INDIAN TRAIL, NC – A decade ago, the Thorstenson family was living outside Chicago, where Robb had a successful career in finance. “I’d been trading for 20 years,” he says, “but I wasn’t happy working in finance. Cathy knew I was unhappy, and one day she just said, ‘Robb, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you do something you want to do?’”
“It just struck me as just crazy,” Robb recalls. “I had insurance, I had a paycheck. I had all these things that people want, and I wasn’t happy with it. I told her what I really wanted to do is become a farmer, and she said, ‘Let’s become farmers then.’”
Robb and Cathy scouted out land up and down the Southeast in diverse locations like Nashville, Raleigh, and Charlottesville. “When we came out here, we fell in love with the property,” says Robb of their 39-acre farm. “It was in rough shape, but I could see that it had a lot of potential.” Moreover, Robb and Cathy knew they wanted to get involved in agrotourism, so proximity to Charlotte and its suburbs was a big plus.
Their first year in business, Robb and Cathy planted an acre of strawberries and an acre of pumpkins. “The nice thing about strawberries and pumpkins is a quick turnaround,” says Robb, contrasting them to crops like blueberries, where you have to wait several years to see a return on your investment. “You plant them, and within a year you’re making money.”
That doesn’t mean Robb and Cathy’s first year on the farm was easy, though. “It was challenging that first year because we didn’t have a Facebook presence yet,” says Robb. “By the time we hit the peak of the strawberry season, we’d been open for two weeks, and we couldn’t pick all the berries,” he continues. “Watching beautiful strawberries rot on the vine, that was rough! That first year, I thought, ‘What have I done?’ But by the end, word started getting out, and then by the second year, we had enough customers.”
Since then, Robb and Cathy have worked to expand the farm bit by bit, adding hayrides, wood-fired pizza, sunflowers, and unusual equipment you won’t find at your neighborhood playground. As Robb and Cathy continue to expand, it’s important to them to do so sustainably, preserving their farm’s natural features and utilizing things that might otherwise go to waste.
“That ridge right over there,” says Robb, gesturing at what will eventually be a blueberry patch, “that all came from Highway 74. They had stumps they were hauling 50 miles to some landfill, and we said, we’ll take them. So they dumped them all out there, and it’s been rotting for five years. We actually just made a deal, we got some red clay, and part of the deal was they would come out with a bulldozer for a day. So they dumped a bunch of red clay, which we’re going to make it into something later, and then they’re actually going to fix up our blueberry patch, so what was going to a landfill, it will turn into blueberries.”
But Robb and Cathy’s biggest plan for expansion right now is Wise Pie Pizza, a full-service pizza kitchen and beer garden. They’ve done some initial clearing and road-building, but as usual, they’ve tried to keep it to a minimum. “It’s going to be in the woods,” says Robb. “We’re going to make it the most nature-centric place to have a beer you can imagine! We feel strongly about keeping the trees. We have lots of acreage, but we don’t want to cut it down to build more parking.” Robb hopes to have the pizza kitchen, which will be open on weekends and Thursday and Friday evenings initially, open within a year.
As for the strawberry season, Robb and Cathy currently plan to open on April 24 depending on the weather. This year’s strawberry picking will continue to be by reservation only. Although the reservation system started in large part due to COVID restrictions, it’s something Robb and Cathy plan to keep around indefinitely.
“We’re a small farm, and it was just getting to be too much,” says Robb. “Too many people coming at once, especially those three weekends in the fall leading up to Halloween. At times it felt like it got out of our control,” he continues, recalling pulling diapers out of the recycler and spending precious time managing overflow parking. “Reservations have worked very well for us; we can control the flow, and it’s not a zoo.”
“In the days where it was too crowded, we were losing what we liked about this farm, which was people having a really good farm experience,” adds Cathy. “We were getting burned out and spending time on the wrong things like garbage and porta-johns.”
Uncontrolled crowds did more than damage the experience Robb and Cathy wanted to provide. It also hurt their bottom line as people over picked the crops, leaving boxes of unripened strawberries lying in the fields. “We just learned that it’s up to us to control that because people don’t know,” says Cathy, who now considers herself a much better consumer of u-pick farms after trying her own hand at farming! “I think a lot of people just don’t realize how much goes into it. So, absolutely, it did start off with COVID, but we learned that we’re better when we have some control over it.”
As Robb and Cathy continue to farm, they’re also continuing to learn. “I’ve never realized how many things you can learn watching YouTube!” says Cathy. “I don’t know how anyone could have been a farmer before the internet. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s been generational because without being able to Google it and find videos to fix or do something, we would have been lost.”
Moving halfway across the country and completely changing their lives has been a challenge, but Robb and Cathy wouldn’t change a thing. “I always tell people it takes a fair amount of crazy,” says Cathy, “but we knew we wanted to change. It was a big transition, but it’s funny how quickly it becomes your new norm, and we just knew right away it was the right choice. I always say I have never worked so hard for so little money, but it is so rewarding.”
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” says Robb. “When I come out and I’m planting things, it gives me a sense of hope that maybe it’s not all doom and gloom like you read on the news scroll. So that’s what I love the most: coming out, working on projects, making the place better, and just hope for the future.”
Reservations for the strawberry season are available at http://wiseacresorganic.com/. Weekdays are strictly for strawberry picking and playtime on the farm while weekends are reserved for package deals that include hayrides and pizza. Concessions and playgrounds are always available. Reservations are usually posted on Mondays, and they tend to book up pretty quickly. To get the first crack at your preferred time, make sure to follow Wise Acres on Facebook @wiseacresnc.