The new pioneers

One gardening season back in the late 1970s, early on in my dogged (if erratic) pursuit of The Way, I enjoyed incredible production in my veggie garden: cut-and-come-again lettuce that just didn’t stop, absolutely pest-free broccoli, poblano peppers and Amish Paste tomatoes that I dried like mad and ate for 14 months, more snow peas and (later) beans than I could pick, and kale that literally cranked like a well-oiled machine for 10 straight months. Fool that I was, I thought it was my skill as an organic gardener that had brought about this impressive vegetable explosion. For a while there, I got pretty darn cocky.

As it turns out, however, that abundance was not the result of my gardening prowess — it was a simple, statistically predictable Freak of the Universe. Here’s the bottom line. About once every nine or 10 years (in my humble experience), home gardeners like myself — whose hectic schedules leave them happy just to be able to plant seeds and pray for germination — enjoy the benefits of some mysterious synergy whereby the unique weather, the hurried plantings, and the soil conditions during a particular season all just happen to come together in a way that makes magic in spite of, not because of, any human intervention.

At the time, though, that bountiful season got me thinking about growing food for other people on my very own family farm. “Hey!” I fantasized, “If I’m this good at growing veggies throughout the year without any real effort, I could make lots of money on a fertile piece of land where I grew food for fancy restaurants and discriminating clients AND NOT REALLY WORK THAT HARD.” Are you laughing yet? But here’s the gravy: “And best of all,” I hallucinated, “women just love a farmer’s tan.”

Now, here are the hard facts:

1) The American family farm is much more a labor of love than a money-making venture. How many products sold in the world today have their price set by someone other than the producer? A farmer cannot say, “I want $2.50 per bushel for corn, because it cost me about that much to raise it.” Instead, someone else sets a price, and there’s nothing farmers can do about it. No matter how hard they work, someone else controls their destiny.

2) Farming is a huge gamble. My own randomly periodic Freak of the Universe Seasons of Abundance do happen now and then, but for the lion’s share of seasons, a farmer faces fungal infections when it’s too wet, underproduction when it’s too dry, and highway robbery by critters when he isn’t looking. And those challenges are only a fraction of the multitasking required of a family farmer, who must stay attentive 24/7.

According to my Web research, a bushel of corn sold for $1.73 in the year 2000 — only slightly more than what it brought in 1972. These prices are well below the cost of production. And what other occupation do you know of that still pays the same wages as it did in 1972?

Meanwhile, however, a different kind of family farm has emerged in America, pioneered by enterprising types who’ve found a way to realize my fantasy (or parts of it, anyway). These resourceful folks are succeeding because philosophically, they’ve broken with the whole tradition of the family farm and have started “farming” in a new, diversified way.

As luck would have it, we here in the mountains have the greatest proportion of North Carolina’s new wave of family farms. And now, for the eighth straight season, nearly two dozen Western North Carolina farms are opening their barn doors and inviting the rest of us in for a visit. The eighth annual Mountain Farm and Garden Tour happens Saturday and Sunday, June 21-22. It’s a chance for the community at large to visit the homes and farms of people who’ve chosen to make a go of their labors of love.

This year’s tour encourages carloads of folks like us to visit family farms and gardens like these: the full-time home organic garden of John and Jane Young (in Haywood County); the tailgate-market/CSA (community-supported agriculture) organic farm of Don, Leeann and Elizabeth Martin (Macon County); John Beckman and Jane Finneran’s Pomme de Terre Farm (an ecologically designed, farm-based residential development in Jackson County); the legendary 30-year-old botanical garden nurtured by Joe Hollis (Yancy County); a re-creation of a turn-of-the-century farm that’s home to Walter, Wendy and Andy Harrill (Buncombe County); and Ed and Lillian Updike’s Running Horse Farm, where this retired surgeon and his wife are living the sustainable life raising old-time varieties of apples, chestnuts, fruits, veggies and goats (Transylvania County).

That’s just a small cross section of the smorgasbord of different types of farms that you and a carload of friends and family can visit over Father’s Day weekend. It costs a ridiculously low $5 per carload to visit a farm, or $25 per carload for entry to all 19 farms scattered across WNC.

Check out the tour guide at some of the organically based businesses in town, or check out the Web site ( to get the full lowdown. It’s a great way to spend a summer afternoon with friends and family — and an even better way to connect with the new American family farm.

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