A chicken on a leash, a herd of bison and a Burmese farmer sowing rice; these are just a few of the things we saw when we visited some of the farms on the 23rd annual Piedmont Farm Tour. The farms ranged from tiny but productive urban farms to rural farms of more than 100 acres. Over two days we visited 9 of the 45 participating farms and, I think, learned something from each of them.
Our tour began on Saturday. The first stop was Ninja Cow Farm, a family-owned farm in suburban Raleigh. We knew when we got out of the car that we were at a “different” kind of farm. Several girls were greeting visitors, and each either had a chicken in their arms or on a leash. In nearly sixty years this was the first time I’ve seen chickens on leashes. Ann Marie got to hold one of the chickens and you could tell they were used to being cuddled.
The farm sells pasture raised beef and pork and farm fresh milk, as well as products from farms they’ve partnered with. They had quite a variety of products in their store.
After browsing the store, we went on a tour of Ninja Cow Farm, led by a young man called Spork. Again, this is a different kind of farm. The farm feeds the cattle and hogs produce from the local farmers markets. As Spork explained, the produce has a flaw, it might be a bruise or a spot, that makes it unsalable. Ninja Cow makes the rounds each day and collects whatever produce would normally end up in the dumpster and feeds it to their livestock. The cows and hogs looked happy and well-cared for so I guess it works.
Our next stop was the Well Fed Community Garden, an urban farm in Raleigh. From the road it looks like any other house in the neighborhood, with a few more plants and a small greenhouse. The garden partners with Irregardless Café, who buys 80% of the organic produce and donates the remaining 20% to volunteers and neighbors. Garden manager Morgan Malone took us on a tour of the farm.
The garden makes great use of the tiny 1 ½ acre lot. It was still early in the season but there were rows of lettuce and the greenhouses had seedlings ready to be transplanted. They also have some hydroponically grown lettuce in one of the greenhouses. There’s quite a variety of veggies as well as herbs, figs and even kiwi. They also have a few mushroom logs. Later in the year they’ll grown tomatoes, melons and squash. The front of the property has a pollinator garden.
Our third stop of the day was another small urban farm, this one located in downtown Raleigh adjacent to Peace College. The non-profit Raleigh City Farm was established in 2011 on a one-acre vacant lot. Farmer James Edwards gave us a quick tour of the farm. I asked him what made him want to garden in the middle of the city. He said, “I just like growing things.”
The tour was quite interesting. The perimeter of the farm is lined with pollinator attracting plants. Inside that border, there are rows of lettuce, mustard greens, and a variety of early season produce. There’s a small fruit orchard, but it was too early in the season for the trees to be producing much. A crop rotation maximizes production of the tiny farm.
The plants are watered by an irrigation system that starts with the collection of rainwater from the roof of the business next to the lot. From the collection tank, water is distributed over the crops as needed. Harvested crops are sold weekly at the on-site farm stand, providing convenient access to healthy, fresh produce for urban dwellers.
Next up on our tour was Funny Girl Farm in Durham. This 180-acre farm was the first large farm we visited. This is where I learned the difference between a high tunnel and a greenhouse (high tunnels have no climate control; greenhouses do). We also learned a lot about mushrooms. Funny Girl Farm has around 3,000 mushroom logs and they take mushroom farming very seriously.
Funny Girl Farm utilizes a lot of environmentally friendly techniques in their farming. They use reduced tillage because it doesn’t harm the fungi that helps the plants grow. By rotating a variety of crops and using cover cropping between production crops, they manage to keep the soil healthy. The sell their produce through their CSA or at their on site farm-stand.
Their hens are pasture raised. Their natural diet of bugs and seeds is supplemented with vegetable scraps and spent grain from a couple local businesses. Their mushroom logs are cut from trees on the property and can be productive for up to five years. It’s quite an operation.
Our final stop on Saturday was Carolina Farmhouse Dairy in Bahama. Carolina Farmhouse Dairy is a Jersey cow farm that produces yogurt, smoothies and kefir which they sell at several area markets. They’re in the process of upgrading their milk barn, so we saw how they currently milk their cows while seeing how the coming changes will increase their production. Along the way we got to snuggle a couple calves. Turns out they like head scratches and neck rubs.
On Sunday, we headed west. First up was Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm in Roxboro. This was probably the best farm tour and you could tell they do it a lot. We rode around the farm in a covered wagon while the farmer explained buffalo and buffalo farming to us. It was very interesting.
Buffalo are quite energetic. A buffalo, according to the farmer, can jump a six-foot fence if so inclined. He said that if you can drive your pickup truck into a fence and the fence stops the truck, you’ve probably built a fence that will hold a buffalo. The pen they use for vaccinating the buffalo was made of the heavy duty galvanized steel you normally see along the sides of the road.
Buffalo may look quite docile as they graze in the field, but they’ve never really been domesticated. You must be very careful when working with them; if one decides to, it can easily overturn a tractor. When the farm rounds up the herd for health checks and vaccinations, they look for the one who seems most cooperative at that time, get that animal started and hope the rest follow.
After the tour we stopped at the farm-stand and purchased a variety of buffalo meat. We’ll be exploring buffalo cuisine in the next few weeks.
After Sunset Ridge we headed to Maple Spring Garden in Cedar Grove. Growing vegetables and herbs using organic practices, this 80-acre farm had some beautiful vegetable gardens. Sunshine Dawson and Fern Hickey gave us a tour of the high tunnels, greenhouse, mushroom logs and herb gardens. They’ve been growing organically since the early 70s and sell at both the Carrboro and Durham Farmers Markets. The herb gardens are new to the farm; Sunshine is using her education in herbal medicine to expand the business in a new direction.
We met Larry and Lee Newlin on our next stop, their Peaceful River Farm in Chapel Hill. The Haw River is adjacent to the farm, hence the name. Larry came from a landscaping background, and it shows. The farm is beautifully laid out to make the best use of the land yet maintain an aesthetically pleasing view. As Larry explained, they used a farm coach, Tony Kleese, to help them design the layout of the farm. The twin market gardens were inspired by the Edwardian Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, England. Larry knows his stuff. The farm is beautiful.
Lee is the culinary educator and holds cooking classes and farm dinners at Peaceful River Farm. A cancer survivor, Lee’s research into healthy food is one of the driving forces in the farm’s use of organic practices to grow pesticide-free produce.
Peaceful River’s produce can be found at the Fearrington Village Farmers Market and the Saxapahaw General Store as well as in dishes served at several are restaurants.
Our final stop on this year’s farm tour was the one I was most interested in. Transplanting Traditions Community Farm is a 7-acre non-profit farm in Chapel Hill. Through a partnership with the Triangle Land Conservancy, 35 Burmese refugee families grow native Burmese crops as well as well as crops native to North Carolina and sell their produce at local farmers markets.
Most of the refugees belong to the Karen and Chin ethnic groups, and fled ethnic persecution in Burma. Most were farmers in their home country and now farm their part of Transplanting Traditions after working full time jobs, many as housekeepers at nearby University of North Carolina. The farm provides much needed income for the families as well as giving them a community where they can feel at home. There are a lot of bamboo structures, including some beautiful hoop decorations.
One farmer was in the process of sowing drought resistant rice and there were a lot of leaf crops already growing throughout the farm. Later in the season they’ll grow Bok Choy, Edamame, eggplants, squash and numerous other vegetables for sale, either through their CSA or at the Chapel Hill and Carrboro farmers markets.
It’s quite an interesting operation and concept. As Project Director Kelly Owensby said during the tour, the farm is now nationally known. Wherever she goes, when she says she’s with Transplanting Traditions, people say, “hey, I’ve heard of the farm.” There’s a waiting list of families who want to be a part of Transplanting Traditions and other similar farms have been started around the country. Transplanting Traditions is an inspiring and interesting place and a great place to end this year’s farm tour. We’re looking forward to seeing what next year’s tour holds in store for us.