MEMBER PROFILE: Plum Granny Farm

by Sarah Sinning, CFSA intern

Cheryl Ferguson and Ray Tuegel’s Plum Granny Farm is a 54-acre oasis amid the dwindling tobacco lands of old Stokes County.  It is located about a half hour north of Winston-Salem and just south of the spectacular Hanging Rock State Park.  Named for the unique and intricately beautiful passion flowers that grow wild all over the property, Plum Granny is certainly not your average Piedmont NC farm.  So, of course, they can’t be expected to grow your everyday, run-of-the-mill produce.

Cheryl and Ray grow an amazing variety of raspberries, blackberries, garlic, artichokes and other specialty vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers, most of which were certified organic in 2010.  They currently market their produce directly to consumers through area farmers’ markets and on-farm sales.  In the next few years, they are hoping to boost the latter by transitioning an old tobacco barn into an on-farm market site.  Here folks can purchase Plum Granny bounties throughout the year.  “Our plans are to use our terrific location and move into agri-tourism more,” noted Cheryl.  “We’ll offer pick-your-own raspberries this summer and hope to do at least one on-farm event in 2011.”

But Cheryl and Ray’s vision for the future doesn’t stop here.  They will soon be offering eggs from pastured chickens, honey from their very own hives, and some exceptional value-added products, such as jam and garlic power, to boot.

This vibrant farm with a bright future was nothing more than a dream only two short years ago.  Although the land has been in Cheryl’s family for more than 140 years and experienced several successful decades as a conventional tobacco farm, those days came at a high cost to the soil – leaving it washed-out and almost hopelessly infertile.  That is until Cheryl and Ray decided to take matters into their own hands.

While this green pair has since grown the thumbs to match, all they really had to work with in the beginning were a few years of part-time farming in New Mexico and perhaps more importantly their childhood memories.  Cheryl spent her childhood watching her father on this farm, and Ray spent his amid the lush and golden plains of Kansas.  So after a year of trial cultivations and a lot of planning and research, these “baby farmers,” as Cheryl has so humbly deemed them, finally took the plunge and returned home, determined to do right by the Ferguson family heritage and bring the land back to life.

But, this was certainly no easy task.  After taking years of abuse from tobacco crops and cattle alike, the soil, according to Ray, was “abysmally low in organic matter.”  The property was seriously eroded and dotted with more than 3 tons of old scrap metal, not to mention so many rocks that one friend of the family laughingly remarked that the “farm must be doing really well because that’s a lot of Irish potatoes!”

Determined to “treat the land with respect,” however, Cheryl and Ray got down to business.  They “evicted” the remaining cows (keeping a special one as a pet).  Then, they wisely sought the help of experts in their area – namely the kind folks at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).  With the assistance of these experts, the farm  had its soil tested for nutrient content (which is, by the way, free in NC) and  received recommendations on how to correct some of the erosion problems that plagued the fields.

They are now working to stop erosion with better waterways and plowing techniques, as well as using methods like no-till drillings to plant cover crops and beneficial habitat.  “We also got buy-in from one of Cheryl’s cousins, who is a neighboring landowner, to work together to remedy a serious erosion problem in his field that was impacting our fields and ponds,” said Ray.  State engineers, however, weren’t the only experts to weigh in.  Other local farmers have also been a great source of advice.  This is how Ray and Cheryl learned about using discarded leaves from Winston-Salem as a valuable source of organic matter.  Because this debris by law cannot go into city landfills, Plum Granny can receive truckloads of 80,000 pounds of unwanted yard waste at a time for a very reasonable fee.

This isn’t to say, however, that Cheryl and Ray’s progress is entirely indebted to the wisdom of others, for they certainly have a few tricks up their own sleeves.  Although Cheryl rather demurely refers to their farming technique as “market gardening,” which they simply “fine tune as they go,” no one can deny that they’ve been fine tuning in the right direction!  In order to ensure a longer raspberry season and gain a leg up on the competition, for example, they have begun planting a number of varieties that peak at different parts of the year.  With the assistance of NRCS, they are building a hoop house that will shelter the plants and provide further season extension.

When I had the pleasure of paying them a visit in December as part of the CFSA 25th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference, I was invited to help myself to some of the juiciest, most delectable raspberries right off the vine!

They’ve also been experimenting with weed cultivation as pest control, placing the generally unwanted and, to some, rather nasty horse nettle around their tomato and other solanaceous plants.  Since the Colorado potato beetle seems to prefer the horse nettle over the tomato, why not take advantage?

But, one of Ray’s favorite adaptations would have to be his, well, I’m not quite sure what you call it!  Although the photo on the cover page will probably serve as a better description, I’ll do my best to at least explain what it does.  It’s an apparatus that makes planting garlic a heck of a lot easier than doing it completely by hand.  Rather than taking the time to measure and dig the individual holes for each and every bulb, Cheryl and Ray have this little marvel to do it for them!

Plum Granny Farm is certainly something to be proud of today, and Cheryl and Ray’s passion for the land and for growing organically is clear.  “As organic farmers, our practices are based in the soil – not just as an anchor for the plants, but in the belief that building and sustaining the biodiversity in the soil and treating it as something that is alive results in a healthier farm and healthier crops.  Organic is not really about what we can and can’t put on our crops; it’s about taking a systemic, whole-farm approach versus cookbook farming – that’s where all the magic is,” noted Ray.

This focus on “care and tending” has surely paid off, so much so that Michael Hylton, Stokes County Extension Director, has described Plum Granny as a “model for the future of farming.”  But it’s also much more than this.  Because it’s an enterprise built on love – for the land, for the community, for each other – no matter where their hard work and creativity may take them, Cheryl and Ray serve as another admirable link in the Ferguson-Tuegel farming heritage.  “We’ve always said that we want to leave a place better than we found it; that’s what we are trying to do here,” Cheryl added.

> Learn more about Plum Granny Farm at: plumgrannyfarm.com

Sarah Sinning has a MA in English from the University of Kansas and an Associates in Culinary Arts from New England Culinary Institute in Vermont.  

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