Test farm helps WNC growers stay ‘ahead of the game’

You’d be hard pressed to name a state-run entity more closely aligned with the region it serves than the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville. The work going on there is important for the agriculture economy and critical for the emerging crop of growers trying to specialize in exotic and specialty varieties. And researchers at the farm continue to provide direct help to farmers growing crops and livestock that have for years been the traditional mainstays of mountain agriculture.

Perhaps just as important, the Mountain Research Station promotes the lifestyle that will continue to make this region unique. More and more residents place a high value on rural areas and green space, and farms are just as much a part of this movement as wilderness areas. This means doing what we can to help small and large growers remain profitable.

The products from those growers are often going straight into homes. Many who live here are more than willing to pay a little extra for high-quality and tasty foods that come local farms, and many groups and organizations are promoting this lifestyle. As the grow-local, buy-local philosophy gains steam, it builds and strengthens the micro-economies in our rural communities.

It was just a few years ago (2008) that state lawmakers suggested closing the 410-acre research station. Regional supporters fought back hard. Joe Sam Queen, at that time a state senator and now running to return to Raleigh as a state representative, was among those who rallied for the research station.

“We have a diversified agricultural sector with small producers,” he said. The research station provides vital help to these growers, he argued. However, the much-larger farms in the eastern part of the state often carry more political clout.

The Mountain Research Station survived. Bill Skelton, director of the Haywood County Cooperative Extension Office, says the test farm does important work and does it well. He cited its work to improve the cattle herd in the region, while also touting its crop research.

“They put those questions in the ground and see if they can find answers,” said Skelton.

Current work “in the ground” —35 separate research projects — includes tests on what could be new crops in this region like broccoli, truffles and canola (for alternative fuels); continued work with Fraser firs (the first experimental Frasers in North Carolina were grown at the Waynesville farm in the 1970s) and heirloom tomatoes; a project to improve weed control for organic farmers; and continued research to help cattle producers.

“We are becoming more diverse. It’s important that we remain cutting edge. We need to be ahead of the game,” said Mountain Research Station Director Kaleb Rathbone.

The test farm is succeeding at doing just that — staying “ahead of the game.” Let’s hope this economic engine for WNC is here for another 100 years.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Burley and beef to broccoli and biofuel: Test farm plants seeds of new farm economy without forgetting its roots

Testing canola varieties for biofuel. Growing truffles. Finding hemlocks and Fraser firs that can survive the scourge of the adelgid. Determining best practices for organic heirloom tomato production.

A walk through the fields of the Mountain Research Station will find dozens of projects in process as researchers experiment and push the limits of what the land can produce. The research station, with a more than 100-year history of figuring out new and better ways of farming, is in the midst of redefining itself while staying true to its traditional agricultural roots.

The Mountain Research Station is run by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and is one of 18 such test farms in the state. This one is the westernmost in North Carolina.

“We are becoming more diverse,” said Kaleb Rathbone, the superintendent of the Mountain Research Station. “It’s important that we are cutting edge. We need to be ahead of the game.”

Rathbone, however, is quick to add that the 410-acre station isn’t moving away from conducting conventional farming research.

“We’re not doing less of the beef cattle and tobacco — we’re actually doing more there, too,” he said.

But these days it’s the alternative, organic, new-age and exotic farming going on there that is capturing the public’s imagination. That work and the ensuing gee-whiz factor helps ensure that the Mountain Research Station, which faced the possibility of closure just a few years ago, is likely to continue for the next 100 years.

Ultimately the point of the Mountain Research Station is to improve farmers’ bottom line in an increasingly more difficult farming environment.

SEE ALSO: Does this grow here? The answer holds key to farming future

Whether it is better tomato yields per acre, less crop loss from blights, growing organic which fetches higher prices than conventional, breeding calves with better traits so they in turn fetch more at the market, or moving toward more lucrative niche crops so local farmers don’t have to compete in the cut-throat world of large-scale commercial, corporate farming — all of this is aimed at helping farmers be able to keep farming.

The Mountain Research Station underpins the agricultural trends of the region, from tobacco to Christmas trees. That Cadillac of Christmas trees, the Fraser Fir, was developed here for farmers, and is now one of the region’s most lucrative crops.The test farm presents farmers with common-sense solutions to real-world problems.


Broccoli and truffles

On any given day, the test farm is dotted with researchers checking on their crops and test plots. On this day last week the weather was particularly warm and sunny and Emily Bernstein and her crew were lathering on the sunscreen. They had 4,000 to 5,000 broccoli plants to get into the ground, a task made easier with the help of a tractor and transplantor being operated by horticulture supervisor Chris Leek and another station worker.

The crew is taking part in a five-year effort to develop broccoli varieties suitable for the East Coast. Most of the broccoli was developed for climates and conditions out West.

What this means, as most any local gardener could explain, is that broccoli bolts when it turns consistently warm. As a result the broccoli-growing season here is truncated to spring and fall growing only and farmers can’t cash in on this potentially lucrative cash crop.

Bernstein said the project started last year with a broad screening of 40 to 50 varieties. More screening is being done this year. A dozen of the most promising varieties will be picked for further testing.

“Will this grow here and can it take the heat?” Bernstein said in a succinct explanation of the research being conducted.

Broccoli will be grown five times from now until July. Once plants are mature, the crew will move through the plantings with a scorecard. They will rate the bead size of the broccoli head, the shape of the dome (an ice cream cone shape is preferred), uniformity and color.

Bernstein is also the research specialist on another Mountain Research Station project — an attempt to find out if Black Perigord Truffles can successfully be grown in WNC. That, for now at least, is a less labor-intensive project than the broccoli. The crew planted Filbert, or American hazelnut, trees three years ago, she said. The roots of the trees were inoculated with truffle spore and the soil was heavily limed to make the soil pH more alkaline. Everyone now is simply waiting the necessary five to seven years to see if truffles do indeed grow. If they do, WNC could find itself with a very lucrative cash crop indeed, courtesy of the Mountain Research Station.


A stable research situation

It’s still early in the day but Ben Smith, an entomologist, is hard at work with three colleagues in a small office at the Mountain Research Station last week. Smith’s job seems daunting: develop Fraser firs and Eastern and Carolina hemlocks that can survive the adelgid attack, an insect infestation that has nearly wiped out hemlock forests. Meanwhile, its near cousin the balsam woolly adelgid has caused the Fraser fir to become a threatened species.  

Smith and his colleagues are taking a two-pronged approach. They are looking for resistant trees — you know they aren’t resistant, he noted wryly, if they’ve been killed by the adelgid. They are then breeding those trees to develop a resistant hybrid strain. The Alliance for Saving Threatened Forests is providing funding.

What’s taking place here is extremely similar to work done by the American Chestnut Foundation. That tree, once the mighty giant of our eastern forests, was a vital part of the forest ecology, a key food source for wildlife and an essential component of the human economy. In the early 1900s, a lethal blight, accidentally imported from Asia, spread rapidly through the American chestnut population.

Work started some 30 years ago to develop a blight-resistant tree, by cross-breeding a sliver of the immune Chinese chestnut with the American version. It’s now been accomplished, and forests are slowly being planted with the new American Chestnut.

Research like this takes a long time. Decades are likely to pass before a solution is found. And that’s why the Mountain Research Station is so critical — it serves as a dependable testing situation, Smith said.

“We would be in a very different position if the station weren’t here,” he said. “One thing that is extremely important in breeding is the long term. The earliest we could see results would be in seven to 10 years, it could be as long as 50 years. It’s important to have stable ownership of the land you have the trees on, or you can lose the test. The fact that we know this is going to remain available to us is really important.”

Robert Jetton, a fellow researcher, underscores Smith’s point: “Having a stable facility like the research station is the key,” he said.


Almost closed down

Just a few years ago the future of the Mountain Research Station hung in jeopardy.

In 2008 the Haywood County test farm was one of seven in the state recommended for closure because of a failure to meet profit and performance guidelines. That previous summer a bill in the legislature also proposed closure, but failed to win traction.

Former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, and other mountain legislators fought successfully to keep the research station open.

“We have a very unique situation. It’s quite different from the rest of the state,” Queen said of the reason he believes Western North Carolina needs its own research station. “We have a diversified agricultural sector with small producers. In the eastern part of the state they have huge farms.”

Queen said farmers turned out in droves to support the Mountain Research Station, adding fuel to the fire as the fight went on to save the facility. That level of support didn’t surprise Queen.

“I expected the farmers to support it, because for instance if you are a tomato farmer in this area, you are a tomato farmer because of the Mountain Research Station,” Queen said.

Queen pointed out that the station has done work developing the varieties of tomatoes grown here, how to grow them in WNC and how to protect them from various diseases. And the same thing is true, he said, for countless other farming enterprises: Christmas trees, beef cattle, blueberries, tobacco and more.

Bill Skelton, director of Haywood County’s N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, echoed Queen’s sentiment that the Mountain Research Station is vital to area farmers. He said the bull program, for example, has brought wholesale improvements to the quality of WNC’s beef cattle population. Each year the research station brings in 50 to 60 bulls and conducts performance trials. Researchers test for weight gain and growth, diseases, breeding soundness and other qualities. They even use ultrasound to gauge the quality of the ribeye a bull’s packing. The bulls are then sold to local cattlemen — who have made a safe bet that the quality of next year’s calves will carry the desired genetic traits of their father, and in turn will fetch higher prices at market. This has been going on for more than 30 years.

“The herd quality in WNC has tremendously improved because of that,” Skelton said, adding that the same thing is true of tobacco production and other crops.

“They put those questions in the ground and see if they can’t find the answers,” he said.


Planning is name of the game

As Rathbone talks he drives a large pickup truck along the roads of the Mountain Research Farm. A Fines Creek boy raised on a farm, he started working here when he turned 16.

“It’s pretty much home,” he said. And, in fact, Rathbone now lives in a house located on the research facility.

Rathbone became director a couple years ago, replacing Bill Teague, who had been there for some 30 years.

What’s immediately obvious, and what Rathbone pointed out, is how densely used the acreage here is: it seems that practically ever inch of space is home to some sort of research project.

Planning for each new 12-month cycle starts in December of the previous year. There are 35 research projects this year being conducted by 15 project leaders.

The Mountain Research Center itself employees 10 fulltime workers and four or five temporary workers during the summer. The workers take care of the day-to-day operations and are joined on the test farm by researchers and their crews.

Rathbone is optimistic about the facility’s future.

“We’ve got great community support, and because of the work that we do and the impact we have on the producer it brings value to the community. We’ve got a strong future ahead of us,” he said.

That said, Rathbone noted that it’s difficult to put a dollar value on the work done at Mountain Research Station. The loss of the station, he said, would be hugely significant to agricultural interests in WNC.

“It’s the cost of lost opportunity if you don’t have a facility to do the necessary research,” Rathbone said.



A storied history

In an era when agriculture was king, the Mountain Research Station was founded 1908 to help farmers improve their bottom lines. It was located at that time in the Swanannoa Valley in Buncombe County, and was one of the earliest stations of the 18 in North Carolina eventually established.

The station initially conducted soil surveys and tests; commercial fertilizer was tested and rates and production use was researched. Testing and the development of corn, wheat, apples, vegetables, small grains, forages and other crop varieties were also areas of early research.  

In 1942, however, the U.S. Army selected the site in Swannanoa to build a hospital for soldiers wounded during World War II. Some of the land was sold and buildings were removed. So in 1944 the station was moved to its present site at Waynesville in Haywood County. Barns and buildings were built, land prepared for research, dairy cattle and poultry were transferred to Waynesville and crop research began again.

1950’s: The primary focus of livestock research efforts was directed towards work with dairy cattle and poultry, which at that period were very important parts of the agricultural industry in the mountain regions of North Carolina. Research efforts in crops were directed primarily to the crops that were most important to the economy of the area at that time. These were burley tobacco, corn and forage crops. A 12-acre apple orchard was established for the purpose of evaluating new varieties of apples and also to study pesticide use and management. This work was phased out in later years.

1960’s: Work with dairy cattle and poultry continued during the 1960’s, but the agricultural economy of the area was changing as poultry production moved to other areas of the state. The poultry work and dairy work were phased out.

1970’s: Burley tobacco continued to be the main cash crop in the mountains and research efforts were continued and increased in this area. Trellised tomatoes made an appearance. Efforts were also made to determine the feasibility of new cash crops that might be successfully grown in the area, including sunflowers and sugar beets. It was discovered that the Fraser, which is native to the high mountains of North Carolina, was the prime species for Christmas tree use and could be successfully cultivated and marketed for this purpose. The first experimental Christmas tree plots for Fraser Firs in North Carolina were established at the Mountain Research Station.

1980’s: The station continued efforts to diversify its research program. Livestock research dominated the station with the addition of a Performance Bull Test program that began in 1980. Blueberry varieties for mountain climates and soils were developed as well as raspberry varieties that could tolerate cold climates.

1990’s: Station facilities, fields and infrastructure were renovated or updated. Sheep and goat research was conducted. Conservation tillage, non-native grasses, small ruminant forages and grazing trials were researched extensively. Eight Burley tobacco varieties were developed and released during the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

2000’s: Leaf lettuce, slaw cabbage, herbs, heirloom tomatoes, specialty crops (peppers, gourds, sunflowers) pumpkins, organics and bread wheat were all part of the station’s research program and trials to farmers find new crop alternatives. A cow/calf research herd was established. The herd is used to demonstrate and research management variables on calf production and carcass data. Extensive goat diet and nutrition, production, and grazing trials were continued.

Connected to the land: An early passion borne from goats and Radio Flyer wagon

David Burnette and his wife Diane do things the old way.

“One thing just led to another,” David said of the couple’s self-sufficient lifestyle.

On this day, while David shows a visitor around the couple’s Haywood County homestead, Diane thins out sorghum seedlings in preparation for planting hundreds of the tiny plants this week. All told the couple will tend about an acre of sorghum, made up of different varieties and with different maturity dates. They’ll harvest the sorghum in the fall and make over a hundred gallons of molasses to sell and give away.

David said he’s always had an interest in old timey ways and things. That interest is in full evidence at their home on Dutch Cove Road outside of Canton. There are dozens of plows that David has saved from being turned into metal scrap, plus various cultivators and horse-drawn sleds. These aren’t just on the farm for appearance sake, however.

The Burnettes use workhorses to do much of their plowing and cultivating. They also raise chickens and pigs, one of their sons raises Boer meat goats on the homestead, plus they operate a sawmill and sometimes log land using the team of horses.

David remembered that his father always kept a horse or a pony. But his first experience in working animals wasn’t with horses. Instead it came when David used a bit of broken harness to make a collar for a goat. David soon had that goat pulling a Radio Flyer wagon around the farm. That beginning with the goat led into a lifelong fascination with working horses.

“I like to fool with them,” David said. “To me there’s a lot of satisfaction not to be dependent on anybody’s oil, foreign or domestic.”

David uses the horses to plow and cultivate on the farm. He was getting ready to use them in the next day or so to cultivate his potatoes. Throughout the year he’ll mow hay with the horses, too. David and Diane are popular figures at the Cradle of Forestry, where each spring they participate in a living history event, “Old Time Plowing and Folkways.” The couple in April plowed the Cradle of Forestry’s vegetable garden for the benefit of visitors. Many who watch have never seen horses work like this before, David said.

“A lot of people don’t know where their food comes from,” David said. “There was one lady, who was 30 to 40 years old, who’d never seen a horse before. People are disconnected.”


Making a start

When he was 12 years old or so, David and a friend built a log cabin together, and that interest in building and making things led David into taking machinery at Asheville Buncombe Technical College. He later took classes such as welding at Haywood Community College. He learned basic blacksmithing from a fellow that lived in the area.

“I wanted to be able to do it all,” David said.

Today David teaches hand-wrought metal in the professional crafts program at Haywood Community College.

David took a keen interest in his father’s farm as he grew older, which is the same land where he and Diane live today. David as a young man started cutting hay and working the property. After he and Diane married, David bought a colt, a draft-horse mix, and started working with her on the farm. He and Diane were growing tobacco then and found they needed more horsepower, however. They bought the colt’s half sister and paired the two as a team, marking the beginning of David’s ongoing venture into working horses. Diane, as well as David, works the horses.


Staying connected to the land

Soon the couple bought a team of Belgian colts and broke them to working, too.

David said it took him two or three teams, however, to find ones that truly suited him. The horses temperaments have to match up with the owner, he explained. You might have one team that likes to work fast, another more slowly — it takes time to find exactly the right ones, he said.

“They have different attitudes,” David said. “You have to get horses that are suited to you, that matches your personality.”

You also have to try to pair your team as closely as possible, though he noted “you’ll never get a perfectly matched team.”

David tries to match his team in terms of temperament and height and build. Unlike some folks, he doesn’t worry much about color. That’s just aesthetics, and that doesn’t really count for much when you’re really working them in the field.

David said there seems to be a lot of fairly new interest among people wanting to learn about working horses.

“There seems to be a resurgence of people getting into it,” David said, adding that this has meant it’s becoming easier and easier to find equipment for horse-drawn teams. Even new equipment is being invented these days, he said, as more and more folks get involved.

“I think this is as good a time as it has ever been to get into it and practice it,” David said.

David believes that people wanting to work with horses would be well advised not to also keep tractors on hand, though he does. That way, the horses are always being worked and the person working them doesn’t have an excuse to go crank up an engine-powered machine in place of the horses. David does use tractors, and with his background in machinery and welding he’s able to keep all his machines up and running.

“Horses like to work,” David said. “A tractor will just sit under the shed and be there a week later.”

Intensive forest farming workshop set for this weekend

Permaculture has become something of a catchword in farming and homesteading circles, a grand concept — but one usually unfulfilled in hands-on practice — of layering one’s land with a variety of edible plants that will feed you or your animals.

Luckily, Sylva native and permaculture expert Zev Friedman is available to help sort the reality from fantasy. Friedman, who lives in Weaverville and runs Urban Paradise Gardening, will hold a two-day workshop this coming weekend, Dec. 3-4, on permaculture practices. The cost of the program is $75, with the workshop running from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. both days. Mountain BizWorks is sponsoring the program.

Friedman focuses on whole-system design of water savvy landscapes that yield valuable foods and medicines and provide for other human needs with a minimum of external inputs.

Friedman’s workshop will take place on a farm owned by Ron and Cathy Arps of Sylva. The couple is well known in the local agrarian community — the Arps pioneered the now popularly used Community Supported Agriculture plan in these westernmost counties. CSA’s are a means for farmers to exchange produce for purchased shares, in practice meaning those participating buy-into the farm by paying for produce at the beginning of the growing season. You then share in the risks and windfalls of that season through the CSA. The Arps have successfully fed families for more than a decade from their intensively managed small farm just off Cope Creek Road.

Friedman toured the farm recently with the couple, laying the framework for the upcoming workshop.

“This could be a pretty good workshop for getting some things done,” Friedman said, adding that it’s important that people who attend get “hands-on” experience with such work as removing invasive plants and so on. This, he explained, will translate to lessons for working their own properties.

The trio let the land help dictate the shape of the workshop, perhaps the first lesson those interested in permaculture must learn. Workshop attendees will learn about site assessment and design, information they can take back to their own properties and, hopefully, put into practice.

A stream beside an existing pasture seemed perfectly destined for a streamside forest garden, Friedman explained, perhaps with raspberry plantings or comfrey replacing the invasives dominating there now.

The existing forest area could transition to a nut, timber, craftwood and animal products system.

In addition to nitty-gritty work, Friedman views the workshop as an opportunity for local farmers, homesteaders and those generally interested in permaculture to discuss economic niches and various business opportunities. Not to mention, he said, the opportunity to network with like-minded people.


Use what works

Touring the Arps’ farm, Friedman quickly identifies what’s there now — along the stream beside the pasture and on up toward the garden, there is a heavy infiltration of walnut trees.

That leaves two choices: cut them out, or plant edibles that can co-exist with these native plants. Sure, walnut trees provide food for people and animals, but walnuts also exude a substance caused juglone, which inhibits other plant growth. Tomatoes and potatoes, particularly, suffer tremendously when grown anywhere near walnut trees — these members of the ultra-juglone sensitive nightshade family show “walnut wilt” just when the gardener believes they might just harvest a beautiful crop.

The Arps aren’t keen on cutting down trees, no matter how inhibiting they might be to other plants. Instead, the couple and Friedman decide co-existence is the way to go. That means that raspberries, elderberries or comfrey, are obvious choices. Raspberries and elderberries provide berries for people and wild creatures. Comfrey provides fodder for animals, plus is an excellent source of potassium in the soil if used for mulching. Both plants defy the presence of juglone.

“Plant big long rows of comfrey, and scythe it down,” Friedman said. “You could harvest it six times a year.”

And this is the type of information homeowners can get through Friedman’s workshop.


Say what? Explaining permaculture

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that is modeled on the relationships found in nature. It is based on the ecology of how things interrelate rather than on the strictly biological concerns that form the foundation of modern agriculture. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs; it’s a system of design where each element supports and feeds other elements, ultimately aiming at systems that are virtually self-sustaining and into which humans fit as an integral part.

Source: Wikipedia


Want to participate?

What: Two-day workshop on intensive forest farming.

When: Dec. 3-4 in Sylva, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.

Where: At Ron and Cathy Arps’ Vegnui Gardens farm.

Why: To learn how to put your land to work in a sustainable fashion.

How much: $75 for each participant. Food and beverages provided, but bring your own eating utensils, plates, and cups. Space is limited and pre-registration is required. Payment of workshop fee will reserve your space.

To register: Contact Sheryl Rudd at 631-0292 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Local schools now getting food from local farmers

The growing local food movement that is gaining traction around the country has made its way into Haywood County Schools, where the first shipment of Haywood County produce rolled in earlier this year.

The tomatoes, peppers and corn came courtesy of Skipper Russell, a local farmer who is the only one in the county allowed to sell to the school system.

Russell works a 35-acre farm in Bethel called Seasonal Produce Farms, and his newest client is thanks to his recent GAP certification, a requirement for any farmer wishing to peddle their wares in schools and other government cafeterias.

GAP is short for Good Agriculture Practices, and it’s a strict set of guidelines that ensure food safety, making sure that what gets to the plate was grown and tended the right way. Most farmers say it’s just a recorded verification of what they’re already doing, since good agriculture practices aren’t just nice, they’re what produces quality, sellable produce.

But it’s not a cheap proposition, and each crop must be certified separately. It can take around $1,500 per crop, and sometimes that burden is too much for small farmers to recoup.

Plus, it’s time consuming and pretty onerous.

“The manual’s probably about two inches thick,” said Russell. “It’s a long drawn out process to get to them (the school system), you don’t just go up to them and start selling. But it’s something that more and more people are going to be looking for.”

And that’s why he did it, because he can see what’s coming down the road. Getting certified opens a lot of doors for medium and large farms to get their food into steady, reliable markets like schools. But Russell thinks it will soon close doors for those who don’t have it, as an increasing number of restaurants, stores and even consumers want to know just how the tomatoes on their table were taken care of before getting there.

With the recent outbreaks of E-coli in Europe and listeria still rearing its head in this nation’s cantaloupe, food safety is a hotter button than ever.

In Jackson County Schools, the move has been afoot towards local food — defined by the federal government as anything grown in-state, while local advocacy group the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project considers anything grown within 100 miles as local.

Jim Hill, the child nutrition director there, said he’d love to buy from more hyperlocal producers, but is overall in favor of the GAP regulations that sometimes hamstrings him in that effort.

“I don’t really want 10 farmers in pickup trucks backing up through the schools,” said Hill “You’d rather go through some kind of centralized co-op or warehouse or somewhere where it’s being checked really closely.”

But, he said, with GAP being such a costly endeavor — farmers have to pay the auditors for every hour of their inspection, starting when they leave Raleigh — it’s unfortunately pricing many local producers out of the market.

“The problem with that is, in my opinion, that it really, really, really hurts the small farmer because it’s very expensive to get that GAP certification,” said Hill “The state encourages us to by from locals, but they do make it really hard for us to buy from local farmers.”

One way around that, he said, is to go through a third party, a distributor who is certified, but doesn’t buy exclusively from GAP approved farmers.

That is a tactic he and other school systems use, but they’d prefer to ax the middleman and deal straight with the farmer, a better deal for both sides.

Alison Francis, child nutrition director in Haywood County Schools, said that, with Russell, cutting that middleman has helped them support their neighboring farm and reduce their bottom line simultaneously.

Tomatoes bought from Russell, for example, are nearly half the cost of tomatoes from their national supplier. And for a system that buys a dozen 25-pound cases of them each week, $10 per case instead of $19 adds up quickly.

In Jackson County, they’ve cut out the middleman on the salad bar by simply growing their own.

The hydroponic lettuce is grown by high school students at Smoky Mountain High School in their on-campus greenhouse, and eventually makes its way into the cafeteria what Hill has dubbed ‘Mustang Salads.”

“It’s the closest thing you can imagine to branding a salad,” said Hill. “You can brand a pizza ... but it’s really hard to brand a salad.”

The idea is that if kids know their classmates or siblings or friends grew the salad, they’re much more likely to eat it. They feel more invested in it.

And that’s one of the benefits both Hill and Francis find in local food: it teaches students about where their food comes from, an area in which many kids have a surprising dearth of knowledge.

Francis tells of a time when the subject of food origin came up in an elementary school.

“They asked about if anybody knew where bacon came from and most kids didn’t even know that bacon came from a pig,” said Francis. “I think it’s really important for the kids to see where their food comes from. It’s good for them to know that their food came from just down the road.”

Farmers are almost always willing to lend a hand

Tammara Talley, while gracious in her acknowledgments during the shower of verbal high-fives raining down upon her at Saturday’s farmers market, couldn’t help but beam proudly. No different, really, than any mother just delivered of perfect babies bearing precisely the correct number of eyes, hooves and tails.

“Congratulations on your new litter!” Penny O’Neill, a pediatrician in real life at Sylva Pediatric Associates when not farming, came up and told her as I stood nearby. Tammara had mentioned the litter to one, maybe two, fellow vendors. The information spread in a couple of hours across the market; everyone, it seemed, was rejoicing in this gift of new life.

One of Tammara and husband Darryl’s sows delivered the litter at their home in Whittier. Tammara works for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee. Two or three years ago she and Darryl started Trillium Farms. The couple specializes in natural pork.

This column easily could be about pigs. That’s because I’m thinking about buying two of them, which is why I was at the market picking Tammara’s brains on the subject this past weekend. And if I dwell long enough mentally on how much I like pigs, how very exciting it’s going to be when I get them, and contemplate how I’m cleverly intending to put them in an area for a future vegetable garden, this column will indeed write itself in that direction.

But, that’s not my intention today, as feverish as I am at this moment for all-things pigs. I’ve been wanting to write something about the sorts of people who raise pigs. Or, rather, who raise virtually any kind of farm animal, who keep bees, or who till the good earth and raise vegetables.

I like people who farm. There are, of course, a few unlikable ones mixed in there. But as a rule, people who connect themselves to the land are humble, generous and fun to be around. Good folks who find plenty of joy in the lives they’ve built. And these are lives built on hard work and determination; lives that are very often short on dollars but long on authenticity.

That same spirit was on display Sunday, too, at the Mountain State Fair in Asheville. A friend and I headed an hour east to watch the goat shows and talk goats with a group of experts on the subject.

I’m fairly new to goats, and still struggle to grasp the nomenclature veteran goat owners’ use. I’m doing somewhat better these days than at my first goat show, when I struggled mightily to fathom what on earth the judges meant when they discussed such bewildering points as “good udder attachment” or “poor udder attachment.”

After attending a few shows I started grasping what they might be referring to, though I’m certainly no expert and remain baffled as to why certain goats emerge blue-ribbon winners. I have learned that biggest isn’t everything, though it’s part of the winning formula. The ideal dairy goat has a huge udder, yes, but that huge udder somehow looks exactly right on her body — good udder attachment.

Really, though, you don’t particularly have to grasp udder attachment to get a kick out of goat shows. The animals are beautiful and charming, and their owners are laid back, pleasant, helpful and eager to talk goats. They are some of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging around.

Want to understand milk-fat content? Just ask. Considering a certain breed? Ask and learn every conceivable virtue and fault associated with that particular breed of goat. Dying to understand the complexities of udder attachment? If I’d asked, trust me, I’m sure someone would have been eager to explain.

I’m not sure if farming brings out the best in people, or if the best people are attracted to farming. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I do know that living closely with the cycles of life — birth and death; spring, summer, fall and winter; planting, tending and harvesting — help gentle a person. It has me, anyway.

If there’s a larger message here, then I guess that it’s this: If you want to farm, whether for a living or as a hobby, reach out for help — you’ll find it waiting in the form of a bunch of really nice people. I believe you’ll find this true, too, whether you’re at a local farmers market or at a regional goat show. I sure have.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

One Katahdin ram, two sheep and three really good lessons

Turkeys, I’ve learned, are curious animals. That curiosity was on full display for company this past weekend when Kirk Hardin the goat broker and his wife, Shannon, came over from Canton to pick up three sheep and a billy goat.

My friend and I reluctantly decided to sell our Katahdin sheep because we have too little pastureland. The ram, Leo, his betrothed, Sophie, and the couple’s offspring, Nikolai, represent a farming experiment gone awry.

Lesson: do not get into sheep unless you have pasture, about an acre for every three to five head. Otherwise, you’ll be feeding hay to them all year. And, unless you’ve got your own hayfield — doubtful, if you don’t have enough pasture to begin with — sheep being fed purchased hay is the equivalent of tossing money into a bottomless hole.

Despite this farming failure, I remain a stalwart fan of Katahdin sheep. I hope one day to build a large flock and tend them as a dutiful little shepherdess. I believe Katahdins are wonderfully suited for raising here in Western North Carolina, much more so than other kinds of sheep or meat goats … if, that is, you have adequate pastureland.

Kirk and Shannon showed just after lunch in a pickup truck with a livestock crate in the back. I’d been dubious when Kirk told my friend on the phone that he planned to lift Leo into the pickup. He and what army, I believe was my response to that.

Leo, you see, weighs at least 200 pounds, maybe even 250. He doesn’t like being touched, much less picked up, though I’ve certainly never tried to lift him. Two months ago or so, Leo took me out — lowered his big ram head and sent me rolling down the hill, head over heels — when I wasn’t quick enough delivering his food. (Lesson: never, ever, turn your back on a ram). That experience bruised both my body and ego. I’d become quite cautious in my subsequent dealings with Leo.

Kirk ambled into the barnyard, took one look at the huge ram glowering at him from inside a locked stall, and developed another plan.

He decided to bring the pickup truck around, back it into a bank, and lead Leo up the bank and into the livestock crate. I had my doubts, but Kirk is the professional goat broker, not me. Never mind that we were dealing primarily with sheep, not goats — both have four legs, after all, and Kirk had an air of confidence about him.

We first loaded Sophie, Nikolai and the billy goat, Ghirardelli. Kirk offered to buy Ghirardelli for a friend whose goat lasses need a good buck’s services. This saved the young lad from freezer camp. One requires but a single billy goat in one’s life, and that niche is currently filled here at Haven Hollow Farm in Sylva.

Kirk took the truck around and backed into the bank, which was 25 to 30 feet from the stall where Leo was now pacing agitatedly back and forth. Kirk and I went into the stall — why I went in, don’t ask me, it’s not like I was any actual help — and Kirk dropped a lead over Leo’s head.

I fully anticipated at this point in the story that Leo would destroy Kirk the professional goat broker. I could almost sense the ensuing story writing itself in my head, about how Leo exploded with rage and the broker ran for his life, or something like that.

Instead, the great sissy docilely trotted along with Kirk, who suddenly manifested into some oversized, mountain-twanging Haywood County version of Little Bo Peep leading her gentle lamb.

There was a bit of excitement close to the pickup, but it didn’t amount to much: Leo started launching himself through the air. What Leo thought this would accomplish, I can’t say. He’s never been big on providing explanations.

Kirk didn’t even blink. He just stepped aside so the great leaping beast wouldn’t come down on top of him, pointed him in the general direction of the pickup bed, and let Leo leap inside the crate.

Meanwhile, the turkeys were taking it all in.

We have three turkeys. They are common Broad-breasted whites. We’d ordered a heritage breed, but in a joint order with a friend, she somehow ended up with the heritage birds, and us with the whites. I don’t care — this was my first stab at turkeys, and I’ve been highly entertained, no matter how ubiquitous the breed we have.

I’d always read that turkeys are incredibly stupid. That’s simply not true — at least not these turkeys. Granted, when they were young, they did squish to death one of their brethren, taking the count from four to three. But chickens do that sometimes, too. And Sophie the ewe stepped on Nikolai when he was just a baby, luckily causing no visible lasting harm.

The turkeys love a good show. And seeing three sheep and a billy goat loaded into a truck by Kirk was what they consider a really good show. They got right up to the back of the pickup, making odd hinking noises at each other, watching his every move like so many biddies in a hair parlor commenting on the people walking past.

I thought the turkeys looked disappointed when Kirk and Shannon drove off. Life was again humdrum everyday fare in the barnyard; boring goats, a bunch of boring chickens, a boring guard dog named Sassy and a barn cat — b-o-r-i-n-g — named Jack. Turkeys, I’ve learned, yen for more entertainment than that.

But not me: I, for one, was thrilled to see Leo disappear down the road. He was a bit too much entertainment for my taste, not to mention the ever-increasing expense associated with feeding a ram his size. That served as a constant, annoying reminder that I hadn’t thought things through very well when it came to the sheep.

Lesson: turkeys are a lot cheaper than sheep to feed. And, if a bird lowers its head and runs into you, it’s doubtful that this turkey attack would hurt nearly as much as having a 200- to 250-pound ram nail you from behind.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A tough farming year

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

“Overall, it’s been a really tough year for farming,” said Jackson County farmer William Shelton as he reflected back on 2007.

“It’s one for the history books,” agreed Bill Skelton, director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Haywood County.

Getting close to the food you eat

By Adam Bigelow • Guest Columnist

The morning chill had lifted, mist had risen into the air, and as I walked towards the waiting group I had no idea what to expect from this day. We were all here for the same purpose, and my apprehension had not dissolved with the mist. I was running late this morning and afraid that I had missed the event, but out of the corner of my eye I saw the guest of honor. Tied to a swing set. Awaiting his fate.

A labor of love: Skipper Russell’s Cold Mountain Corn Maize raises support for cancer research

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Bright yellow sunflowers ring the edges of Skipper Russell’s Cold Mountain Corn Maize in Canton, a memorial to his wife, Frances, who lost her battle with renal cell and thyroid cancer this February.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.