by Kari Brayman
When I visit the North or West Asheville Tailgate Markets, I can count on seeing Tom there, smiling and spritzing his organic lettuce with water to keep ‘em perky. It’s obvious to me that his welcoming attitude and market display have been refined over the years. And I get the impression that Tom loves being a farmer. He usually has recipes to accompany the more exotic vegetables, and if all goes well in the greenhouse, he has tomatoes before many other vendors. These details are important since Tom and his wife Karen, along with their daughter, Liz, sell 95 percent of the farm’s produce direct to consumers at two popular tailgate farmers’ markets in the Asheville area. Tom and family are good marketers; they provide consistent quality and quantity of organically certified vegetables to western North Carolina consumers.
To Be or Not to Be? Certified Organic
Tom and Karen made the decision to become organically certified in 1987— their first year of operation. It was fueled by a commitment to organic production methods as well as to maintain a competitive edge with wholesalers. Back then, says Tom, “not many people knew about organics”, and certification, “simplified wholesalers lives”. Today, there are just over 200 certified organic operations (includes farms and processors) in North Carolina.
Thatchmore Farm is part of a regional marketing cooperative, Carolina Organic Growers, Inc., of which all the members decided to maintain organic certification for clarity and marketing purposes. Other coops in North Carolina, such as Eastern Carolina Organics and New River Organic Growers, are currently reviewing the need for all growers to maintain certification too. Although only a small percentage of customers ask about the actual certification, according to Tom and Karen, about half of their customers want to be sure the vegetables are organically grown. In cases like this, Tom can
above their market booth that illustrates the farm’s United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification and the customer can be assured that the produce is what the farmer says it is.
According to the agency’s website, “USDA’s National Organic Program regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.” In addition, “the National Organic Program and the Organic Foods Production Act are intended to assure consumers that the organic foods they purchase are produced, processed, and certified to be consistent with national organic standards.” The USDA guidelines for organically certified products are essentially that the foods are free of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, genetically engineered organisms (GMOs) and some other gross sounding stuff like sewage sludge. In addition, most purists agree that “organic” means building healthy soil and farm ecosystems by employing an ecological production system rather than depending solely on an “input-based” approach. The federal program allows certified growers and processors to use organic, ecologically safe versions of inputs that are listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute.
Some small farmers decided to abandon their organic certification shortly after the government took over the process in the early ‘90s due to what many describe as increased costs and excessive red tape. Tom noted that the newly created cost share program helped to cover a great deal of the $500 annual cost of certification and that the farm spends about 40 hours per year on the paperwork and inspector communications. All in all, Tom and Karen are content with their decision to remain certified growers and they’ve developed some unique production methods along the way.
An Appalachian Farmstead
The farmstead consists of a ten-acre plot, formerly an Appalachian homestead, referred to locally as the “Old Maney Place”. Shirley Maney, who lives next door, grew up there. She recalls growing up with 12 kids in the house that was built in 1923. The decrepit outbuildings are still in use and the property is edged on the east by Dix Creek.
The Leicester region, where the farm is located, is known for fertile soils and maintains a rich agricultural history. This is one area that may escape development: The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy has secured over 1,000 acres of farmland in conservation easements in the Sandy Mush area to date, the valley just over the mountain from Thatchmore Farm. In addition, the surrounding Newfound and Walnut Mountains are in conservation, all 8,000 acres of them!
On this beautiful mountain land (you know by now where I live!), Thatchmore Farm produces a wide variety of vegetables, but primary crops include: salad and braising greens, tomatoes (field and greenhouse), peppers, eggplant, green beans, squash and okra. Organic Christmas trees are on the horizon too. The greenhouse tomatoes provide an early cash crop and the western shade allows Tom and Karen to produce lettuce throughout the growing season. With good irrigation, the greens get 10-15 “haircuts”, providing a consistent supply for market. Tom tries not to grow the same varieties year after year and experiments with a lot of heirloom types. With up to five part-time paid staff, the farm produces a lot of vegetables: the week before my visit they harvested 1000 pounds of tomatoes!
The farm’s hilly terrain makes a tractor ineffective, so Tom uses a tiller or sometimes doesn’t till at all. Soybean meal is the principal fertilizer of Thatchmore’s vegetables; it provides a great deal of carbon to the soil mix and enhances growth. Tom and Karen don’t use cell packs to start plants, instead they use an old-timey tool that creates soil blocks, so there’s no need to manage the purchasing, removal and storage of plastic cell packs. They’ve also had great luck with landscape fabric to control weeds and—once again—eliminate waste that would occur with other forms of mulching such as black plastic, for example. The fabric allows them to harvest a cleaner lettuce crop by reducing the amount of splash back from irrigation. There’s also less grit on the plants so that means far less washing before sale. The fabric they use now has lasted them 20 years!
Like the majority of small farmers, Tom and Karen both maintain off-farm jobs. Tom has deep roots in the sustainable agriculture movement in the mountains of North Carolina. He’s the president of Organic Growers School, a local planner, a farmer mentor and a project organizer for the recent North Carolina State University-led project, The Farm Prosperity Project. He’s also on the advisory panel for the local food incubator, Blue Ridge Food Ventures. Karen is an attorney. Their daughter Elizabeth is getting ready to go to college and apparently is not super interested in being an okra farmer. She does like other crops though, and is considering studying sustainable agriculture among many other possible majors.
You can be a member, too! Join CFSA today! We are 2,300 (and growing!) folks dedicated to helping people in the Carolinas grow and eat local, organic food.