Small Farms Get Creative to Survive


They’re all mavericks of a sort – unmarked and unbranded, apart from the crowd and outside of the mainstream, and just outside of Boone, NC.

They believe the traditional family farm is in danger, yet they are not all family in terms of blood relation. Family is important, however, to the farmers of Maverick Farms, and to see the group chat, laugh and dine over a breakfast of homemade granola and fresh milk reinforces that notion tenfold.

They’re dedicated to preserving family farmland as a public resource for the benefit of the entire community, and they’re quite willing to share the experience with anyone interested in turning a curious ear – or lending a helping hand.

In April 2004, sisters Hillary and Alice Brooke Wilson bought the family farm to develop a sustainable agriculture project. In fact, Alice Brooke calls it an experiment.
The sisters teamed with core members Tom Philpott, Leo Gaev, and Sara Safransky to rejuvenate the 35-year-old Springhouse Farm, founded by the sisters’ parents, Bill and Carolyn Wilson, and nestled in Valle Crucis, N.C. in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When Bill Wilson was ready to retire, the farm was in danger of being sold, but the sisters had other ideas.

“Farming is a viable economic staple, and it can continue to be so today,” Alice Brooke said. “It’s our responsibility to provide a place where the community can reconnect with the farmland and to reconnect local food networks.”

Alice Brooke and Hillary remember growing up in the farmhouse and visiting neighbors, “when everybody had a kitchen garden and grew their own vegetables,” Alice Brooke said. “Within this one hollow and within the last 30 years, you used to be able to get, basically, all the food you needed to eat.”

The times have changed, however, as development crept its way into the small farm community.

The Maverick Farms family believes industrial agriculture has overshadowed the family farm, forcing farmers to sell their products to industrial giants, leading the actual food item to change hands at least six times before reaching a grocery store and leaving the farmer with a meager share of the profit.

“It’s not a coincidence that it’s cheaper to buy lettuce from California than it is to buy it from Watauga County, North Carolina,” Alice Brooke said.

“We realize that all economic forces – the entire food system in the United States – are arrayed against small farms,” Tom Philpott says. “In almost every case, a farmer’s got a day job. Farming has really almost become a passion or a labor of love.”

Adhering to essayist Wendell Berry’s notion of agrarian responsibility, the Wilsons believe there is a small movement across the nation of small farmers leaving the commodity trade to sell straight to the consumer.

“The only way to make money is to get out of the commodity market,” Alice Brooke said. “And in order to survive, small farming needs to be supported by the community.”

“We’re experimenting with techniques or survival strategies for small farming,” Philpott continued. “Small farming is a survival game.”

As such, Maverick Farms is striving to raise community participation. This can be accomplished through actually volunteering on the farm or buying its products at the farmers market.

The farmers market itself has been a source of education for the Wilsons and company. The average age of farmers, they were told, is between 64 and 65, and the average distance food travels to the grocery store is 1,500 miles.

“So the other farmers are joking that we’re trying to bring down the national average one at a time,” Alice Brooke said, mentioning that the Maverick farmers are all aged between 21- and 35-years-old.

A small circle of patrons has grown fond of regularly-offered “Farm Dinners,” where traditional cooking techniques are applied to “the best locally-grown ingredients we can find,” Alice Brooke said.

The five-course dinners, which commence in May and conclude in November, feature both vegetarian and meat meal options, and are offered monthly to anybody interested in attending. Though most of the produce is grown on-site, Maverick Farms buys meat from nearby sources, such as Hubert’s Heritage Farm in Boone, Hickory Nut Gap Farm near Asheville and Redgate Farms from the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina. The dinners offer what the maverick farmers call “authentic food,” as opposed to “organic,” which Philpott said has become a corporate device.

“With authentic food, you know where it came from and who grew it,” he said.

As an example, Maverick farmer Ira Murphy mentioned organic raspberries being sold in January and probably grown south of the equator.

This is merely one method to increase community involvement, and this coming season, Maverick Farms is planning to start a demonstration project of community-supported agriculture, Safransky said.

In community-supported agriculture, shares of the farm are sold to community members and, in turn, the shareholders, usually families, receive fresh farm goods as profit. Shareholders can also take a more active role and participate on the farm.

“So, they’re entering into a relationship with the farm,” Safransky said. That means shareholders can benefit from a farm’s seasonal prosperity, but can just as easily suffer from an unproductive season.

The Maverick farmers agree education is important, and last season they held a series of educational workshops for adults and children. The adults learned that making apple cider, while fun, is no walk on the farm, while the children crafted homemade pizza by grinding the flour and making the mozzarella and tomato sauce.

Another viable survival strategy is agritourism, and Maverick Farms is scheduled to participate in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Farm Tour program July 23 and 24.

The farm also sees the benefits of agritourism by offering room and board for those interested in observing the farm’s workings or helping out. From families to green-thumbed individuals, Maverick Farms grants visitors the opportunity to stay in a two-story, 125-year-old farmhouse, complete with scenic view and the epitome of rustic charm.

Alice Brooke was quick to emphasize, however, that it’s no bed and breakfast – Maverick Farms is a working farm, and guests can expect to see firsthand the hustle and bustle associated with the farm life. The amenities, though, are plentiful. Guests can relax in the library or try their hand at a grand piano in the music room. Three rooms are available for lodging, two with outside entrances.

The spacious downstairs bedroom with private bath is offered for $65 a night, while the upstairs master bedroom with shared bath rings in at $55. The upstairs single bedroom, also with a shared bath, costs $25 a night.

All rooms share spectacular views, however, and guests can relax to the sound of a babbling creek and chickens clucking from their coop, which also provide the fresh eggs offered for breakfast.

A work exchange program is available for those who’d rather pay for their lodging through service, offered through the Willing Workers on Organic Farms Association. A similar option is offered for the farm dinners.

The farm may be an experiment in sustainable agriculture, but it nets strong – and deliciously edible – results.


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