Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Farm Girl Finds a Home

Did she warn me? No. After 7 hours of high-speed interstate travel in the rain, I finally make my designated turn—and find myself dropping down a steep black gravel road into the southern Appalachian darkness. There are a few moments of surreal anachronism as I follow my Google maps smartphone deeper and deeper into the tangled backwoods of North Georgia. I drop so far so fast that I wonder if there’s going to be a creek crossing—which, pushing midnight in my little ’86 Corolla, I’m not looking forward to. Finally, I arrive at my destination: Squeezed into a tiny clearing in the woods is a small, whitewashed shack of a church with one bare light bulb and a few rows of be-flowered tombstones lit by moonlight shining through the trees.
I was pretty sure I was in the wrong place.

When I first met Meghan, she was driving an orange Westfalia full of hippies all over Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia, selling grilled cheese sandwiches and living for the next String Cheese show. Later, Meghan scored a gig sewing covers for the band’s sound system, which is how she got the name Tiny Dancer—you know, “seamstress for the band”? Somewhere along the way, Meghan cut her dreadlocks and became an organic farmer. Now we call her Farm Girl.
Of the new generation of young organic farmers (see NPR’s story on the trend here), Meghan is among the most determined to make a go of it. After getting her degree in environmental studies and sustainable agriculture at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, she worked for a few years in various settings, ending up as a farm manager at Full Circle Farm in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then she got her big break: a chance to lease some bottomland in Old Fort, North Carolina. She found a little farmhouse up a steep and winding road in some North Carolina holler, borrowed a tractor, and started Harvest Table Farm.
And boy did she grow some beautiful vegetables—lots and lots of them. Enough to feed a 35-member CSA (community supported agriculture) as well as a farmers’ market operation. She even managed to buy her own tractor. But making ends meet as a farmer is hard. And the second summer, the weather was punishing. If it wasn’t rain flooding the fields, it was the wind destroying her hoop houses. She mostly worked alone, and she rarely paid herself. Her friends, most of us watching from afar, cheered her on, consoling her by phone and by Facebook, grimacing with every pounding hailstorm. USA Today covered her in a story on organic farmers. Farmers’ Film followed her and three other small farmers for 15 weeks, from the optimistic beginnings of the 2011 season, through labor shortages and weather crises, to the final celebratory harvest.
Then out of the blue, her landlords decided not to continue leasing the land. Meghan lost her farm.
It wasn’t pretty, but even Meghan admits she was a little relieved. She took a break from farming. She got a regular job working for someone else—who could afford to pay her. She was able to take some of the winter off. She got to go see a few shows, get back on the road for a while, try out her new traveling shoes. When spring rolled around, she thought about getting back on the horse, and she went to Mississippi to interview for a job running the farm at a little farm-to-table operation. A fortnight into the gig, the boss told her that he didn’t have money to pay her. 
Potentially another dream killing blow. But there in Mississippi, Meghan had met her match.
Ben and Meghan
Meet Ben. Ben has a farm in North Georgia that’s been in his family for six generations. He’s turning it into a community farming cooperative, and he needs (make that “needed”) a vegetable farmer. It’s a little slice of heaven, with a couple of century-old log cabins, a spring-fed stream, a swimming hole, a barn, a couple dogs, and all the micro-climates that a couple of permaculturists could hope for.
When I arrived (having found my way out of the churchyard and back down the road to the farm), Ben and Joseph, another resident, had been hard at work pulling poison ivy—and they had the rashes to show for it. But they’d spent the spring more peacefully, planting perennial trees and bushes—nuts, fruits and berries. “For the future,” Ben told me, “for the seventh generation and beyond.” Formerly the Whitestone Farm (named for the native limestone), Ben’s family farm is becoming the Kaluna Community Co-op.
A hardy citrus tree planted by an earlier generation.
“We’re starting a multi-generational community rooted in elders’ wisdom and guided by our ethics and principles,” Ben told me. First among these, he said, are the three pillars of permaculture:
1.     Care for the Earth.
2.     Care for the people.
3.     Fair share in the distribution of wealth.
“I want to parcel out ownership of the land,” Ben said, “and also the stewardship. You might think you own the farm, but if you’re not careful, it will own you.”

Ben wants to create a community of micro-enterprises that will operate under the umbrella of the cooperative. Meghan, for example, will continue to operate her vegetable farm as Harvest Table Farms. Snowbear, one of the resident elders, has a primitive skills operation. Ben is looking for other folks who are ready to manifest a sustainable lifestyle for themselves and their community, and just need some land and community support to do it.
Lest this seem like just another hippie-commune start-up, consider Ben’s previous accomplishments: the St. Croix Sustainable Farm Institute in the U.S. Virgin Islands, currently home of the Ridge to Reef Farm, an ecotourism destination and 100-family CSA that teaches courses in permaculture, bush skills and the art of mentoring. It offers internships and apprenticeships in sustainable agriculture and agro-tourism, as well as volunteer retreats. This is a place for people who are serious about making a difference: “This is not a tropical vacation, this is real work,” says the website.

Building a new future for ourselves and the planet is going to take a little elbow grease. Farming may not be easy, but the practices of permaculture help reduce the workload, and like Ben said, we have the wisdom of our elders to guide us. Fortunately, there are people like Ben, Meghan, Joseph and Snowbear who aren’t afraid to try—and who are willing to serve as guides and mentors for the rest of us. Besides, they know what the rest of us will soon find out: that the rewards of community, sustainability, and a little cabin by the stream are worth it. 


  1. What an inspiring post. Think I'll head outside to weed my little garden right now. One step at a time!

  2. Keep weeding that garden, Michelle. You might be next in line... : )