A hand in every pot

Renaissance man: CAPTION IN INDESIGN photo courtesy of Hop’n Blueberry Farm

To say that Hop'n Blueberry Farm is, well, hopping is an understatement. The much-used word “diversity” takes on a whole new meaning on Van Burnette’s small farm just east of Asheville. These days, he explains, a farmer has to be a grower, entrepreneur, tour guide, marketing pro — and manual laborer.

Mountain Xpress: How did you get into farming?
Van Burnette:
This farm has been in my family for 150-plus years. My people settled about a mile from here 210 years ago. The farm is 63 acres; my grandparents always had cattle on it, but you don't make any money off cattle these days. About five years ago, I decided I wanted to farm. My brothers and sisters had started selling off parts of the farm, but it was a passion for me, a way of life: I wanted to keep it going. So I took it over during the worst drought this state has ever seen, and I'm no spring chicken. I'm 59 now, which is the average age of a farmer. So I had to find something that would grow in a drought. I decided on hops.

What can you tell someone who wants to grow hops?
Hops are expensive to set up: They're climbers and they get very tall and heavy, so you need trellises that are 16 to 20 feet tall with heavy cable and guy-wired down. They're prolific, and they need pruning; they need the leaves peeled off for air circulation and vines trained for harvesting. Every three years they need root pruning, and they need mechanical harvesting and compressors for the hop bales. It takes roughly 40 man-hours of work per acre, per week, so you've got to be committed if you want to grow hops. You can't watch TV till it turns into a hop yard. Still, they sell good, because of all the microbreweries and home breweries around here; I sell mine to the Pisgah Brewing Company. I have about one-tenth of an acre of them. But hey, I can die a happy man, because they named a beer after me: It's called Burnette's Brew.

What about your blueberries?
Well, they aren't as expensive, but there is a wait factor involved. I set out about 250 bushes and propagated 500. I'll put 300 to 400 more in the ground this year and sell the rest of the starts. I have a hoop house on the property, with a mist bench for propagation. You've got to set up the drip irrigation, and the first year you need to pinch off all the blooms to promote a good root system. You've got to let the bushes get established first, which is about three years, before picking berries. It’s a pick-your-own enterprise, and mine are native.

And you grow milkweed for the monarch butterflies?
Yeah, I'm experimenting with milkweed, a native plant. It's got an interesting history. During World War II, milkweed — the fussy part that flies off it in the wind — was collected for life jackets called Mae West vests, worn by the RAF. There was a saying, "Collect two bags, save one life." Milkweed is buoyant; it's also warmer than down and hypoallergenic. But it’s compactible, so there are some issues with that, although a natural-fiber company in Nebraska is experimenting with it in outerwear. The seeds are absorbent and are used in cosmetics: foundation products for non-oily skin. The plant itself is a good soil stabilizer (it spreads by rhizomes), and I've been working on better germination rates for it to sell to the N.C. Department of Transportation for roadsides.

So there are lots possibilities for it: It's all about finding the right one. I have about one-eighth of an acre of milkweed right now, and I'm mostly focused on the monarch butterfly, for which the milkweed is essential. I'm a certified way station for the butterflies, and people come for tours to see them — not just the monarch but other native butterflies too. It's funny: I'm growing milkweed in the same place my grandmother made me pull it up. She considered it a weed.

So you're involved in agritourism too?
As a small farmer, you've got your hand in every pot. I even work three days a week off the farm. But yes, I'm part of the agritourism industry. It teaches people about farming and what kind of work goes into it. I teach a lot about the natives: My blueberries are native; of course, the milkweed is, too; and the medicinal herbs we grow.

Is there anything you don't do on the farm?
Well, I have the worst kitchen garden in the world. Sort of like the cobbler whose children had no shoes. I'd give anything if I could just grow a carrot.

— To learn more about Van Burnette’s work, visit hopnblueberryfarm.com.

Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.

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