Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Brunson’s]

This month I had the pleasure of meeting a new farm on the block. Having sold at Wytheville Farmer’s Market previously, the Abingdon market is lucky to welcome Thirty-Three Acre Farms to it’s fold.

Owned and operated by Donna Huete-Brunson and Tim Brunson, this gorgeous piece of land high in the hills of Rural Retreat is exploring every resource nature has to offer. With an impeccably designed garden layout full of wooden boxes, they utilize the sloping hills and build into the ground, not just above it. Repurposed wood and metal make up the greater portion of their home and workspaces, with antique doors and windows adding character and vibrancy in every corner of the farm. With solar panels powering the majority of their energy needs, I fell in love with their set-up.

The Brunson’s and I also have traveling in common. Love of it, stories from it, and dreams of it. Donna and Tim are life enthusiasts above all, having lived all over the world until they ended up in our gorgeous Appalachian corner of the country. Married in 2009, they live to make projects become reality. If I learned one thing about them, it’s that they dream it and then they do it…and we are the lucky ones who reap the benefits. English peas, carrots, potatoes, blueberries, onions, honey, syrup, jams, salsas, lamb, chicken, eggs…

Another topic that came up was the importance of small to mid-scale farming as a more manageable and cleaner way to raise food. I, personally, am an advocate of antibiotic-free and hormone-free farming. Grocery stores offer lots of food that’s had a needle in it’s butt, a time-release antibiotic on it’s ear, with it’s dinner consisting of other animal feces. Sounds fun, right? “You’re almost hit hard for not doing it the ‘right’ way”, Tim said in regards to feeding animals from more nutritious sources. And he’s right. It’s not possible for everyone to afford and I’m tired of it breaking the bank and forcing families to choose. So, when someone asks me why I buy local? It’s to support the folks who raise food ethically until we can make sure everyone has access to it.

Now that I’ve stepped off my soapbox, I’d like you to enjoy the following from my visit with the Brunson’s! And make sure to stop by and say hello to Donna and her sister, Danielle, at the next Abingdon Farmer’s Market!


 

Sarah: How long have you all lived here?

Donna: Four years.

Tim: Four years when you moved up, yeah. I say that because…I’ve still got a job. In fact, I’m leaving tomorrow.

D: He works in Texas. He works all over the world, but right now he’s in Texas.

T: Yeah, right now Texas is the center of the world.

D: Oh, my onions are crazy.

T: Those are the overgrown onions and what’s left. But she’s leaving these because the bees feed off them.

S: Those are beautiful, oh my gosh.

D: So, that’s why I leave a lot of the flowers.

T: I call them weeds, she calls them flowers.

D: …Because the bees all come.

T: The definition of a weed is a plant out of place. And that potato right there is a weed because it’s in the sweet potato bin.

S: This is so organized. Wow.

D: That’s what happens when you’re married to an engineer.

S: Understandable. Why did you guys want to move up here? Or how did you find it?

D: We actually looked all over.

T: We had dots all over the map. Here’s where we did holidays, let’s go here looking…

D: We went to the south of Mexico, we went to Arkansas, Northern California. It was really cool, we loved it. It’s not really easy to be a small, homestead type person there. It just isn’t. We collect our rain water for our chickens and you can’t do that there.

T: You can’t stop the water from flowing.

D: No. So, we decided no and then we went to Arkansas and didn’t like it. I have family…my Mom’s family is from a little tip area of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia. I have tons of cousins up there.

T: Huntington, West Virginia.

D: Yeah, which is where she grew up. I have cousins there, I have cousins in Knoxville. Cousins down in Raleigh. So, its like, I actually have family within about three hours all over. You know what I mean? I’ve been to this area before and so has Tim and we both loved it.

T: It’s what the people tell you when you come here. You get all the seasons. It’s thirty-seven degrees latitude, which is….she lived in New York City, I lived in Northern Montana…forty below sucks. We’ve lived in New Orleans and Houston. One ten, humidity and bugs. The weather is good here, the rolling hills, the hard woods. It fit all of our criteria.

D: It’s beautiful. It was just bare lands when we got it, so everything up here we built and cleaned. We bought the property before we actually moved up here, so we used it as a holiday home for awhile. Tim at the time was working in an international group where his company was and he would be gone sometimes for six weeks at a time. He got stuck in the Middle East one time for a very long time. And then our son went to college and he wasn’t around anymore, so it was like, well I could be alone for weeks at a time in Houston or I could be alone for weeks at a time in paradise. So, I quit my job, we sold the house, and moved up here full time. This is what I do now!

 

S: So, you guys have vegetables and you have chickens and bees.

D: And those are our sheep, and there’s a cow over there somewhere.

T: We’ve got one cow. We don’t keep many cows right now because her here by herself, it’s hard to manage cows, but sheep she can manage. And we sell the meat at the market.

D: And I’ve got two goats. And those are our donkeys.

T: They keep the coyotes away. They’ll kick a coyote into next year.

D: They’re really sweet.

S: What are these right here?

T: The cloches? So you can get an early start on these cabbages, you can start them in early spring with them. They’re like miniature greenhouses. Bought those for Christmas. Those came out of the UK. I think the French actually invented it.

S: That’s so clever.

D: They used to put raw manure on the bottom, dirt on top, and it would start to decompose so they could plant their vegetables in the winter. And it would create heat.

S: It would be great for wine country.

D: That’s what we’re going to do next year.

T: It’s gonna be five rows of a hundred feet long of grapes.

D: Here we already harvested the potatoes, and we planted green beans there. We’re gonna dig this up probably in the next week or two and then…I don’t know what we’re going to plant there. Maybe more beans. And we’ve already harvested all our broccoli.

T: I started with those beds there. That timber came from when the wind blew down the trees over there by the A-frame house. When I started this design, we just started repeating it. It’s going to be terraced down on the side because of the slope.

D: But it’s really helped my projection because it’s so much easier to keep weeded and it’s a lot easier to harvest.

S: When it’s raised in the boxes? That’s great because I hear so many people talk about their backs.

D: Yeah, I might have five more years of crawling around on my knees. But after that I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. But this actually works really well.

T: I’ve already put away four cords of firewood. There’s not a sixteen year old that can keep up with me! But yeah, it’s an advantage of it. When we got to this design…I mean, it just works. This is all going to be blueberries. We’ve had good luck with blueberries in this spot, but we don’t have enough of them.

D: And we got all these from Tamara. I actually bought a lot of starter plants from her.

T: Here, eat some…

S: Ah, so good! What’s your favorite part about working here?

D: That I can stumble out in my pajamas to go to work. I put on my muck boots, t-shirt and pajamas…I do!

S: Do you have a special connection with the chickens or sheep?

D: I actually…my business card calls me the “crazy chicken lady”. I love the chickens. I have like sixty five chickens.

T: We were in a controlled community in Katy, Texas and she wanted chickens so I went by the code of the place and built her a little fence in the back…and she had a half dozen chickens in a subdivision in Katy, Texas. Hidden in the corner.

 

D: Hidden in the corner. I love the baby lambs, I love my goats. The goats are so much fun. My husband does his own composting, a four pile system. The raw compost. ‘Cause we collect all the poop from the donkeys and the chickens and start composting it with stuff leftover from the garden. We’re so lucky because our farm has so many resources here, it’s just amazing. Like, I tap the trees for maple syrup.

T: And we now have electricity to the barn because she now has freezers for the lambs. Until then, we were all on the solar. Heat with the boiler outside, wood stove inside. There’s plenty of firewood. Some of it falls down on it’s own.

D: Black raspberries! We have them all through there, everywhere. They just grow wild. So, I make a lot of jam. Some of them are ripe, which means I need to put my boots on and…

T: I see a couple dark ones back there.

D: Yeah, me too. All wild. We’ve got about thirty five chickens over there. Come on Carlos! (to the donkey) And that’s Sophia. We named them after the King and Queen of Spain.

S: I love that! Hi, how are you? (to the donkeys)

D: I have horse treats I give them.

T: They’re miniature Jerusalem donkeys.

D: They’re good. They’re supposed to be over there but we had some new babies and for like the first two weeks they don’t like the babies very much. So, I have to keep them separated for a little bit. We had unexpected babies.

T: Juan Carlos and Sophia. Her chickens are coming to see her!

S: Look at them!

T: The white one is always first. Look at him!

D: My sister rescued him from the Tractor Supply reject…you know when their chicks come in and not all of them are healthy? He’s a meat chicken. He doesn’t know it. They’re fat and happy.

S: Look at you all. Living your best life.

 

D: We collect the rain water here for the chickens.

T: We’re gonna set up an attachment on that barn because that next pasture down, we haven’t got it closed in yet. But it will be a cistern system where we catch the water and it’ll go down a pipe down to there, and I gotta do one from the house to the garden. The garden is about three feet higher, elevation wise, which is just about the right height for a whiskey barrel. So, it’ll be my cistern that will come off the house into that and that’ll give me enough head to push it up to the garden. We’ll just have a tub out in the garden that we can put it in.

S: You’re curious aren’t you? (to the fat & happy rescue chicken)

D: He is!

T: He’s the one who’s always up first because he wants all the feed.

S: Look at him! Still following me.

T: He thinks you have feed in your pocket.

(headed down towards the sheep and goats)

D: Those are the two babies. They were born a week ago, Friday.

T: They’re getting milk when their tail’s wiggling. If their tail quits wiggling, they’re not getting milk. That’s how you know. Here comes the daddy. We call him Shaggy.

D: We give them minerals, so they think you’re bringing them minerals. Hi, boys and girls. Hi, Spotty Spot! And the goats are very friendly.

T: Especially if you have a banana.

 

S: So, since you’ve been here and been going to the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, is there anything you’ve noticed about the community here that’s different or that you enjoy?

D: We actually know our neighbors here. We lived in a subdivision and there would be a hundred houses and we knew four.

T: And we know everybody to the Smyth County line.

D: It’s a very friendly place.

T: People watch out for you and everything.

D: I like the community down in Abingdon. I think it has a really nice energetic feel. And it’s kind of nice because it’s a mix of generations.

S: That’s why I love going on Saturday mornings, because it’s like I’m going to see members of my family or something.

D: I could easily be a hermit, like easily, so it’s really good for me to get out and do that because I could stay up here all the time and never leave. It’s actually my therapy. Digging potatoes and digging carrots are actually my most favorite things.

S: There’s something about having dirt on your hands.

D: I know! My sister’s like, are you in a bad mood? Just go dig some potatoes.

S: I’m learning that if I start to get anxious about something, I just need to go out in the garden.

D: You really do. It really helps.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the King Family]

I’m going to paint a picture for you. Waterfalls and woods open up to fields against a mountainous backdrop. A ways down the road, the sunshine bounces off of cars parked along the embankment of a river. As you pull up, questioning whether this is the right place, your assumptions are confirmed when a rope bridge appears, laying out a pathway from the world you know to acres of bounty just feet away.

Welcome to River Valley Farm, run by David and Barbara King and their family. I teamed up with Blue Ridge Mountain Bounty to tour the farm and what we saw was astounding. A list of what they grow? It would be easier to list what doesn’t grow on this ten-acre farm in Abingdon.

From fig trees, insulated by plastic and expected to yield several buckets of nature’s candy, to mulberries and gooseberries, they not only grow standard fruits and veggies but rarer specialty plants as well. Years of living with and listening to the land has resulted in an oasis in which they live off of.

I tried fennel, which is straight licorice to your senses, savored strawberries, and was introduced to several farming methods demonstrated by David and his son, Elam. Movable hoop-houses made from ten-foot pipes bent by a local welder are easily taken apart and moved around the farm to keep up with nature and accommodate production.

The feature photo was photobombed by their resident cow and comedian, Faun. Every animal I met had personality, and each hand tool well-worn. Theirs is a unique story, starting in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and landing in Southwest Virginia to find new family and new community. Speaking to Barbara and their youngest child, Malinda, you get a sense that community, living simply, and faith are the cornerstones of their lives.

Community is defined as “a feeling of fellowship with others”, and I received that the moment I stepped foot on their farm…the kittens running around didn’t hurt either. Enjoy the interview below and check out their products at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market and Blue Hills Market in Abingdon, Virginia!


 

S: How long have you all lived here?

David: Twenty-two years.

S: Twenty-two years. And how did you find this place?

D: Well, we were living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

S: Ah, yes! I grew up not far from there in Maryland!

D: OK, yeah! So, we and several other families wanted to live in a more rural area and we had several different friends in this area. So, they helped us to find this place.

S: And you have children in the area, so a few of them were very young when they moved here?

D: In fact, our three youngest were born here. We have eight children. The three youngest are still home and five oldest have all left and are living in this area. That’s Ranger (the fluffy dog). He’s old and got a little bit of lameness to him.

 

S: I’m so interested in the bridge too. When you first moved here, is it the first thing you built? And did you get a group of people to help build it?

D: Well, there were two other families that moved here with us at the same time in 1995 and there was no bridge here. The first summer we got together, the afternoons we would be bridge building and the mornings we would be farming. That type of thing. Men and several boys, some neighbors pitched in. It was quite a task to put that up.

S: It’s amazing. I’m trying to figure out how you constructed it. I just wanna run around on it.

D: Well, you know, we put the pillars in place and we put holes in the pillars for the cable. The bridge is held up by four cables as in two on top where you hold your hands and two cables underneath. Lots of people have been on that bridge at one time.

Elam: We’ve never had anybody fall off either.

S: Ha, that’s great!

D: First, we’re going to demonstrate on how we use a bulb planter to plant the plants on the black plastic that we’ve laid. Right here, this is a bulb planter that actually opens up. Most bulb planters don’t do that. They’re made in one solid piece. But for us, we like this. And then just set the plant in, shake the dirt out…pretty fast. Our farm here consists of ten acres cleared, and we rotate with the grass fields and some corn for the animals…‘cause we have a small herd of goats, we have two horses and a cow, and we have enough land that we can do it. So, about half will be vegetables in one year and the rest will be grass fields and some will be for field corn.

 

S: How long had you been farming before you came here?

D: Been a farmer all my life. Grew up on a dairy and produce farm. My parents had both a dairy and a produce stand, retailed from the farm, and so that’s what I grew up with. So, when we married back in 1982 that’s what we wanted to do. We’ve been produce farmers all our married life.

S: Had Barbara grown up on a farm as well?

D: Yes, on a dairy farm.

S: It was in your blood.

D: Our inheritance as farmers, yep. Here’s our melon field, as in both cantaloupe and watermelons. Of course they’re real tiny yet. Again, these are plants we started in the greenhouse and we did the bulb planter method of putting them in here. This is an area where we had a lot of greens and herbs last fall. This is cilantro that has bolted, and we do our best to let cilantro bolt and bloom because one of the things we want to do here for natural insect control is having a lot of things blooming throughout the season, because that attracts the beneficial insects. It brings them in and they have a habitat they like and then they go to work at getting the bad bugs. You know, the way nature intended. But the more we work on having flowering plants around the farm and amongst the produce the more effective that is, which is called “farm-scaping”.

S: Malinda, what’s your favorite part of living here?

Malinda: I like being homeschooled here.

D: And we could talk about the fact that this farm is a place for our children to bring their friends. We have a volleyball set and we love having them over for playing and things like that. Summer picnics and potlucks.

S: It just seems like such an incredible place to grow up too. I mean, this is such an amazing place.

D: Well, that is why we live here. For different reasons of course, but because of it being an excellent place to raise our family—our oldest being about twelve years old when we moved here. Here, let’s stand over on the bridge for a photo. We love this bridge, it’s our link to the other side. All our produce goes over this bridge. We have an express wagon that we put it on and we’ll pile it as full as we can.

S: Six AM on Saturday mornings?

D: Ha, yes! That’s right. Welcome to our high tunnel where we grow crops year-round. Along there we have some herbs, as in rosemary. This is the French sorrel, where Elam is there is a big patch of oregano, and beyond that is a fairly big patch of thyme. To the side there we have blackberries. Amazingly early. They are actually an ever-bearing blackberry, kind of a rare type, where they’ll bear an early crop and then the next crop will come in, like, August and produce ‘til frost. But having some inside here just extends that season even further.

 

Elam: They’re starting to get pink down there.

D: Yeah, there’s a couple pink ones which means in ten days there’ll be ripe blackberries!

S: Yes! And it smells incredible in here.

D: It has to do with the basil, I think. Our hoops (hoop houses) are movable. This whole structure was sitting over here in the winter time and the advantage to having it movable is we can have crops “over wintering” here and when they’re not done yet, come April 1st, we can just let them stay here and start over.

S: And “over wintered” means grew too long to be useful?

D: Over wintered just means they survived the winter. Sometimes when we have harsh winters it will actually kill them because of the cold. But this year was relatively mild. Here is our cucumber hoop house. I know that they’ve started to ripen. Right here is one of them. This is the greenhouse type that sells for like two dollars apiece at stores at this time of year, especially. This is a row of gooseberries. In about a month these will be ripe, pink gooseberries. To those who aren’t familiar with gooseberries, I like to say they’re kind of like an early grape.

S: You know I’m going to have to ask about the granola as well. Please tell me about it!

Barbara: Oh, we love it because it’s so crunchy! We make it with the big oats and then the brown sugar, maple syrup, real butter.

D: The secret is the slow baking. I call it baking to perfection.

Barbara: And we don’t bake it on high temperatures. No higher than two-fifty, and usually only for a little while and then I put it down more and more as it dries.

D: Let’s go in the greenhouse. There’s the wood stove pipe to keep it warm in the winter. There’s a couple solar panels. This is where we raise our plants. And this is a unique kind of compost tea or fertilizer tea. Spray it on the leaves and they’ll take in the nutrients, so there’s a lot of trace minerals and different things that feed the plants in this mixture. The reason there’s a little bubbler in here is it enhances the bacteria, the life in this mixture. Putting air into it. Another reason I have this is I’m experimenting with a small hydroponic system, organic hydroponic. And these are little fig trees. Right here, little figs that are just one of the sweetest fruits. These cucumbers were planted here late March and they’re in good production. Picking all these cucumbers, this is actually a thrilling part of the farm to be able to harvest this nice kind of cucumber this early. These are burpless and seedless. And burpless…normal cucumbers will generally make you burp from the gas, which isn’t that comfortable. But there’s a few varieties of cucumbers called burpless and they don’t do that. Easier on your stomach.

S: Do you use your horses for your farming?

D: I do some with horse and some with tractors. One of our primary cultivation tools, it’s called a one-horse cultivator, where we hitch the horse and somebody will be guiding the horse and the other person will be back here behind it. It will adjust down narrow where lots of stuff is growing, and then we’ve got adjustability real wide if you take this wide of a swath. I can adjust as we go. We also have a two-horse cultivator, as in a riding cultivator, where it’ll throw soil on the row and cover the weeds and not cover the corn plants. It’s kind of unique, it’s hard to find a piece of tractor equipment that will be equivalent and can do that same thing. The only cultivator that I’ve found that had that amount of precision. The other thing is that as I’m sitting on the cultivator I have something like stirrups where my feet go and I can guide the cultivator this way or that way.

S: Ahh, look at that beautiful horse!

D: That’s Sparky. You can pet him if you want to. Here we have a row of peach trees. There can be some years where there’s a lot of work to growing peaches and having to thin them out. Nature tends to send way too many and when there’s way too many then none of them can get big and sweet. It’s like nature can only put so much sweetness into a fruit crop and if it’s spread out into too many, then none of them are sweet.

S: Interesting. So, you number the amount you have?

 

D: Sort of, yeah. We look for defects and we look for saving the biggest ones. We have thirty-three trees and we planted them in order of ripening starting here with, let’s see, eleven different varieties. So, this is the earliest kind and they’ll ripen in July. Just kind of moving down the row in ripening order. If we just had one type of peach tree there would be, let’s say, a three-week window of having ripe peaches. But, this way we have closer to two months. July, August, and maybe into September.

S: You have grandchildren in the area too, don’t you?

D: Two grandchildren, yeah.

S: How old are they?

D: One and two.

S: I bet they can’t get enough of this place.

D: Well especially the two year old, he just loves it.


 

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [TNT Farm N Greenhouse]

Fog clung to the fields as I drove down the dirt road to the high-tunnel greenhouse up ahead. I stepped out of my car and was glued to the muddy location I was standing in. After a few minutes of silent struggling, which no one witnessed—thankfully, I turned the corner of an aging barn to see spinach and lettuce being gathered before the morning sun rose too high.

Meet Tamara McNaughton and Tony Barrett of TNT Farm N Greenhouse. Farming together since 2012, they’ve created an astonishing operation that was born out of love for their work and each other. Greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, garlic, cauliflower, and beets are just a few of their offerings, in addition to ground beef and potted plants to start your own garden.

Talking to Tamara that morning, I immediately felt her grounded and true spirit. A woman who works for what she believes in as a part of the collective, she’s forged her own path. She met Tony in the process, and together they built upon a farm that brings fruits to all its customers, literally and figuratively. (Strawberries, blueberries, ‘maters, oh my!) Tamara grew up in Maryland and relocated to North Carolina for college, but has hopped around at Penland School of Crafts, Greensboro, Mountain City, etc. Tony was born and raised in Meadowview and continues his family’s footsteps of farming on the same land that made him.

Raking, planting, pulling, washing. It’s all a careful science and watching the women work with such intention that morning was inspiring. Having just recently planted my first garden with tomato plants from TNT and strawberries from Wolf Farm, my respect grows daily for the women and men who grow our food.

Below is from my interview with Tamara, walking around the farm as the bugs chattered and the sunlight grew. You can find Tamara and Tony selling at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays!

 

T: It’s Tony and I that have been doing this for…this will be our 6th year. It is important that he’s included because this is his family’s property…this is property his family has leased for fifty years. So, he’s been farming this property his entire life. We have a quarter acre over there, an acre up front, this high-tunnel, an exact same high-tunnel at our place, and a greenhouse over there also.

S: Is the high-tunnel mainly where you grow the greens?

T: Careful, that’s a hot wire (which I, in fact, leaned up against during our interview–new experiences every day). Yes, everything that’s here and that’s at market came out of the greenhouse. Last week we pulled the collards and planted those cucumbers and squashes in there for the summertime.

S: When did you have to plant all the greens?

T: I plant them in September/October so that they’re large enough to continue producing through the winter. We had a really mild winter so that made it nice. This wire is not yet hot…it will be. (thank you) So, what we’ve got planted right now is just in here amongst the weeds. Strawberries, garlic, kale and chard, cauliflower, the yellow and white, and then a row of stuff that’s not gonna make it. Tony has fifty cows and calves here and this is his herd and then we have thirty cows and calves at our place, and the bull we transport back and forth.

S: So, there’s one bull for all of them?

T: Mhmm. Right now, yeah.

S: How old is it?

T: He is two and a half, three years old.

S: I keep picturing this older bull who has all these ladies.

T: His harem?

S: Ha! Yes, his harem of cows. So, how did the frost effect you guys?

T: Not too bad. Right now it’s more the rain. Not being able to get in and get the weeds out. It compacts soil. “Work it when it’s wet” and you can, destroy is a big word, but you can destroy the structure of the soil by working it when it’s too wet and you can destroy it for years.

S: Really? That’s crazy.

T: Yes. It’s hard to get it back. And also, this soil is unlike any soil I’ve ever grown in. Most of my growing experience has been in Western North Carolina…Boone and Spruce Pine is where I spent a lot of time…where the soils are loamy, dark, mountainous. The terrain isn’t as flat and conducive in that way but the soil is so much more friendly. This clay, it’s either muddy or like concrete. The greenhouse right now is what is rocking. That’s what we’re taking to market pretty much. Plant-ies.

S: You said Tony takes care of the cattle here?

T: Well the cattle here are his, yes, and that’s his main thing. He takes care of them here and I take care of the one’s at our place. He has a full-time job so he’ll come at lunch and feed the cattle here and count them and check them.

S: So, how did you and Tony get started with this? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?

T: Well that’s just what he’s always done. He is one of four children, and he’s the one child that stayed on the farm. I mean, they all worked on the farm. It was a requirement of living. Up to twelve acres of tobacco in a given year, three acres of peppers. This front acre is kind of what he calls the acre of gold. Tobacco has been produced here, strawberries, beans, snap beans that they would pick and snap. So, their family pedaled produce. His father was born and died a farmer and Tony’s just continued that legacy. My story is, my grandparents had a garden and produced most of their food. I did not participate in that, but I went to ASU (Appalachian State University) and studied Applied Anthropology. And when the sustainable development program was very new I just stumbled on it. Agroecology. I apprenticed on a twenty-five-acre certified organic farm out of college and then another one. And then Tony and I met, and I was living in Mountain City, and he had a greenhouse where they grew tobacco and they had this property and I was relatively unemployed. I’d done contract work for about ten years consulting farms and nurseries. I say I’m a greenhouse nursery grower by trade. So, consulting greenhouse nursery operations, their production and strategies and stuff. I’ve grown flowers and native Rhododendrons and Azaleas, aquaponics, Boston ferns, Poinsettias. I used to operate a four green-house range, with four shade houses. It was a lot of work, very rewarding. So, (in the “acre of gold”) these are potatoes and onions right now and we smacked some sunflowers in there. And that’s our super fancy wash wagon.

 

S: I’ve heard the term GAP-certification (Good Agricultural Practices) over my time blogging the past year. Is that something you’ve done too?

T: GAP Certification? If you wanna sell wholesale, you have to do it. So, we did for the first four years we were here together. Tony, his experience was grow peppers and then run around the country peddling them to restaurants at back doors. He has a full-time job and that first year this was my full-time job and I wasn’t really into running around. We discussed it at length and that’s what we ended up doing. It’s a lot easier to load two hundred cases of peppers and know they’re going somewhere every week than to try, you know, put a hundred cases of peppers on the back of a truck and not know if they’re going to be all sold by the end of the day. And then we spent three months talking about whether we were going to be conventional or organic before we made that choice.

S: What went into your decision for that?

T: I mean I was on the organic side because that was my background. My background is, you know, certified organic twenty-five acre farms outside D.C., and then my personal farming and market gardening experience was bio-intensive. Our style of farming is also a kind of meeting of the two, conventional and organic, bio-intensive sort-of styles. But ultimately for Tony, it was a matter of the price premium for being certified organic. So really, in January of 2012 we decided we were going to be farming together and by March we were seeding peppers and this was planted in the beginning of June. And we were growing an acre of peppers, certified organic. So, we got GAP certified and organic certified between I’d say…in July/August would be kind of standard. I’m the paperwork person, you know, and he’s the tractor man. Even though we don’t grow for Appalachian Harvest anymore we continue to maintain organic certification which makes sense for us for a number of different reasons. We both continue to learn. I’m learning the benefits of having tractors, which I didn’t have before.

S: It was all hand work?

T: Yeah, I mean everything I did was hand work and I’m too old for that anymore. I guess I’m not but I don’t want to do it that much anymore.

S: I wonder, do you think that if everybody started organically farming, would we have enough food?

T: There’s a report that the UN put out some years ago. There are two teams absolutely, and I try to settle in the center. But I’m on the team that says small sustainable agriculture is what’s going to feed the world. Not mono-crop, genetically modified. I mean I do understand from a farmer perspective some of the benefits of genetic modification of corn, for instance…you don’t have to spray as much and there’s less work and time and energy of the person that goes into it. Now the environmental implications scare me tremendously, but from a farmer’s perspective I understand, but I’m definitely on the team that everybody needs to grow a garden. And that even a little space grows a lot of food. Tony and I have investigated beyond organic approaches. We plant by the signs and he always planted by the signs…so, other kind of environmental dynamics that affect the farm organism.

S: Listening to the land more?

T: Mhm, and the rhythms of the moon and all of this kind of stuff. Studying sustainable development at ASU, we learned about Mexico and the whole cultural devastation with corn subsidies and what they do to a whole culture. I don’t think that the kind of agriculture that’s subsidized in order to undermine people’s self sufficiency is going to save the world. Might pad corporate pockets.

S: Absolutely.

T: But it’s not gonna feed people.

S: It’s the short-term solution versus the long-term.

T: Well, you know the issue of food supply is not production. There is a ton of food that is thrown on the ground. On the certified organic farms that I first worked on, there’s a tremendous amount of food that we would throw on the ground. Sometimes we wouldn’t even pick it off, it would just stay hanging on. It’s not production. Production is not the issue. It’s capitalism. It’s distribution. It is not in your capitalist interest to harvest or even to allow people to glean because then you’re undermining supply and demand. You’re undermining the price you can command if you give it away. That’s just capitalism. But, you can have all of these philosophical, rightfully righteous reasons for farming in an environmentally friendly way. If you’re losing money at it, it doesn’t make sense that you’re farming. People who depend on agriculture for a living, I’m just happy they’re still farming. And it’s not my place or really anybody’s place to judge how you do it. We want people to come to the more sustainable approaches but telling them they’re doing it wrong and making them feel like they’re wrong is not going to leave the door open for them to walk through.

 

S: How did you and Tony meet?

T: A-ha-ha. And there’s silence. We met through some friends is the easiest way to explain it. And we just made a connection over farming. I mean, I’ve never grown tobacco but when I worked in North Carolina in the nursery I worked with a lot of tobacco growers because there’s also a lot of nursery growers who were also tobacco growers. A lot of the work I did in North Carolina was to transition after the buy-out and the settlement. I worked with growers investigating native Rhododendron and Azaleas as an alternative because they already had nursery experience, a lot of them. When tobacco was a big part of your life it’s something you talk about a lot.

S: So, you didn’t necessarily choose this area, it kind of chose you in a way. Is there anything about Abingdon and the local community that stands out to you?

T: It’s interesting that you say that because Tony and I as a match are a curious couple, yes? And so Tony being from around here…I mean, I’m a pretty far-out person and the community I did plug into was Tony’s family. Very old school, very traditional, very ‘from here’. It has been interesting to me because if I had come here of my own volition I would probably be more deeply connected to a different community. But I think it’s better for me this way. I like to spend time on the farm by myself in the silence where I know that I’m living a good life to the best of my current abilities. I can’t control what happens on the farm really, I’m not in control here. I just try to play along and help it out.

Complete with heating pads underneath for cold nights.
Can you guess how many thousands of pepper plants there are here?

8 Ways to Reuse & Simplify Each Day

Our world is currently quite electric. We’re living in an age of progress, where new items become available on the market every day, where throwing something away dissolves it from our minds (but not our planet), and where buying something new seems easier and faster than reusing. I come to say to you that habits can be broken, and alterations in your daily routine are absolutely possible if you introduce them over a period of time.

Now, anyone that knows me knows that I’ve got a procrastination streak and that I love to sleep. Changing behavior can be difficult, but I’ve spent the past two years figuring out ways that I could:

  1. Lighten my footprint on the earth and reduce waste.
  2. Support locally by spending money where it will go directly back into my community.
  3. Save money.

This ain’t an easy job, and I definitely still contribute my fair share of waste, but I’m here with just a few ways that you too can join the train in simplifying and living consciously of your community and environment.

 

Towels vs Paper Towels

I know this seems like such a trivial one, but think about it. How much money do you spend on paper towels? Cloth towels absorb more, can stick around for years and turn into retro looks (Mom—I’m looking at you), and look way cuter in your kitchen. I keep a single roll of paper towels (biodegradable, if possible) around just in case. By only having one, I conserve and use them when absolutely necessary.

 

 

Vinegar & Other Friends

We spritz a bit of cleaner on our counters and call it a day. Well, I don’t know about you, but my food often sits on my counter and I surely don’t want to ingest what I just used to “clean” those surfaces. Powerful cleaners are for powerful messes, so what about your daily messes? Counters, sinks, toilets. Vinegar. I’m not kidding. Vinegar and then a wipe of lemon. It’s amazing. Clogged toilet? Vinegar & Baking Soda. It works like a dream. Pour some baking soda and hot water in the bowl, let it sit, then flush it down.

You can buy vinegar in big jugs as well–so now you’ve cut costs, cut wasteful containers, and avoided toxic chemicals. Triple wins are the best.

 

French Press & a Filter Toss

I switched over to a French Press about a year and a half ago and I’ll never go back. Maybe forward, but never back. Once you boil the water (stovetop or electric kettle), you let it sit for 5 minutes and presto-chango! You have a rich cup that didn’t use any paper filters. Just one less thing you need to add to your grocery list this month! Already have a coffee maker that you’re in love with? Substitute those paper filters for a reusable plastic and mesh one. Keurig? Refillable cartridge. Boom.

 

Bring Your Own Bag to Work Day: Veggies & Fruits Edition

There are 2 tiers of this one:

  • General grocery bags that you reuse each time you shop—easy, breezy, beautiful.
  • Smaller cloth or polyester produce bags to eliminate the plastic bags or plastic containers that veggies and fruits come in—requires commitment to cutting up veggies instead of buying them pre-sliced. But can I share something else I’ve discovered? Pre-sliced loses flavor from the time it’s sliced to the time it’s in your mouth. I kid you not.

 

Heads Up! Dryer Ball Coming ‘Atcha!

Now this is probably my newest addition to the hippie toolbox I own. Again, I love it and won’t go back. Instead of dryer sheets, I purchased a wool ball from Harvest Table Restaurant store. Sheep or alpaca, both work like a dream. Put a few drops of your favorite essential oil on that puppy and throw it in. In addition to the Harvest Table, there’s a good chance that you can find dryer balls at a local farmer’s market near you!

 

Farmers Do It Best

Farmer’s Markets? Why would I be mentioning that here? I’m a fanatic for farmer’s markets because they have changed the way I look at food. I cook more, I make better choices when it comes to meats and veggies, and I’ve actually saved money. When you purchase items in season, they’re often less expensive than your town grocery store. And where you pay a buck or 50 cents more, flavor makes up for. I’m also over-buying less, and all this money goes directly back into my community.

 

Hippie Razor Blades

Now, I think this might make you laugh. It made my friends laugh. My razor is made by a company called Preserve. Get this—it’s made from recycled yogurt cups. Yup. Best part? The blades are compatible with Gilette Sensor and Personna Acti-Flexx brands, so purchasing a new base isn’t necessary. The blades work incredibly, and it’s supporting a company committed to environment-friendly solutions. They also carry kitchen tools, storage, and oral care products.

 

Farmers Do It Best

Farmer’s Markets? Why would I be mentioning that here? I’m a fanatic for farmer’s markets because they have changed the way I look at food. I cook more, I make better choices when it comes to meats and veggies, and I’ve actually saved money. When you purchase items in season, they’re often less expensive than your town grocery store. And where you pay a buck or 50 cents more, flavor makes up for. I’m also over-buying less, and all this money goes directly back into my community.

 

Cardboard Every Dang Day

I try and buy products that use cardboard packaging over plastic, since almost every county in the country takes cardboard. Plastics are a little harder, but if you can recycle them, do it! All this being said, sometimes you just have to give in to plastic. That’s okay. The main purpose of all these actions is to become more aware of what each of us uses and wastes. It’s important to realize that consumerism is relatively new on Earth, and small steps taken by many people can drastically slow down our impact on it.

 

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Rhonda Cox]

Got a sweet tooth? A diehard fan of homemade cooking? Well then, I’ve just made all your dreams come true. Er, not me I suppose. Meet Rhonda Cox of Four Seasons Catering & Bakery in Marion, Virginia. Family tradition and generations of experience are baked up into her loaves of sweet breads and pastries. In the recent years she’s also added jellies, jams, canned goods, nut butters, and full-on feasts for any event. Country ham? Check. Sausage & gravy? Oh yes.

I’ve seen Rhonda many times at the market, but I was finally able to sit down with her at her Marion restaurant and store location to talk shop. Together with her daughter, Meagan Robinson, Four Seasons was born out of a love for baking. Beginning in their home and expanding to multiple market locations spanning several counties, Rhonda and Meagan are incredibly hard-working individuals. It was clear to me the moment I met them that their number one priority in life is family; both to take care of them and carry out their legacy.

Besides selling delicious baked delicacies and crave-worthy canned goods at the market, they make wedding, shower, and birthday cakes! I guess you’d say that this family kind of does it all. Check them out at the next Holiday Farmer’s Market in Abingdon, Saturdays 10-12 pm, or head to Marion where you can eat, drink, shop, and browse stunning antique stores. Enjoy the photos and interview below!

Sarah: So how long ago did you start this business?

Rhonda: Well, the restaurant and all about 9 years ago. But, I’ve been catering for about 16 years. And I was kind of doing it intermittently with the baking and all, then I thought well, I’ll just open up a restaurant because it’s not every day you cater. We have regular customers, and it’s funny because locals don’t know you’re here but the out of town person can find you easy.

Sarah: Do you think it’s from the farmer’s market that people know?

Rhonda: I think that’s some of it, because I know we’ve had people come and eat who had been to the market and had bought stuff there. We have people that have come through the market and will call and order stuff and we’ll ship it to them. It’s kind of two-fold, and the markets really helped, I think.

Sarah: And do you go to markets other than the Abingdon one?

Rhonda: Well, I do Marion. I used to do Chilhowie all the time, but it just got to the point where I didn’t have the help. Then we do the Wytheville market and sometimes Rural Retreat.

Sarah: Wow, that’s a lot.

Rhonda: It is a lot. It is.

Sarah: And you’re open 6 days a week?

Rhonda: Well, we’re open Monday through Friday. Usually open up about 7:00. We used to have a group that would come in at 5:30, so we’d open up at 5:30 every day. And they kind of dwindled out, some retired, this and that.

Sarah: If I don’t have to get up early, then I won’t!

Rhonda: Exactly. And I don’t come any earlier than I have to, unless there’s a reason for me to have to come in earlier. Now, when we go to the 8:00 am market, I’m usually here by 4:00 o’clock to get biscuits and sausage and gravy and everything fried, in order to get there on time. If I didn’t, I’d never make it.

Sarah: Before the restaurant, when you were working out of your home, did you start with just baked goods?

Rhonda: We did. I just started with baked. And then, I can’t tell you why I started doing jellies and jams, ‘cause I really don’t why, but then they just grew. So, then we started doing pickles, and chow-chows, and relishes. This year we added the beans and tomatoes in because I had people asking for them.

Sarah: Where do you get the beans and tomatoes?

Rhonda: All of that’s from the market. Every bit of that. There’s nothing on the shelf over there that didn’t come from the market.

Sarah: I saw the moonshine jellies, too. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

Rhonda: The moonshine store is up on main street of Marion. They’re actually moving up on 16. They make local moonshine, and we just take their product and turn it into jelly. Now we also do that two-fold, because there’s also a distillery at Davis Valley Winery, and they started doing whiskey, rum, and vodka. So, we take theirs and we make it just for them.

Sarah: You don’t have to give away your secrets, but how do you turn alcohol into jelly?

Rhonda: You just cook it, and the pectin will help. I just kind of piddle with it until it works. Sometimes more pectin. Now I know what works and what doesn’t.

Sarah: I have to get some today because I’m so curious about the moonshine.

Rhonda: Depends on what kind you want. If you go with the plain moonshine, it’s excellent as a marinade on seafood and chicken. Excellent. The baked apple is really good on toast. And the cherry, I think, is the prettiest of them all.

Sarah: Once you got the restaurant, you started into food. I love your chicken salad, I’ve had that. And then you started making nut butters. Was it just kind of adding on stuff?

Rhonda: Well, actually this is the first year we added the nut butters. They went really well. There were a few weeks I didn’t take them, and I think it really hurt. And the reason I didn’t take them was because I didn’t have room on the table.

 

Sarah: You can only stack so high. Especially now, so many people are looking for options other than peanuts.

Rhonda: And pistachio butter is probably the best seller of them all. It’s awesome. I wouldn’t have to put it on anything, I could just eat it with a spoon and nothing else.

Sarah: Ah, I must try that! That’s my worry, that it would be gone within a day. What’s your favorite part of all of this?

Rhonda: Baking, I love to bake. It all goes back to how it started for me…my grandma and mom both are really good cooks, so I just kind of picked it up and went from there with it. There’s a sign out front that says, “Grandma’s home cookin’”. That’s why. That’s where it comes from. It really goes back to her. And we all love to can. My favorite thing to can is weird. My favorite thing to can is beets. I love to can beets.

Sarah: Why?

Rhonda: Easy, simple. You just cook them, run ‘em in your hands and the peel falls off. And my mom is the same way. She loves canned beets.

Sarah: When I moved down here, it was the first time that I really started stepping out of the box with food. ‘Cause my Stepdad, he smoked his own meat and he cans, and my mom started more with him. And we always had pickled eggs in beet juice and canned beets in our house, but I never ate them because I thought, wow, that’s disgusting. But now, I know what you’re talking about! It took me 12 years to try these things.

Rhonda: I will eat a pickled beet, but I won’t eat a cooked beet. Well, I was getting down on my beets…I canned more beets this year than I’ve ever canned. I sold that many. When you’re down to 3 jars and you’ve canned 46, I’d say you really move ‘em out. Well, my mom wanted some to cook. We cooked them for her, and it was too many and I got one and wow, I loved it. And parsnips, I used to not like parsnips and now they’re the best things where I’m concerned.

Sarah: I’m meshing Marion and Abingdon’s markets here, but what does the local community mean to you?

Rhonda: Well, I used to, just thought it was nothing and then I learned that no, it does make a difference. Using local, putting those local labels on products because I think people like to know, especially millennials. The local thing means a lot to millennials. I always do local when I can. The breakfast, it’s all local eggs, local sausage.

Sarah: I think with the millennials, we just took so many steps away from that and now people want simple again, at least an element of that, because it’s just so overwhelming. We want some sort of simplicity and knowledge to stay grounded.

Rhonda: It’s different when you actually see someone face to face and know where it’s coming from. Whereas at the store, you don’t.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Joan Beck]

Getting a chance at trying your hand in something completely fresh is a beautiful thing, especially when it leads to a profession. As I see time and time again, you don’t usually get to choose when these life changes occur, but often they’re dropped in your lap and you’re given a choice between sticking to what you know or taking a leap in hopes that something great awaits.

Meet Joan Beck of Abingdon, who owns Earth and Fire Pottery. Through life’s many twists and turns, she ended up becoming a potter and starting a full-time business. We get to reap the benefits of her gorgeous work each week at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market and at festivals throughout the year, including the Virginia Highlands Festival.

Joan’s work speaks for itself, offering calm and cool colors for any room of your house. A piece of handmade work is known to lift the spirits, and I truly believe that energy emanates from the work of artist’s hands. My Mother adored her new vase made my Joan, and it now sits among paintings from New Mexico trips past.

Wow, y’all, I love art. Go visit her next Saturday at the market to see a plethora of her breathtaking pieces! Enjoy the interview below, where I found how Joan got her start in pottery…or in other words, came from the clay. Or to the clay?

Sarah: How did you get into pottery?

Joan: Well, I developed an appreciation for pottery at a very early age. I grew up in Michigan and I used to go to art shows with my family, and at that time I collected banks. So to me, finding a pottery bank was like the ultimate find. So fast forward ahead, I became a bio-chemist at a pharmaceutical company and later met my husband and we started a family. And he had his weekly tennis night out, and I kind of felt like I also needed a night out from the family. And at that time all my friends were busy with their families. So, a coworker suggested that I take an art class at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and that’s when I basically started my pottery career. This was 1999. And what happened later on was, Pfizer came through and bought our pharmaceutical company out and over 2,000 people in the same sitting lost their jobs at once. I was given an opportunity to move with the company, and at that point my husband wouldn’t have a job. I had been doing pottery on the side, and I had started in a few shows and was making some money. So, that’s kind of how I became a full-time potter. That was back in 2003.

Sarah: Is it more fulfilling than working for the pharmaceutical company?

Joan: It’s not that same salary, I can tell you that much! But I’m my own boss and I’ve learned over the years that I can say no. It’s definitely more enjoyable. I basically touch pottery every single day of the week. There’s not a day that I don’t do something in my studio.

Sarah: That’s awesome. What are some of your favorite pieces to make?

Joan: I would have to say my ikebana vases, just because I know how much the customer is gonna enjoy it. They’re pretty, it’s simple, it’s easy for them to use. They basically cut the flower, stick it down in there, add water and they’re set to go. I’ve had master gardeners tell me it’s even helped with their floral arranging. And the whole key to my ikebana vases is a floral pin frog, because some potters will use holes in their pottery, but by using the pin frog—which is that spikey thing in my pots—it’s not stem dependent. I’ve used everything from herbs to tree branches using the same frog. You don’t aim or anything. You just pick it, plop it down in there and add water. You can honestly use it with the dried or the silk flowers. It’s meant for cut, fresh flowers, but I always just say pick it, stick it, add the water. Ya know! You’re good to go. Easy and simple. They are by far my best-selling item and I’ve had so many compliments of people coming back and telling me how much they enjoy it.

Sarah: So, do you have a set-up in your house? Is there a specific room that you work in?

Joan: I have a few. Pottery is not an easy craft; it takes up a lot of space. I do have my home studio. I’ve got a potter’s wheel, 2 kilns, I have a slab roller that rolls out big sheets of clay, and then I also have a pottery extruder that’s like…I always try to explain that to people like it’s a big play-dough machine that basically forces clay through a dye and forms it into a shape. And I do make my own dyes.

Sarah: How do you make the dyes?

Joan: You can make a dye out of metal or wood, but for simplicity I use wood. So I basically draw a design on a sheet of wood, and you use a saw to cut out the design.

Sarah: It’s so intricate. And can you talk about the horsehair and the animal vases?

Joan: Sure. The horsehair pieces are totally different than the other pieces I do in my studio. The main difference is that there’s no glaze on those pieces. What I put on there is called a terra sigillata. It’s an extremely fine mixture of clay and when it’s fired, it develops into a shiny coating. I pull those pieces from the kiln when it’s over 1,000 degrees, and that’s when I’m actually applying the horsehair to the piece, and it burns in and gets that carbon trailing. You get the smoking effect within that terra sigillata layer. And since it’s technically not a sealed clay body…in other words, it’s not glazed, it’s considered decorative. So, water doesn’t hurt the piece but over time it could seep out. I always tell my customers that the horsehair pieces are decorative. The ones I have in my home, I don’t even have flowers in. To me, the pottery is the artwork. You don’t need anything extra.

Horsehair piece

Sarah: And you can do that for various animal hairs as well?

Joan: Yeah, I’ve actually started doing it for people’s pets—a lot of the horses have been people’s pets—even pets that have passed away. There’s always a story that the customer tells me and they’re always quite moving. I actually just did a dog for somebody and they literally picked hair out of the carpet that the dog used to pee on because the dog had passed away and they had already cremated the animal. So I mean, they’re quite touching, a lot of the stories I hear. You see it a lot out West because the Native Americans are still doing that style of pottery.

Sarah: It kind of reminds me of speaking to Lillian Minix, and how there’s a lot of remembrance of family members that goes along with it. Just a way of respecting them after they’ve passed on and keeping them alive in your space. It’s something that our culture could seem weird about. But it’s more of a respect thing. So, how long ago did you move here?

Joan: We moved in 2008.

Sarah: Is there anything about the community here that stands out?

Joan: Well I think that the farmer’s market is a special place. I would have never done a farmer’s market in Michigan and maybe it’s just because there were more fine art shows in Michigan. The farmer’s market, I see the same people every weekend. I mean, they won’t miss a farmer’s market even if they don’t need to buy anything. So, it’s a very eclectic place to be in Abingdon. And I have to admit, it’s a huge rush to me when a new or repeat customer returns and tells me how much they enjoy the piece that they purchased, or the many compliments that they receive on the item. I’m very thankful for all my customers.

Ikebana Vase

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Dreamland Alpacas]

I’ve learned that animals have an incredible power about them to lift moods. I’ve also learned that they often reflect their owners. Thank goodness for this. The morning I drove to Meadowview to visit Dreamland Alpacas was a rough morning for me. For whatever reason, I had woken up in the worst of moods and now had to navigate the full day ahead. Lucky for me, I had something waiting that turned it around. I got to spend the morning with fuzzy alpacas and 2 individuals who’s passion for them is contagious.

Meet David and Debbie McLeish. They own and operate an alpaca farm about 15 minutes from downtown Abingdon. To say they’re full-service is an understatement. You can purchase items made from the alpaca fiber at their farm store, which is open daily from noon-7pm, or find them at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market. They offer education and outreach for explorers and crafters of all ages in weaving and crocheting to birthing and raising your own alpacas. This family moves non-stop. But I have no doubt about where that energy comes from, because you can see the love and adoration they have for their animals from the moment you meet them.

 

As we walked out into the field, Toasty and Sweetie took an interest in my camera. Sweetie is a baby alpaca, currently being boarded with the McLeish’s. She circled me roughly 7 times, making sweet little noises. Alpacas are curious beings. Toasty went to Debbie’s side, and we all proceeded to the next field over.

The McLeish’s often allow schools to field trip to their farm to meet and pet animals. For children especially, education and kindness towards animals is of the utmost importance. Animals also have that incredible ability to light up a child’s world. In our society of instant gratification, going back to the source of our clothing and “stuff” helps give it value and meaning. If we all took the time to learn about who made the sweater on our backs, maybe we would treat it with more care.

I fell in love with alpacas that day, and I’ll certainly be going back to visit. And now when I wear my fuzzy socks, I know who to thank. Enjoy the interview and photos below, and check out the smiles on those alpacas!

Baby Sweetie

David: Those she’s made, so they have a business card on them, “Made by Deb”.

Sarah: Do you dye all of them here as well?

Debbie: Anything that is here that has been dyed, I’ve dyed it. I dye skeins or I dye fiber, like all the little baggies over there is fiber that I’ve dyed myself.

Sarah: Where do you do the dyeing?

Debbie: In my kitchen. I have a special crockpot and a special microwave. Once you’ve dyed in it, it has to be specific for dyeing.

David: It’s an acid dye that she uses. So it’s permanent.

Sarah: All these colors are so comforting to look at.

David: We tried to do just natural colors, but then it would get 2 weeks before Christmas and somebody would say, I’d really like one of those hats but I’d like it in red.

Debbie: So then I dye it red. And when I dye, I always dye 2 skeins at least. And that way, because sometimes I’ve made a hat for somebody that wanted a red hat and I get it to them and they go, oh I really love this, could you make me a scarf to match? So if I haven’t dyed the other one, I won’t get an exact match. And red is so funky. You know, you can get 2 red shirts and they can be not exactly the same shade of red. I’ve just learned from experience, always dye 2 skeins, and then that second skein I kind of keep away from the general public until after I’ve delivered it and give them a week or so.

Sarah: That’s so smart. Are there different kinds of fibers depending on the different kind of alpaca?

Debbie: Yes, 2. This color here, the tan color, is from a Suri alpaca. Suri alpacas look like they have banana curls and it hangs down. Huacaya alpacas, which is the only other breed…which is most of the animals I have here…looks like a teddy bear and their fiber grows out. So when you’re making something that you want to be fluffy, you use Huacaya. If you want something to be drape-y, then you use Suri. They feel different, too.

Sarah: How long have you been here?

Debbie: We moved here in 2002. We moved down here because our youngest daughter wanted to go to Virginia Intermont College. Plus, for years and years David had wanted me to move up to Maine or New Hampshire because of the mountains. And so this was a really good compromise for us because I didn’t wanna be up in the mountains of New Hampshire or Maine with feet of snow, stuck in a cabin way back in the woods. Because that’s what we would have ended up having. This was a perfect solution for me, because by noontime whatever snow we get basically melts. That’s the long and short version.

Sarah: And did you have alpacas up there as well?

Debbie: No. We had horses, or a horse actually, at the time that we moved down. I grew up with horses, so I have some minor experience with livestock, but taking care of them [alpacas] is more like taking care of a dog than it is taking care of cows. It really just kind of fell into place. Don’t you think? I mean, when we bought our first female alpaca I took a neo-natal weekend seminar with 4 vets that taught me all about delivery kind of stuff, because I really feel like people who own pets need to be responsible about them. Or have someone around that can be responsible for them. We have clients that bring their females here about a month before they’re ready to deliver and I’ll board them. In my opinion, that’s just as responsible. If they know that they can’t do deliveries, or don’t have the time to be on their farm…or some of our clients have their animals kept on a piece of property that isn’t where their primary residence is, and the last month that they’re pregnant you really need to keep an eye on them just in case you have a situation.

David: During birthing season, one of us is here 24/7. We schedule everything on when we’re leaving the farm so one of us is here.

Debbie: Most of the time there isn’t a problem.

Sarah: How many do you usually have that are pregnant at the same time, like this past year?

Debbie: I think we just had 4. This has been our slowest year for births. We usually have at least 6 to 8. It kind of really depends. But we do so many things that sometimes it’s a little more confining to be on the farm. We try to plan the births, which you can because they don’t go into heat like dogs and horses. So we plan our birthing season to a relatively short period of time, about 6 weeks from start to finish. Because then we have festivals and fairs and you name it, we’re all over the place. Plus, we also like to have babies for our open house.

Sarah: What’s your favorite part about having alpacas?

Debbie: Definitely the birthing part. That’s my favorite part, well by far.

Sarah: Is it really?

Debbie: Really, if I didn’t have to leave my farm to do all these other things, I could have babies year round. I’d be very happy to do that. I love assisting when I need to, and watching when I don’t. Both parts of it. A lot of times when clients decide they’re going to have babies on their own farm, they always call me and say, oh she’s in labor! What do I do? Get a chair, sit on your hands. That’s my first advice. Then if you have a problem, call me back. Most of the time, unless they have a problem, you shouldn’t be in there because you need to let Mom and baby bond. You need to give Mom the opportunity to do that. You don’t wanna pull a baby that could possibly come out by itself, and most of the time they do.

Mimosa & Baby Princess

Sarah: Nature’s process knows what to do.

Debbie: Because it can complicate things. So, that’s really the biggest advice I give to people. Sit on your hands, call me if you have a problem. And most of the time, I’m on the phone for an hour. Ok, I see a nose, I see a nose. Relax. And when you breed an alpaca, they’re pregnant for 11 ½ months. So during that 11 ½ months, I have females that deliver babies on my farm. And I just tell them, I’ll call you when mine goes into labor, you can come over and hang around all day if you want to. Watch how the process goes. And I do that often, often, often for people. So they watch mine, and then they do 1 of 2 things. They either bring their female here, or sometimes I end up at their place.

Sarah: 11 ½ months is quite a bit of time. I’m sorry girls.

Debbie: But you know what? Most of the time, you can’t tell that they’re pregnant. Really, maybe the last 3 months you can see movement, you know. Because their bellies will, like, jump a little bit and there might be a little flutter kick. Belly watching day, I get out there and feel bellies because they’re all exposed now. It’s difficult when they’re at full fleece to really see and feel. I get out there and just start feeling bellies, because I can feel a kick. Or I’ll feel a knee, something.

Sarah: And they must grow so slowly.

Debbie: They do. And most of the time, they’re about 16 to 18 pounds at birth, so that’s not really a lot. Ya know?

Sarah: Is it in the spring then?

Debbie: Yes. We shear the first weekend of May, and breeding season is right after we’re done shearing. It’s more comfortable for the females and males, because it’s hot that time of year. I don’t want them having heat exhaustion from breeding. And in the same token, the following year when they’re getting ready to deliver their babies, I don’t want them to be overheated when they’re in labor. I call it naked, I like them to be naked when they’re breeding and birthing. It’s just easier. So, that’s what we do.

 

Sarah: Is there something that stands out to you about the Abingdon community? Why the local community here is important to you?

Debbie: Well, it really honestly is important to us. We try to do as much as we can for the local community. Yesterday we had a special needs group from E.B. Stanley come out. We don’t charge for that. They come out, I do a whole presentation. They meet the animals, pet the animals, and we bring everything. We have a couple of sheep, a goat, some free-range chickens, and they pet them all. Then after they’re done, I do a little spiel…because kids nowadays don’t have a clue where their clothing comes from. They think Wal-Mart. So, I show them fibers and I show them knitting and weaving and crocheting and needle felting, depending of course on the age of the kids. If they’re little teeny tiny, all they really care about is petting the animals. It takes a village. I think that. I think it’s important to expose kids to as much information as you can.

Sarah: And you said you have sheep and….

Debbie: Yeah, and chickens. We have 3 chickens and we get enough eggs for myself and our kids. And we started with the goat and the sheep because of the field trips that the kids do. All of them are little, they’re not more than 30, 40 inches. And they’re all very friendly and very pet-able. They’ll eat out of the kids hands and stuff like that. I wanted to have something more to, kind of, expose the kids to. I don’t wanna have a whole petting zoo, but I wanted a little something that kids could see the variety and that they’re friendly.

Sarah: I think that’s so important to bring it back to where things are coming from. Because it is, it’s like where do you get stuff? Walmart! Yeah, but where does Walmart get it? You know, where is this coming from? When you place more importance on things.

Debbie: Because it cycles through. What somebody comes and buys at my store…the majority of what comes in goes out to our community.

David: And stays local.

Debbie: Stays local, exactly. We really do concentrate on trying to do that. And most of the things that are in our store are either things that I’ve made or we contribute fiber to our co-op, and they combine our fiber with other American alpaca and they make things that we order from them. I do have a few things that I get from Peru, only because I can’t make them myself or I can’t get them from the co-op.

Sarah: Where did you learn all the stitching and knitting?

Debbie: I’ve always been artsy and crafty. And when I was a kid, my mom worked full time and we had a babysitter and she taught me how to knit. And I did it for a little while when I was a kid and maybe stopped when I was 10 or so, and then I didn’t do it forever. And when we got alpacas, I got to feel their fiber. I went for one quick, refreshing lesson and 15 minutes into the lesson I was teaching the person on the side of me. Because it’s kind of like riding a bike. And crocheting, I just picked up a book and did it. Weaving, I went to a fiber festival down outside of Asheville, North Carolina…which is the best fiber festival in the universe…they had weaving looms there, so I bought a weaving loom and I bought a book. I opened up the book and I learned how to do it. Really, I’m self-taught in most of the things that I do. Weaving is my favorite part of it. If I only could do one thing, weaving would be what I do. I end up doing a lot more crocheting than I do weaving.

David: The fiber dying, we had somebody come down from Northern Virginia that dyed. She taught a class here, and we had a bunch of clients here and did all that stuff.

Debbie: That’s one of the things that we have done too, in the past, because we are full service. We really do a lot of mentoring, so I get my clients together and I say okay, what do you guys wanna learn this year?

Sarah: Education and outreach.

Debbie: Yeah, pretty much. But it also gives my clients, who have now bought alpacas from me and now have alpaca fiber, something to do with their fiber so that they can be profitable too. I think that that’s what makes us successful. It’s all part of that community thing, and it’s all part of business too.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Brackens]

Have you ever felt like something was calling you, despite the life built around you? Or that you felt a strong inclination to act beyond what your head and heart may have to say? Meet the Brackens of My Shepherd’s Farm in Rural Retreat, Virginia. A little over 2 years ago they were living outside of Los Angeles, California. Linda and Philip, along with daughters Michelle and Kelley, traveled across the country until they found what they were looking for.

This gorgeous 53-acre farm is a dream as you enter the driveway. Dairy cows, bulls, Berkshire pigs, chickens, a turkey, corn and tomatoes a-plenty fill this land. Philip offered me cinnamon apple kombucha as I walked up onto the porch. Family friends had been visiting for a month or so, helping out and living the dream of summer on a farm. Isaac took to the animals, as Rocko took to machinery. With their enthusiasm, I would of thought they owned the farm themselves.

 

The Brackens learned much of what they know from Joel Salatin, while training on his farm, as well as from neighbors and friends who offer constant support and guidance on matters as they arise. When you sign on to farm, you sign on for anything and everything. There is no denial about what you put into your body anymore. There is simply seeing life from beginning to end, from soil to plate; through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Brackens exhibit something I search for everyday in my life, and that is bravery. They gave up what they knew to start over in search of a more truthful and natural existence. We always try to do, do, do. More, more, more. Come up with the answers and force our lives into some sort of mold. But what if we listened more? What could happen?

You can find the Brackens at both the Abingdon and Wytheville Farmer’s Markets, as well as contact them through their website. Below is a bit of our conversation while riding in the back of their red pick-up to visit animals, eat fresh corn, and overlook the mountains from high, high on a hill. I was in need of fresh air and a fresh perspective that particular day, and both presented themselves.

 

 

♦ Sarah: How many different breeds of chicken do you have?

Linda: We had a whole big package of them, backyard breed and heritage chicks. So they’re all different, so we’ve got like, Clarions, Buff Orpingtons, Dominiques…

Philip: Rhode Island Red.

Linda: What else? Oh, Americana, Leghorns. I think we’ve got white Leghorns and black ones.

Philip: And a lot of stuff mixed up. You see all the little babies?

Sarah: Oh man, that one got into some dirt.

Philip: Well they dust themselves for mites.

Isaac: Which one’s the one that’s really nice?

Linda: She’s a big one. That’s her coming down there. That one there, Isaac, she’s really friendly. You can pick her up. She’s nice.

Sarah: So, you moved from California?

Kelley: Yes.

Sarah: When did you move here?

Michelle: It was about 2 years ago.

Kelley: Been about 2 years. We lived right outside L.A.

Philip: Well Sarah, do you believe that God speaks to men sometimes? Not everybody believes that, but I think God wants us here. I got it wrong at first, as I often do.

Sarah: Don’t we all though?

Philip: Yep. The scripture says “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts”. So, went to Idaho and did a big ol’ circle of the United States.

Sarah: You just knew that you were being called to go someplace else? Had you farmed before this?

Philip: No. But my family back in Ireland, they farm. So we’d go and visit in the summer.

Sarah: What part of Ireland?

Philip: Limerick.

Sarah: So you did a circle around Idaho and then came back here?

Philip: Made a U-turn and came back.

Kelley: We had kind of been reading books and wanted to eat more naturally.

 

{while passing by corn to grab a snack}

 

Sarah: I didn’t know you guys had corn, too. What kind of vegetables do you have?

Kelley: Right now we have tons of tomatoes. We canned 150 jars yesterday. And then we do everything for ourselves…

Sarah: So you have almost like a homestead here, too?

Kelley: Yes. We’re kind of trying to do that old farm family homestead. Everyone comes over and they’re like, I used to do that with my grandpa!

Sarah: Do you make cheese as well?

Kelley: Yeah, we don’t buy any dairy. So, cheese and yogurt, milk and cream.

Sarah: Wow. How long does it take to make cheese?

Kelley: You can make really simple ones in about an hour. Or you can do really complicated ones. But there’s farmer’s cheese where you just heat it up, add vinegar, and then you have cheese.

 

Isaac: Careful. There’s 2 worms in here.

Kelley: Au natural.

Sarah: This is a silly question, but do you just eat it raw?

Kelley: You can, it’s actually really good.

Sarah: I’ve never actually eaten corn without cooking it.

Kelley: We had it raw in a salad the other day. It’s really good.

Sarah: Wow. That’s incredible. Oh my gosh. That’s the best corn I’ve ever had. I’m not kidding.

Philip: That’s because it’s F-R-E-S-H.

Michelle: We actually had 2 boys stay with us for a month, and 1 of them planted all this corn. He really enjoyed it, and he was so excited when it started coming up. He’s going to college in Tennessee, so we told him he needs to come visit us and try it now.

 

Sarah: So, for you, I mean coming here and not knowing anybody and stuff, how has this community…how do you like it?

Kelley: The community is really, really cool. Cause we were right outside Los Angeles, like 45 minutes from downtown. It was crazy. But here, like the community, the neighbors…

Isaac: This is buddy! This is buddy!

Sarah: Oh hi Buddy, you’re so pretty.

Kelley: But we have a neighbor that comes over every day and we’re just learning and he’d give us seeds that he saved that are, like, a 100 years old. He’d say, today’s the day to plant your potatoes. We’re planting potatoes today! He’d stop what he was doing and come plant with us all day long. They come over all the time. So, so nice.

Sarah: Has it been in this area, or Abingdon?

Kelley: A bunch of both. Vendors like the Bullens in Abingdon are really, really cool. At some markets it’s like, oh you’re selling similar products, I don’t want to talk to you. But over there, they’ll help us with what we’re doing. That’s really nice.

Sarah: How about you?

Philip: We have the best neighbors you could ever imagine. And I think they’re actually God-sent. One couple, they’re dairy farmers. They help us wherever they can. They’re older, so they aren’t working anymore, but they heard about us having trouble with a calf and they sent down workers to help. We’ve got another neighbor, he was just here this morning helping me with a baler [for hay], and he just loves it.

Sarah: You find family wherever you go.

 

{with the dairy cows}

 

Linda: These are the a2a2 girls.

Philip: She carries the a2a2 gene.

Sarah: What is that?

Philip: So in the 40’s and 50’s, it was at that point in America where all the dairy cattle, their genetics was a2a2.

Linda: So, the industrialized cows they genetically mutated and then it changed to a1a1, and that’s what they’re linking to the lactose intolerance, diabetes, heart disease, obesity.

Philip: A high percentage of people who are lactose intolerant can drink her milk. So what is the intolerance from?

Linda: Those are the meat birds. They get clean grass and get pulled twice a day. So they get moved in the morning and they’re all excited, and then they get moved in the evening and they’re all excited.

Sarah: And how do you move them?

Michelle: Right now we’re doing it with a tractor. There’s just a little piece of rope up in the front and we just hook that on and drag it. And they know and they’re excited.

Sarah: And they walk with it?

Linda: They used to have more free range than that, but they were too open to predators. She lost 12 in 2 nights.

Michelle: But we’re trying this A-frame and it’s working really well with humidity and ventilation. There’s quite a few in each one because we’re in the process of building them, so hopefully we’ll have a lot. We don’t lose too many, so we’re really good out here.

 

{visiting dairy cows in another pasture}

 

Kelley: Sadie’s in heat, so you better watch. She’ll jump on the others’ backs.

Sarah: Yeah, I saw that! How long does that usually last when they’re in heat?

Kelley: It’ll last about 2 days.

Sarah: Is it like a monthly thing for them as well?

Kelley: Yeah. Every 21 days. It’s pretty exact. Some of them are pretty calm, and some of them are obnoxious when they’re in heat. They’re just bellowing all day…just running up and down the fence line.

Sarah: How weird is that, it’s in humans too. It’s just so fascinating.

Kelley: Yup. They’re just like their mommas, too. Like her momma will just be obnoxious and playful that way, spunky. She’s that way, too.

Sarah: And what cows do you breed them with?

Kelley: I A-I them. Artificially inseminate. And that way you can get top-dollar a2a2 bulls. And you’re 90% certain to get a female. So for me, if I’m doing dairy, that works out really well. And then I don’t have to pay for feeding a bull all year.

Sarah: How long does the artificial insemination process usually take?

Kelley: The guy, he’s really good, who comes here…usually done within 30 seconds or so.

Sarah: Wow. Okay.

Kelley: That’s an interesting job, that’s for sure. ♦

 

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Goodrich’s]

I now challenge you to compare farming and the performing arts for a moment. Large-scale farming plays the role of TV and film, taking focus off of smaller farms. But the small farms are where it begins. It’s where the love is cultivated in a different way, much like being on an actual stage. They’re also both struggling arts. A big question in farming these days is who of the younger generation will continue? When there are cities to be conquered, who would want to live in a small town? Right? Sometimes though, you make a connection that’s too strong to pull apart. Contribution to the community becomes your priority, and doing so by honest means.

Meet the Goodrich’s of Laughing Water Farm. I sat down with Antoinette and her son, Alfie, for a delicious meal and a tour of their farm just outside of Marion, VA. I know I say I learn on each farm visit, but seriously. Y’all. I learn so much on each farm visit.

 

Alfie and Antoinette raise goats, sheep, Ossabaw pigs, and Black Angus cows, as well as grow tomatoes and autumn olives, which were completely new to me. Like olives, you collect them by beating a tree as they fall to a tarp or the like. Packed with lycopene and anti-oxidants, these babies are tart and tasty.

After they trusted me to help them move a group of cows from one field to another, Antoinette and I talked while overlooking the mountains in all their glory. We watched over the cows enjoying the fresh grasses, as a calf found its way back to its mother after wandering too far. She showed me the well water system where the cows push down on a blue ball to not only retrieve water, but keep the water cool and from evaporating or freezing. They’ve got it made in the sun and the shade.

Devotion and respect towards the land stood out above anything else. As we enjoyed a gorgeous lunch spread, we discussed Laughing Water’s beginnings and what it means to come back home…

 


“Sarah: I was wondering how you guys got started? You moved here when you were 5?

Alfie: Yeah, yeah. I was 5. I mean, was born in Indiana. Don’t remember that. Moved to Chilhowie when I was about 2 and moved here when I was about 5. And at first we just had this part of the farm, basically these fields that you can see from the porch. Especially during the winter, when it’s not so grown up, you can see the fields. And then 2007, the rest of the farm went up for auction and we got that.

Sarah: So you guys have pigs, lambs…

Alfie: Lambs, goats, beef, chicken. One chicken.

Sarah: One chicken. For eggs?

Antoinette: We used to have a lot more.

Alfie: Yeah, we had quite a few but it was, like, predator pressure.

Sarah: I was about to say, especially out here. These woods are incredible. What’s down in the field currently?

Alfie: We take care of the field and try to cultivate certain grasses to be grown. For example, one thing we have a big problem with in this area in general is fescue. And the thing about that is, it has a little. What is it called?

Antoinette: Endophyte?

Alfie: Yeah, like a little endophyte and it’s not part of the plant itself. It’s something symbiotic or parasitic that lives on the plant and it creates in the cow, specifically, in the cow’s gut it has a reaction with their stomach or something that produces a lot of heat. So it can actually make them, especially if they’re out with no shade and stuff in a field…normally they’d be fine, with clover and timothy and stuff, but if they get a whole lot of fescue all day they can overheat.

Sarah: Woah. So it elevates their body temperature?

Alfie: We’ve experimented with even putting them in a fescue heavy field during the winter, and that kind of thing. And the cows haven’t told us it helps, but maybe it does. [Note: only dangerous when eaten in excess during the summer]

Sarah: So it’s not actually bad for their stomachs or anything. It just happens to, like, raise their body temperature.

Antoinette: Yeah, and in horses it can cause a miscarriage. But that isn’t a problem with the cattle.

Alfie: Yeah, and it’s also very…

Antoinette: It’s dominant.

Alfie: It’s hard to get rid of. Tenacious. A lot of the stuff like clover. I mean, if you wanted to get rid of clover it would be gone in a couple days. So we’re trying to encourage clover. One thing we do with that is graze the grass down really low and then that lets low growing things, like clover, have a chance. And of course clover is really good because it fixes nitrogen and it’s super tasty and nutritious.

Sarah: For all the different animals?

Alfie: Yeah. Goats are interesting. You know they have this reputation for eating anything, right? But the funny thing is, they’re very picky and they will actually only go for tree type things that are dangling. They don’t like to eat off the ground. And that’s one reason why they’re so disease resistant is actually that they don’t…and like cows, they don’t really have a bathroom mentality. They just go. And so they know that on some levels, and don’t wanna eat where they’re defecating. So they go to, like, autumn olive and thistle. Especially thistle blooms. It’s funny, because you put them in a field with clover and, you know, a month later there’s still almost as much clover as there was before. Then you put the cows in there and they [chomp chomp].

Sarah: They’ll eat anything. Nature is so interesting the way it will always find a way to curb overpopulation.

Antoinette: There’s that balance, yeah.

Sarah: We try to control everything, and we can’t.

Alfie: Yeah, treating the fields like they’re a chemistry set. That’s one thing that we’ve had to figure out how to do too, is how to approach it from a scientific approach of, you know, like this works this way on this field and so we need to introduce these grasses to raise the levels of these nutrients.

Sarah: So, like, the checks and balances system?

 

Alfie: Yeah. And treating it kind of like a petri dish. So there’s that approach, which is valid in a lot of ways, but then it’s also a hugely complex system. It’s as complicated, I’d say, as prescribing medicines for someone’s brain. It’s that complex of a system because it’s made up of so many of those living organisms. So we almost see it as an art form. You’re going out there day to day and listening to the cows, and walking through the field, and not just thinking, “Ok, I put this here so we have higher nutrients”, and now we’ll take a soil sample and such and such. But you walk through the field and see, “oh my gosh, there’s so much more ironweed”. Now maybe we scour the field and plant a whole lot of stuff with the seed drill, but in the process that might end up with a whole lot of ironweed coming up. So that needs to be addressed, too. So, a lot of times it’s really about…you know, you try something because you have good reason to believe it’ll have a good affect. But you’re just monitoring it the whole time and make no assumptions that it will. Just keep trying, and if something works well one year, you can’t count on the same thing next year. Just keep working at it and try to make things better.

Sarah: It’s like a constant experiment.

Alfie: It is.

Sarah: I’ve been thinking lately about how farmers and artists are so similar because there is no end product. You’re always constantly working, constantly trying new stuff. And you kind of have to fall completely into it knowing that, like, monetarily there’s not going to be the biggest gain. That’s not why you do it. Those things are always nice, but you do it…

Alfie: For the love of the craft.

Sarah: Yeah, for the love of the craft. So, what were the first things you raised?

 

Alfie: Oh, chickens pretty much exclusively. I can remember running around with my friends in middle school and putting up chickens. Things like that. And those were for eggs. And then we would sell those at the church and stuff, and gave them away.

Antoinette: So, a lot of what we do is wildlife habitat. Plantings. Because when we came here, it was cleared field. You could count the trees on one hand.

Alfie: I feel like we’re working more and more towards treating the whole farm from a permaculture approach. Everything eventually [planted and raised] will have a purpose. We’ll have fruit trees anywhere where there won’t be animals constantly grazing. Getting everything really healthy, a solo pasture kind of idea with trees and animals in the same lot. I mean, animals love it when they have trees around for shade.

Sarah: Where did the name “Laughing Water Farm” come from?

Alfie: My Mom and Dad were looking for different places to get in the area. So they found this farm and they wanted to move here because he got a directorship position at the Smyth Bland Regional Library in town. So they came here and were looking for a place to settle down, build a house and stuff. And went down to the river and it was bubbling rapids, the rapids were laughing. So.

Sarah: That’s lovely. And for you, you went to college and then came back here. And a lot of people wouldn’t do that.

Alfie: I didn’t think I would.

Sarah: Why did you end up coming back and staying? That’s a weighted question.

Autumn Olive Tree

Alfie: Yeah, well, it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. When I left and would come back, I found out, oh there’s more to this area than just school. For one, there’s a great farming community around here, and throughout my whole life I’ve always loved the farm. I had a real connection to this specific place. And I definitely feel useful here. Like, I’ve grown up working this piece of land and there’s a quote by Wendell Berry that says it takes about 6 years for a farmer to learn how to work a new piece of land…or how to farm on a new piece of land. So even a farmer who’s been farming their whole life, you put them on a new piece of land and there’s something about the land that has specific needs and, you know, things like which fields do we harvest which hay from? And what rotation? Basically what we’re trying to do with the farm is we’re trying to be stewards of the farm instead of just harvesting resources from it at all times. We’re trying to actively improve the land, so if we find a practice is really good for the land, it’s not because we’re gonna then harvest all of that crop.

Sarah: It’s more process-based than result-based?

Alfie: Yeah, exactly. That process and knowing about that is something I’ve developed over all my life living here. I’ve kind of invested in this land, specifically. So that definitely is encouraging for me to come back here and work on it.

Sarah: I’ve noticed that too. You see things differently when you’re younger. You can be in a big city and make the smallest impact, and then you can be in a place that’s so tiny and have a much wider reach. It may not feel as glamorous, but that’s something I’ve been dealing a lot with, too.

Alfie: I think that’s a big thing for our generation. In order to really make a big difference, do I need to go, you know, lobby politicians about certain issues and make phone calls to households asking them to vote certain ways? And the political, kind of, trying to change the whole institution on a large scale. Certainly that’s important and it has its place, but I think that what I’ve found personally is…I can make a lot more meaningful difference, meaningful in my own life and a lot more discernable impact on what I’m working on here, just trying to improve 250 acres. 250 acres out of the United States is nothing, you know, it’s tiny. Just the fact that I can actually know that I’m making some kind of positive impact over a large amount of time feels really good.

Sarah: It gives the proof. We actually have physical examples out here. Not just saying, but doing it.

Alfie: That’s another huge thing. And having the examples, like what Neal’s [Reid] doing, is amazing working with. He’s taking a lot of these things that people are theorizing about and applying them to actually making annual crops of vegetables in a better way than it’s been done. You know, how many years has agriculture been around and we still think that spraying the chemicals and tilling is the best way to do it. Even though it’s scientifically proven to cause so many detriments…10 years later your field is going to be so much worse than it was before. Obviously, if we know anything, we know that that’s not sustainable. I think that kind of thing is really valuable, showing a case study for what actually works and what doesn’t.”

 

 

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the McIntyre’s]

How do I begin to describe the astounding trust and communion with the land that I witnessed last week? Meet the McIntyre family, owners of Goshen Homestead who also work for Roffey Cattle Company. A homestead means living a life of self-sufficiency. Vegetables, fruits, cattle, chickens…all can be found on this gorgeous piece of land about 25 minutes from downtown Abingdon.

Winding my way up the driveway, I found myself speechless from the overcast views of rocky pastures that reminded me of the Irish countryside. You already never want to leave. With 6 laughing children running about the kitchen, I chatted with Stacey and Dwayne, while taking turns holding the 2 and 4 year olds. Stacey was in the middle of roasting coffee beans. Heaven may in fact be a place on earth. Just saying.

After caffeination had taken it’s full affect, we explored the land they call home. With the youngest daughter, Rachel, by my side we walked through the garden, visited cattle, made friends with chickens, and my personal favorite…suited up and got close with some bees. Stacey and Dwayne’s oldest son, Nathan, has taken a fancy to bee-keeping, and boy is he excellent. This fearless 10 year old introduced me to the art of bee-keeping, and what’s abuzz these days with honey. I’m so sorry, I had to.

Over the course of the morning, we talked about modern-day issues that have been bouncing around in all of our heads, such as the rise of allergies and why all of a sudden our bodies can’t tolerate natural foods. Perhaps because our bodies no longer know the difference between natural and processed? It’s all a fast moving train with an evolution of folks attempting to slow it down with every fibre of their being. Our society has decided that slow is bad, fast is good. But by speeding everything up, we are negatively affecting the art and beauty of our natural systems.

Barefoot and smiling, the McIntyre children run to show me the chickens and apple tree. The work here never stops, but neither does the bounty. I feel lucky to have met this beautiful family. They sell at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, as well as provide the kale for White Birch Juice Company. What can you purchase from these lovely folks? Coffee, pickles on a stick, kombucha scoby, honey, eggs, chicken, beef (I’m currently enjoying a divine tip roast), raw milk and raw cream.

Enjoy the interview and photographic journey!

 

“Dwayne: We’ve started to branch out from Roffey Cattle Company and start our own. That’s Goshen Homestead…We’re not born and bred farmers. Like a lot of people at the market, started as a passion project for us that funneled into an occupation, and the whole atmosphere. I mean, it’s unlike really anything else I’ve ever been a part of. You know, surrounded by the kind of people that we’re surrounded by. The customers, I mean, my God, you guys are awesome.

Sarah: I mean, it really becomes like a family, I feel like too.

D: What’s crazier, for instance, back a couple years ago when I first moved here and I helped ASD try to do an online cooperative for meat vendors and stuff, and uh, and there’s just no financially viable way to do this without hiking up prices or people paying more through the co-op then they could just going straight to the market and getting it straight from the farmer. And there was nothing that we could do. In order to make the system actually work, we had to somehow generate an income to actually facilitate the system. And people were signing up left and right. Let me pay more, I support you!

S: It’s worth paying just a little bit more to know where it’s going, to know where it’s coming from.

D: I also think that within our food movement here in Abingdon and the region, people just understand the odds we’re against to implement a food system within a system that’s just got such a strangle hold on the market. For instance, chicken. We do chicken. It’s unsustainable. There’s absolutely no way you can produce chicken for 99 cents a pound without lots of government subsidies and money. But, you know, people still want quality and will do whatever feels necessary to get it. So, it’s pretty awesome.

S: And I think more people are finding out the things that are going into our food. Yeah, it may be cheaper, but what’s going into the actual livestock and chicken that is making that cheap?

D: Now this is crazy stuff, but I learned this the hard way. When I came here, my boss gets all these cattle journals. And he’s like throwing at me, saying you need to read these. And I didn’t know much. Literally I came here completely without any farming knowledge. We had a garden back north, but no real farming knowledge. And so, I’m reading through these cattle journals and I find this full-page ad for chicken manure. And it’s advertised to cattle farmers to buy this chicken manure. My first impulse is, well that’s how we fertilize fields and stuff by buying a lot of natural fertilizer and spreading a stuff. But there was something in the article I wasn’t understanding, because it wasn’t directed as a fertilizer. It was directed as an input for keeping cattle. Literally, I came to my boss and I said, “You know, this is crazy man. This article for chicken litter makes me think that it’s for feeding cows.” He’s like, “You’re not crazy. That’s exactly what it’s for.” Cheap grain is still more expensive that just buying poop off of other mass producers of chickens who have all this chicken crap and they don’t know what to do with it, so beef producers buy it for pennies and literally mix it with molasses or some sugar..

S: What??

D: …it makes the cows enjoy it. And the beef you’re eating from the grocery stores is fed chicken poop. I mean, I was in shock. I knew there were some awful practices in the industry, but I just did not realize how bad it was. And how open it is. They’re not trying to hide it. This is business as usual.

 

[Daughter Rachel comes in the room]

S: You want to take a picture with your monkey?

D: Monkeys holding monkeys.

Rachel: I wanna see!! It’s me!

S: It’s you! They’re such happy kids.

D: They’re free-range, organic kids.

S: So I know you’re from the Philly area. When did you all come down here?

D: 2008 I believe.

Stacey: August 1st, to be exact.

D: August. Actually we’ve got our 8-year anniversary [of moving here] coming up.

S: Well congratulations!

D: Time flies though.

S: How did you end up here?

D: Well, I was a painter up north. Our farm story begins with my wife getting pregnant. Something…I don’t know what it was. But when she became pregnant, there was something that changed about us. Like, we don’t have money. We don’t have land. We don’t have a great big inheritance. We don’t have all these things to give our children. What can we give them? And it kept singling into that we can’t raise them on the food we were raised on. The junk food. It always came back to food. Like, what we can give our children when they turn of age is the gift of food, of health. And you know, I can’t speak for my wife, but I know by the time I was 20, I’d made some of the worst life and health decisions I could have ever made.

S: Oh yeah.

D: It was completely due to a lack of diligence. It’s all just food, it doesn’t really matter. Education or whatever in the department of health. You’re young, you’ll live. You’ll recover and life will go on. I’m not sure what the attitude was…So when she became pregnant, all we were thinking was developing this baby in her womb with the utmost chance of survival and health. And it just led us into fresh food. And at that time, we were just kind of “coming into the food movement”, if you will. We had just seen Food Inc. and it was all over. The next thing you know, we’re documentary hungry and we’re consuming all this information and it led us to moving out of our town-based lifestyle into the Amish community where we could rent land, have a big garden, have animals if we wanted. And, uh, so that’s what we started doing. We rented from the Amish and just started emulating all their gardening and all their food growing and stuff. They seemed really blown away that the English people wanted to do what they were doing. Most people were trying to get away from them, and here we’re just coming in like, “Where do we sign up?!”. So, ultimately, we just started doing that. And being that my job was a painter, it gets slow during the winters and I had a van with cargo room and passenger room, and it kind of became a thing that I would taxi the Amish around and I got to know a lot of them. And then, ah, we had a big thing for raw milk. That was one of our early things. So we met an Amish guy who did an organic milk product, and we just befriended him. Well, he buys grass-fed cattle from my boss now. My boss and him were just having a conversation and my boss was saying, “Oh you know, my help is moving out and I don’t know what to do. We’re stuck.” And the Amish guy was like, “Well, we know this family up here and they’re really weird and they’re really into this stuff. I don’t know, they talk about wanting to do it all the time. Maybe they’re interested.” He gave my boss our number. He called me like 6:30 in the morning and I’m trying to act like I didn’t just wake up, and he’s like, “So I hear you want a job.” And I thought it was just for painting or something like that. You know, trying to play the part. And, ah, then he’s like, “Yeah, I’ve got a farm down in Virginia.” I’m like, no I don’t think we’re looking for a job like that. He was persistent. He said, “Let me come up to you and tell you about the job and if you’re interested then we can talk more about it, and if not I’ll just go my way.” He drove up 8 hours the very next day, and we sat out in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot for like 3 hours talking about this job. And when it was over, I was like, God that sounds exactly like what we wanna do. I mean, we had our family and our business. This like July 1st, and after that we moved down here exactly 30 days after.

 

S: That’s crazy. It’s crazy that you just knew.

D: We were packing up, we’re going to Virginia! The thing was, we were entertaining it. When he first came up, we thought, oh this sounds too good to be true. He said, “Why don’t you come down for the second half of the interview to the farm and check it out.” We didn’t even get through Chilhowie, we were like, “We are moving!!”. I mean this place is unbelievable. It sold us. We didn’t even get to the farm and we were sold. Like, southwest Virginia is a gem.

S: It really is. The fact that every morning this is what I see. It sucks you in, you know? It’s just gorgeous.

D: I’ll tell ya, for local food…there’s just something down here. Different. The soil is different. It actually requires education and it requires really strong diligence to get the soil to a point where it actually produces for you. We gardened up there, and literally all we did was peek out the windows…the Amish are plantin’ something…Hey buddy, whatcha planting? Oh, peas? See ya! And that’s what we did. We just followed their lead. Down here we didn’t have that. It’s taken a lot of work, and you’ve just gotta learn down here. It’s kind of interesting.

S: I know there are people that a lot of folks look up to and learn from.

D: And you know, you’ve got your Anthony Flaccavento’s and they are completely available. He wants to help. He got his degree for the aiding of, you know, helping the system grow. And we’re suckers for information. You prove that you know something I don’t, you’re gonna be my best friend…Ultimately, the main reason we’re farmers is the more we learned about the food industry, the less we could trust it. You’ve probably done this, where you read something or you learn something and go, oh this is the bad food. I’m gonna switch to this and it’ll be okay. And then just, like, a couple months later you realize that there’s just as much wrong with that. And it got to the point where I was tired of it. I was so tired of thinking I was eating good food and then finding out it wasn’t good food…So we were just like, forget it. Fine, we’re growing all of our own food. That’s the way it’s gonna be. That’s ultimately our underlying path to farmer-ship.

S: I have a question. I don’t know a lot about raw milk. What are the health benefits of that?

D: Well, think about it like this. Fresh milk, raw milk. I mean, for one, it’s fresh milk because the stuff you buy in the store is like a week old at least. And if you ever let milk just sit around for a week, it just changes. It’s not the same as it was. But they pasteurize it so they flash kill everything off of the milk. So, milk comes with its’ own enzymes and its’ own beneficial flora. You know when you drink it raw it’s actually a benefit to our guts. A benefit to our digestion and of course, you know, it’s loaded with nutrition that our body can absorb easily. When you boil it, you’re killing off all of that benefit. Then you’ve gotta re-fortify it with synthetic vitamin A and vitamin D and calcium and stuff. And it’s already loaded with it. But the problem is, is that when mass industry kind of took off in the early part of last century, there was…it’s an unsustainable model. I don’t think we were ever meant to have 1,000 cows on 200 acres, living in their own poop, and then consuming the product from that. So when the cities started really building population, the demand started going high, everyone’s like well I’ll just go get 10 more cows, squeeze ‘em into my herd…When you get 10 more cows, you get 10 more times the poop, you get 10 more times the chances of it being contaminated. And so, you know, what happens is basically the industry, the milk industry…the product that they produce without pasteurization and sterilization is completely unfit for human consumption. I mean, it’s a death sentence to walk into a big milk plant and start drinking the milk out of the tanks. We’ve been living and thriving off of milk for millenniums.

 

S: And somehow is wasn’t good enough the way it was.

D: And so, that’s what they sell. This idea that, oh, it’s innately going to kill you. We’ve gotten to the point now where people don’t even know what fresh milk is like.

S: It’s kind of like a scary thing.

D: That’s because of all the propaganda they sell. That our milk is gonna kill them, and their milk is safe. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that raw milk is absolutely safe, because you need to know who’s producing it. My attitude is this: if the farmer is not drinking their own product or eating their own product, why do you want to eat it? If the farmer has to dress up into a bio-hazard suit to produce the food that he’s trying to sell you, is that completely healthy? There’s just something wrong with that…

[When out visting the cattle]

D: The breed that we have is Red Devon…When the industry went commercial to a real large scale, Devons were the original cow in our country. All those old pictures, cows pulling a plow on a field and stuff. Those are Red Devons. But what happened was, when the industry went large scale and everyone was all about bigger and better, these kind of fell by the wayside because, ah, they just weren’t big enough. They started genetically making these Angus, these really big cattle, and so these kind of went by the wayside. Now we’re realizing that all this pumped up grain-fed cows are not very healthy to consume.

Rachel: [As I take pictures] Can I see?!

S: Yeah, you can see it…

D: Now we’re going back to this grass-fed. So there’s this Devon herd, Red cattle. Which is really good on grass…they fatten up really nice on grass. And, um, and now there’s a high demand for these cows because you can actually get a really prime finish on these smaller animals on grass than you can on Angus and other breeds that are just commercially bred to these enormous proportions.

Rachel: Look up! Baby eating milk!”

Can you spot the Queen Bee?

 

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