In anticipation of the 2018 Piedmont Farm Tour at the end of the month, we caught up with a few farmers that will open their barn doors come April 28-29th to give folks a sneak peek into what a day in the life at their farm is like.

In today’s post, we’ll share our interview with Ben Shields of In Good Heart Farm, a small, un-certified organic vegetable farm in Pittsboro, NC. Ben, and his partner, Patricia Parker, along with their two young children, have four acres in production, including a fruit orchard.

Nine years ago, the two started the farm on rented land in Clayton, NC, and later relocated their operation to Bill Dow‘s old property in Chatham County.

With two hearts geared toward social justice, food access, and environmental stewardship, Ben and Patricia have aptly named their farm.


How’d you come to farming?

I grew up in New England. My father and stepmother are dairy farmers who have a small, conventional dairy near Cape Cod, so I’ve been around farming my whole life. As a kid, I swore it off! I thought my parents were crazy! And to a certain extent, I still think farming is crazy. I’d like to have a day off every now and again.

 

What’s the mission of In Good Heart Farm?

We are passionate that we should work to make the world (including the soil) better than we found it. We are constantly learning and working to improve ourselves and our little slice of this earth.

 

What do you love about farming? What are the challenges?

We love independence. We feel like there’s freedom in independence, which really fits our personalities. Personally, I love being able to go outside and having the shortest commute in the world! I love working with plants, the soil, and love eating and cooking–nothing is better that nutrient dense food. The whole package that farming is: the community, everyone that is in it, the openness and sharing, even the friendly competition (it isn’t cutthroat capitalist economics). Honestly, we just love Chatham County.

Our biggest challenge has been deciding what sort of systems to use, then putting all those pieces in place. That and having enough hands-on-deck. We take a bootstrap approach to finance. Having enough labor is a huge challenge. Granted, it’s a self-imposed challenge. After we bought the farm in 2016, we didn’t have enough money and decided to just do it ourselves for awhile and get things set-up. We really limit the amount of debt we take on, so we’ve been growing slowly. The benefits of that is that we’ve minimized our risk. We love to read some of the more radical ag thinkers, like Wendell Barry and Lynn Miller of Small Farmers Journal, which espouse growing into your farm. You cannot grow faster than the natural rate of growth that nature has. We realize you cannot force nature, so we work with it instead.

 

 

What’s your favorite place and/or time of day on the farm?

Coming out to the fields in the morning is my favorite. It’s the daily ritual of coming out and seeing it again and just noticing things change. If you go on vacation for a week and you come back, it’s like it’s a whole different farm than it was the week previous! Each day brings incremental changes, small and slight, but I know it’s still happening. I like paying attention to something and then I won’t look at it for a few days, or maybe a week, and am always amazed by how it’s changed. Ultimately, I love being able to come out and do what I do; farming is super rewarding.

I’m not sure I have a favorite space. We just love the whole thing! It’s pretty small. It’s 20 acres and we’re producing on four. This is definitely smaller than I thought I’d want when I first started, but when the opportunity came up — I knew it wasn’t perfect — but it’s vastly better than anything else that we found at the time, so we jumped at the opportunity!

Our kids, however, have a favorite spot. We have a creek that borders our property. The kids love going there any time of day. They’d live in it if they could!

 

 

You’re farming Bill Dow’s old farm. What’s that like?

It’s wonderful! As the first certified organic farm in the state, so it’s been organic since the 80s, Bill did a lot of good work here. We were lucky enough to inherit his legacy. Everything was pretty bare bones and minimal, but fairly well thought out for what it was. We hope to build on that and improve the landscape. And perhaps someday be at the forefront of the ecological movement. 

As far as Bill’s legacy, we don’t feel pressure in taking the farm over per se, but mainly want to honor that legacy and his amazing work. We find his story and dedication to food as medicine admirable. To us, eco-farming makes the most sense given that the circumstances that everyone is in right now. Doing a lot of research on eco-farming and, goodness, there are a lot of great models with lots of folks doing good things. We just hope to ride their coattails.

 

We learned that 10% of your membership is community members in need. Can you tell us about that part of your operation and how you sustain?

Social justice and quality are important to both of us. We found it to be incumbent upon us to make our food accessible to people of all income levels, not just people who have excess income who can already afford healthy, nutritious food. Food access is something we strongly believe in.  

A long time ago we went to a workshop at SSAWG from the people at Green Gate Farm in Austin, TX, who had something similar to Farm it Forward and knew it was something we wanted locally. We knew some people at Advocates for Health in Action in Raleigh and pitched it to them. They brought in other collaborators, and as a collaborative effort, we all take a piece and do it together. That’s worked out quite nicely. It’s not an official nonprofit, but more so just a collaborative project. (Read more about this over on their website.)

As far as on our farm, having 10-20 more CSA members fit our numbers well, and allowed us to enact our pursuit of social justice. We’re doing a lot of different things to make this work. We’re working with a study — that’s a brainchild of the folks at Cornell and UNC Public Health — which offsets the cost for folks who couldn’t access the CSA otherwise. We’ve also put at the forefront of our CSA sign-up that we’re also taking donations to ‘pay it forward’, so one CSA member can help offset the costs for another in their community, which has been great.

 

Photo by Raymond Goodman

 

What are people going to love seeing on your farm?

I think people will love seeing our fruit orchard and our gardens. They’re on a hillside and terraced, so that’s a little different than what folks will see in different places.

 

What’s your go-to recipe suggestion when a customer asks what to do with something you produce?

Using our herbs in salad dressings! Simply take a whole bunch of cilantro, parsley — or any other herb you adore — oil, vinegar, mustard, then combine it with an immersion blender, and it’s super delicious on any salad. Immersion blenders are wonderfully inexpensive tools to have in your kitchen!

 

What’s one thing that you wish people knew about what a day in your life, as a farmer, is like?

I wish people knew about the importance of topsoil and how dependent we are on the top 6-12” of soil–how important that is to our lives and the sustenance we all have. It’s our most precious resource. We need to take care of it like it’s the most important thing ever. If we lose that then we lose everything!

That and the joy and the satisfaction that I get from being dirty and doing the work that we do. It’s super satisfying and I wish more people wanted to do it. To me, it’s part of the way forward. We need more people back on the land.


 

This is Ben and Patricia’s second year participating in the CFSA farm tours. If you’d like to see their farm, or over 40 other local, sustainable farms — ranging in what they produce from meat, dairy, mushrooms, and fruit, to vegetables — around the Piedmont, buy your pass for the 2018 Piedmont Farm Tour now!