The eternal drama of food, of eating: more notes from the Piedmont Farm Tour

by Angela Perez

Here are a few more notes and stories from individual farms on the Piedmont Farm Tour I went on this weekend.  Notes not included in the Indy Week article.   Just some little side bits on what I saw and experienced.  The gist of the tour is you pay $30 and pick up a button from one of the 38 farms participating on the tour.  The farms on this tour were in Alamance, Person, Orange, and Chatham counties.  Once you get your button and leave the first farm, then you drive to the other farms you are interested in, showing your button at the registration table at each farm.  That simple.

I’d love to see similar farm tours organized in northeastern NC and in Franklin, Granville, Warren, Vance and Johnston counties.  Though, there will have to be more development of farmers markets in those areas and working with farmers to teach them how to tap into the “Farm to Table” movement and beyond.  Because at the end of the day, economics are the bottom line and just telling a farmer to go from big, corporate farming to small, sustainable farming, well, you better have some facts and numbers to back up your argument and offer some guidance on making the transition.  The farms included on the Piedmont Farm Tour are examples of farms making small, sustainable farming work.  But, it depends on individual goals and what the land itself is capable of.  Farm subsidies.   Federal and state rules and regulations.  Available grants.  What kinds of ag research universities are focusing on.  Lobbyists in the ag and food industries.

And remember, there are a hell of a lot of people in this world we need to keep fed and we need to feed them economically, so don’t just dismiss large corporate farming outright unless you know of another way to do it just as economically.

Wendell Berry, American novelist, poet, farmer, and essayist, once said, “Eating is an agricultural act.” He went on to explain “Eating ends the annual drama of the food economy that begins with planting and birth.” The notion is beautiful but that annual drama and changing it, educating the public about that drama, well, whew Lordy, that’s a complicated proposition.  But I’m up for the task.  I want to do my part.  Because I think we can do some good things with food and agriculture in our little Southern part of the world.

The story I wrote for the Indy Week, Reconnecting With the Source:  The Lessons from Two Days on the Farm Tour, can be accessed here.

I have a few other anecdotes here that were not in the story.

Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm

While we toured the farm in a squeaky covered wagon, the farm’s owner and steward, Jack Pleasant, regaled us with tale after tale of the athletic bison escaping the farm, busting through every gate and any wired fence, no matter how sturdy. One bull had jumped 10 fences to get out and was later seen at one of the next farms over.  Pleasant quickly jumped on his four-wheeler and searched in vain for the bull until late into night, combing the fields and woods only to find that the animal returned home at some point in the early morning hours before sunrise “It’s a great life but I will say this” the farmer admitted, “raising bison is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life to make money.”

Cedar Grove Windy Hill Farm, Cedar Grove

From Sunset Ridge, I drove over to Windy Hill Farm, a very organized, well-kept farm.   After signing in I was greeted by two farm employees manning a wooden table laden with fresh eggs, homemade cookies, lemonade and fragrant goat milk soap.  Next to the table, one of the farm owners, Jane Gledhill was milking a calm goat as she explained to our small crowd that she’d been working with goats for over 34 years.   “Goats are hard work, but I love this lifestyle,” she said.  “I love these animals.”  One of the highlights of the Windy Hill tour was the honey pie brought out later in the day and added to the table spread.  The rich, buttery, custardy homemade delight was made by one of the farmer’s daughters, Chiara.  The bees that provided the honey for the pie were happily buzzing away in their framed hives just a few feet away.  And just a few feet away, the chickens that provided the eggs for the pie were lounging around in the dirt just past the goat pens.  I bought some goat milk soap and actually met the goat who provided the milk for the soap.  He seemed disinterested when I thanked him.

Avillion Farm, Efland

I then drove about 10 minutes west to Avillion Farms, home to fiber producing livestock, including Angora goats and rabbits. When I walked up to the farm from the gravel road where I parked, there were 20 or so people standing on the front porch watching two rather serious looking women who were hand spinning yarn.  One woman, as she worked, explained that spinning is an ancient art and that before the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, most rural women had to know how to spin.   One 10 year old girl, in her infinite wisdom, said, “That would really suck to spend all your time making everybody else’s clothes while they were out having fun.”  I liked her point, though I doubted day-to-day rural life back then was fun for anyone.

Next to the spinning wheel, huddled in a box was a beautiful greyish brown angora.  I leaned over to pet him and didn’t shy away.   He felt like, well, an angora sweater.  A silky soft puff-ball fur explosion.  I left the porch and went to the rabbit cages – where adults and children alike oohed and ahhhed over babies and their unkempt floppy eared mothers.  As if on cue in a movie scene, a mother duck and her babies walked out of the barn in front of me.  Adult goats sauntered past me looking for food while new born baby goats frolicked behind, hungry and endlessly curious.  As I walked back to my car, one woman was Instagramming a photo of a red lawn mower sitting out next to one of the raised beds of kale.  Her husband seemed annoyed.  “Of everything interesting and cute on this farm,” he asked, “why would you take a picture of that?”  “Because,” she replied, “why would you need a lawn mower on a goat farm?”  She laughed and her kids rolled their eyes and walked away.

Minka Farm, Efland

I woke up Sunday morning very sunburned. Recommendations for farm tourists: put on sunscreen.  And take a cooler with ice.  Most of these farms sell their produce and/or meats.  Many have websites, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (these small farms are social media savvy so you can keep up with farm events and what’s on offer).

At Minka Farms, the first farm of the day, I got to hold a one-day old chick and pet a grey,silky new-born baby goat. There were children were working on this farm who grew up in the midst of all of this earthy magic and it all seemed like a rather mundane exercise to them.  It made me realize what a city-slicker I truly am and how disconnected I am from what I eat.  I fed hard boiled eggs to two three-month old piglets and had stare-downs with donkeys and cattle.  The cattle were right there in front of us, pushing and nudging one another, non-plussed by our gawping.  Guinea fowl strutted among the chickens, their glorious feathers making the chickens look like their poorer cousins from down South.  I bought asparagus and boneless pork chops to cook for dinner later that night.  I wondered if the pork chops were related to the two piglets I fed earlier.

Chapel Hill Creamery, Chapel Hill

The third farm I visited was Chapel Hill Creamery. As I walked up, two large white draft horses were pulling a cart of people to tour the dairy and behind them a tractor pulled a second group.  Too late for either the horses or the tractor, I trudged up the hill to the dairy, where I met two young working steers, not yet old enough to be considered oxen, who munched hay while we petted them.  I bought cheese made from the milk produced on the farm by some very happy, well-cared for cows.  It was late afternoon and the crowds were thinning out.  I sat at a picnic table next to an open-air pen of about 8 young calves and sipped fresh strawberry and mint lemonade and munched on the farmer’s cheese I’d bought early, marveling at how much whey-fed pork and fresh cheese I had seen these farm tourists purchase.  Though much of the food at the Creamery and at the other farms was more expensive than typical grocery store prices, you could tell that people felt the cost was worth it.  There was a piece of mind gained in the purchases I made that weekend.

And the conclusion?  Go on the Piedmont Farm Tour next year.  It’s a wonderful way to spend a weekend.  Understand and participate in the food cycle in more meaningful ways.  It’s good for you.  I guarantee it.

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