistant. For instance, the father…they never wormed him and he did very well. And this is one of our bottle babies. We went in and the mother had lodged…they do this every once in a while…they’ll lay down and they can’t get up. In a hole. Oh, it was awful because that was such a nice ewe and these are her first lambs. All of them aren’t nice.

S: Like, gentle-mannered?

B: Yeah. Some of them just don’t want anything to do with you, and they’ll run and everything.

S: She looks so sweet! And “bottle babies” is a name for orphans?

B: Yeah. That’s what we always call them. If they’re on a bottle. And when you raise them then they’re usually your friends for always. And I’ll tell you also, the Texel, they grow faster and they’re very chunky. He was born the end of April, I guess, and by September he was weighing over one hundred pounds. And when you look at him, he’s just little. He’s just short. He’s not anything near the big ones, but their hind quarters and the leg. These are all Icelandics here for some reason. They’re just not as big, but of course their wool is a little unusual. It’s double-coated and that makes it harder in some ways than the others. But I think the Texel, they can also do pretty nice things with. I saw a picture in a magazine that was like embroidery, almost. It was so pretty. I think the lady had crocheted it.

S: Because each different breed brings new texture to the wool and new challenges?

B: That’s absolutely true. Now, the Cotswolds are a bigger sheep than the Icelandic. And they have a beautiful wool. When they’re first sheared, there’s a shine like none of the others that I’ve seen. Now I’m sure there are other breeds that do because there’s so many of them, but they have a wave. I’ve got one out there and she’s just beautiful. Kind of bumpy, wavy wool.

S: And you have your shearing days twice a year, was it?

B: Yes, because of the Icelandics. Now I’ve heard that some people have written that they shear in the spring, but then they don’t shear in the fall. We’re not taking chances like that. The weather here, they can do fine. We shear them in September, which seems like a shame. We’ve got all this beautiful wool you’re taking off for the winter, but they do very well and I know in Montana and places like that, they do the same thing. They’ve got this fat underneath.

S: Like nature knows how to do that. What’s the next step after you shear? You have to pick through?

B: They’ve got a lot of hay and stuff in. A lot of this will just go to the wool pool, Midstates Wool Pool, I think is what it is. They’re in Ohio. The very best we’ll keep. We’ve got a friend who likes to make yarn and stuff. Then in the fall, we take it down to SAFF, Southeastern Animal Fiber Festival, in Asheville. We sell most of them. We had the first Icelandics that went there and the people were really looking at them and wondering if they wanted to buy any and everything. They bought enough and they come back and get them. But there’s others who are bringing Icelandics, so I don’t usually bother much any of the others because that’s what most of the other people bring. Let them have theirs and we’ll have ours.

S: I know your daughter, Jennfier, does a lot of work here. Your other daughter, Susan, I asked her, were you guys raised on a farm? And she laughed and said, no, no, we grew up in Northern Virginia. And she was telling me that most of you were in the medical field. I would love to know a little bit about when your children were younger and how you ended up farming.

B: Well, I guess I’ll start at the very beginning. When I was a very little girl, they took me out to Illinois to my grandmother’s family farm. A real German family. My mother did not speak English even till they took her to Philadelphia. She was born in Lockwood, Missouri and then they took her to Philadelphia. They said, well why didn’t you teach her English? My grandmother said, I should teach her English? She spoke English very well and she became a teacher. When I was on the farm, I can remember them lifting me up and showing me a sow. There was a sow there with a bunch of little piggies, and I always wanted to live on a farm. So, in Northern Virginia we had two acres and we had chickens and sheep, and you know, Sue had  a horse, but we didn’t keep it where we were. There was just too many people right there, even with two acres. That’s now all apartments, it’s gone. We were on Gallows Road, where there had been a hanging tree.

S: What??

B: We had one on the farm that just went down a few years ago.

S: Oh my gosh.

B: Yeah, they told me there was a card game and I don’t know whether the one man thought the other man was cheating, but he shot and killed him and they took him up and hung him. Put him on a wagon and pushed him down.

S: That gives me chills.

B: Well, that’s the way it was. But that’s where Gallows Road came from. Then we bought…well, we were basically threatened. Either you sell, or we’re going to court. We’ll go without you. Because they bought everything around us. And I thought, huh, well, I don’t want to stay here with everything around. So, we sold and we were able to get seven acres in Oakton, as I remember, and an old French provincial home. We lived there for awhile and the taxes doubled. It was just every year, there was more and more. And I thought, well let’s see, another couple years and we won’t be able to afford to live here, ya know? And my husband had retired, so. Sue is, as you know, a physical therapist. Michael, her husband, is a pharmacist. They came down here and he got a job with, I guess Johnston Memorial to start with. Then Jennifer became an occupational therapist. I’m an old nurse. Michael’s son, Carl, is also a pharmacist and he’s married to a doctor. They’re young and they’re up in Richmond right now. But I had laughed, I used to say to Jennifer, you should marry a doctor and then we can open our own practice.

S: How long have you been here?

B: I can’t tell you exactly, but it’s going on thirty years.

S: For me, the thing that keeps drawing me back to Southwest Virginia happens to be the mountains, and just the feel of it. I’m from Maryland, and we’re near the Appalachian Mountains, but it’s different. It feels different down here, and there’s something that’s so beautiful about it. I think every place comes with its own difficulties.

B: Yes. Difficulties and beauty.

S: But, is there something that drew you the most…

B: To here? Well, it’s ‘cause Sue and Michael moved here and we wanted to move out of Northern Virginia. I said I learned a lot of patience sitting and trying to get out of my driveway. It was just awful. It got to the point where there was just a little slack time, maybe between 10 to 11 and then it was just constant. So, we moved here because they were here. Our son, Ken, had moved to Kentucky and that was totally a different state. Ken is my oldest, then we have Sue and Carl and Jennifer is the youngest. You can stop here. (the car, not my constant talking) This is the Texel ram, the one with the patch on him. You may need to go down a little just so you can see him.

S: Look at that patch!

B: He’s not supposed to have that. His name is Arnold but we called him Patch for a while. But you see how small Patch is? If you could see the back of him, he’s kind of chunky in the back. We got them at West Virginia State University, I think it is, and they were afraid that nobody would want him because he has a patch. We said, oh no, we’re happy. The reason we wanted him was because he was one of the smallest to be born, and yet he weighed as much or more than all of them except one.

S: Lift your head up, bud!

B: Come on Patch, come on Arnold.

S: That’s what gives him character.

B: Yes, it does.

S: I love that you can remember the names of so many of them, too.

B: The rams go in here every night. We feed them in this one and then in the morning we feed them over here. And then, in the big field we’ve had a whole bunch of ewes. You can stop and smell here all the honeysuckle. This is our garlic field. We used to have a great big field.

S: I always get the elephant garlic from you all!

B: Yes, both is in there. A couple years ago there was some virus or something.

S: It seems to switch off every year which plant has the virus.

B: It just seems like, no matter what you do…Oh, careful here! You have to be very careful or you’ll lose your wheel.

S: Ha! Yeah, you’re right.

B: The creek runs here…and that’s the one I like best. His name’s Harry.

S: Harry?

B: Harry, yeah. Hello, Harry! He’s an Icelandic and a good size.

S: An isolated Icelandic.

B: Oh no, they’ll all go together. If you look up, you can see that that pasture is cut off. So, we try to make different pastures but very often they get through. The Icelandics particularly are really bad.

S: At escaping? Do they jump or do they push through?

B: I wouldn’t say really jump, but I’ve seen them walk over. See the fence right here? It’s low? And it could be the bears going over that too. I can’t tell ya, but they’ll do that kind of thing and they’ll go under. We’ve got that orange netting down to try and keep them in. Jennifer’s worked hard on the fencing here.

S: Little escape artists. Farming seems to be keeping up. I think that’s what it is. Keeping up every day.

B: You never quite get ahead unless you’re a lot better than we are.

S: But you know, it’s interesting, because out of all the interviews, every person says the same thing.

B: I can remember someone saying, and I need to do this, and that…that’s the way it is.

S: That’s life.

B: That’s life on the farm. In other things, in nursing, you get 8 hours, maybe 10. But then you go home. But this is always with you. We’ll go up now to the tobacco barn. There’s another group. There’s the dogs! They’ll be two in October.

S: Look at ‘em!

B: This is Max sitting and watching now. Maria is his sister. I just wanted something easy. Hello, Max! How are you doing?

S: They know their job!

B: Oh yeah. Do you know your sheep were down there all by themselves? I could’ve taken them away, yeah!

S: It’s like they’re talking to each other.

B: They’re hoping we’re gonna feed them, I bet. Hello, Max! Yes, a good boy. Ah, you’re all full of hay, what have you been doing? Huh? Laying under that hay feeder? Such good dogs, aren’t you?

S: It’s okay! You’re very good at your job. (as they attempt to wrangle me and bark me to exhaustion)

B: They’re just getting down the deep bark. Maria’s is higher than his is.

S: This is a beautiful barn.

B: Well, it’s nothing compared to what they have in the North, but you know, it’s a good barn for here.

S: I love how the wood slants.

B: Yeah, this was to strengthen it. Look at the moon there! I just noticed it. Max likes stuff, he brings in gloves that people have dropped on the farm, I guess. I don’t know where he goes all the time.

S: I love that they keep themselves very busy.

B: They’re doing.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Amanda & Mark Stuart]

If you’ve been to the Abingdon market and entered down the stairs from the street, you’ll recognize Amanda Stuart of The Sunshine Jelly Company right away! Her immediate friendliness and energy is captivating, and after a few conversations you’ll feel like you’ve known her for years. And then once you’ve tried her jams and canned goods? Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’ll be hooked.

Amanda and her husband, Mark, moved from Colorado a little over a year ago and since then have been building the life they’ve dreamed up. They’re in the beginning stages of building a homestead, and with that comes a hunger for knowledge. Like anything we truly love and want to cultivate, building blocks are necessary and growth can feel slow. But when you look back down the mountain, you see how far you’ve come, even if you’ve got a long ways uphill to go yet. Fences, fields, gardens and game–just a few of their favorite projects over the past year.

Tucked into the mountainside, just over the ridge from Laurel Bed Lake, we stood gazing out over neighboring turkeys as they trotted along in the distance. I was struck by the exploratory nature of farming. The tiny victories and miracles that you witness along the way. A single perfect stalk of asparagus, growing an abundant golden raspberry bush, even watching a chicken learn how to venture beyond the coop. Amanda gave me a tour of the hopeful fruits and vegetables in their early stages of life. Amanda is a black and white photographer, and Mark, a woodworker. With inspiration and supplies at hand, the beauty of the surrounding land doesn’t go to waste.

Amanda is currently working with Appalachian Sustainable Development to develop a product created locally for their label. The produce will come from their farmers, with manufacturing done by her, keeping everything local. Just the way we like it.

I implore you to try her strawberry mint jam or her chocolate covered cherry preserves. Heck, go for the pickles and cider too! My personal favorite is ginger peach jam…in case you were wondering. You can catch Amanda at Chilhowie’s market on Thursdays (3-6pm), the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays (3-6 pm) and Saturdays (8am-1pm), or on her website.



Amanda: My husband is an avid hunter, which you will see in my house. We came from Colorado, you know.

Sarah: Oh! Where in Colorado?

A: The western slope, over in a little town called Hotchkiss. Our closest big town was Grand Junction. Over near the Utah border. But anyway, so here’s his collection.

S: Woah.

A: Big-horned sheep. That’s actually a dahlia sheep from Alaska.

S: I’ve never been to Alaska. I wanna go.

A: I haven’t either. I would like to go too, but I’m terrified of the idea of grizzly bears, so.

S: That’s fair.

A: So, this is our house. Now that elk came from Colorado. That was me and my husband together, that was my first year hunting.

S: How long did you live in Colorado?

A: I was there about four years, he was there about twenty-seven years. Here’s our view…now that ridge back there, that runs along Tannersville. Our road dead ends and if you went over [the ridge], you’d be in Tannersville.

S: How did you find this place?

A: Zillow.

S: So, you decided to move here from Colorado and just started searching?

A: Colorado is very expensive to live, and we wanted more land. We had three acres and beautiful log home that my husband had built, and we sold it and bought this place. This was seventy acres and we ended up having money left over. So, that’ll tell you about the price of living and land, here versus there.

S: That’s crazy.

A: But we looked all over the country. We were looking in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky. We were looking in this area anyway. It just so happens that I saw this house and I fell in love with it in the pictures and I said, that’s the one!

S: The view is incredible. It’s not just one, but you have this expanse of it. Hello!

A: This is Annie. She’s a retriever and she’s trained to retrieve, but what’s funny is she will not mess with our chickens. She won’t mess with them, but she will go out and fetch ducks. Somehow, she knows that these are off limits, but once he takes her out in the wilderness, then she’s okay. Ain’t that right, Annie? What a ham!

S: You’re so cute!

A: I have my babies over here. They’re just learning how to come outside. I’ve just been letting them out by themselves for the last couple of days. We got eight Bard Rocks, and six Leg Horns.

S: We had some Bard Rocks growing up. My brothers, they were really interested in building incubators in high school.

A: Now, I fear that we might have four little roosters.

S: Uh-oh, they’re gonna battle it out.

A: We ended up with four out of eight being roosters. Here’s the big one right here. What you doing, little chickens? Come here, little chickens. It’s so cute to watch ‘em because you’re watching them learn how to fly, and then they’re learning how to eat grass. And then they learn how to eat gravel, and you’re just watching them learn…

S: Figure out what is and what is not food. What does eating gravel do?

A: It helps them to digest their food.

S: He’s got a little personality there.

A: They’re starting to develop their personalities. So, we just built this because on my trunk I have the “crazy chicken lady” sticker. I told my husband, I can’t be driving around as the crazy chicken lady and not have chickens. Because then I’m just a crazy lady driving around. So, he built me this chicken house and now we’ve got our chickens and a man down the road is incubating ducks and we’ll have ducks soon…we’ll be putting a pond in.

S: For duck eggs, and all that?

A: Yeah. But like I said, we’re doing more homesteading than we are farming. I’m putting in fruit trees so that I don’t have to buy fruit for my business. And yesterday I bought a swarm, so I’m officially a beekeeper. Just put that out there yesterday. A guy that’s a local farmer around here, he called me up and said the bees are swarming—they’re on the apple trees. So, we went down there and we hauled them from over there to here and when we got home you could hear inside that box, they were just mad as hell.

S: Do you just kinda put ‘em in the back of the truck and then pray?

A: And we stuffed a rag in there. They were all closed up, and we put them out here and when they started getting quiet, we just ripped the rag off and run, just in case. At some point, we might get our own cows and pigs, but all for our own personal consumption.

S: So, you mainly do jams and jellies?

A: Well I do canned goods. Any canned products.

S: When did you start canning?

A: I just started canning about four years ago when my husband and I got together. I had never canned before. I’m from the city. I came from Houston, Texas, born and raised thirty years. I got out of Houston and then, you know, life circumstances, I ended up in Colorado. I met my husband and he grew up in Pennsylvania on the Amish farms. He’s not Amish, but grew up with the Amish, he worked for the Amish. He knows all about farming and animals and everything. He’s Daniel Boone. I married a man that was born a hundred years too late. I’m not even joking. So, he knows how to do all that stuff. He taught me how to do that stuff and then I grew this love for doing jams and jellies. I grew a love for creating off the wall recipes, and that’s where the whole business started. So, it started with a dandelion. I said surely there’s gotta be something I can do with these dandelions besides dig them out of the yard. I started making dandelion jelly and it grew from there. Sunflower, lavender, lilac, rose, everything.

S: I love the ginger peach and apple butter. I shared it with my roommates! So delicious.

A: I make it different than they make it out here. I guess they use red hots a lot for the cinnamon flavor. Mine’s got more of a fall flavor to it. Those are the maple trees that we tap for maple syrup this year.

S: Well, you definitely get your exercise going up and down hills here.

A: Everything’s uphill. We’ll come sit up here, come watch the deer come through. We actually put an apple tree up there for the deer.

S: Wow. And you can just go straight up through there and go hunting.

A: Oh yeah. I don’t know if you can see it…I’m not sure how high our mountains are, but that’s the top of our property up there. We’ve been up there and on this side of the mountain it is steep, there’s lots of leaves so there’s always a danger of sliding. But up there, there’s a little road that goes across and we share the mountain with somebody on the other side. We’ve seen bears up there. We’ll do some forest farming in here.

S: What is forest farming?

A: Black cohosh, ginseng…so yeah, you can use all of this area for forest farming.

S: You have so many different little pockets of resources here instead of the same thing.

A: Our goal in life is to make as much money without going to work full time. The more irons we can put in the fire, ya know, that allows us to be here. How creative and resourceful can we get doing this, that, or the other.

S: What would you say your favorite part of all of this is?

A: My favorite thing is basically coming up with the recipes. But it’s a labor of love, especially with the dandelions. You’ve got to pick all the dandelions and on each of them…you actually have to take all of this green off, so I’ve got to cut all of this yellow off of each one and it is a daunting task. Like I said, it’s a labor of love. It’s very time consuming. This is why I don’t do a lot of it, because it takes forever. But it’s fun and it tastes good. Tastes like honey.

S: How did you go about becoming a certified kitchen?

A: I was working at the Holston Mountain Artisans, and they were bugging me—hey, can you put your jams and jellies in here? Well, I can’t do that the way I am now. I can only do that at the farmer’s market. So Steve, who was running Holston Mountain Artisans at the time, said hey, you should look into doing the kitchen, so I looked into doing it and it didn’t look too complicated and so I went ahead. It was when I decided I wanted to start selling pickles and relish and things like that, that it became a little more time consuming. Basically, all I had to do was submit my recipes to VDAX, they send someone out here and inspect my house as it is…I don’t have to remodel or put in a commercial kitchen. They just come in and say, well, are your freezers the right temperature, is the refrigerator the right temperature, do you have all your stuff six inches off the ground? We say it looks good, you can now be a food manufacturer in your house. And that’s how that went about. Now then, I wanted to start selling pickles and you have to take…basically pickle school…”better processed control” school. That was expensive, and now I have to go submit all of my products and my recipes to the extension office. They evaluate them, they send me back a report that says, yes, you can do this. I send that to the state. I then certify myself with the FDA that says I’m a food manufacturer. The bulk of my recipes have been approved, but I am still in the process.

S: And each individually has to get approved?

A: I send two jars of everything to the extension office, and my recipe, and my process of how I make it. Come on, Annie!

S: Make sure to bring that stick! You’ll be lost without it.

A: She’s nuts. So, what’s nice about this, is that we can go out in the woods and pluck out all the trees that we want and bring ‘em down here and plant them where we want. We’ve got sugar maples growing, we got this little holly bush, some pine trees, he’s got cedar trees. All this area that’s tall, swampy grass? That’ll have a pond in it. He’s gonna get a track hoe and dig that out, and put it into a pond.

S: Is there anything about the Abingdon Farmer’s Market that strikes you?

A: What drew me to the Abingdon Market, number one, was the fact that it was a year-round market. I knew before I ever moved to Virginia that that was the market I was going to go to. I actually started this business in Colorado and decided I was going to move it here. But I had no idea I knew I was going to be able to get into retail or anything like that. We had a tiny little farmer’s market in Hotchkiss. You may have five vendors. Abingdon—it’s a great market. I love the diversity of products that you can get. It’s not just produce, produce, produce. Soap, pottery and woodworking. Really kind of shows off the area of talent.

S: Gonna get a few more pictures of Annie. The animals are always stars.

A: You ham! Come back in five years! This place is gonna be stunning in five years with fruit trees, and roses, and a garden, and a big pond. But you have to start somewhere, so today this is where it is. This is a year from where it was when we started.

S: It’s so amazing how gardening has taught me patience for things, too.

A: Because you can’t have a strawberry right now!

S: Yeah! And often, you have to wait a year or two years to get it.

A: That’s like asparagus. We’ll just let it go and maybe next year we’ll get something off of it. But again, I could sit here and go, I wish it was perfect for you to come out here but life is what happens while you’re planning it. It is what it is today and next year it’ll be more growth than it is this year.

S: Truly!

Meeting Locals & Shifting Perspectives

First off, I want to say thank you for following and learning with me over the last 2 years. I’m an artist, first and foremost, therefore I must respect the lens through which I experience things. I’m an actress and photographer who’s gained a profound respect for those who dedicate their lives to sustaining local economies through farming and craftsmanship. I’ve discovered, since setting out on this photo and story gathering venture, that there is much to be gleaned from the people I’ve met and the stories they’ve told, whether that be verbally or through their actions.

One interview at a time, one photo at a time, I’ve been a witness to these incredible humans that commit themselves fully in the name of sustainability. Farming isn’t a partial commitment job. You don’t kind of do it and get to call it a day. What I’ve learned from watching is that when you saturate yourself fully in a situation, you suddenly find yourself on the other side of a gully, looking back on that worn patch you once stood.

This year I also learned how to can vegetables. My farmer friend, Jason, and I spent a day in the kitchen peeling, slicing, snapping, boiling, pouring, measuring, goofing, guessing, and rejoicing over the finished products at the end of the day. It felt like it didn’t yield much by the looks of it, but it expands when you crack that quart open! I saved enough sweet potatoes, squashes, canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, honey, canned and frozen beans to last me all winter, all bought from the farmer’s market in bulk. That’s no packaging and much less money spent at a corporate grocery store, and for me in general. And it feels amazing. There’s this unexplainable giddiness I get from cracking open a jar of food that I preserved, or heading to my container of sweet potatoes and picking out food that a farmer I know, grew. It makes the food I eat feel precious. I grew tomatoes, basil, and green peppers this year. It certainly wasn’t a whole lot, but it was enough to feel mighty proud. The excitement of walking outside on a lunch break, tossing tomatoes into a bowl and immediately washing them and eating them gave me more than just a dollar or two off, but for the first time I felt this connection. Subtle as it may be—no exploding feeling of change in my soul—but a shift. By taking care in more seemingly “monotonous” parts of my day, I started to feel a greater sense of purpose without the feeling of leaving such a heavy imprint on the earth.

Those of you who know me better know that I struggled with depression and anxiety for a good chunk of my life. It’s a part of what has shaped me into the human I am today, and I don’t try hiding it. It’s human, after all, and what could be more glorious? A large moving cog in that machine of complex feelings is the nagging notion that I’m not contributing to the whole, and that I’m hurting more than I’m helping.

What I’ve come to is this: We don’t have power over a lot of things in our life. That’s the plain truth. But there are things we do have control over. Our hearts are our strength. My tool is the conscientious guide whispering inside me while stepping through the world. Whether we like it or not, each of us affects the very air of the rooms we enter. How incredible is that?! A smile, where we spend money, how delicately we put energy into the world, what we eat, how we dispose of those things. Our hearts and our compassion are our strength.

Enough ruminating for today. This next year brings on more interviews, and more expansion into the world of using less and utilizing more. I’m beginning a compost adventure, and expanding my gardening operation. I think I might even get a clothesline! Ooh, thrills! Thanks for reading, thanks for viewing, thanks for caring.

Mushrooms!
My canning professor, Jason.

Sweet, sweet tomatoes.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Jason Von Kundra & Harvest Table]

Wintertime brings holidays, warmer clothing, still mornings and reflection. But it also keeps a harsh side. When things go into hiding, a frigid blanket lays upon the land. For farmers it isn’t glamorous. It’s cold and it’s stark, and for many it’s where the real creativity comes into play, because as awesome as it would be, we aren’t bears who hibernate, and we need to eat. Food preservation, such as canning and dehydrating, are main methods utilized in self-sustainability and local eating, but what about growing year-round?

Meet Jason Von Kundra, the farm manager for Harvest Table Restaurant , located in Meadowview, Virginia. Harvest Table Restaurant is a farm-to-table operation with a mission to create a model that can be used nationally, as well as support local economy from the bottom up. Jason is a doer. What do I mean by that? He’s always searching and fighting for more efficient and just ways of living. I wanted to check out the farm in wintertime specifically because I knew there would still be oodles happening…and I mean, it would just be too much to cover in the summer. Am I right? But truly, it’s a wonder listening to him speak about farm systems. Walking into the kitchen, Jason pointed out a pineapple head he’s saving to try and grow one of his own. If you’re willing to work with nature and give her a chance, she’ll astound you.

Farmers are also scientists. On a single farm, you can be dealing with a diversity of soil mixtures. The specificity is mind boggling considering the array of crops grown here. How does one keep it all straight? Spreadsheets, patience and passion. That’s what I’ve seen so far.

I’ve met other staff members at Harvest Table and the underlying current between each of them is their commitment to working for an institution that they believe in. We need young people like this, who work for companies that they can get behind. That call out injustices and speak up when they see a more constructive path. The people I’ve met here inspire me and have convinced me that the work we do each day on our own values does, in fact, help. A lot of small steps together create great movements.

If you want to take a farm tour and gain the full experience, contact Jason and Harvest Table on their website, or visit them in Meadowview. You can also find Jason selling produce, eggs, chicken salad and pimento cheese at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market! Enjoy our journey in conversation and photos below…


Sarah: So, how many years have you been here as the farm manager?

Jason: I started August 2016, so, it’s been a year and 5 months.

S: How do you plan ahead for the poundage and how much yield you need for the restaurant and the market, and divide that up?

J: So, we have a document. When I first started, it was very much, we will take as much of a diversity of things as you can give us and then sometimes I would be bringing in 10, 20 pounds of cucumbers, and like, this is too many cucumbers. So, this past year we’ve really made a lot of strides in figuring out exactly how much the restaurant uses by each crop and by how much is a good amount to give them every week. We do have that document now and that’s been the work over the last 10 years. Well, since the farm and the restaurant have had this relationship over the last 6 years. So, that started with Matt, the first farm manager, and then Sam Eubanks. But we’ve had the same chef, Philip, that whole time. So, a little story about how this came to be with the Harvest Table…it really all began with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. We just celebrated its 10-year anniversary this past spring. And after the publication, it became a national bestseller, using the success of that book and the financial success, they wanted to build on the assets that already exist here in Washington County, which we have a strong agricultural community, and try to bring in money from the outside. So, Meadowview, like many towns throughout the country, is struggling with economic development. The economic development model that we have here and the rest of the country is bring in the big box retail, bring in these part-time, low-wage jobs, and then the county gets a little trickle down tax money. To flip that on its head and build a bottom-up kind of economy that’s shared amongst the community here, that’s where the Harvest Table funders came together and created this idea. We see tourism from all over the country. I’ve given farm tours to folks from up in New York, there’s a woman that flew down from Maryland for a day and spent a day at the farm. It’s really attracted people from far and wide, and through that we’re supporting 200 different producers and growers in the region, as well as artisans and other folks through the store. We’re bringing that money to the community where it stays. We’re investing. Building jobs, not just direct jobs at the restaurant, but the other folks that we support. And over 2 million dollars has been invested in this operation since it began. The first few years as a restaurant, they struggled with sourcing things consistently. Where the farm came in was not to replace any farmers, because our goal here will never be to grow 100 percent of the produce, even though we produce the majority of it here. It’s to fill in the gaps. It’s to grow the unique things that nobody else is growing, like the ginger and the turmeric and the gherkins…that nobody else at the market has…as well as the season extension, which I’ll show you a lot of that today.

S: And food preservation.

J: And food preservation. Those are the three main focuses. The unique stuff, the season extension, and food preservation. That’s kind of where we focus. Also to share what we’re doing with the world through the farm tours, as well as the internships and apprenticeships we’re working with.

S: ‘Cause you’re a farm that offers programs through WWOOF.

J: Worldwide Opportunities in Organic Farming, mhm. So, we’ve had older folks as well as folks right out of high school. One guy Kurt was working an IT career most of his life before hiking the Appalachian Trail and starting farming. We had a WOOF-er up at Laughing Water Farm that was a PhD chemist working in the lab and decided that that work for her wasn’t as fulfilling as it was when she first started, and she wanted to try something else and farming is where she found her meaning. There’s a huge diversity of interesting folks that we’ve hosted here.

S: And going back to talking about the big box stores. Something that especially our generation has become accustomed to is that whatever we want, we can get it pretty much at any time of the day. And the fact that it feels very scary to be like, well I want a banana and what if there isn’t a banana in town? We’re not used to that. We’re used to anything we want, food wise, we can get. And that is…the idea of not being able to get a food item is…crazy! But we’re actually so privileged, it’s unreal, that we’re able to get pomegranates and avocados, and things like that.

J: I think one of the myths though, about local food and the restaurant, is about how limited we are. We can’t use lemons, we don’t have bananas. Although, we had mango. And from the greenhouse at Virginia Highlands Community College, we had papaya. Also, there’s things that this large-scale food system cannot provide that we can do locally. For example, pawpaws, which have a very short shelf life, you’ll never see in the grocery store. But if you look at our grocery store today, 80 percent of the food that’s in there did not exist 100 years ago. I think Animal, Vegetable, Miracle does a great job of showing the miracle of this food that when you grow it, and things you won’t find in the grocery store, you can grow yourself and having that relationship with it finds new meaning and purpose. And I think for our generation, that wants that instant gratification, maybe slowing down a little bit, maybe putting some meaning to this food, can be nourishing not only for our bodies but also our minds and our emotional well-being.

S: Absolutely. And that you’ll appreciate the food more if there’s a season for it. If you can’t get it all year round, but say…I can’t wait to get sugar snap peas again. They are my favorite part of a salad, and they’re so tasty. And I won’t let myself buy it at the store because, a, it’s not as good, not nearly as good as the fresh stuff here. But it also is a special thing for that time of year. I know that there’s only gonna be, like, two months where I can get it, so I’m gonna eat them almost every day.

J: It makes it special.

S: It’s not just peas anymore, it’s like a treat. It becomes more important.

J: My story a little bit, coming here. I graduated college at George Mason University with a degree in Environmental Science. When I was in college, I totally opened my mind to social injustice, environmental issues, climate change, our energy infrastructure, so many different things. When I graduated, I was just feeling overwhelmed, but I saw food as a common connector, really at the crux of a lot of our social and environmental issues here in this country. My degree being in environmental science, I had internships with the government, and I was planning on working for USGS (United States Geological Survey)…2012 was sequestration, so there was a hiring freeze across all government agencies, so I was like, well now what do I want to do?! It kind of opened the door and so my Mom, having moved to Damascus in 2007, she was like, well come move down here. There’s tons of opportunities. I was like, yeah right. She asked me what my dream job was. And I thought about it for a long time. We had a campus garden that was supplying a food pantry and I thought, well if we could make it participatory, we could start these gardens at the food pantries and involve the folks. Rather than giving a fish, teaching folks to fish. And build a local food movement. For the most part, our food movement is mostly expensive farmer’s markets, high-end farm to table restaurants, like the Harvest Table. That’s really the dominant face of our food movement. So, how can we make it more accessible to those folks who are on the other end of the spectrum. So then, Sprouting Hope. I heard that they were hiring a program coordinator for exactly what my dream job was. So, I applied for that, moved down. The community was doing that for the first 4 years that I was living down here. I was farming with folks, mostly with the food pantries and the soup kitchens. And then transitioned into this job afterwards, and have been here as a full-time young farmer. To have a salaried position where I can experiment and where I’m given support and the infrastructure is already in place, is incredibly valuable. Young farmers, those jobs are very few, so I feel very lucky to be in the position that I’m at now and find a lot of meaning here. That’s just a little background about me.

S: That’s awesome though. What are some of the biggest things that you learn on a daily basis here?

J: Always observe and interact. I mean, I think that the animals and the plants are the best teachers, so I think we can look and observe and record and plan. Plan, plan, plan, the best that we can based on that. But then sometimes a lot doesn’t go as planned, and then we plan again. And every season’s different, too. I mean last year, I usually always do my brassicas (cold crops such as cabbage) the first week of August. And this year, the weather was just a little bit different and I didn’t quite have the production with my cabbage. So, I know next year I wanna do it a little earlier. Watching the plants and listening. We do a lot of permaculture and the first principle of permaculture is observe and interact. Also, I have learned so much from the community of farmers here. Having Steven Hopp as a mentor, having Antoinette Goodrich as a mentor when I was working at Laughing Water Farm. As well as these organizations that support us farmers. Appalachian Sustainable Development, Association for Biological Farming, and through conferences and that kind of thing. Should we walk around a bit?

S: That sounds great!

J: Before we leave, I want to show you the onions. We grew about 350 pounds for the restaurant of these. These are cobra onions and these were harvested 6 months ago. These will store through the winter and these we start from seeds in the greenhouse and then we transplant them out into a field, actually where that chicken tractor was (movable chicken coop). One of the benefits of this chicken tractor is that it’s open-bottomed. You want to add the manure to the soil directly, so we left this chicken tractor in the field where we grew onions. That chicken manure is the highest of any manure in nitrogen content. Nitrogen is what plants need for roots, stems, stalks, leaves, which is 100 percent of what an onion plant is. So, it’s a heavy feeder for nitrogen. And we had a great onion crop. Did not use any other fertilizer. Just used natural, organic, straight from the chickens. The most challenging part of organic management is weed management. Here on the farm I kind of have a policy against hand weeding, because I feel like if we’re down on our knees, we’re stressing our back and we’ve done something wrong. On these guys, we plant them to where the distance between the rows is exactly the width of our sharp hoes that we use, to where we can run the hoes standing up, using our muscles. When we plant almost 2000 in the ground, it’s a lot easier to manage them that way.

S: What kind of animals are on the farm?

J: The operation here is 3.6 acres, as well as about 35 acres over the mountain, which we call our sister farm. It’s where we have our Dexter beef cattle, and we’ve got about 25 head over there. As well as, can you see the sheep running up through the gate? That field is part of our 3.6 acres, and that’s pasture for Icelandic sheep. We’ve got 24 Icelandic sheep, and we use those for wool and meat. We shear twice a year. The wool we process out of Asheville. In addition, we’ve got 2 flocks of chickens. Those birds are all egg layers. Right now the chicken salad is coming from Dwayne’s chickens (Goshen Homestead). This year we didn’t raise any broilers. Bertha is our big show rooster, come here Bertha!

S: Aha!

J: Some new things this year are the raised beds and the cold frame. The idea is, with any kind of season extension, is you’re giving it a layer for protection. So, for the cold frame, we’ve got this window that was repurposed. All of this is repurposed stuff around the farm that otherwise would be wasted. When this window box is closed, then it’s got that protection from the frost and the cold weather with this little box in here that’s gonna stay insulated. And when it’s warm enough, we can open it up and get direct sunlight. You can see all the lettuce planted pretty dense that will be harvested for salads throughout the winter. This raised bed is for carrots

Cold frame made from a repurposed door on the farm.

With carrots I struggle. We planted 400 row feet last fall and didn’t harvest a single carrot because of the deer. So, this is an area so much closer to the house where the dogs are more active and they keep the deer away. The soil in here, what we did was gather sand from the creek. Your soil texture is the proportion between sand, silt and clay. You can see there’s still carrots in here. The proportion that you want is called a loam. That’s when your sand, silt and clay are of equal balance. You want to hold the nutrients in some water, but you want it to flow and you want the roots to be able to penetrate in a nice loose soil. Different plants like different proportions, and carrots like it very sandy. Sand is something that we can find in the creek and rather than buying it and hauling it, shipping it, costing fossil fuels, we can take a shovel and dig it straight out of the creek. Mix that in with some top soil, use organic compost that we’ve created here ourselves, I’ll gather cow manure over at the cattle farm, composting that with plant matter. We’re building the soil from scratch and it’s been quite productive. With season extension, you want to plant varieties that are more cold tolerant. This is tatsoi, related to pak-choi, bok choys, all those Asian greens. We’ve also got arugula and turnips, kale.

S: You’ve got all the greens.

J: And some of these won’t get any cover. We haven’t covered it yet and it survived 15-degree weather, so we’ll see how far it can go. The tatsoi will be fine without any cover all winter long. When water freezes, it expands. Within a plant’s cell, that expanding water busts the cell wall and they start to rot and decompose. There’s 2 strategies plants use to prevent that. The first is…you know how salt water reduces the freezing point? We salt the roads, et cetera. Sugar does the exact same thing. Sugar dissolves in water and makes it to where it doesn’t freeze in 32 degrees, it’s got to drop down to 28, 27, 26. They produce sugars as carbohydrates within the plants to prevent that. Additionally, the tatsoi and spinach does it where, when the hard, hard freezes are coming, they’ll move water outside the plant cell to prevent structural damage.

S: They’re so smart. Nature knows what it’s doing. This is beautiful, my gosh.

J: This is what we call the “Creek Field” because this is our wetlands area. The 3 pillars of sustainability are social, economic and environmental. This area being a wetlands is critical for the environmental health of the farm. The management prior to this being a farm sprayed the creek line with Round-Up, and that’s what was considered “good management”. ‘Cause you can look at this and it kind of looks like a weedy mess, but this is what we call a “riparian buffer”. Water-loving plants that fill different ecological niches, and they’re deep-rooted and established perennials and they buffer the erosion and nutrients, which are pollution, downstream causing eutrophication, which causes algae blooms and dead zones. By buffering and retaining with the plants here, we’re preventing that pollution from downstream and we’re being responsible with our farming practices. Because even with organic, no matter how you farm, you have an impact on the land, so let’s be mindful of that impact. This is a huge ecological benefit, as well as we’re planting things that we like in there. We’ve got the cardinal flower, we’ve got pawpaws growing, we’ve got the cattails, which are edible.

S: I didn’t know cattails were edible.

J: Every part of the plant, 12 months of the year, different parts that you can eat. In the winter time, this is the time you can be digging up roots and eating the roots. The heads are edible, the young stalks in the spring are, like, better than asparagus. This is called the “Crawdad Field”. Let me see if I can find a crawdad hole. Crawdads, most people think of picking up rocks in creeks and they’re totally edible and really fun. These terrestrial ones have habitats in the ground and they dig these holes. They’ve been doing this for thousands and thousands of years. They live in these holes right at that water table and they’re nocturnal insectivores. They come out at night and hunt. By building these holes, they’re naturally cultivating the earth, so they’re bringing in that subsoil that’s deep in there, that’s rich in a lot of nutrients, and it’s bringing it to the surface and integrating it with the top soil.

[Further along the farm tour]

J: This was peanuts right here.

S: Woah.

J: Maybe I should grab a shovel. The flower gets pollinated above ground and then grows underground. Maybe if I just pull it up, we’ll see what we get.

S: Woah! Oh, my gosh. And they taste just like regular peanuts?

J: Well they’re raw at this point. You can boil ‘em, you can roast ‘em like normal, and salt them. You can make peanut butter out of them, there’s so many different things you can do with peanuts.

S: That’s crazy. I did not know peanuts grew in the ground.

J: The only nut! Ground nut. That’s what they call them in West Africa, where they speak English. Instead of peanuts, they call them ground nuts. More descriptive of what they actually are. If these were above ground, if we harvested them here and left them like this, then when they freeze they would go bad. But being underground, they stay warmer, because soil in Virginia says, at a certain depth, stays 47 degrees year-round. So, we can save some of these. We do a lot of seed saving. I grew them at Sprouting Hope for a number of years and have been saving my own seeds, to where now Sprouting Hope has a stock of peanut seeds that they’re growing themselves. If anybody wants peanut seeds, I’ll share some of mine and then we can have more people growing them.

S: This is amazing.

J: I mean these all started from 1 peanut. Having 2 or 3 peanuts, we could get 20 to 30 times what you put into it. That’s part of how we can do seed extension, too. When you harvest it, because we could have harvested these months ago and had peanuts months ago, but waiting this late in the season where there’s hardly anything else…when it’s harder to grow other stuff, we can have peanuts! And like any legume, they’ve got these nodules that grow on their roots that fix nitrogen, and that’s beneficial for the next plant to follow.


[We headed out to the sheep field]

J: So, Icelandic sheep are rare. Iceland, there’s actually a ban on getting sheep in or out. All the flocks here in the United States were brought originally by this one woman who smuggled them out and couldn’t land her plane, and eventually landed in Canada and brought in a flock that way.

S: What the heck!

J: There are some Icelandic sheep now in the United States from her. Incredible story.

S: When was that?

J: Over 50 years ago, I believe.

S: They definitely look different.

J: They’re a lot more susceptible to worms, so we have to watch that carefully. Rotate them and…this is an electric fence, but we could climb over…Ok, it’s off now if ya wanna climb over!

S: They’re beautiful!

J: Aren’t they incredible animals? And there’s our donkey, Sally. She’s their protector.

S: She’s like, come on guys!

J: There’s a little piece of clover there, want some clover?? You wanna pet one? I would do just real slow motions. Quick motions are what startles them. Want me to get a picture of you?

S: Thank you for bringing me over here. They’re beautiful, and they’re just so gentle.

J: They really are. They get fed every day and brought into the barn every day. Have that relationship. Like dairy animals, that are getting milked every day, they’re so much more friendly. Comfortable.


Watercress can be cooked up and eaten.

Kohlrabi plant.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Umbarger family]

It’s easy to remain where you are when what you’re doing works. You’ve got a great operation, a good job, decent pay, the whole thing. But sometimes there’s something greater pulling at you. A spark of an idea that’s lending to something larger, more innovative, something that you just know deep down will affect more people. The leap of faith? Trying the new thing. Meet Courtney and Seth Umbarger of Laurel Springs Farm in Marion, Virginia. After years of a successful family farming business, these two dared to ask, what more can be done? How can we use what we have to expand the operation and work toward a stronger community and stronger future for our family? And they’re doing it. The Umbarger’s are an example of what can happen if you stick to your integrity, vision and hard work.

Living in the original farmhouse on these rolling hills of green and wooded area, Courtney and Seth are raising their beautiful family of five while changing the food game in Southwest Virginia, encouraging local businesses to buy and prepare local meats instead of outsourcing. There’s only one way to build Appalachia back up, and that’s from the inside out. It’s clear that the Umbarger’s are driven to leave a better world for their children than they found it. Offering farm tours for schools throughout the year, they offer hands-on education about where food comes from, and what goes into each individual bite of food that we take. It’s amazing what digging in the dirt can do for you, and they want to instill the beauty of growing and raising your own food at a young age.

With only one other dedicated family working for them, weekly markets take Courtney and the kids to the Marion Farmer’s Market, and Seth to the Abingdon Market, selling diverse products at each. Delectable food, kind folks…I mean, what more could you ask for? Get to know Courtney, Seth and the gang below as they showed me around the farm. Corbin, at only two years old, is a charming tour guide and a superb big brother. And check them out for any last minute holiday gifts at the market or at their farm store at 823 Umbarger Lane, Marion, VA. Happy Holidays, y’all!


Sarah: So, I heard that this had been the family farm. How long has it been in your family?

Courtney Umbarger: The boys and Addie will be the sixth generation. Seth’s the fifth generation on the farm. It was a dairy farm for about a hundred years. So, it was a bummer to make the decision to be the ones to go out in 2013, but it was time.

S: That’s incredible. I’ve seen the operation has become so big now, too. Like, now all our main places in Abingdon, White Birch and The Market. Our favorite places to go, all the burgers are your guys’ meat. It’s so exciting.

CU: Thank you. This building was built in the 50’s so they could bottle milk and make cheese. So, in 2015 I did a small business boot camp with the Smyth County Chamber of Commerce and we got enough money to do some little renovations down here just to set up a little storefront. The main part of this, to open this store, was to be able to have the beef here but everything that I have in this store is either local to the region or from where I’m from. I’m from Culpepper. The spices come from Tom’s Brook, which is up that way. Friend of mine that I played soccer with, her husband is the grower and his brother is the chef and they make these rubs and sell them at all these grocery stores. And the coffee comes from Sugar Grove, and the soap selections, they come from Cripple Creek. And then we raise our own eggs.

S: How did you two meet?

CU: Seth and I? I did an internship ten years ago when I was in the Ag-Tech program at Virginia Tech. And I came out and I did a silo density study and a mastitis study. It was when he was in the dairy industry and I was working with the Wythe County Extension Office. I covered the dairy aspect of that and the 4-H for Southwest, Virginia, so I had twelve counties. We went around and tested silage density and the nutrition, and we would put programs together to talk to different farmers as to which practices were best. So, I met Seth doing that here in 2007. That was just strictly business. A few years ago, I sent one of the agents that I worked with a message and I said, I would really love to move back to Southwest Virginia. I think that’s where my heart is. I really would like a job, and he said well I don’t have a job for you but I have a husband. I was like, yeah, right! I’m not coming down there to marry someone! And he said, well you know who he is, and I said, I don’t know anybody from there. And…Seth and I got together when his daughter, Addie, was five.

S: And you have two boys as well?

CU: Yeah. Corbin is one and Henry is two months old. Let’s head out around the farm.

Seth Umbarger: So, we were apparently the first to get a tractor around here, the first television in the house. My grandparents were very fortunate back then to be able to do that because they had several employees. Not just the farm, but the bottling and the delivery. So, it was pretty neat how they had that set-up like its own little town or community back in the day. This old building here was the grainery. Back in the day, when granddaddy had everything, they ground all the corn. They’d have it picked in the fields and put in there and it would run from the top of that to the mill down at the bottom and grind it. All the employees, they rationed out flour for everybody and stored it up there, so everybody had their flour. They would ration out food for everybody that worked here. A lot of little things and I’m glad Dad’s able to tell us some of that stuff. That’s where our garden is. We had a lot of help with Sprouting Hope to kind of get started and have an organic garden.

S: The meat operation has become so big now. Was there a year that it really took off or expanded?

SU: We’ve always had a beef herd on the side, even when we were in the dairy business. In 2007 I leased the neighbor’s farm, bought his cows myself. So, I kind of had my own farm on the side as a hobby. And then in 2013, Dad and I decided to go out of the dairy business, so I had a good number of cows on that farm and we decided just to expand and make this farm beef as well. I was always trying to get into these natural programs and things where there were premiums, where I could get just a little more money for them. They usually have a strict set of rules to follow, and I was good with that. So, I found a middle man for Whole Foods grocery stores, he kind of called us right when we went out of the dairy business and I was building a new barn, doing some different things and he helped me get it set-up to where they still stay out on pasture and things like that to go along with their program. I felt good about the program, liked where they were going, you know. Got lots of information back from them, so everybody started finding out that’s kind of what was happening and they said, well if you’ve got that quality meat and that much of it, why can’t we buy it around here? I didn’t have a good answer for that. I don’t know. Just people don’t do that around here. You know, there’s a handful of people that do but on any kind of large scale, there’s just not a lot of that that goes on. Then this building was sitting here empty, so Courtney was like, why don’t we try it?

CU: I was pretty gung-ho about, you know, being able to use what we had here. Our home farm is about three hundred and seventy-five acres, is that correct? And we farm about a thousand total. So, the rest of that we lease. So, you know, it felt like we could do so much here that we weren’t doing. And have the added value. And, I was pregnant with Corbin, we had just gotten married and I said, let’s give it a go. Let’s try to raise our kids here and do as much as we can here, for a little while anyways, and if it doesn’t work, then when they’re old enough to go to school, I’ll go back to work, you know. I work more now than I ever did in my nine to five. But it makes it super flexible and I’m able to give them the life that I wanted to be able to. There have been many days where Corbin has spent hours down in the garden with me, and now he’s getting to the age where he can go with Daddy on the farm and do a little bit on the tractor.

Corbin: Tractor.

CU: Yeah, tractor!

S: How did you get in touch with local businesses?

CU: So, we were really surprised at what our first year did. We opened the farm store at the end of April, beginning of May 2016. This year is our first full year, January to December. From April to December we did our numbers and we thought that if we did ten to fifteen cows in our natural program through the retail business and selling to wholesale consumers, we would be doing something. Ten to fifteen animals, that’s a lot of beef. We did fifty-two head our first year. So, we were really excited about that. We just started reaching out to some of the restaurants that really supported the local movement. Corbin, you want to get out?

Corbin: Out.

CU: You have to put your socks and shoes on though. Can you do that? I have one here.

SU: I’ve done several of the government projects where you fence off the stream and kind of clean everything up, keep the cattle out of the streams. It allows you to put wells in or pump water. These are places where we didn’t have water. This whole road dividing used to be one field. Now I’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six smaller fields. So, it allows me to do a lot more with it and have water in every boundary and areas where I can feed and still have the cattle on pasture. It’s helped out a lot, doing those projects. I can keep a lot more cattle than I ever could before. We’re just trying to find areas that are wasted space and add value to stuff.

CU: And you’ll see that so much of our farm is on the side of hills.

S: Truly the rolling hills. Corbin, you want to show me the bulls?

SU: That’s just a young bull. We’ve got the young bull and the old man together. The rest of them are out working right now.

S: Ha! Their day off.

SU: Yeah.

S: So, Seth, you’ve lived here your entire life. Did you move away at any point?

SU: Just for college. I went to Appalachian State to start with in Boone, and then ended up transferring to Virginia Tech and got a Dairy Science degree there. I went to Wyoming for a summer and did kind of an internship out there, but other than that I’ve lived here.

S: Everybody I talk to says that no matter how many years you’ve been doing it, you’re just learning every year. Working with the land, there is no controlling it.

CU: Right? I learned that this year and I very much like to have things organized and planned. I used to not be able to understand how Seth was able to go day to day kind of by the seat of your pants. You plan as much as you can, but at the same time, the weather is your factor in what you’re going to do for the day. It can really change things.

SU: These girls over here are two.

CU: Through Whole Foods, we’re GAP Certified, which is the Global Animal Partnership. So, we have to castrate by a certain time and we don’t use any antibiotics and no added growth hormones. And if they do have to have antibiotics, we just pull them out of the program.

S: Are they all grass fed?

CU: We’re in a hybrid program. You’ll see there’s the feed pads up here. So, they get to have a feed ration. It’s a silage/alfalfa ration.

SU: It’s a mostly forage ration. It does have grain in it. They are considered grain finished, but it’s the best of both worlds. They’re on pasture, they’re natural, we have humane standards that we go by. We kind of got into raising what we like. We like the flavor of grain finished.

CU: It’s cool because they can come and go as they please.

S: They have so much space. If you ever need to breathe, you just come up here.

CU: I wanted to get married up here to see the farm, but we got married in our front yard because we didn’t know how we were gonna get everybody over here.

S: Just a bunch of cars stuck in the mud.

SU: So, this field is all heifers, which are the young females. And then the steers are all separated, and they’re across the road in another boundary all together. And they will probably all be sold early in the spring. We’re not able to process everything we have here yet. I just don’t have the land to feed it all and keep ‘em here. I can keep a lot here while they’re young, but as they get bigger they need more room. You end up, as they get heavier and bigger, with all the hillsides I have, you destroy the place.

S: Where do they end up going when they’re too big?

SU: Another person that’s in that same program (GAP) can buy ‘em and then they’ll still end up going to Whole Foods and staying in the GAP program. But you couldn’t go to the livestock market, buy a bunch of cattle, because that’s not source fair. You don’t know where they came from. So, everything is very strict in these programs, which is good. But it gives me several sources that are all premium sources to go to. And then, we just kind of pull out of the finished cattle as we need for the local program. It’s a good balance. It allows me to farm on a bigger scale and farm full time and do alright at it, but still have the animals here for local…and room to expand. We would love to sell everything we have through local, that’s what would be ideal. So, that’s kind of our goal.

S: How do you keep it all straight?

SU: Ha! I don’t know.

CU: I don’t know. Lists on lists on lists.

S: What’s your favorite part about all of it?

CU: The freedom of working for ourselves. And being able to be here and live this type of lifestyle where you know what you’re raising. That’s the most important part for me. Especially having children. Before, you don’t really think about it that much until you grow your family a little bit and you’re focused on what you’re putting in your kids’ bodies as well. And, the aspect that it’s so much work to grow your own garden and preserving your own foods, but it is so gratifying. Like when you open up that can that you processed from the summer.

S: I canned for the first time this summer. And it felt like it was pounds of tomatoes, and it’s not that much.

CU: Yes!

S: But it feels so good! And I’m going to cherish every bit of it.

CU: That’s what I started doing for Christmas gifts was making, like, pepper jelly and making little baskets, and salsa. This last year was a hard growing season for me. I was super pregnant with a toddler running around and pulling up everything once I was planting it! Plus, it got very warm early, so my cold season crops were a little sad. It was just a huge learning experience for me. I did a little bit of everything, so as a market grower I’m probably going to focus on, like, three or four crops and do an abundance of those next year. Kind of niche that, too. Beets are my favorite thing.

S: They’ve become mine! I did not eat beets before last summer. I started getting them at the market and now I eat them almost every single day.

CU: Roasted beets are delicious!

SU: What you described, just a minute ago, about being excited to open what you can. That’s the same way with these. So, when they’re processed and we see the first steak, that’s two years or a little longer that it takes to see that. Every little detail about how it’s marbled or the size of it or how tender it is goes back to what bulls are picked.

CU: Genetics.

SU: The genetics in the bulls and the cows. Two years worth of stuff—what I decide to feed.

CU: What replacement heifers you keep for the future.

SU: Everyday decisions like that for two years. It’s very gratifying for people to fish, to eat the fish they caught. Even if they don’t like fishing, hunting then. It’s the same thing for this. Just a bigger scale.

CU: You just get so proud of the product you raise. You know what I mean? The cost of it seems to be high, but a lot of folks don’t realize that for two years you’re feeding and taking care of that animal day in and day out, and they’re not just turned out on grass. And they’re not just ignored or just a pasture animal. They are something that we tend to.

SU: And we could choose to give ‘em things to make them gain more efficiently and make more money and this and that, but it’s just not what we want to do. We also want to change the opinion of people who are pretty much “grass-fed is the way is has to be”.

CU: Not that we think that anybody’s opinion is wrong, but to expand the mindset that this is still so much so of the animal partnership, it’s so important to us. But we choose that high choice and prime marbling that comes from the grain finish.

S: And that there’s different ways to do it. A lot of different ways to honestly do it.

SU: That’s my point. It can be done the way we’re doing it…

CU: And not be a feed lot.

S: Yes. And the problem, in the research I’ve done, with a lot of mass farms is that they don’t pay attention and they feed them things like…chicken poop. Stuff that should not be in anybody’s body.

SU: And a lot of people seem to think it’s not sustainable to farm like that, but to me, sustainable means we both work on the farm and that’s it. We don’t have an outside job. We’ll have the ability to pass it on to children. If I didn’t make the most out of the land that I could, you know, if I was just strictly grass-fed and did it right, I wouldn’t be able to keep as many cattle. To me, that wouldn’t be sustainable for us because we would go out of business. So, it’s kind of a balance. Taking care of the land, animals and our family.

CU: And the community. It’s so much tied together. And like you were talking about, feeding animals things that they shouldn’t be eating. You’ll see those yellow tubs up there and those are mineral tubs that we give them. Part of the program that we’re implementing here is that we don’t feed them any animal byproduct. There’s none of that. Blood meal. None of that stuff.

SU: Those are stress tubs, and we give ‘em to them when we ween them because that’s a high stress time. So, it’s got vitamins and minerals and protein formulated to calm them down. A lot of protein supplements is where they put the blood meal and the feather meal and the stuff to add protein to it.

[Corbin sees something and begins reaching]

S: Uh-oh, there’s a Dum Dum (the lollipop!).

CU: Uh-oh, Daddy. It’s all over now.

SU: It’s all over now.

Corbin: Duh duh!

SU: You can kind of see the difference in the grasses. A strip of this, a strip of that. Ok, so back in the day, my granddad was big into conservation and there’s “Progressive Farmer”, which is a magazine that a lot of farmers get, and they were the farm family of the year for progressive farming.

CU: That was in the ‘50’s.

SU: It’s pretty neat. They took hillsides like this and they learned to strip farm ‘em for conservation. Instead of plowing this whole field and big rain come and washing everything to the bottom, he did it in strips. So, he had a strip of corn and a strip of alfalfa, then a strip of corn. So, you would just be plowing strips at a time so the whole field wouldn’t wash away and run in the creeks. That became a big deal back then. We’ve done it right up until 2013. But you can see the difference.

CU: Which is really neat. One of the pictures that was down on the wall, you can really tell the difference in the strips.

SU: And when you zoom in on us on google maps or something, you see the strips.

CU: And one of the coolest things about the conservation part of that, is that Seth sits on Evergreen Water and Soil Conservation District Board. He’s the chairman for that. And his grandfather was as well. So, it’s neat to have that, it kind of goes full circle.

S: Tradition of it.

CU: There’s one of our bulls, laying down on the job.

S: Is there something to you guys that’s the most important about keeping things local? Or keeping things in a community?

CU:  Yeah. That gives Seth and I the capacity to both work here and to be able to work together and raise our children together here on the farm. We spend our money at local places because we believe in that. We believe in people that have enough nerve to go out on their own and start something and create something that…a venture that is very much so unique and something that you can’t get everywhere else, on every corner. We sell to the Martha Washington, we sell to White Birch, to Nathan at The Market and Southern Culture Cuisine. Wolf’s BBQ in town sometimes. This year was our second Marion farmer’s market table dinner and this year we did it on our own. And what we do is purchase everything we can from market vendors at Marion and if we can’t we go to Abingdon. And then we have restaurants in Marion prepare the meals and the sides. All of the proceeds go to the market in advertising, in bringing special events downtown, in bringing more traffic to the market. The money stays in our community and that’s super important. You pay your taxes here, you live here, you may as well spend here.

S: Exactly. And it creates more jobs here.

SU: So that’s what was kind of an eye opener to me, to see the dollar value of how much those fifty-two animals we sold locally, that’s a fair amount of money. And you think, my goodness, if we can get up to all of our animals, what a jolt that would put in the local community. But it’s just amazing if everybody would do that. There’s just a tremendous amount that’s grazed in the grass around here, and then it all leaves here! It’s shipped into the hospitals and the colleges and the schools from somewhere else. It would make so much sense if a lot more of that just stayed around instead of putting all the money into transportation and huge corporations.

CU: And another thing, too. What’s awesome about going to these markets is that when we go there we can accept the EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) for the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Last year and part of this year, ASD (Appalachian Sustainable Development) did the grant where you could do the “double dollars”. So, a lot of people were able to get what they were turning in at the farmer’s market in fresh foods, which is amazing. We did the senior citizens coupons, so when I have produce they can come buy produce from me with a five dollar coupon and that’s assistance for them. There’s so many programs that help folks out that farmers can be part of as well.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [George Kiser]

We sat in George’s truck overlooking the valley and mountains beyond. The mist clung to the trees, low and ominous, making it impossible not to feel fully present in the moment. He talked about how as a child he had created mental pictures of radio personalities in his mind, and when he finally saw photographs of them, it all changed. I think we do the same thing with people we don’t know very well. We think we know them because we see them weekly, daily even. But there’s a real adventure waiting underneath the pleasantries and facade. Getting to know George Kiser, of Kiser Farms, on this grey fall day, I found a charmingly silly and passionate soul. He and his wife, Deborah, own a farm in Lebanon, Virginia. Deborah, a teacher at Lebanon High School, was teaching during my visit, but you can find her handiwork in the delicious goods sold each week. Pumpkins, apple chips, jams and jellies, starter and bedding plants…you’ll find them all at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market & Lebanon Farmer’s Market.

As you’ll find soon enough, I was distracted periodically (a good deal) by cats and dogs running about. Atticus, Daisy and Legend (aka Brown Dog), led the farm tour and made sure not to leave anything out. One of the few vendors selling molasses these days, George pointed out the cane stalks standing tall and proud, and the building where molasses and maple syrup are cooked down. The process is long and tedious, so the next time you delight in such foods, remember the work it took to get there. It’ll taste all that much sweeter.

George’s biggest sellers are pumpkins. All kinds of pumpkins. Orange, green, blue, pink. For pies, for carving, for decoration. For fall lovers, his farm is truly a wonderland. No wonder it inspires his musical side, writing folk songs about local events and southern living. My favorite part about interviewing is getting to know what makes people tick, and it’s clear how much George loves music. While the dogs gave us a tour of the farm, George would break into a sampling of his songs. I’ve included one and a half songs in lyrics and a minute excerpt of our jam session on the porch. And by jam session, I mean his musical talents and my clicking of the camera in the background.

Enjoy the photos and music, and make sure to say hello next time you’re at the market!


George: At one time in Kentucky, there was twenty-five thousand growers of cane molasses. Now there’s roughly around twenty-five hundred. Which tells ya right there that the numbers have plummeted downward.

Sarah: Do you think that has to do with artificial sweeteners and other sweeteners being popular?

G: It’s got to do with the fact that it’s hard, hard work. I would have thought it would pick back up with tobacco down the tube. I guess it’s about the same amount of hard labor.

S: Kittens! Right in there!

G: How many do you need?

S: I wish I could take them home! It definitely looks like there’s one, and a second one over there.

G: Inside those weeds?

S: Right below the danger sign.

G: I put the danger sign up there because people will stop by and steal your pumpkins.

S: Wow. Don’t just have to worry about animals, but people too. How long have you lived here?

G: I was born and raised here.

S: Really? So, your parents were farmers?

G: My mother was an RN. Nursed until she retired, and she retired and lived here on the farm and helped where she could. This is where we cook the molasses down. We also use the same facility for maple syrup. This is a furnace. That’s a hundred-twenty-seven-gallon steel tank. It takes fifty gallons of water out of the tree, drip, drip, drip, to make one gallon of syrup. It’s a lot of work. Takes a lot of time. Now, this is a plastic nipple. You drill a hole in the tree and this slides in the hole, you hook your bucket on here, and it drips into it.

S: And how many trees do you normally hook those up to?

G: We’ve done as many as three hundred and fifty some.

S: My cousin up in Canada make s maple syrup and we were just up there visiting, got to try some.

G: I’ll tell you what, some of those growers up there do two or three thousand trees.

S: Oh look, there are those cats! We woke you up from a nap.

G: Hey Miss Kitty. She’s my matriarch. She disappeared for about six months one time, and evidently when she returned she was nice and plump and fat. She’d found a table somewhere to eat at.

S: They’re resourceful in that way. Oh, you’re so sweet.

G: She’s a very good mouse hunter. Now, when the syrup water gets down to a certain degree (from cooking down), whether it’s molasses or maple syrup, we take it up off of the furnace here and we roll it out this way to bottle it or whatever. Maple syrup, you’ve got to take it and run it off into tubs and let it settle. It has what we call “sugar sand” in it. It’s gritty. The big producers have hydraulic pressure pumps that they pump this stuff through screens and the screens catch the sugar sand. We don’t have ten thousand dollars to spend on a pump, so we rely on old mother gravity of taking it out, settling out. And once it settles out for about two weeks, we can take it and dip the maple syrup off the top. This is molasses that we’ll be doing here shortly. For every hundred gallons of molasses, we can take off about sixteen to eighteen gallons of syrup.

S: Oh, the apple chips!

G: I’ve got five dehydrators here.

S: So, at the theatre when someone has apple chips it’s always exciting. That’s probably my favorite thing that you guys do. Are most of the apples, at this time of year, from your farm?

G: We have some here and I don’t spray them with anything. But we get our apples from a local orchard, Williams Orchard, down in Rural Retreat. They do a real great job. We do a lot of apples and we did some trading on pumpkins that he didn’t have. So, we swapped pumpkins for some apples and that works out for us.

S: Exactly. I find that with a lot of people, that it’s so wonderful if you can use what you grow as the currency.

G: One of these days, that might be the only currency out there.

S: Yeah, that’s’ true.

G: So, anyway, this is our little processing house. It’s kind of jammed up but it serves our purpose. I’ve got five dehydrators, which blows a lot of people away that I’ve got five of these things. We have three Excalibur (top-notch brand) dryers. They’re very superb. We’ve got two Cabela’s dryers. I don’t like those as well as the Excaliburs.

S: How long do you have to dehydrate the apples?

G: Depends. If it’s rainy and wet like it is today and moisture’s in the air, eighteen hours, maybe a little bit longer. Dry, like it has been the past three weeks,…if I can get up early that morning they’d be ready that evening to package them up. Crispy and dry. It kind of depends on the humidity in the air.

S: I was curious about music. I saw that on your business card you’re a musician.

G: “Soup Beans and Cornbread”.

S: “Soup Beans and Cornbread”, yeah!

G: Not so long ago, once upon a time,

When I was a young boy, about the age of nine.

The same dinner, all we ever ate,

Same old thing was on my plate.

Cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems

We can have cake sometime.

Now Mama said we would be glad

Thankful for whatever we had.

A lot of the kids would like what they see,

Wish they had what I had to eat!

Why it was cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems,

We can have cake sometime.

Now I’m not picky, don’t ask for a lot.

A poor man eats what a poor man’s got.

Pray to God there’s somethin’ in the pot,

But let’s have cake sometime!

Cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems,

That we could have cake sometime.

Now I’m not blaming, I want you to know,

Hard times come and hard times go.

Leaves me here feeling low,

With holes in my pockets and nothing to show.

But cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens.

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems,

That we can have cake sometime!

Now all good songs come to an end,

I hope you’ve enjoyed this, my friend.

Remember that if you clean your plate,

You might get a piece of cake!

Cornbread and soup beans,

Mashed taters and collard greens,

Stands to reason, you’d think it seems

That you can have cake sometime!

That we can have cake sometime.

S: I love that! Did you write that?

G: I wrote it! What are you talking about?

S: I don’t know, it could’ve been a song you’ve been singing since you were younger! Do you usually play at festivals?

G: I’ve been trying to line up some stuff. I need to do some work right now, work on some more songs. But, uh, when you get white-headed, your brains go with ya.

S: Do you have a notebook you write them down, or all from memory?

G: A little bit of both. I belong to a songwriters’ association, and that’s very rewarding to me. Do your thing and we critique. It’s really good. I found that the hardest thing…I can write crazy songs pretty quickly…ballads take a lot of work. I have to go do research at the library and newspapers and stuff for the time and date, for the particular event I’m writing about. Bobby Williams of Williams Orchard, he told me about the train explosion of 1953.

S: Wow. Where was it?

G: It took place between Rural Retreat and Wytheville. And it was a freighter, steam, and there was only four crewmen onboard. Three of them did not make it.

Now listen dear children, what I have to say.

About three men who lost their lives on a cold, December day.

They were part of a four men crew assigned to train in ’52.

In the wee hours of the morning, they pulled up to Bristol yard.

Headed East for Roanoke, with thirty two freight cars.

Pulling cars in darkness, they started up the line.

….

[you only get a teaser of the song!]

G: Here there’s orange pumpkins, which are excellent for kids painting or carving or whatever. The one that draws probably as much attention as anything out there. And these are what you call “blue dolls”. They are just absolute, super pumpkins.

S: I love it because it’s like the beautiful, ugly one.

G: Here in the corner…I don’t know if you have a grandmother who makes pies or not…this is what we call a “cushaw” (green and white striped squash). The only thing that could beat a cushaw in making pies is this “pink porcelain doll”. The pink porcelain doll is the official pumpkin of Breast Cancer Awareness. This is one of them. And they are so easy to work with. What we tell people, when they ask, “how do I fix this?”: take it, clean it good. Once it’s dry, take some olive oil and put it on it. Set it on a baking dish, the whole thing, and roast it. About two hours or so. And then when you bring it out, cool it down, you can take a butter knife and cut it. This one right here is probably going to be able to make six to eight pies out of it. The meat is very thick. I want you to pick this up.

S: Oh, wow! Yeah, that’s heavy. Here come the doggies…

G: He’s a Chesapeake Bay Retriever. He’s getting’ some age on him, he’s a good old boy. Come here bud! What, you all just now woke up? And this is my baby doll. He’s such a needy thing. Here’s a little female. She says, you pet me and I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

S: You all are loyal.

G: They know where the food comes from. Yes, you old pitiful thing, you. Oh lord. Get out of there, Daisy! You don’t need to be in there. Go on, now.

S: So, did you raise pumpkins when you were a kid in this same place?

G: The first pumpkins I raised were over on North Fork Holston River. I raised about three acres over on North Fork Holston, and back then there wasn’t everybody and their brother raising pumpkins and you could take a pick-up load and stop at most convenience stores and say, would you like to buy some pumpkins and they’d say, how much? I’d say, two dollars apiece and I’d give ‘em five extra, which tickled them to get some free ones. I give you five extra in case one of them happens to die on ya, you have a replacement free of charge. I don’t like people calling me and saying, my pumpkin died! But, I got along good at raising them off and on for those twenty some years. A few years ago, when they had the hurricane come through and flooded all the rivers up in Maryland and on up north. Pumpkins float. All these big, old pumpkins were floating right on off to sea. And I can just see them. We had a collision this morning with a freighter with a large pumpkin…Alright, let’s go for a ride. I tell people, I said my wife’s told me that I was such a good husband that she bought me this truck. And then I say, she handed me the keys and said, hit the road jack!

S: Ha!

G: Megan Hamilton, she and I have a little folk group that we did several performances.

S: Did you play at the Busker Fest?

G: Oh, yeah, I always play at the Busker Fest. You know where Camela’s Tea House is?

S: Absolutely.

G: I play right on the front porch every year. And Melissa’s mother, I told Melissa, can I play there again this year? She said, why you know you can! My mother loves you! She is a sweet lady.

S: Have you been playing guitar and singing your whole life?

G: I started when I was thirteen, learning to play guitar, and I was very determined. And along the way I taught people how to play a little bit. Chet Atkins said the six-string guitar is the hardest instrument to play badly, and the easiest instrument to play well. Or something like that. The easiest instrument to play poorly and the hardest instrument to play bad. That’s the way it went. Anyway, this is our free stall barn where we used to milk the cows. This is the back barn where we used to hang tobacco. When we were raising tobacco.

S: Do you have a most rewarding element of the farm? In terms of things you sell?

G: Probably pumpkins and molasses. Now this is cane. This shows you a little bit of a view of it. And that’s the head. The heads on top of the plant. Now you gotta wait until the seed head on top…the seeds are a little bit smaller than a bee bee. And you have to wait until the seed gets mature enough that you can put it between your thumbs and mash it and it’s a dough. It’s not juicy. If you can mash it and there’s juice still coming out of it, milk state, then you have to wait.

S: What time of year is it normally ready?

G: Oh, it’ll be ready the next three weeks, I bet. Now right here I’ve got a little bit of cane growing there because if I put pumpkins there, the groundhogs eat them up. Not that I mind if it’s groundhogs, I wouldn’t mind if they eat just one or two, but the little rascals take a bite out of this one and bite out of this one. Finish it, eat it all! Bust your gut! But don’t waste ‘em.

S: Exactly.

G: Oh, I started that song about being on a cruise…

[sang again as lyrics came back to memory]

G: I would like to do more and more gigs. It’s nice to have a little bit of return for your hard work. We also have a greenhouse and we produce spring bedding plants, like for tomatoes and stuff like that. We sell the plants. We have a lot of people who come up here and go, oh I wish I lived up here! And the thing about it is, we feel kind of isolated in a way, but we’ve got dogs and if anybody comes up here that doesn’t belong here, they will tell ya real quick and people are more afraid of a dog than they are a gun.

S: Yes, they are. It feels like someone with a gun at least you can try and talk to them. But a dog, you know, they’re just going to protect.

G: I have these people who used to call up with security systems. I said, ma’am I don’t need your security system, I’ve got all the security I need. She said, what do you mean? What kind of system do you have? I said, I’ve got two big old black dogs and if you don’t think they won’t bite you, you come on and they’ll eat your ass up.

S: Four-legged security systems.

G: They hang that phone up. Want to get a picture of the house? The log house is this section here. It was already here. We had to jack it up in the air and we had four pillars underneath it because it didn’t have a basement or anything and we wanted a basement. It has beams underneath it that were, oh, that big around. Years and years ago, the man that owned the place, he would keep sheep here. And the sheep were tall enough that they rubbed against the beams underneath and the sheep produces “lanoline” and it was slick as onions.

S: Oh, my gosh.

G: So, we jacked the whole log house up and log houses are heavy. We raised the log house about a foot or better, and I took a skid loader and I went underneath it and dug the basement.

S: Wow. It’s gorgeous! You’ve got a lovely, lovely place here.

G: It’s nothing fancy.

S: It just suits the land, too.

G: It’s livable. I’d rather be out here in a shack than stuck in a little town with condominiums and such.

S: I absolutely agree with that.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Moyer Family]

Letting go is one of the hardest things to do in this life. Letting go of expectations, of the notion that you can do everything, that you can control everything. But in the process of letting go, of minimizing, you make space for a freedom that’s more rewarding than control. You allow for magic and meaning.

Meet Richard Moyer and his family. I was lucky enough to meet his wife, Jenny, and his children, Kristina, Timothy (it was his birthday!) and Melissa, on the farm that day. Timothy, known as the “wasp whisperer” was feeding grubs to baby chicks, while Christina prepared to milk the cows.

They offer grass-fed beef, eggs from ducks, chickens and geese, and an assortment of vegetables, heavily focusing on tomatoes this year. I was joined by local farmer, Neal Reid, on this eye-opening visit. They live in an old farmhouse, built by a family dedicated to mindful farming at a time where food was worth so much more. The man down the street who paid for his first two years of school by selling duck eggs. We live in a world now of industrialization where food is merely a commodity. A world in which taking the time to prepare and enjoy food is perceived as inconvenient to our daily lives. Richard has instilled in his life the act of mindfulness through planting, harvesting and consuming. Their farm was another reminder of interconnectedness from whom we buy to the water that runs off a property line and into major lakes and rivers. All the dots connect somewhere.

In the class Richard teaches, there’s an assignment where students are asked to interview a farmer, cook up their food and serve it. Most of the students report back that they were shocked how affordable it was and how much more they enjoyed the food, knowing where and who it came from. I recently made the switch to purchasing almost all of my own food from local farmers, and though it takes an adjustment in seasonal dishes, it’s made meals more fun knowing that the entire affair consists of honest work. I waste less, I enjoy the food more. And slowly, but surely, I’m learning to let go and allow, in more ways than one, throughout my life.

The big question is: how do we educate future generations in economically viable ways to expand grass-fed and organic food? Because really, it’s all about getting back to simplicity and intentionality. Real food is worth celebrating!

Enjoy the following interview and photos where Richard, Neal and I discuss the problems we’re facing today and leading an intentional lifestyle!


Richard: So, the people that grew up here. They remember…that huge tree over there is an ash tree…and the man, Chuck, remembers his mom was sitting on the porch one day and she said…go on top of those hills and bring me an ash seedling because we need an ash tree in the front yard. That says a bunch of things. They were educating the kids about what all the trees were, so he knew what an ash tree was. And intentionality—she envisioned “I want a big tree in the front yard, I want it from that spot”, and he came back with the ash tree, planted it, and there that ash tree is. And then these two Walnut trees were seedlings that came up on their own. And they decided they were going to leave them. So, they left them. It’s interesting to hear again about the intentionality. A lot of history here. So, we’re interested in honoring and a sense of continuing the families that grew up in this area that provided for their needs and the needs of others. So that’s what we do. We grow things here. That’s why I quit teaching full-time. I was up for a sabbatical at King and I wanted to learn how to farm, grass-based farm, minimal input farming. So, I did at Roffey Cattle Company first, where Dwayne and his family are right now, for fifteen months. Then looked for a farm that worked for us, and been doing it here now for ten years. We grow for our own needs and sell the extra for the farmer’s market. Occasionally we sell to other things, mostly to people in Abingdon because I like the people connection. Neal knows that. I just respect people who love food. I was thinking this morning the idea of honoring people, but also honoring plants and honoring food and making a connection with people.

Sarah: You’ve been technically farming most of your life, just not at the same scale?

R: Since ’92, we grew most of our own food. But it’s a family heritage. Both sides of our family. One of the best gifts was at my grandmother’s funeral in Pennsylvania, at the funeral it was an extended weekend, and people came forward…I’ll never forget, a little old lady came up and said, may I tell you about your grandmother? She said, when we were five we used to be best friends and we’d wander around the fields together and we’d pick flowers and make crowns for our head. And it was such a gift, hard not to tear up talking about it. But then there’s other people in the family that came up and they just started laughing about all the farming things they’d done, gardening things. The time they tried to make ketchup and it ended up looking like apple butter, and all the funny things they shared. But I got the sense that this a family heritage, of growing food, preserving food, and then making things with food. My mother’s side of the family, we used to always get together and shell out butter beans, pecans…this is Georgia. And that was family time. So, I’m glad to be able to pass that down to my children. Hopefully their children too. But we’re always learning.

S: Oh look at the chicks with their Momma! (They were actually baby turkeys that the Brooding Hen watches over. How amazing!)

R: We got those from David and Barbara King originally. We went to them and said we want some hens that do a great job of raising their young without a lot of care on our part. I don’t know if it’s laziness or efficiency.

Neal: I get it, totally!

R: I’ve got enough to keep me busy. If an animal can love to do what they want to do and we can partner with them to reach our goals, then that’s the kind of animal I want. Or plant, too.

N: No laziness there.

R: I want to avoid the idea that I’m good and somebody else is bad. That we’re better than you. But still, sometimes we’re blinded, we get stuck where we are and don’t realize how we got there, and so sometimes it’s fun or gratifying to be able to push back. So, when we say this is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it, it’s not to label “black and white”, “good/bad”, but they’re alternatives. Farming can be such drudgery, but if you can be open and aware of the possibilities, of letting animals do the work. To me, as a biologist, I always want to have stuff blooming for the pollinators because pollinators are a huge part of ecosystems. We’re certified organic in all of our plots, and organic requires you to have a farm plan that values pharmacology, the whole ecological system. And the more I read, the more I realize that we always need to have something blooming. When I was eleven to eighteen I had a lawn business. I spent a whole lot of time caring for landscapes to other people’s standards. It was the idea of, there’s a little weed over there! Go boy, get rid of it! What’s that weed doing here? So, it’s like, the flip side of that. I’m just letting it happen. There are pollinators and beneficial insects that need that nectar to survive the winter. So, I want to have stuff blooming as long as possible.

N: I love that paradigm. We were talking about that on the way over here. It’s easy to internalize or put on yourself a real sense of shame for weeds when you think about those standards you were talking about. What a beautiful paradigm shift towards letting go of the sort of vanity of how you think it looks, or how you think other people perceive it to look and view it more through the lens of what’s healthy for your ecosystem, which is obviously much more important.

S: And what was the wording you used for natural cycles? Minimal input?

R: Just in terms of honoring the natural cycles that are here. Minimizing off-farm inputs, and the idea that we can control anything. The plants want to reproduce. Everything wants to reproduce, and so if we can work with that and manage it and step back. Standing on the edges, doing some directions and nudges here and there. And then seeing what happens, and you’re always surprised which is part of the fun, part of the journey. When people come and they’re like, what about all the snakes? What about ticks? It’s almost like they’re caught in this Grimm’s fairytale, you know, danger of the deep, dark places.

S: It’s because we live in a very sterile world now. We also live in a world where if you don’t mow your lawn in a neighborhood…well I don’t know what’s gonna get you. I guess the boogey man will get you? But it’s like a problem to people for things not to be perfect, so there’s a negative connotation with weeds.

R: I hear that. And so, I don’t spray for tomato worms because there are little tiny wasps that will take care of them. I don’t manage for cabbage loopers because we have the paper wasp and other wasps that eat those and keep those at sustainable levels. And again, this is part of the organic system, that you want to manage for whole, healthy ecosystems. You gotta let things balance. But then you’ve got to tolerate some stuff. It encourages you to let go of some stuff. Once you start questioning some parts of paradigms, it makes it easier to question others as well. And that’s part of the fun. Our tomatoes sell well and we’ve got to be able to take them to market. But we get on this chemical treadmill of, at the first sign of damage you’ve gotta spray with chemicals. Well, that’s money and time. And I’m trying to minimize my use of time and my use of money. Let the systems take care of themselves. Again, that goes back to the people who grew up here. They didn’t have cash. Sometimes I get fooled in the sense that I do have the money, and I think, well I’ve just gotta run out and buy this.

N: Right!

R: It adds up. These are the two babies and two mommas. Where’s calf two? Did it run up ahead?

N: These are beautiful animals.

R: We also do milk on grass alone. I say this is the best kind of alchemy when these animals take weeds that we can’t eat and they turn it into high quality grass. And there’s a human tradition, an agricultural-pastural traditions, for tens of thousands of years where people have partnered with animals and the animals can go out and get, to them, what’s high quality food. We make cheese, butter, sour cream, kefir, and ice cream.

S: Does everybody have their different projects that they work on here?

R: Yeah. It’s an evolving thing. My oldest son’s away at college, my oldest daughter just got married this summer, and the other daughter is a cook out in Colorado. So, we’re trying to adjust to less. We’re trying to figure out which crops and which things work best for us. One model is to do three or four crops at a time and to do them really well. And it can change over the season. Other people, they’ll do like forty something crops. Other people, like Neal, can do some of the very best heirloom tomatoes and be known for that. And then we have so many different heirlooms at our market.

(At the milking station)

N: This is wonderful.

R: So, this building, you can see the hand-hewn logs there where you can see the ax marks where they shaped those logs. We use artificial insemination. We get New Zealand semen, because in New Zealand they’re not on a grain-based meat and milk production. They do it on grass alone. They’ve had a lot of years of research of improving their herds to be on grass alone. People have said, what if the USDA had spent the same amount of time improving cattle breeds and doing nutritional studies on grass alone and how to produce better grass, versus all the effort we’ve done to show how to do meat and milk on grain? So, we get New Zealand semen from the best bulls down there. I go to conferences and people say, you can’t have healthy cattle on grass alone. And part of the reason is because we don’t focus on producing high enough quality grass. We fill in the gaps with corn and soy, which in one sense is cheap calories, but when you total up the cost.

N: Externalities. [noun—a side effect of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods]

R: Let’s go up here and look at tomatoes. We heat with wood. I really like the idea, too, that every bit of heat in our house, we know where it comes from. And some of these logs we then use to grow mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. But again, I know right where this tree came from and I can point to the spot where the sun was captured, the wood I’m growing mushrooms with. I just like the idea of local. Local heat source, local wood. I’d rather just use what’s here.

N: You keep going on back to the sun and it seems like you’re very aware of the solar energy component, it all comes back to that for you.

R: Wendell Berry [environmental activist, poet, farmer] says shorten your supply lines. Which is both a challenge and a quest or an adventure, I should say. A journey or an adventure. I don’t wanna see it as a burden, but how can we continue to shorten our supply lines? Because the people that grew up here, this worked for them and there was a time when people could make a good living from farming alone. So, we put out six hundred tomato plants and the most we’ve done is eight hundred. These are all heirlooms, all disease resistant, so we do minimal spray.

S: Did you do seed saving for them?

R: Some of these. Most of the seeds are from Southern Exposure. It’s all organic.

S: And is Southern Exposure a catalog that you can order from?

R: Yeah, they’re a community near Charlottesville. We’ve been growing seed for them for years. They did a great job of what works here. All these tomatoes have a story. This is an “Eva Purple Ball”. This one was developed in 1888 in the black forest of Germany. And it works well for us. This one is a “Mortgage Lifter”.

N: I’ve heard of this one!

R: So, you can look at the size of these tomatoes. This was bred in West Virginia and a man paid off his mortgage in one year selling plants of this tomato. He bred it. But look at the density of foliage and how healthy it is.

N: Didn’t he do twelve varieties and crossed them into one super tomato?

R: Yeah, he’d put them all together and he kept doing that. Selecting for size. Look at this guy!

S: Oh, my gosh! So, it eats off the bacteria?

R: A lot of people see that and think, oh I’ve got to kill that. My kids used to see those and think we’ve got to feed it to the chickens because the chickens will fight over it. But, that is a factory right now in the positive sense of parasites. It’s been parasitized by wasps, most likely, and it’s gonna have tiny little cocoons all over it soon. If we can be patient and leave this here, if I let nature take care of it, I don’t have to spend the time or the money to buy the spray. Why not just celebrate the natural cycles, tolerate a little bit of damage and then allow the predators to come in to control that? Oh! One thing you’ll appreciate, you can see this here. When the bottom leaves die, it’s got all this new foliage coming up. Quality tomatoes need leaves because leaves are solar collectors. Then all the sugars and flavors get stored in the tomatoes. The plant makes tasty fruit. This is my teacher in me…why do plants make tasty fruit?

S: Why do the plants make tasty fruit?

R: What’s the goal of it? They could just make a bare seed, but they surround the seed in something that looks good, smells good, and tastes good.

N: To make it transferrable to help itself spread.

R: Yeah! They want their children to do well, is what the plant does. It’s calling all these animals out here saying that I’ve got this green thing now. It’s hard, it’s crunchy, it’s starchy, don’t bother it now. Come check back when the color changes and it has all these aromas. I’ve got sweetness there for you. I’ve got protein. I’ve got fats. I’m gonna nourish you if you help me spread my children. I want my children to do well, I want my children to go to the world and succeed other places, not hang around home. So, the plant rewards the animals it partners with. So, Neal, there’s a lot of things I haven’t done this year but I have, to do some degree tried to get the tomatoes taken care of. At the end of day, or sometimes first thing in the morning I think, I can’t get everything done today. It’s the time of the year where you’ve gotta give up on some things.

N: Yeah. Let go!

R: You know?? It’s not all gonna get done to my ideal this year and sometimes I’m uncomfortable with this money grubbing thing of, I gotta get my money, gotta get my money! You sit down, you look at your books, what’s coming in and what your outlays are. Sometimes you gotta make money to keep doing it. If you’re gonna hold onto the land and keep this heritage going, you gotta figure out what makes money for you. But part of that is what you enjoy doing. The ideal is when the things that make money and the things that bring joy to you and your customers, when those can come together sometimes. So, tomatoes for us are one thing.

S: Do you have a personal favorite task on the farm?

R: That’s a good question and it’s like asking me to name a favorite child.

S: It seems like, for you as a science mind and everything, that putting together the pieces of the puzzle is something that you enjoy every day. Every day is a new problem to solve.

R: But there’s also a sense of wonder in that, and joy. I wanna keep that in mind, too, because so many people talk about farming as drudgery. We need to figure out how to bring on future generations. Whenever people come to the farm, I say, don’t teach me, teach my kids. I want you to teach the next generation.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Tom & Deni Peterson]

We all have dreams. At least, we’ve all had them before. I’ve been working on letting myself dream again, like I did when I was a kid. What I want to see, what I want to become, what I want to leave behind. I truly believe that by dreaming something, you begin to set it into motion. I’m inspired to do this constantly by the people around me who dreamt up a life for themselves and then followed the path to get there, whether they were fully conscious of it or not at the time.

Meet Tom and Deni Peterson of Blue Door Garden. If you’ve ever been to the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, you’ll know them as the flower folks. With the most gorgeous bouquets I’ve ever seen, they manage to bring light into any room with the breathtaking plants they nurture and arrange. I wasn’t someone who bought flowers for myself until I met them. Maybe it’s the way you feel like you’ve known them for years when you meet them? Maybe it’s the way that each bouquet is unique, with detailed touches unseen at commercial stores or vendors. Every piece of art tells a story and gives off a vibe to its audience, floral arrangements included. And I know this sounds a little crazy, but these flowers actually change my mood when they’re in my room. For real. It’s wild.

From New England to Chicago to Virginia, these two have created a life of purpose, growing their own vegetables and bringing up two children with a connection to hard work and Mother Nature. Walking around their property, we stumbled upon apple trees surrounding a bonfire circle for celebrating summer nights and the beginning of seasons. I was immediately taken back to my childhood where my Dad would build bonfires and read poetry every summer and fall solstice. A place of peace is what they’ve created.

Through experimentation, patience, and positivity, Deni and Tom now offer a vast array of flowers and foliage for weddings, dinner events, bouquets, and everything in between! You can find them at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Tuesday and Saturday or find them on Facebook. Enjoy my Monday afternoon stroll and conversation below!

 


Sarah: So, how long have you guys lived here?

Deni: We moved to Abingdon in ’01, and then we moved in here (farmhouse) in ’03.

S: Where did you live before?

D: We were outside of Chicago.

S: Oh, nice! Did you both grow up there?

D: No, we’re from New England. I’m from Connecticut, Tom’s from Pittsburgh.

S: Oh, my gosh! I went to college there.

D: Nice. Yeah, we met in Rhode Island and then we moved to Vermont. That’s where our first kind of farming opportunity started, in Vermont. And then we just couldn’t make ends meet and we found a farming job outside of Chicago in an intentional community that was just being established. So, we took the farming position and created a farm. We had a hundred-member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), we did three farmer’s markets and five restaurants inside of Chicago. We had fifteen acres of organic production going on.

S: Oh, my gosh. That’s amazing.

D: And that’s how I got into flower production, because I inherited a flower farm. It wasn’t all flowers—a small piece was the CSA, with flowers. But, I started doing designs for all the model homes that they were selling in this community. Floral design. So, I got to go in and do all the spec houses.

S: That’s not just arrangements, but flower art.

D: We used to sell at the Evanston Farmer’s Market, which is a huge market in Chicago, and right across from our booth was the flower lady. So, you know, as I’m selling vegetables all day I was just watching her. I thought, someday, I want to be you. When I came to Abingdon, that was kind of the goal.

S: And now you are!

D: Really, we weren’t intending to continue farming when we came here. We came here with the intention of downscaling, because farming is exhausting, and we had these two babies who were born in Chicago. We weren’t able to give them all our time, so we came here with the intention of downscaling, which we did—it’s only two acres now instead of fifteen. But then, through our work with ASD (Appalachian Sustainable Development), Virginia State University was looking for a flower trial when hoop houses were just starting to be built and it came with a grant. We had built our hoop house when we first came here…we took a loan out and built our first hoop. Then flower houses came as part of a grant, and so it was all flowers in those two hoops. We had to do that for a year and then we could do whatever we wanted with the hoops, but we decided to continue with flowers because they were more profitable than vegetables.

S: How did you learn about all the different kinds of flowers? Just experimentation?

D: That and—when I first started we didn’t have internet, you know, so everything was done through books. So, a lot of books and then trial and error, definitely. I mean moving to a totally new region, we had all new bugs, we had a new season cycle, we had different soils. You learn from other flower farmers who are around you. I met up with Linda Doan, who’s the owner of Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers, and she’s in Blountville. We met probably about ten years ago, and we’ve been sharing information and camaraderie of flower farming forever. She’s the person who really pushed me to “quit your day job”, you know, become a flower farmer and do weddings.

S: Hey Tom! How you doing?

Tom: Good!

S: Depending on the year, do you plant different flowers depending on what the weather is like that year? Or do you usually try to make the same ones work every year?

D: I mean, every year I try new flowers. I’m constantly trialing. This year we’re members of the Specialty Cut Flower Growing Association. So, I’m part of their trial team. I’m trialing a bunch of things for them, which is new. I think I have thirteen different varieties that I’m trialing. They give you the seeds and it’s like, see how they do! Take pictures of them, and tell us how they are. And some things worked great, yes, I’d plant them again, but some things failed miserably. But that’s what they want to know. So, our season starts in the hoop houses and outside with the spring bulbs. We plant lots of daffodils and tulips in the hoop houses, and it kind of just rolls through the seasons. The hoop houses kind of slow down and now we’re mostly out in the field. But planting’s already happening in the hoops again so that in the fall, when the frost comes, we’re still in production.

S: Of course, because flowers are wanted all year round.

D: But flowers have different seasons too. Daffodils and tulips are spring flowers, and your ranunculus. You know, the lisianthus starts coming in and it kind of goes out and then it comes back in. Sunflowers, we plant them every ten days on a cycle all summer long. I just seeded the last cycle! Some things take all season long to bloom. For instance, the flowers that you see out here. The purple leaves, that’s hibiscus, and that’s one of my trial flowers. Not really harvesting the flowers, I’m harvesting the leaves for foliage, but it takes until now even though I planted it back in May to be able to use it. Everything has its own kind of timing. There are also perennials and there are annuals. Then there are bi-annuals, so it takes two years before you get something from ‘em. But we try to trick things. So, we plant them now in order to get a flower next season. So, we try to trick them into thinking, oh I’ve been growing for two years, but not really. They’ve been growing for, what, six months.

S: How do you do that?

D: You start growing them now, so they’ve been seeded and we put them into the hoop houses and then they grow up until that frost period. So, they think they’re big guys, but really they’re little guys. Then they go through their winter period, fertilization and the light, and they come back…

T: A lot of guys before us have figured this out.

S: But it’s funny because I didn’t think you could trick a plant!

D: Yes, you can! For instance, the ranunculus and the anemones that we grow in here, we trick them into thinking they’re in Holland. Just because we put them in the hoop house and we coerce them to come in February and March. So, they’re like, oh yeah we’re in Holland, we’re gonna bloom. Our ranunculus and anemones, that season is done by May. It’s just way too hot. We went to Scotland in June and theirs were just starting because Scotland is so cold and cloudy.

S: How did you guys meet up in New England?

D: We met on a staircase.

S: Oh! Is this, like, at a museum?

D: It was an environmental education center.

S: That’s perfect.

T: We were teaching kids and I was hired on as a tour guide, leading kids on adventure trips. “Adventure” in Rhode Island.

D: The wilds of Rhode Island!

T: Deni was my boss, actually. We met the first, second night we were there.

D: Oh, definitely the first night.

T: Had a pretty quick connection.

S: That’s awesome. How old were you guys, if you don’t mind me asking?

T: Twenty five-ish.

D: Twenty-four, I guess I was twenty-four.

S: This is the question I always ask people, but is there something about the Abingdon community, specifically, that is different from other communities you’ve been in or that you really enjoy?

D: I mean, there’s a feel to Abingdon. When we first came here, we were interviewing for ASD and we walked down Main Street and we went to the Creeper Trail and it just had a really cool feel. You could feel the history there, the cobblestone streets. I felt like I was back in New England. I felt like I was, you know, on the coast of Massachusetts. It just felt very homey and very welcoming. I was like, I could definitely live here. And then the trees and the rivers. If you want to get away from it all, it’s a twenty-minute drive and you’re in the middle of nowhere. And the climate here is fantastic for a farmer. Nice short winters, but you still get the snow. You get all four seasons, but the spring is really long. The fall is really long. Summer’s aren’t too bad. It’s just a perfect little place for me.

T: It’s a laid back community. It’s very easy to do things here. Our kids grew up here, it was fun, they were able to walk all over the place. It felt safe.

S: Where are they now?

D: One’s at Tech and one’s at Radford.

S: Nice. So, is this the busiest time of year?

T: It’s a busy time. All times are busy. You’d think that it slows down in the winter time but there always seems to be something to do. Just less pressure then. Less you do in the winter, the more you have to do in the spring.

S: What do you think is most important when you’re building a piece?

D: It’s definitely color, shape, texture, size, the smell of things, how long things last. I love going to market and people come by and are like, hey build me something pretty! And I can kind of look at them and go, okay, this is what I think you’ll like.

T: She’s usually right.

D: It’s really fun when someone will look at their bouquet and be like, wow, that’s exactly what I wanted!

S: What’s your favorite part of doing this?

D: This is the first season that I’ve been a full-time flower farmer. I quit ASD at the end of October last year, so I’m still going through the first year of, gee, this is my job now! And I love not having to get in a car and drive to work. I walk outside and I’m here, I’m at work. Or I’m in my house and I’m at work. I like that. I’ve never been a big, hey, let’s drive around kind of person. I’ve always been like, let’s walk somewhere! So, I love that part. Keeps me at home and that’s what I wanted.

T: Being our own bosses, that’s nice. There’s a lot of stuff to get done and we know what needs to get done and we do it on our own schedule. Nobody to answer to. But with that comes the pressure to make sure that you’re doing enough to bring in enough income to keep the bills being paid. It’s a balance for sure, but the freedom of being able to be your own boss is really nice and we’ve always enjoyed that when we farmed other places. We like sharing, we like teaching too, and we get little bits of that in. I just love being outside. When our kids come home we talk about them having this running regiment and they go to the gym. I’m like, I don’t need any of that! I do that out here! It’s healthy, we’re outside.

D: We’re growing our own food, so we know what’s going into our bodies.

T: We’ve been here awhile. We’ve got customers who are really loyal, we get a lot of positive feedback from them. It’s nice to feel like you’re an appreciated part of the community. If we were to go someplace else, it’d be like starting all over. Which we’ve done plenty of times, but it’s nice to be some place where people know who you are and they appreciate that, too, that you’re there and that you’re doing stuff and creating things that impact their lives. Food, flowers, the connection is great.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Catherine Walden]

I have a line in the play I’m currently in that says, “Bob and I like to think we know people when we meet them”. The moment I met Catherine Walden of The Secret Garden Gallery, I had that same sensation. I knew she was a kind and gentle soul. An observer, detail-oriented, and sensitive to the stimulus life offers on the daily. Lucky for us, she’s worked her entire life to hone the skills that bring those visions to life through her art.

Her landscape paintings captivate what nature makes you feel, not just what you see. The way the light hit the trees that morning you walked the trail, or the funny and almost human-like expression on a bird’s face as it sat on a tree branch singing its morning song. Calligraphy, pressed flowers, prints, oils, watercolors, custom framing. She keeps her eyes open and her hands busy.

She found her home in this little southern town, finding common ground in the admiration of nature and how that connects every one of us. After all, isn’t that the point of art? Enjoy the interview below and a small glimpse into her collection of pieces, then go visit her at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 8-1pm at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market Pavilion off of Main Street or at her shop at 416 W. Main Street in Abingdon! You can also visit her online Etsy shops for artwork and prints & calligraphy.

 


Sarah: First off, how did you get started?

Catherine: Well, I went to art school when I was in college. I got a degree in Fine Arts.

S: Where did you go?

C: University of Arizona. Then I left Arizona and I became a studio potter and I had my own little pottery studio and I sold pottery and I did art shows. I never really stopped drawing or painting but I’ve had periods where I’ve done other jobs, focused on other things because, you know, it can be challenging to make a living as an artist.

S: Absolutely.

C: Any kind of art, right?

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: But when I moved here…I moved here from…well I’d been living in Staunton (Virginia) for a long time and I had a shop there very similar to this and I was doing more of the art that’s like pressed flower art, I was doing that mostly. And then when I moved here I started painting again, I started painting because I got kind of bored with what I was doing and I wanted to start doing fine art again. So, I’ve really been focusing on that and really enjoying that. I moved here because I used to do art shows all over the state when I lived in Staunton and we used to come here for the Highlands Festival, used to come here with my kids. The whole family came and we’d do art shows and we’d travel.

 

S: That’s so much fun!

C: That’s what we did. My kids have really good memories of growing up and always being at a festival on the weekends. The playing…

S: Meeting so many people, too.

C: Yeah, yeah. It becomes kind of like a tribe of people that you keep meeting everywhere you go. But then I kind of got to a place where it was hard to do it alone with my kids, so I decided to settle into a shop. My kids are grown now. But I really didn’t want to have that lifestyle forever. A gypsy lifestyle…even though it’s fun. Shows got to be less profitable, so many of them. And I don’t know what it was, the economy…

S: I’m sure traveling to them, too.

C: …Is very expensive, and the fees are really high and they’d just keep going up every year. So, I find that I do just as well or better at the farmer’s market because I don’t have travel expenses or any of that, hotels, and food. But it’s very up and down. I could go there and sell ten dollars or I could sell seven hundred, you know? I never know.

S: I was wondering about that, what the market was like here?

C:  Well, it’s better in the summer. Really, my business picks up in May. I’ve got about four months where it’s almost completely dead. That’s the time where I do the paintings. I have some business in the shop, but not a lot. So, from May until December, that’s pretty much my business. So, it is kind of seasonal. This time right now is really pretty busy, and it’s really good at the market usually. I always like to say that it’s kind of like going fishing. It just depends on who’s there, it depends on the weather, on what else is going on around town or if it’s graduation week or Mother’s Day. All those things affect whether people are coming. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with how many people are there. But I really enjoy doing it. I work pretty much alone here, you know, painting is a solitary thing. So, it’s really nice to have the market, and I also get a lot of business there through people who see me there and then they find out I have a shop here. I also do custom framing, so a lot of my business comes from the market.

 

S: And you do custom framing for pretty much anything?

C: I do all my framing for my work and I have a whole board of samples and stuff. I can do any kind of custom framing. And I do a little bit of online framing. I have two online shops on Etsy. Abingdon’s a small town and there’s very little foot traffic here. I think there’s even very little foot traffic in the middle of town, ‘cause other businesses have told me that they can go all day without getting a customer. I thought it was just ‘cause I’m down on this end. But, it’s just, you know, we’re small. But I get tourists and people who are going to the theatre. They say, oh, we’re just in town and we’re going to see a show and we’re just wandering around.

S: I know that whenever I travel I want to bring a piece of art home and that’s kind of a big thing for me. Whatever country I go to, I always bring back paintings. Where did you grow up? And how did you get to Arizona to go to school?

C: I grew up in New York and I wanted to go to art school and I wanted to go as far away as I could go.

S: Fair enough.

C: So, I picked the University of Arizona. I don’t know why or how I ended up doing that. I wanted to study representational art and they were still teaching that. Figurative and representational art. So, I went to Arizona and lived there for about four or five years and I graduated. I went from Arizona to Colorado and lived in Colorado for a while. I’ve moved around a lot…then I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and lived there. I didn’t do art there. I became a massage therapist there. I moved from there and lived in California for a little while, lived in New Mexico. I always liked the west but I think because I grew up in the East, it always feels more like home to me.

S: Me too.

 

C: So, I always have to come back because of the four seasons. Just the landscape and all that. I went out to New Mexico because I was going to get a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy and as it turned out I realized I didn’t want to not do art. I just like to do art. So, I came back and since I knew about Abingdon, I decided to come back here. I knew it was an arts place.

S: So, where do you get your inspiration for a lot of pieces? I know that’s such a general artist question.

C: That’s okay. I just really like anything that has to do with nature. I know that’s a big topic but I love landscape. I love still life and flowers and animals. I used to do portraits but I have to kind of focus on what people will buy. People do really like landscape and animals. I love doing the still life but it’s only occasionally that I’ll sell one of those. But that is something that I really love to do, a lot. The still life.

S: Why?

C: Because I really like building a space, a real space. Creating a little piece…I don’t know how to describe it…it’s like a naturalistic space, it’s real, but it also has it’s own…there’s something magical about making something look like it’s real in the space. And it takes a lot of observation. You begin to see so much color in variation, you know, in an object. That’s one of the things about art that’s really exciting, I think. When I started doing art, all of a sudden everything took on a different look. A different life. You begin to see color like you never could before. Things just got more alive. I mean, you look at somebody’s face and you see beauty in someone’s face that doesn’t have to be conventional or a classical kind of thing. You start to see beauty in everyday objects. Incredible beauty in the landscape and I guess that’s one of the reasons I like being here, is because in just a few moments…I can drive out on Valley Street and if I keep going out there, there’s all these rolling farms and hay fields and there’s cows and streams and trees and it’s just beautiful.

 

 

S: That’s something that keeps me calm. Every time I drive out of my house I get to see the Blue Ridge Mountains right in front of me and how many people get to see that every day?

C: But you’re an artist and so, that affects you that way and I think a lot of people are not affected by that and they don’t crave that. Because, you know, my kids say why are you living here? There’s nothing here. And I say, well there is. Look around you. Look what’s here.

S: Especially in the past couple of years, a lot of the young people who have been coming up. You’re getting a new generation of folks, too.

C: I really love the south because people are very civil. And they’re very sweet. Even if you’re not from here and you’re a Yankee. There’s things I’ve learned about just the way people interact with each other, it’s a little more gracious, a little slower…even if that can be hard for somebody who’s from New York.

S: It’s a good lesson in patience.

C: That’s right. And you know, I remember when I first moved to this town I was amazed because everybody kept saying hello to me like they knew me and I didn’t know anybody. Like, I only know one person here, but they all greeted me as if they knew me and people even wave to you in your cars. And that’s really nice. As a community, people are more community-minded. And that’s just a really nice thing.

S: What’s your favorite thing to create right now?

C: Oh, did you see the paintings when you came in? I started this series because, you know, I walk on the Creeper Trail just about every day, and I’ve taken hundreds of pictures and I just love the trail. So, I’ve started painting the trail…You know, the light’s different every day. One day it kind of had this blue/purple light on the water, must have been from the sky. And so, I did that one looking down over the bridge. I’m just fascinated with that stream and I want to do maybe some oils.

A closer glimpse of a morning on the trail.

S: Do you take pictures and then come back and paint them?

C: Yeah, yeah, but some of them are composites. So, people ask me where it is and I go, well…

S: A couple different places!

C: Yeah, and photographs are pretty limited as far as color and all that goes, so you have to make up the color a lot of the time.

S: It gives you more creative freedom.

C: I always do sunflowers because people love them and I like to paint them. And I always do nests, too, because people love those.

S: Crab! Maryland girl!

C: Oh yeah, that’s a very popular print.

 

S: Is framing something you learned in college?

C: No, I just kind of learned it with the years because, you know, you have a piece of artwork and you want to be in a show. You have to go get it framed and it’s super expensive. So, I started doing that myself. And I actually like doing it. It’s kind of a creative thing in itself. You know, setting something up in the right way. I like doing it for other people too because choosing the right framing can really set it off or not, if you don’t do it right. And it’s physical. I don’t like to sit forever. I stand up a lot when I paint but I get to do a lot of different things in my shop. I can frame, I can paint.

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