This simple question started Jillian and Ross Mickens of Open Door Farm on their journey toward becoming farmers. The lessons they learned about the state of farming and our food system in the Carolinas alarmed them.
What they learned:
Lesson One: Less than 10% of the food we eat in the Carolinas is grown in the Carolinas. Most of our food is shipped here, losing nutritional value in transit or processing. Food produced elsewhere also contributes less to our local economies and employment, has less benefit to our neighborhoods and communities, and furthers our dependence on petroleum.
Lesson Two: As much as 80% of chronic disease (including heart disease, diabetes and cancer) can be attributed to what we eat. More and more studies confirm links between healthy food and healthy bodies, as well as the harmful effects of additives and residues of pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals in our food.
Lesson Three: Although there is a growing demand for organic produce and pasture-raised meat and poultry, there are not enough farmers with the training and skills to successfully meet the consumer need for these food products.
Lesson Four: Unsustainable agricultural practices present the greatest immediate threat to our environment – our wildlife, soil, air, and water.
As a registered dietitian with a Master’s in Public Health focused on local food systems, Jillian well understands the issues surrounding access to local and healthy food. Before buying land and starting their farm, Jillian and Ross spent a few years researching, observing, practicing and planning, as well as three years on the Breeze incubator Farm. Their passion for healthy food and healthy communities grew along with their commitment to being part of the solution.
The journey to becoming sustainable farmers is a difficult and complicated one, and success is far from assured. Starting a farm encompasses so much – learning to grow well a wide variety of produce (including soil science, irrigation, disease and pest management, cover cropping, harvesting, handling, etc.), business planning, marketing, sales, equipment and infrastructure, food safety, water and land conservation … and making a sustainable income. About 40 percent of U.S. farms exit the farm sector (that is, go out of business) between agricultural censuses, which are taken every 5 years.
Jillian and Ross bought forty-three acres of worn out, abandoned tobacco and cattle land near Cedar Grove, NC, in December of 2013. The pastures were grown over with saplings, fences were falling down, there were huge mud holes, a small old farmhouse was valued at $0, and it took several weeks and a sum of money just to get a gravel road installed to access the site.
They have made amazing progress and, on my recent visit, I saw two-and-a-half acres of beautiful vegetable fields with expanded fields ready for cover cropping. A hoop house is full of vibrant microgreens on growing tables. A fellow farmer’s cows were happily grazing the old pastures. The small, old farmhouse has been renovated and is a welcoming home for these hard-working farmers. And a brand new large metal building houses a processing and packing station, walk-in coolers, and storage.
Now, in their sixth season of farming, they are effectively addressing those four major issues outlined above:
- Creating a sustainable farming system which is producing healthy vegetables and microgreens in a manner which is increasingly better for the environment each year.
- Making more local, fresh, healthy, chemical-free food is available to their community.
- Contributing to the economy and their community for decades to come through their farm business.
- Regenerating 43 acres of abandoned, degraded tobacco land..
Jillian received a scholarship to the Sustainable Agriculture Conference in 2012 and Jillian and Ross have been active members of CFSA for years, attending workshops and conferences, and networking with other farmers. Jillian is the full-time farmer and one day they hope Ross can join her full-time on the farm as well. They are continuing to learn and develop their farm and their markets. Open Door Farm sells vegetables, flowers and microgreens at the Carrboro and Chapel Hill Farmers Markets each week.
Jillian and Ross are also continuing to regenerate this abandoned land. They have worked with CFSA to complete a CAP-138, a Conservation Activity Plan. CFSA is currently working with them on their organic transition plan to become Certified Organic in 2017. “Our Credo,” Ross shares, “is to strive to be a source of healthy food that is produced in a manner that is sustainable for the environment and financially and emotionally beneficial to us and our community.”
And the simple question, “Where does our food come from?” now brings hundreds of visitors to their farm every April during the CFSA Piedmont Farm Tour. Young adults and older adults, and parents with children, eagerly visit the farm to see for themselves how their food is grown, harvested and sold. Jillian and Ross believe it is important to open their farm to the “eaters” among us because we all need to know where our food comes from. They share with them the lessons they have learned about farming, food and our food system. They are transparent about the agricultural practices they use and are committed to using their farm to educate consumers so that we can all be part of the solution.
Open Door Farm is an open door invitation to “eaters” to become educated about their food and active in working together with local farms, CFSA, and many other partners to build a vibrant, sustainable food system which is good for consumers, good for farmers and farmworkers, and good for the land.