CHARLOTTE – Over the past three months, I have had the privilege of visiting and chronicling the story of local farms and their owners. Often the people I interviewed would ask me: do you grow anything? I don’t. I have a small succulent on my desk, and I can barely keep that alive. Growing my own food is not my gift. But I’ve been honored to tell the stories of these farms, their products, and their owners. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned during this journey.
Whatever you’re looking for, there’s a place to buy it locally. Looking for fresh fruits and vegetables? In Mint Hill, visit Hillbilly Jay’s farmstand next to Perry’s Market, or find Clear Creek Garden & Field at the Mint Hill Farmers Market. In Waxhaw, visit Dabhar, Boy & Girl, or Piney Oak at the Waxhaw Farmers Market. Looking for fresh, naturally- and locally-raised meat products? Try Red Barn Farm’s pork, chicken, and beef or Mullis Family Farm’s Holstein beef.
If you’re looking for a more interactive experience, pick your own strawberries, pumpkins, or sunflowers at Wise Acres, or buy an inoculated log from Sharonview Farm and grow your own shiitakes. Supplement your diet with honey from Carter Family Bees and elderberry syrup from Double Up Farm, and decorate your table with fresh flowers from Clear Creek or Piney Oak. The Waxhaw Farmers Market and Mint Hill Farmers market are great one-stop shops to get all your local produce, meat, and more!
You can grow your own food on a lot of land, a little land or nothing at all. When I set out to visit local farms, I pictured visiting sprawling fields of crops as far as my eye could see. Some of the farms I visited sat on substantial acreage. Sharonview Farm, for example, sits on an expansive 62-acres that owners Nasi and Teri weren’t even sure what to do with when Nasi inherited the property from his father!
Others are smaller by design. Cathe and Bill Anderson searched for years to find the 5 acres Clear Creek Garden & Field sits on, a perfect space for the roughly two acres they garden. Still others are on lots no bigger than a large backyard. The Suttons utilize every spare inch of their backyard at Piney Oak Farm, cultivating a third to a half of their one-acre lot. Hillbilly Jay’s started with just one small raised bed in their backyard in a neighborhood a short distance from Independence High School; today they grow enough to operate a farm stand. Some farmers don’t have a farm at all. Carter Family Bees’ hives are scattered on other farmers’ land from Highway 74 in Matthews to Albemarle Road.
There are all sorts of different ways to farm. Some, like Boy & Girl Farm, fit the vision of a “farm” I had in my head with a tractor parked in a barn situated on sprawling pasture land. Others challenge the very notion of what it means to farm, like no-till, no-dig Piney Oak, where the Suttons eschew machinery, preferring to disturb the soil as little as possible.
For many small farmers, like Phyllis Walsh of Dabhar Farm, farming is a blend of philosophy and manual labor, cultivating a sustainable ecosystem where all the pieces work together in harmony. Some meat farmers breed and raise their own animals, like the pigs and egg-laying chickens you’ll find at Red Barn Farm. Others “recycle” in a manner of speaking, like Dale Mullis, who raises Holstein bull calves discarded by a local dairy on spent grain from local brewers.
Farming is a round-the-clock, physically demanding pursuit, but only some farmers are lucky enough to call it their full-time gig. Most of the full-time farmers I spoke with took a leap of faith to make it there. Robb Thorstenson left a successful finance career in Chicago and moved his family across the country to pursue his dream of farming at Wise Acres. Faced with the decision of returning to work and putting her kids in school after years of homeschooling when her husband passed away in 2013, Walsh decided instead to give full-time farming a go. When Amy Irish saw demand for fresh meat increasing during COVID, she decided to take Red Barn Farm full time.
Others fit farming into their lives around other parts- or full-time employment. According to marketplace.org, more than half of American farmers have a second income to make ends meet, and that was the case for many small farmers with whom I spoke. The Suttons work is full-time at Whole Foods. When they’re not running Hillbilly Jay’s, Brooke DiFucci is a full time accountant; her husband Jason works 45-50 hours a week at Publix. Dale Mullis works nights at West Stanley and Midland Fire Departments and days at his cattle farm on Arlington Church Road.
Whatever they sell, whether they’re growing it on an acre or on 65, your local farmers have a true passion for what they do. Although the cost and duration of the process for becoming “certified organic” prevents many small farmers from carrying that label on their products, most follow organic farming practices and eschew chemicals and treatments of any kind. They care about what they grow, they take immense pride in the products they produce, and you can feel good about what you are supporting when you purchase them!