Like most Americans, I’ve been living an unusually isolated existence since mid-March or so, and the sight that greets me on this little slice of land in Bethel is nothing short of beautiful to my community-starved heart. Umbrella-covered picnic tables holding groups of families and friends who talk and laugh and eat in the sun dot the grassy yard spreading out behind the produce stand. Kids roll around in the grass, and farm dogs roam from table to table, hoping for — and occasionally receiving — scraps of fresh pizza.
The pizza, baked a stone’s throw away in an outdoor brick oven, is the reason that I — and everyone else in view — came to the Ten Acre Garden today. Every Saturday during the summer and early fall, the farm’s staff fire up the oven and offer an open invitation for locals and visitors alike to come over for a hot, handmade pizza. Donations are welcome, but there’s no charge to eat.
That part astounds me. Today’s menu lists three different pizza options, each one complicated and unique enough to require five or six lines’ worth of description on the chalkboard sign hanging by the counter, but there’s not a dollar sign in sight. Just a metal box off to the side with a slot and a handwritten sign reading “Thank you for supporting our farm.”
We’d made plans to meet another couple here, and we spot them, wave them down, and order two pies — one featuring fennel and blueberries and the other slathered with a red sauce and spicy sausage, a pool of sour cream in the center to cool things down. We claim a small table in the shade and sip on the bottle of wine our friends had brought from home until the order comes up, and we’re in pizza heaven.
A pizza heats up in the brick oven.
Scott Moelich stretches out a pizza crust.
Birth of a tradition
The pizza dinners began as a family affair, said Ten Acre Garden owner Danny Barrett.
“I just built the pizza oven for personal use first of all, for family and friends, but then somebody suggested, ‘Why don’t we just do pizza?’” he said. “So, we did.”
That was about three years ago. Now, the Ten Acre Garden pizza oven serves an extended family that grows larger all the time. The first summer stayed small, but attendance ramped up in 2019 and this year, said Barrett, “it’s been the bomb.”
On the average Saturday, his employees will serve 150 pizzas, handmade to order and fired two at a time in the outdoor oven. The tradition has grown so much that Barrett is planning to expand his pizza oven this winter — two at a time isn’t fast enough anymore.
“The COVID thing has actually brought more people out than not this season because we provide a place outside for them, and we spread tables out so they can distance,” said Barrett. “So, we get the crowd.”
Still, Barrett doesn’t charge that crowd a single penny, because Ten Acre is a farm, not a restaurant. Barrett wants to keep it that way. People come to eat pizza, but also to sit outside and enjoy the view. They come to enjoy a BYO bottle of wine or can of beer with friends and watch the shadows lengthen over the landscape. They come to listen to the impromptu jam sessions that often erupt as the night goes on, or even to get out of their chairs and dance. The counter is open for orders from 1 through 6:30 p.m., or whenever the dough runs out, but people often stay longer.
“If the weather’s beautiful, there’s been people who just sit out here until 9 or 10 o’clock,” said Ten Acre employee Tela Sharpe. “We’ll even turn on that light, and they’ll just hang out with a bottle of wine, and just sit there and talk.”
The donations-based approach just made sense, said Barrett.
“Honestly, it kept us from jumping through a lot of hoops,” he said. “We’d have to do a lot of major things around here if we wanted to be a restaurant, and I never wanted to be a restaurant to begin with. It’s a farm.”
‘I grew up working’
It’s been a farm throughout Barrett’s entire life. Now 71, he grew up in a two-story house on the edge of the existing garden, raised by his mother and his grandmother.
“I grew up working,” he said. “Milking cows and chopping wood. I can’t remember not doing that stuff.”
Barrett’s grandparents grew up working too, and their grandparents before them. His mother’s people, the Wells family, were some of the first settlers in Haywood County.
Asked how much land they owned originally, he gestured toward the mountains framing the valley.
“It was all that mountainside, the other side and all the way from here over to Edwards Cove Road to (U.S.) 276,” he said. “There’s probably, I don’t know, several hundred acres. I can remember my grandmother telling a story about her granddaddy swapped a man a hundred acres for a horse.”
By the time Barrett was born, multiple generations had passed, and the land had been split into various smaller parcels — the farm where he was raised totaled 32 acres. The property split again when his grandmother died. Barrett’s Ten Acre Farm is technically 9.79 acres.
It’s small, but it’s fertile, green and flat — and it’s his.
Like many farmers his age, Barrett spent many years working another job to support his love of farming. For 36 years, he worked at the paper mill in Canton, all the while growing his garden on the side. Eventually, he was able to quit and farm fulltime.
“I loved doing it because it brings out the creative side, I guess you might say,” he said. “When I worked at the mill it was pretty repetitious. Same thing day in and day out. This gave me an outlet to do something that I wanted to do.”
Barrett has always been a vegetable farmer, staying clear of livestock save for a few chickens. For years, he focused heavily on greasy beans and half runner beans, because that’s what the local demand asked for. These days, the farm’s offerings are quite diverse, running the gamut from carrots to kohlrabi, squash to strawberries.
“Our clientele is changing over the years,” he said. “I’ve watched it change. We get a lot of visitors from other places that are coming here all the time, and they’re discovering where they can get local food.”
It’s a change that Barrett has embraced. A self-described “people person,” Barrett thrives not just on picking the perfect tomato, but also on watching his customers eat that perfect tomato. It’s perhaps no surprise that Barrett has become host of the biggest pizza party around. For decades, he’s been proactively offering his customers the opportunity to see the farm firsthand.
It all started with the produce stand.
“My daughter was about 12 or 13 years old and she wanted to start a little produce stand. It was kind of a kid thing,” he said. “We put signs down on the road — ‘tomatoes 25 cents’ — and people started coming to the garage. Next summer we grew a little patch of sweet corn and it started getting bigger and bigger until so many people started coming to my house that I came down here and built this produce stand to have a little more room.”
Since then he’s added on to it — several times — and found even more ways to encourage people to come out and experience the farm for themselves. The Ten Acre Garden offers you-pick fruits, vegetables and cut flowers, as well as farm-to-table dinners and Community Supported Agriculture memberships in which participants can get weekly baskets full of the garden’s bounty. About 10 years ago, he went to pesticide-free production, which is a selling point for the produce and encourages visitation. Currently, he’s contemplating starting kids’ gardening classes, teaching them the basics of growing their own fruits and vegetables.
“Sometimes I daydream and think what my grandmother would think if she seen what I was doing, what farming’s become from the time when she was taking care of it,” said Barrett. “I don’t know whether she would approve or not.”
Back then, “agritourism” wasn’t even a word, and he has no idea what his grandmother would think of it all. But for Barrett, agritourism has provided an opportunity to build a life that combines two of his greatest passions — growing food and interacting with people.
“You get to see people with the finished product. You get to see people enjoy what you grow. It’s not like going to Ingles. If you sell it to Ingles you don’t really get to see the consumer. I get to see the consumer and talk with them and make friends with them — and tell some of them not to come back anymore,” he laughed.
That’s what Saturday afternoons are all about.
“I might as well just share what I’ve got,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it. I’m just borrowing this for the time that I’m here, so why not share it with someone?”
Music is often a feature of Saturday afternoons at the Ten Acre Garden. Tela Sharpe photo
Despite the rain Sept. 12, visitors trickle in for some of the Ten Acre Garden’s famous handmade pizza.
Even in the rain, a happy place
The clouds hang heavy over Bethel as 1 p.m. approaches Saturday, Sept. 12, breaking to release a rain that is at first a drizzle, then a sprinkle and finally a steady rain.
Cloudy skies and wet weather always dampen enthusiasm for pizza night, said Barrett, but nevertheless a trickle of visitors finds its way to the farm. Despite the rain, the orders roll in and the conversation flows — albeit more slowly than it might on a dry day.
“We like the camaraderie and supporting a local farm,” said Canton resident Dolly Byrd, there with her two teenage sons and several friends from Asheville.
Byrd’s mom went to high school with Barrett, and Saturdays at Ten Acre have been a fixture in her life for the last few years, especially during the pandemic. Since COVID, they’ve been traveling less and craving community more.
“Especially during COVID and everything, we haven’t been in a restaurant, and this was the first foray we had,” she said. “The first Saturday that we did it, it felt like it was the closest to normalcy that we’d had.”
Rain wasn’t enough to deter Byrd from experiencing that feeling again this week. The group found a table protected by a stand of trees and had just received its order of hot pizzas — they had enough people to warrant ordering one of each kind.
“What a great experience, just to be out here in the countryside and have pizza outside,” said Cruso resident Denise Shadden, enjoying a slice at a different table closer to the oven as Gus, Barrett’s grand champion redbone turned champion beggar, eyed her left-behind pieces of crust.
While she admitted that it would be nicer if the sun were out, she said the experience was worth braving the rain — especially during a pandemic.
That’s an assessment that Sharpe, who normally runs the produce stand but on this particular Saturday was helping with pizza production, would agree with.
“This season with everything going on with the COVID, this is just a great space for people to come out and let their kids roam, go out and pick vegetables out of the garden,” she said Friday while kneading dough in preparation for the weekend. “The energy on Saturdays is always a lot of fun, especially when the music’s going and people start dancing.”
It’s an energy that draws you in, implores you to become part of it. It’s also what drove Stephanie Nixon to look for work at Ten Acre. She lives about five minutes down the road and started coming each week for pizza.
“It became my happy place,” she said.
Before she knew it, it was also her workplace.
“We really are one big family around here,” said Sharpe. “We all help each other out. Whatever needs to be done, we all pitch in and do.”’
Whether the task at hand is pulling weeds, training vines or kneading dough, it’s all for the same cause — nourishing the souls and bellies of Haywood County and beyond.
“It’s fulfilling, knowing that you’re providing something for someone that will sustain their life, because without food we won’t last long,” said Barrett. “We’ve all got to have it.”
Join the party
The Ten Acre Garden starts serving pizza at 1 p.m. each Saturday during the growing season and takes orders through 7 p.m., or whenever the dough runs out. The start and end dates each year are weather-dependent, but the season typically runs from May to October. For up-to-date information, call 828.235.9667 or visit the produce stand at 158 Chambers Farm Lane, Canton.