Friday was the first day in a week that it wasn’t overcast and rainy. Hoping to get back to the spring soon, my parents and I set out on an adventure. Our goal, see three farms in one day, learn the farmers’ stories and put one foot in front of the other on a path toward strong relationships with our local producers. These three farms couldn’t be more different from one another, and the close of the car door after each visit brought reflection on three uniquely refreshing ways of life.
First stop–Mills Farm. We pull off Harve Mathis Rd., and park beside the little yellow house with green shutters, marked by a sign that says Mills. Alice Mills is a city girl that married a boy with farming in his blood, and the rest is history. Alice and her husband Tim have been married and farming together for over 40 years, and they have been on this piece of property since the mid-80s. They have two fields for vegetables, a chicken house, a mill house, two workshops, their home, and a pasture for their mule, Luke, all on about three acres.
They taught us that it doesn’t take a lot of land to have a farm, just a lot of ingenuity, and boy do they have ingenuity. My family used to own a company that sold and serviced construction equipment, and my dad told me that Grandpa always said that the best mechanics they ever hired came from farming backgrounds. Tim Mills is just that kind of mechanic. The Mills have a vision for their farm where they would be able to do all of their daily tasks and still be able to live off of their land year-round without the need for electricity, and they have almost achieved it. With the exception of the freezer, which holds some of the produce they put up for the winter and the walk-in refrigerator, where they store items ready to go to market out of the hot sun, all of the machines the Mills use for farming can be powered my their beautiful red mule. Tim didn’t even know that what he was building when he welded together the machine that became the power for their mill. Then one day while he was building it, a friend gave them the actual mill parts and he and Alice knew why he had been making the machine.
All in all, the Mills have something special. Any young farmer would be lucky to have them as mentors. They farm in very traditional ways, with no need to change them. They won’t build hoop houses because they think they should be able to get by on just the land, and they do. They can, freeze and dry any excess from the summer. They know that cornbread, collard greens and black eyed peas provide just about the best possible meal that anyone could ever need and they can find all of that just outside their back door.
Our next stop was totally on the other end of the spectrum. A short drive up North Avenue just past the loop brought us to a piece of land happily dubbed Clay Gardens. Clay Gardens is both old and new. The land had been owned by a agriculture professor with a true love for the land in his blood, and had been used as a farm for the agricultural extension office. He had cultivated an expansive pecan grove, row after row of trellises stretched with old grape vines and a sunny vegetable patch up by the main road. The professor passed away a few years ago and the land fell into the hands of Mr. Cantrell, a retired mathematics professor, who now owns it and has a saw mill on the property where he collects reclaimed wood from all over the region. Mr. Cantrell also allows artists to rent out the rooms of the old farmhouse as studios. The farm is home to the studios of musicians, ceramicists, woodworkers and several other artists.
Coy Campbell King, our gracious guide, has recently moved onto the property and is the only resident. He has been incredibly inspired by his gorgeous surroundings and has set his mind on restoring the gardens to a usable community growing space. Coy wears many professional hats, but he came to Clay Gardens with plans to build a wood shop where he is making beautiful custom and artisan furniture under a company that shares our name, Heirloom. His work will truly become an heirloom for anyone lucky enough to acquire one of his pieces. He partners with Mr. Cantrell, finding a use for a good bit of the reclaimed wood that Mr. Cantrell collects.
Coy also has headed up the gardening project, tilling a plot that happens to lie right where the original owner’s vegetable patch had been. He plans to grow the three sisters (corn, beans and squash all grown together), as well as a whole bunch of sunflowers and whatever else he is inspired to plant, including some heirloom seeds. This is a very organic project for Coy. He hopes to create an artistic space in this garden that is beautiful and functional, and that can help feed him and his friends in the coming year. He welcomes any volunteer labor and any input, and truly wants it to become a community space.
After Clay Gardens, we hightail it over to Winterville to visit Three Pigs Farm, where my friends Tom and Jenna await us to show us their land and inspire us once more. Their friend Hank is also an owner of the farm, but he wasn’t able to join our tour.
The focus of this farm, as the name suggests, is the pigs, and they focus on heritage breeds. These breeds were almost bred out by the big pork producers, but a recent movement of environmentalists and gourmets has brought them back from the brink and they are being raised by the most discerning pig farmers. Right now, they have some Tamworth mixes, the best little bacon pigs around.
Tom and Jenna gave us the tour of the land, which made us all very jealous of their life. They have two very large fields, which they intend to cultivate around the rotation of their pigs. Once they reach full capacity, they plan to have one fallow field, one field in cover crops, two rotating pigs through, eating the tasty undergrowth, and a peach orchard where the pigs will spend their last days feasting on the fallen peaches. This is several years down the road, but their current set up is very impressive in and of itself. Everything on the farm is very tidy, from the rows in the garden right down to the pig pins.
The family garden close to the house is very neatly laid out in rows and a few raised beds, made from an old wooden fence that previously surrounded the smaller house on the property. There were several rows of garlic in the ground that had overwintered, as well as some brassicas and some beautiful buttercrunch lettuce. In the greenhouse, transplants for summer crops waited patiently to go in the ground. I can’t wait to eat one of their Cherokee Purple tomatoes….their purple red flesh is my favorite….mmmmm.
On a side note, all these wonderful photos were taken by my awesome mom, Susie Burch. Doesn’t she rock?