by Kari Brayman
by CFSA Members, Lee and Larry Newlin of Peaceful River Farm in Southern Orange County, North Carolina
A Diagnosis Leads to Education
It was a personal concern for health that unexpectedly led us into sustainable farming. We are Larry and Lee Newlin of Peaceful River Farm, and we purchased an 18-acre tract on the Haw River in southern Orange County in 2010. But it was Lee’s 2005 diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that started us on this journey.
In January 2005, we met Lee’s oncologist for the first time at Greensboro’s regional cancer center. He didn’t bother to look up from his clipboard as he apologized for keeping us waiting. “What do you know about your prognosis?” he asked.
“We were told by the surgeon who performed the biopsy that the cancer is not aggressive,” we responded.
“Oh no,” he replied curtly, “it’s aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and we’re going to treat it aggressively.” When the shock wore off, Lee asked how she could have gotten cancer. The doctor matter-of-factly responded, “Blood cancers are on the increase, and research is showing a linkage to pesticide exposure. A minority of patients don’t have a recurrence; most do, and some do not respond to treatment and die.”
Needless to say, we soon left that doctor and found a wonderful healer, a nationally recognized researcher at the Duke Cancer Center, who has guided 13 years of Lee’s rebound from the bombardment of earlier chemotherapy while remaining cancer-free.
Lee studied a ream of books about cancer-prevention and nutrition, and was inspired to begin teaching healthy cooking classes from our home in Greensboro. It was overwhelming how few people knew about this connection in battling disease. As part of the educational experience, participants learned more about organic gardening practices from our small kitchen garden.
Journey into Sustainable Farming
We began a quest to learn more about organic gardening. We attended a Sunday afternoon organic gardening class hosted by Fred Broadwell, former Education Director of CFSA, and taught by former CFSA Executive Director, Tony Kleese. Fred pointed Larry toward Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro as one of the best sustainable ag programs in the country. That spring we attended our first Piedmont Farm Tour, followed that fall by Larry taking classes at Central Carolina Community College and attending our first Sustainable Ag Conference.
Don’t like feeding your family harmful chemicals? We need more organic production in the Carolinas and CFSA is leading the way. Join us!
We caught the organic farming bug and began thinking seriously about moving from our suburban Greensboro home to a small farm. The Triangle beckoned because of its appeal and because of our ancestral roots in the Snow Camp/Saxapahaw area.
We viewed a number of small farms for sale and happened one weekend on a former retreat center. It was more house and more land than we were looking for, but its location on the Haw River and its natural beauty spoke to us. We could envision Lee’s healthy cooking classes taking place in the building adjacent to the house. It also had the appeal of having five applications of alternative energy.
Yet, the house and soon-to-become Education Barn needed much work. Before we sold our Greensboro house, Lee spent the year overseeing remodeling work, and Larry began landscaping around the house, deer fencing, and cover cropping. We installed irrigation and cleared the streams of invasive undergrowth. We renovated the deck on the back of the house where we now host farm dinners, and below that installed a 1,200 square foot demonstration garden to show visitors what an intensively managed vegetable garden might look like in their own yard (potential savings of $4,000 in annual grocery bills). We added a quarter acre market garden each season.
Soil health is at the forefront of our farming activities today. We add compost and incorporate cover crops to improve moisture and nutrient retention, improve drainage, and stimulate microbial activity. The Haw had once been declared “dead Nature” from textile pollution, agricultural runoff, and suburbanization. By following National Organic Practices we help ensure the continuing rebound of the Haw’s health. We are surrounded by small towns and villages (Saxapahaw, Pittsboro, and Hillsborough) who are robust today in part because of their support of small farms and their care of their respective rivers.
Our crop selection is based on nutrient density, profitability, consumer demand, and the visual appeal both while growing in the market gardens and on the farmers market table for sale. Our packing room has stainless steel tables and sinks to keep the harvested produce clean. We spend a lot of time processing – washing, spinning, and packing and then to the produce cooler to ensure the freshness and health of our product. We drip irrigate many of our crops to reduce pathogen and weed pressure, seek to maintain an aesthetic in our market gardens to inspire visitors and to also aid in efficient maintenance and harvest of crops, and generally, train and encourage our staff to use care in how the produce is handled to ensure it arrives safe and fresh to our customers.
Sharing the Journey with Others
Lee’s Healthy Cooking Classes are engaging and fun. Participants learn about healthy recipes, what makes them nutritious, and helpful kitchen tips. They get a chance to tour the farm and when they return to the Education Barn get to sample the recipes discussed. They also have an opportunity to purchase farm-fresh produce to take home. Often, there are visiting chefs, authors, or medical professionals to lead the class. Sometimes classes focus on a regional cuisine – South Asian, Southwestern, Chinese stir-fry, and Mediterranean. Classes have also focused on fermentation, nutrition and methods for reducing joint pain, microbiome, and disease preventing recipes. Some of the recipes developed for these classes are on our website, www.peacefulriver.farm.
Similarly, our farm dinners are primarily plant-based and are prepared by a visiting chef. The dinners begin with a welcoming reception in our Education Barn featuring plant-based appetizers and a cool and unique beverage, prepared by Lee, followed by a farm tour, and dinner on our back deck overlooking the market gardens. The evening ends with the visiting chef discussing the menu and fielding questions. Folks leave with a new appreciation of farm-to-fork eating and an understanding of why fresh, sustainably grown produce is more nutritious and delicious than what is trucked in from 3,000 miles away.
We also discuss the impact that buying local produce will have on the health of our state’s economy (tens of thousands of new jobs) and especially our rural communities, many of them in economically distressed counties where manufacturing loss coupled with farm loss has hastened the exodus of their young people. We point to the burgeoning interest in sustainable farming among young people and encourage folks to consider how we can make our food system more sustainable by assisting young people to make farming a viable career option.
Standing for What We Stand On
They say that as you grow older, you need to learn new things. We’ve been on a steep learning curve these past few years and have stayed busy by…
- holding over a hundred healthy cooking classes
- welcoming over 3,800 people visiting the farm
- hosting dozens of farm dinners and celebrations
- providing our nutrient-dense produce to some of the top restaurants and niche grocers in the Triangle
- employing and guiding a number of young people wanting to farm or homestead or simply wanting to do something congruent with their values (Central Carolina Community College alumnus, Andrew Mayo, is our team leader and oversees several part-time staff)
- making a number of wonderful new friends
- welcoming our daughters, Meredith and Kathryn, and their spouses to the area from their homes in Greensboro
- babysitting in our “spare time” for our three grandchildren, Eleanor, Oscar, and Evangeline – the thrill of our lives
We are voting with our feet and sweat equity that we want a future for our children and grandchildren that is healthy and joyful, free of pesticides and pollution, and where the perils of ecological collapse are less ominous than today.
In our younger days we wanted to change the world. Now that we are wiser and more experienced, we want to change the world more than ever. Paraphrasing Wendell Berry – we’re standing for what we stand on.
Lucky Acres Farm on the Upstate Farm Tour
by Diana Vossbrinck, CFSA’s SC and Charlotte Area Regional Coordinator
Editor’s Note: Don’t miss your chance to meet Cleopatra, Cinderella, Sokrates and Joe and Gloria Williams of Lucky Acres Farm on this year’s Upstate Farm tour, June 2-3!
Cleopatra. Cinderella. Sokrates. They make interesting family portraits, covering the walls of the back parlor in Joe and Gloria Williams’ home. Joe points to each picture in turn, naming them with a twinkle in his eye, much like any proud papa. Displayed are the alpacas of Lucky Acres Farm, where these beautiful, gentle creatures are indeed a part of the family.
It was never really planned but Gloria Williams is a firm believer that things turn out the way they are supposed to. In 1994, the Williams were living in the Adirondack mountains. Joe was two years away from retirement when the two took a camping vacation to visit friends in South Carolina. They happened upon a newspaper ad for an “old homestead” property for sale, took one look at the 28 acres in Townville, and immediately pulled out a MasterCard to pay a retainer on the farm.
Two days after Joe’s retirement from the state of New York, the Williams pair packed up the camper, originally purchased for Florida getaways, and made it their South Carolina home during the two years it took to build the farmhouse. Joe and Gloria had both been raised on small farms in the Northeast, so they took naturally to gardening and food preserving, returning to the sustainable lifestyle of their childhoods.
The alpacas were another happy advertising accident, some years later. Country Living magazine invited readers to learn more about a “huggable livestock investment” and Joe and Gloria simply couldn’t resist! It took over a year of research and preparations, but in 2002, the Williams mortgaged the property and opened their farm to five alpacas: three pregnant females, one gelding, and one breeding male. The investment is not negligible. The Williams pay $1,000 to $5,000 for a male, and as much as $22,000 for a female. Fortunately, Sweet Pea, Candy, Tabby, Micah Rock, and Majestic Knight continue to thrive and lead a herd now five times its original size.
Alpacas are members of the camel (camelid) family, indigenous to South America, and prized for their luxurious fleece. It is easy to sense the intelligence and gentle dispositions of the animals from the moment one steps onto the pasture. Gloria gathers the newest member of the herd into her arms. “Cody” is only one week old, all chocolate fluff with a slender neck, long delicate legs, and the large warm brown eyes of his mother, who murmurs softly in concern for her newborn.
The gestation period for alpacas is 11 to 11 ½ months, and Joe and Gloria have their females divided into one group birthing in early spring, and another in early fall, so the offspring (cria) can enjoy their first months of life on Lucky Acres in mild weather. The females are immediately bred again, and the cria are weaned after six months so the mother may carry the new pregnancy to term. At weaning, the cria are pastured with the herd’s gelded males, who lovingly take on the care and protection of the youngsters.
Beyond their pleasing nature and the value of their fleece, Joe and Gloria find that alpacas have been an excellent choice for many reasons. Alpacas eat surprisingly little: a handful of hay, two cups of grain, and a small amount of grass consumed at pasture is enough to satisfy a grown animal. Joe fenced in nine pastures, and comments that while granddaughter Lily’s freckled horse and two guard donkeys will clear a pasture in a couple of days, it would take the entire herd of alpacas an entire month to do the same! Small appetites have afforded Joe the opportunity to supplement farm income with hay production, and to his credit, Joe does all of his farming with a 1942 Ford Ferguson tractor he has painstakingly restored and maintained in mint condition.
Unlike some types of livestock production, the Williams have no odor issues to contend with, and truly, no noticeable smell comes from either the animals or their waste. Given access to the outdoors, alpacas will not soil the barn, and the manure collected from the pasture makes excellent fertilizer for both the hayfields and the vegetable garden. Contented chickens stay close to the herd, keeping parasites at bay.
Joe and Gloria tend to routine healthcare of the alpacas themselves, administering scheduled inoculations and carefully monitoring newborns. The Williams are fortunate to have a nearby veterinarian able to treat alpacas, but can only remember having an illness-related call once or twice over the years. Gloria credits the good health of the herd to several factors, including conditions that are not overcrowded, cleanliness, and minimal travel with the animals. Although Joe and Gloria do enjoy the occasional show for the camaraderie and educational opportunity, they admit they are not competitive in nature, and much prefer to enjoy the herd from the comfort of their own back porch.
The affection Joe and Gloria have for their herd makes fleece production an ideal fit for the Williams. Gloria confides that while she respects and appreciates farmers who produce livestock for meat consumption, it is simply not in her to raise an animal for slaughter. It obviously delights her to know that harvesting fleece is actually beneficial to the alpacas, providing them comfort in the hot months of summer.
Sheering is done once a year in April and includes even the newborns. After “skirting,” or cleaning the raw fleece of dirt and hay, the fleece is then sent to a mill for further cleaning, carding, removal of coarse hairs, and finally—spinning into decadently soft yarn. The Williams take advantage of a premium service offered nearby at the Georgia Mountain Fiber mill, and each bundle of finished yarn is returned marked with the name of the individual alpaca who provided the fleece.
Gloria has found that this service has been key to effective marketing of both the yarn and her hand-knit finished work. Each item is pinned with a tag displaying the name and picture of its source animal, creating a unique connection between farm and sweater. It’s a favorite feature to Gloria’s customers, who will find her wares at the farm store, as well as various local fairs and festivals. Although she values and prefers the interaction of a personal transaction, Gloria considers that maybe, maybe she will try internet marketing sometime in the future.
Meanwhile, Gloria looks to the day she can retire from her job as a medical records specialist and join her husband in full time farming. The chores are a labor of love at Lucky Acres Farm, and the couple enjoy doing them together, even though easily managed by one. Joe and Gloria both speak with great affection and appreciation of their land, their home, their herd. They tell the story of a stray dog called Lucky who became the farm’s namesake, and how three weeks to the day their Lucky was buried, a nearly identical Red Tick Hound found its way to their home and hearts. Joe is certain Lucky is looking after them, but one might also guess that through love and hard work, Joe and Gloria have made their own fortune, and that Lucky Acres is, indeed, exactly where they are supposed to be.
Lucky Acres Farm welcomes visitors and groups by appointment, and is happy to share information and advice with other producers or the simply curious. After seven years of careful breeding and production, Lucky Acres livestock is now available to other caring producers.
> Learn more about Lucky Acres Farm at luckyacresfarm.com.
Spring at Crosscreek Farm brings new life. When the final litter of piglets has been born and the dust has settled, Colette Nester can look around and take stock of what the year has brought. Baby chicks and ducks roam the pastures, learning from their parents how to live on the 50 acres of free-range farmland. When Colette inherited her share of the 250-acre family farmstead from her uncle, Alex Woodruff, she decided she wanted to teach her two sons, Taylor and Matthew, that same lesson. Now, along with her husband, Jonathon Scot, Colette teaches her boys how to work and live sustainably on their farm. Learn More
by Stephanie Morrison, Simple Living Farm
In 2013, after two years of debating if a career change to organic farming was wild and crazy, I decided to take the leap. After completing an eight-week farming workshop series, I was ready to become a farmer.
My plot was located one hour from my house. I would pack my car up with tools and plants and take the hour trip to rural North Carolina. The ride gave me a chance to dream precious dreams of agriculture and sunshine.
I had dreams, folks. My color-coded Excel farm plan showed me exactly how many transplants I needed per row. Now, I had never grown my own transplants before, but I did learn something about this in my classes. So, I set up some grow lights in my spare bedroom. I watched as the seeds begin to sprout, grow frail and die. After researching where I went wrong, I learned I didn’t have enough light. So, I purchased more grow lights and hoped the government didn’t raid my home for “suspicious activity.”
Planting season had begun, and I had only three trays of sunflowers. Determined not to let my failed attempt at growing transplants stop my dream of being a farmer, I marched to the farmers’ market and ordered enough transplants to fill my plot.
But where would I sell my hundreds of pounds of produce? During the fall, many farmers’ markets in my area issued a call for vendors. They were looking for unique produce, artisan bread and crafts. I had unique produce, right? My produce was going to be organic and of the highest quality. Well, maybe not certified organic, but organically grown. People would understand that. I applied to markets in my area knowing that my “organic,” high-quality produce would knock the socks off customers everywhere. I hadn’t seen so many rejection letters since post-grad job hunting. Among the reasons, “We have enough produce vendors.” Not to mention I wasn’t organic certified.
And then came the rain – more than nine inches above normal. It seemed to rain every day. I was happy I didn’t have to irrigate since it rained so much, but with the rain came the weeds. The hay I put down in the spring seemed to disappear within weeks. After work when the rain let up, I weeded. At first it was at my ankle, then my knee. Next thing I knew it was taller than me. Me and my trusty weedeater couldn’t keep up with it. At one point, my husband suggested using something with “teeth” because the plastic was no match for the trees growing around my tomatoes. Coming to the farm after work I just would look at the weeds getting taller and laughing at me and get sad. Finally, the farm manager made the decision to till my plot in and suggested I look into a farm incubator program closer to my residence.
You would think after all of this I would quit farming and try another career. Well, you’re wrong. I’ve learned so much this year by doing things wrong that next season has to be better. I am not promising a record breaking year, just an improved one.
Unbeknownst to me, I started thinking like a farmer and a good businesswoman. I moved to an incubator farm 10 minutes from my house. They provided space in their greenhouse to grow my transplants. Next, I got a farmer mentor to help me transfer book knowledge to the field. If you don’t get anything else, get a mentor. Lastly, I found a small farmstand and CSA to squeeze my produce in. As you move into my second year, I can tell you that it gets easier. The more you dig the more you learn. If you fail, that’s okay. Learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. Ultimately, you will find your rhythm and your way.
Stephanie spent summers and holidays on her grandparents’ homestead. She watched her family raise hogs, chickens and grow vegetables in their home garden. It wasn’t until her early 20s that she started gardening. After maximizing the space at her home she decided to try her hand at farming on a larger scale, and in 2013 she started Simple Living Farm. You can reach Stephanie at Stephanie@simplelivingfarm.com