Double lives: Farmers by day, working women by night …

Queen of the bees: Kathy Taylor of KT’s Orchard and Apiary spends her weekdays working and admiring her 25 hives of bees. Straight from the hive: From honey bears to beeswax lip balm, KT’s Orchard and Apiary has a little bit of everything. As far as the eye can see: KT’s Orchard and Apiary’s ten acre farm has plenty of room to grow. Photos by Rich Orris

Kathy Taylor comes home Monday mornings at 8 a.m. After three nights as a nurse on the graveyard shift at St. Joseph's Hospital, she's ready for a power nap. One hour later, she pulls on her overalls and work boots and heads outside to KT's Orchard and Apiary, a working farm in Canton that she owns with her husband, Howard.

Kathy spends about 40 hours a week tending to the farm's 1,000 apple trees, 25 bee hives and hundreds of blueberry and raspberry bushes. On Friday nights, after a full week on the farm, she puts on her green scrubs and drives to St. Joseph's for a weekend helping patients as they enter and exit surgery.

She’s one of an increasing number of female farmers who pull off the near-impossible each week, both outdoors and in.

When I come to this farm, it’s about living

Despite the long hours, Kathy finds pleasure in her dedication to her farm. She is what you might call a “gentlewoman farmer,” whose product is joy just as much as apples.

After getting her nursing degree and raising her two sons ("domestic engineering," she calls it), Kathy was ready for a new adventure. She and Howard bought their property in 2005, but have since expanded the tract from 2 acres to 10, adding trees, bees and berry bushes as they went. Then, Kathy bought bees and fell in love. "Every day I would go out there and I would just sit and watch them. It was like I was just infatuated with them."

Year-round income from nursing has made it possible for Kathy to take a chance on new varieties and products, easing some of the stress of farming's inherent unpredictability. Drought, frost, insects and disease can wipe out an entire year's crop, and this year's frost was particularly bad for the orchard and apiary. "You put it in perspective, what an apple's worth," she says. "So when I go to work at night, it's about living and dying. But when I come to this farm, it's about living."

Can woman live on farming alone?

June Jolley of Jolley Farms in Canton works full time as the manager of the North Carolina Arboretum's greenhouse. After a 40-hour week, she comes home to the farm she shares with her husband, Zeb, where she works hard at growing the crops that they sell to restaurants in Asheville, Highlands and Cashiers.

She says having two jobs that revolve around plants helps her appreciate both aspects of her life. "I enjoy the fact that I am using my horticulture skills and knowledge in both jobs," June says. "I would not be as content if I had to go to a factory, wait tables or be a retail associate in a store."

June and Kathy aren’t the only ones committed to long and varied days. "I think it's pretty common," June says. "I know a lot of people who have greenhouse and nursery operations where there is one person in the business has an outside job.”

Charlie Jackson, executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, says that working two or more jobs is a tradition for North Carolina farmers. "Historically, particularly as industry came into Western North Carolina, be it furniture industry or textiles, as in other places where that kind of came in, it would lure people off the farm to work there,” Jackson says.

A long row to hoe

June loves her work at the N.C. Arboretum and considers it her main occupation, but she sometimes finds it overwhelming to come home to fields of heirloom vegetables ready for harvest. "I think the thing that frustrates me about juggling both responsibilities is always feeling that I can't get caught up," June says. "Plants are alive and their demands must be met or they will not perform or even survive."

Kathy isn’t deterred by the demands of her farm, especially after coming home from a difficult night of work (as odd as that might sound). She looks forward to spending time in the orchard, even when things don't go according to plan. "I don’t care if I’m soaked, if I’m tired, if I’m stung, if I’m picking fruit, if I’m trimming trees, if I’m getting smacked around by the limbs," proclaims Kathy. "I love it. I love every minute of it."

A woman's work is never done

Juggling a full-time job and 30-plus hours per week of working outdoors would make anyone exhausted, but June and Kathy say that farming as a woman is particularly challenging. "I think just with all the other home responsibilities, it's hard,” June says. “Keeping up your home, doing the cooking, the grocery shopping, all that gamut.”

Both June and Kathy say that spending time in the kitchen preparing their own fresh vegetables is one of the things that they miss about working two jobs. Kathy makes a country breakfast of eggs, biscuits, bacon or sausage for her and Howard each morning, but she wouldn't mind being relieved of that duty. "If I could change anything about the balance of work? If I could have a cook,” she says. “If I had someone who would come in one day a week and cook my meals for the week."

Relaxation is also in short supply. "How do you define free time?" Kathy says. "Free time to me is just working my bees. It may be grubbing in the blueberry patch." When she does sit down, she reads about bees and apples and makes her signature beeswax lip balms and creams.

Try before you buy

If you're a woman (or a man) who dreams of owning a farm but needs the stability of winter income and benefits, Kathy recommends connecting with established farmers as a practical first step. "I would go work with somebody that's doing it,” she says. “I would go talk to them, I would go work with them. I would get the nitty gritty.”

She regularly opens her hives to anyone looking for experience and offers immediate assistance during beekeeping and orchard emergencies, providing she's not helping patients prepare for surgery. "People call me all the time. I tell them not to call me at work, but sometimes I'll get a message. 'I'm desperate. I don't know what to do with my bees.' The first thing I'll do when I get off of work is I'll call them."

Charlie Jackson of ASAP recommends focusing on the economics of farming first. "There's a romantic ideal of what farming is and there certainly is a real truth to the values of farming from a personal and environmental perspective of wanting to do it,” he says.

Y'all come on down now, ya hear

WNC is finishing up its growing season, but there's still plenty of time to see working women tend their farms. This weekend marks ASAP's Farm Tour, during which 35 farmers invite everyone to pull up to their dirt driveways and have a look around. Neither KT's Orchard and Apiary nor Jolley Farms are part of the tour (Jolley Farms is not open to the public), but Taylor sees her farm as a place for the community to gather.

"I want people just to come and plop down and talk. I know we work and I know we're busy, but when we have apples and it's time to sell I want people to come," says Taylor. KT's Orchard and Apiary is out of fruit for the season, but Taylor encourages folks to stop by for honey, homemade beeswax cream and plenty of good company.

Jen Nathan Orris can be reached at jorris@mountainx.com.

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