Ducklings quack and mutter, picking through the dirt for slugs and weed seeds. In a thicket of cerulean love-in-a-mist, bumblebees hum a slow bass line against the staccato cries of the chickadees flitting from branch to branch amid the apple trees. Then THWACK! An arrow hits a low bridge spanning a drainage ditch, momentarily silencing the birds and sending splinters flying.
The intended target—a groundhog fattened by fresh farm produce—leaps, twists, then flies back to his burrow as fast as his stubby legs can carry him.
Somewhere over the hill, tires shriek as an accident is narrowly averted on Patton Avenue. Meanwhile, here at 30 Green Hill Ave., Mike Fortune has very narrowly missed one of the legion of vermin that raid his crops. The people gathered on the porch groan, and somebody cracks another beer.
Making it work
Fortune, who majored in rhetoric at UNC-Chapel Hill, is the 30-year-old farmer/caretaker of Green Hill Urban Farm, a four-acre slice of rolling land improbably spared from development.
Looking past the perennial herb gardens, the raspberry canes and the heirloom fruit trees in the orchard, Fortune watches the groundhog disappear into his hole. “Groundhog season, by the way, is 365 days a year—perfectly legal,” he jokes. (Wildlife Enforcement Officer Gerry Locklear of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission backs that up, adding, “Any property owner or lessee has the right to defend their property from destruction by wildlife.”) Fortune says he’s done his due diligence, searching the city’s Web site for any indication that what he’s doing is illegal.
The conversation then veers toward biodynamics. Had the groundhog met its maker, says Fortune, it would probably have been subjected to what he calls “ashing.”
“We’ll take their hide and burn it, and spread the ashes all around the property in the hopes that it deters pests. Same with the cabbage moths: I gather them every year, burn them into an ash, emulsify it in some water and spray it on all the cabbage and broccoli and try to drive all the pests away.” Most animals, it seems, are as repulsed by that idea as most humans would be.
“You wouldn’t go digging for food in a human grave. It’s kind of a similar thing,” he continues, laughing.
Biodynamic such techniques may be, but Fortune doesn’t rigidly classify himself. “I put biodynamic as a tool in my tackle box and use a lot of permaculture techniques, but it’s not necessarily my method of farming,” he explains. “I look at ourselves as more organic, although we aren’t certified yet.” Fortune adds that he expects to be certified this year. “How do you peg-hole what we’re doing? It’s not biodynamic, it’s not organic, but both of them play roles in it.” He also emphasizes that he couldn’t begin to manage it all without the help of Assistant Manager Anthony Lambrecht.
Clutching a fistful of flowers and herbs, Sophie toddles toward Fortune. Almost 2, she lives down the street with her parents, Stephanie Motley and Russ Ridenhour. They’re part of an extended family of sorts that makes Green Hill Urban Farm their unofficial community center. Handing Fortune her flowers, Sophie heads toward the pen of baby Cayuga ducks, giggling and cooing “hi” the whole way.
“This space is really about a neo-agrarian farmer trying to figure out how to make it work,” Fortune reflects. “This place is more about marketing, green preservation and teaching, providing examples, whereas the farms outside of town are generally much more in the typical role of production.
“This is what it’s all about,” he says, nodding toward Sophie, who’s now absorbed in petting the ducks. “Providing a space for the integration. What it’s about is the community aspect, more than anything.”
In 2005, property owner Gisele Kovak placed an ad in Mountain Xpress advertising the rental of a “gardener’s delight.” At the time, Fortune was preparing to embark on an educational cross-country odyssey, immersing himself in the workings of interesting small farms. At the urging of friends, however, Fortune visited the land before heading out and quickly became enthralled. He moved onto the property shortly thereafter, living through two winters in a 1978 Winnebago while planning the farm’s future. When a space opened up, he moved into the main house.
When Fortune first arrived, the land was choked with weeds and brambles—so overgrown that Kovak, who recently offered him a 100-year lease for $1, didn’t realize there were raspberries growing on the property (a crop she specifically asked him to plant).
While clearing out the overgrowth, Fortune discovered the berries along with assorted other treasures, including fruit-bearing trees and valuable landscape plants. He replanted the raspberries, learned how to propagate them and now boasts a booming crop.
“We now have easily 300 to 400 canes out there that are in mature rows. Next year I don’t know what I’ll do with all of them. But that’s a crop that I never thought about doing, that happened based on what somebody that has input has to say. And that’s totally the metaphor for this whole farm,” he notes. “She just wanted to preserve it as green space; I was looking for a place to farm. People thought I was crazy to put that amount of work into the land from the start. All of a sudden it feels like a permanent thing: roots, instantly. I’m comfortable now to put as much money, as much energy into it as I can because, in a sense, it’s mine.” Fortune is still pondering the offer, though he says he’s basically OK with the handshake deal he has with Kovak now.
But while Fortune is not the land’s de facto steward, he freely allocates portions of it to others to pursue their own visions—as long as the projects are sustainable. Bill Whipple, for example, has a nursery of 500 to 600 fruit-tree saplings along the property’s westernmost edge.
Fortune explains the arrangement this way: “I told him, ‘If, in the fall, you feel it was worth the space, do whatever you can within your power to give something back.’ But there’s no demand; it’s not required.”
While pulling up crabgrass on a blazing late-spring day, Whipple (aka Professor T. Bud Barkslip) talks about what drove him to cultivate his 100-odd varieties of heirloom pear and apple trees. “At the turn of the [20th] century, there were 4,500 varieties of commercially available apples,” he notes. “They all got taken away from us, as far as I’m concerned, for the sake of convenience and mass marketing, the criteria being that they could ship it very far.”
Whipple is currently working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reintroduce many lost or forgotten fruit-tree varieties to our region.
“There’s a whole realm of genetic material and trees that can’t be shipped or may be a little cosmetically deficient,” he explains. “There’s a whole realm of apples and pears—and other fruits, too—that nobody knows about. For me, with the resurgence of the market garden and local produce, we can have fruits that don’t ship.”
To make his point, Whipple cites what he says may be the world’s ugliest apple: the ‘Pommes Gris’. “It’s an ugly, ugly apple, but inside, the flavor is fantastic! Your mouth explodes like the bubble-gum commercials.” At the farmers market, says Whipple, he can be next to someone who’s peddling the “biggest, reddest, prettiest Rome apple that tastes like cardboard, and I have this ugly dog apple—and I can outsell him every time, as long as I let people taste my apples.”
When deciding which kinds of trees to raise, Whipple says he looks for the ones with ugly names. “I’ve got a pear here called ‘Butt’,” he says, gesturing toward the rows of diminutive trees. “I thought, ‘That’s a winner, man!’ I’ve got another one called ‘Beurre Gris’ (French for ‘gray butter’). It’s gotta be good if it’s ugly, or they wouldn’t have kept it around!”
A family affair
It’s Wednesday, and the house at Green Hill, a bit war-torn and rough around the edges, is brimming with music and art. Neighbors buzz in and out, friends drop by to sit for a spell on the back porch overlooking the rolling fields.
In the front yard, stacked boxes of produce await pickup by the 50 families who’ve signed up for Green Hill’s first CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. Members pay an up-front fee in exchange for a season-long bounty of fresh produce. But if the crops fail, they won’t get their money back. It’s a show of faith—a sign of the community’s trust in the farmer.
Much of the food is grown on Fortune’s Mars Hill property, Two Sides Farm—so named because a winding road cleaves the parcel. He leases it from Bob Lackey and Doris Gordon, who bought the land because they wanted to plug into the local farm community. There he cultivates the plant starts nurtured in the urban farm’s greenhouse, and it’s close enough that the weekly harvest can be delivered to CSA members within an hour of being plucked from the soil.
Back at Green Hill, Elly Carifio—another of the house’s five permanent residents—provides child care while CSA members pick through some additional treasures to help fill their boxes this week. There are eggs and meats from Dillingham Family Farm in Barnardsville, jars of local honey and bottles of Theros olive oil, made from olives grown on Niko Theros’ family land in Greece. Fortune has twice accompanied him there to assist with production. These additional items, notes Fortune, give members more choices while helping other local farmers sell their wares.
Nearby, Adam Strange, an artist and emcee who also lives in the house, is displaying his paintings for sale, and Kelsey Ruehl, one of Fortune’s newest neighbors, has set up a massage chair. Down the way, Ernesto Gutierrez, a musician and stonemason, is putting the finishing touches on the stone wall he built to help shore up the greenhouse—his way of thanking the Green Hill community for the support it’s shown him.
Meanwhile, Whipple’s son, Eli, demonstrates his biodigester, a big metal drum filled with vegetative waste and cow manure from which he’s harvesting methane gas into inner tubes. He hooks the gas up directly to a stove and then to a small internal-combustion engine, starting them to show that they work. “This was done without any modification,” he notes. “It’s a nice plug-and-play application.” More significantly for Green Hill’s needs, the composted waste from the biodigester makes great fertilizer that will nourish the farm’s flowers and veggies.
Stephanie Motley rests in the shade with Sophie, momentarily distracted from the ducks. “Just to have this land that we all can just come and use and share together—the community part is what I’m really into. The farm’s awesome and the food is delicious, of course, but I’d like to see where it will go from here.”
On the edge of the property, she and Sophie’s dad are starting Green Hill Printworks—part of what Fortune calls “the next facet.” They already produce Green Hill Urban Farm T-shirts, printed on organic cotton, and plan to start distributing earth-friendly, tree-free paper. They’ll also make Fortune’s business cards, which will have seeds embedded in them so they can be returned to the soil and flowers will spring from them.
“The goal is to have home-based businesses from here, and as much as we can, communally take care of the children,” Motley explains.
Fortune, taking a rare, brief rest nearby, chimes in, saying, “I think home-based business is the wave of the future. Why have a retail space?”
“This would be a great backdrop to host community meetings,” notes Motley, adding, “There’s so many interests in this community. Having all of this land and this beautiful space to host gatherings and form different alliances, there’s so many different ways that we can take it.”
“We’re rebuilding agrarian culture,” says Fortune. “We’re doing it in an urban aspect to where people can access it, and we’re building a community—and supplying a few of us with local, sustainable jobs and also a sustainable diet.
“This is a pivotal year, because we’ve put ourselves out to the public for the first time with the 50-family CSA,” he adds. “It’s catalytic: We’re providing a space in town that people can access for community integration. If you’re interested, come join our farm.”
For more information, visit www.greenhillurbanfarm.com.
[Award-winning freelance writer Mackensy Lunsford has lived in Asheville for more than a decade. She enjoys finding the stories that need to be told.]