For many farm families in Western North Carolina, opening the gate to paying visitors can be more lucrative and sustaining than farming itself. Activities such as U-pick apples and other crops, hay rides, educational programs and on-site festivals expand what a farm can offer customers and visitors beyond the realm of products and into agritourism.
To live on a farm is to work on a farm, and giving visitors the experience of an afternoon in the field not only lengthens the earning season and diversifies services, but it promotes agriculture itself as a thriving, purposeful vocation.
Janet Peterson, owner of Cloud 9 Farm in Fairview, found that vacation rentals and pick-your-own blueberries help keep her generational 200-acre farm from falling into the hands of real estate developers.
“One good thing about the tanked economy is that land developers have stopped calling,” Peterson says. “They would ask questions like, ‘What do you need this much land for anyway?' and ‘What are you keeping it for, the squirrels?' It dawned on me that the answer to that was, ‘Yes! We are keeping it for the squirrels!’ We want to be good stewards of the land.”
Peterson, a retired science teacher, inherited the property from her parents (“Dad mended fences, Mom processed and prepared the chickens”). She works the property with her partner, Jeff Hambley. They share a deep-seated belief in maintaining and sharing “the good life” with others. At Cloud 9, this good life comes in many forms, from blueberries and honeybees, to hosting weddings and other events.
Cloud 9 Farm raises hormone-free beef and heritage-breed chickens, and maintains a substantial garden. Peterson began these operations primarily for family, friends and neighbors, she says. But as she nails down the process for raising true heritage flocks, she recently acquired her meat handler’s license. The farm can now sell frozen cuts and portions of beef to the public.
In addition, an apiary on the property provides the farm’s pollinators and honey for Bee Babes, a small-batch line of body products.
But what really sustains the farm, and ties these many lines of business together, are its two vacation rental cabins. Peterson explains that cabin visitors “stay and have an experience of harvesting their own produce, berries and eggs. They fish in our pond or shop from our meat shed.” They might even witness the miracle of new life; in August, renters got to name the calf that was born during their stay.
Peterson calls this all-inclusive experience a “farmcation” and loves sharing her property (and some good conversation) with her visitors. “You have to be a people-person willing to share your story,” she says. “That’s what our clients are hungry for. I talk all day and evening with our guests, and they return on a regular basis.”
It does take considerable energy and dedication to make all of this happen — which on a farm just adds work to work. And while she seems undaunted by most of it, Peterson admits that organization is her biggest challenge, especially when it comes to bookkeeping.
“When folks check out and you are tabulating all kinds of different tax ratios on different lines of product with a calculator and a memo pad, you quickly wish for a better system,” she says.
To help get her chicks in a row, Peterson worked with a Mountain BizWorks business coach who helped her set up better systems, which she then hired a bookkeeper to maintain. “I carry around a notebook now and track everything I spend and which line of business it’s for. It saves you good money to be able to make the proper deductions.” Proper paperwork makes keeping “farm” status an easier task, too.
One of the first things Peterson realized, once becoming more streamlined and organized with her paperwork, was that the farm was making less than $3 per hour raising and processing its chickens. But for now, that's OK.
“The bigger benefit from that line of business is working to raise heritage breed birds, to enjoy ourselves, and to build flocks back up for the future,” explains Peterson.
Cloud 9 Farm is located at 137 Bob Barnwell Road in Fletcher. Tours are available by appointment. Learn more at cloud9farm.net or call 628-1758.
Carol Lynn Jackson is a business developer at Mountain BizWorks within the FARE (Food, Agriculture, and Rural Enterprise) program.
— Mountain BizWorks helps small businesses start, grow and create jobs through loans, classes and coaching. For more information, call 253-2834 or visit mountainbizworks.org.