Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Moyer Family]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.

Letting go is one of the hardest things to do in this life. Letting go of expectations, of the notion that you can do everything, that you can control everything. But in the process of letting go, of minimizing, you make space for a freedom that’s more rewarding than control. You allow for magic and meaning.

Meet Richard Moyer and his family. I was lucky enough to meet his wife, Jenny, and his children, Kristina, Timothy (it was his birthday!) and Melissa, on the farm that day. Timothy, known as the “wasp whisperer” was feeding grubs to baby chicks, while Kristina prepared to milk the cows.

They offer grass-fed beef, eggs from ducks, chickens and geese, and an assortment of vegetables, heavily focusing on tomatoes this year. I was joined by local farmer, Neal Reid, on this eye-opening visit. They live in an old farmhouse, built by a family dedicated to mindful farming at a time where food was worth so much more. The man down the street who paid for his first two years of school by selling duck eggs. We live in a world now of industrialization where food is merely a commodity. A world in which taking the time to prepare and enjoy food is perceived as inconvenient to our daily lives. Richard has instilled in his life the act of mindfulness through planting, harvesting and consuming. Their farm was another reminder of interconnectedness from who we buy from to the water that runs off a property line and into major lakes and rivers. All the dots connect somewhere.

In the class Richard teaches, there’s an assignment where students are asked to interview a farmer, cook up their food and serve it. Most of the students report back that they were shocked how affordable it was and how much more they enjoyed the food, knowing where and who it came from. I recently made the switch to purchasing almost all of my own food from local farmers, and though it takes an adjustment in seasonal dishes, it’s made meals more fun knowing that the entire affair consists of honest work. I waste less, I enjoy the food more. And slowly, but surely, I’m learning to let go and allow, in more ways than one, throughout my life.

The big question is: how do we educate future generations in economically viable ways to expand grass-fed and organic food? Because really, it’s all about getting back to simplicity and intentionality. Real food is worth celebrating!

Enjoy the following interview and photos where Richard, Neal and I discuss the problems we’re facing today and leading an intentional lifestyle!


Richard: So, the people that grew up here. They remember…that huge tree over there is an ash tree…and the man, Chuck, remembers his mom was sitting on the porch one day and she said…go on top of those hills and bring me an ash seed because we need an ash tree in the front yard. That says a bunch of things. They were educating the kids about what all the trees were, so he knew what an ash tree was. And intentionality—she envisioned “I want a big tree in the front yard, I want it from that spot”, and he came back with the ash tree, planted it, and there that ash tree is. And then these two Walnut trees were seedlings that came up on their own. And they decided they were going to leave them. So, they left them. It’s interesting to hear again about the intentionality. A lot of history here. So, we’re interested in honoring and a sense of continuing the families that grew up in this area that provided for their needs and the needs of others. So that’s what we do. We grow things here. That’s why I quit teaching full-time. I was up for a sabbatical at King and I wanted to learn how to farm, grass-based farm, minimal input farming. So, I did at Roffey Cattle Company first, where Dwayne and his family are right now, for fifteen months. Then looked for a farm that worked for us, and been doing it here now for ten years. We grow for our own needs and sell the extra for the farmer’s market. Occasionally we sell to other things, mostly to people in Abingdon because I like the people connection. Neal knows that. I just respect people who love food. I was thinking this morning the idea of honoring people, but also honoring plants and honoring food and making a connection with people.

Sarah: You’ve been technically farming most of your life, just not at the same scale?

R: Since ’92, we grew most of our own food. But it’s a family heritage. Both sides of our family. One of the best gifts was at my grandmother’s funeral in Pennsylvania, at the funeral it was an extended weekend, and people came forward…I’ll never forget, a little old lady came up and said, may I tell you about your grandmother? She said, when we were five we used to be best friends and we’d wander around the fields together and we’d pick flowers and make crowns for our head. And it was such a gift, hard not to tear up talking about it. But then there’s other people in the family that came up and they just started laughing about all the farming things they’d done, gardening things. The time they tried to make ketchup and it ended up looking like apple butter, and all the funny things they shared. But I got the sense that this a family heritage, of growing food, preserving food, and then making things with food. My mother’s side of the family, we used to always get together and shell out butter beans, pecans…this is Georgia. And that was family time. So, I’m glad to be able to pass that down to my children. Hopefully their children too. But we’re always learning.

S: Oh look at the chicks with their Momma! (They were actually baby turkeys that the Brooding Hen watches over. How amazing!)

R: We got those from David and Barbara King originally. We went to them and said we want some hens that do a great job of raising their young without a lot of care on our part. I don’t know if it’s laziness or efficiency.

Neal: I get it, totally!

R: I’ve got enough to keep me busy. If an animal can love to do what they want to do and we can partner with them to reach our goals, then that’s the kind of animal I want. Or plant, too.

N: No laziness there.

R: I want to avoid the idea that I’m good and somebody else is bad. That we’re better than you. But still, sometimes we’re blinded, we get stuck where we are and don’t realize how we got there, and so sometimes it’s fun or gratifying to be able to push back. So, when we say this is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it, it’s not to label “black and white”, “good/bad”, but they’re alternatives. Farming can be such drudgery, but if you can be open and aware of the possibilities, of letting animals do the work. To me, as a biologist, I always want to have stuff blooming for the pollinators because pollinators are a huge part of ecosystems. We’re certified organic in all of our plots, and organic requires you to have a farm plan that values pharmacology, the whole ecological system. And the more I read, the more I realize that we always need to have something blooming. When I was eleven to eighteen I had a lawn business. I spent a whole lot of time caring for landscapes to other people’s standards. It was the idea of, there’s a little weed over there! Go boy, get rid of it! What’s that weed doing here? So, it’s like, the flip side of that. I’m just letting it happen. There are pollinators and beneficial insects that need that nectar to survive the winter. So, I want to have stuff blooming as long as possible.

N: I love that paradigm. We were talking about that on the way over here. It’s easy to internalize or put on yourself a real sense of shame for weeds when you think about those standards you were talking about. What a beautiful paradigm shift towards letting go of the sort of vanity of how you think it looks, or how you think other people perceive it to look and view it more through the lens of what’s healthy for your ecosystem, which is obviously much more important.

S: And what was the wording you used for natural cycles? Minimal input?

R: Just in terms of honoring the natural cycles that are here. Minimizing all farm inputs, and the idea that we can control anything. The plants want to reproduce. Everything wants to reproduce, and so if we can work with that and manage it and step back. Standing on the edges, doing some directions and nudges here and there. And then seeing what happens, and you’re always surprised which is part of the fun, part of the journey. When people come and they’re like, what about all the snakes? What about ticks? It’s almost like they’re caught in this Grimm’s fairytale, you know, danger of the deep, dark places.

S: It’s because we live in a very sterile world now. We also live in a world where if you don’t mow your lawn in a neighborhood…well I don’t know what’s gonna get you. I guess the boogey man will get you? But it’s like a problem to people for things not to be perfect, so there’s a negative connotation with weeds.

R: I hear that. And so, I don’t spray for tomato worms because there are little tiny wasps that will take care of them. I don’t manage for cabbage loopers because we have the paper wasp and other wasps that eat those and keep those at sustainable levels. And again, this is part of the organic system, that you want to manage for whole, healthy ecosystems. You gotta let things balance. But then you’ve got to tolerate some stuff. It encourages you to let go of some stuff. Once you start questioning some parts of paradigms, it makes it easier to question others as well. And that’s part of the fun. Our tomatoes sell well and we’ve got to be able to take them to market. But we get on this chemical treadmill of, at the first sign of damage you’ve gotta spray with chemicals. Well, that’s money and time. And I’m trying to minimize my use of time and my use of money. Let the systems take care of themselves. Again, that goes back to the people who grew up here. They didn’t have cash. Sometimes I get fooled in the sense that I do have the money, and I think, well I’ve just gotta run out and buy this.

N: Right!

R: It adds up. These are the two babies and two mommas. Where’s calf two? Did it run up ahead?

N: These are beautiful animals.

R: We also do milk on grass alone. I say this is the best kind of alchemy when these animals take weeds that we can’t eat and they turn it into high quality grass. And there’s a human tradition, an agricultural-pastural traditions, for tens of thousands of years where people have partnered with animals and the animals can go out and get, to them, what’s high quality food. We make cheese, butter, sour cream, kefir, and ice cream.

S: Does everybody have their different projects that they work on here?

R: Yeah. It’s an evolving thing. My oldest son’s away at college, my oldest daughter just got married this summer, and the other daughter is a cook out in Colorado. So, we’re trying to adjust to less. We’re trying to figure out which crops and which things work best for us. One model is to do three or four crops at a time and to do them really well. And it can change over the season. Other people, they’ll do like forty something crops. Other people, like Neal, can do some of the very best heirloom tomatoes and be known for that. And then we have so many different heirlooms at our market.

(At the milking station)

N: This is wonderful.

R: So, this building, you can see the hand-hewn logs there where you can see the ax marks where they shaped those logs. We use artificial insemination. We get New Zealand semen, because in New Zealand they’re not on a grain-based meat and milk production. They do it on grass alone. They’ve had a lot of years of research of improving their herds to be on grass alone. People have said, what if the USDA had spent the same amount of time improving cattle breeds and doing nutritional studies on grass alone and how to produce better grass, versus all the effort we’ve done to show how to do meat and milk on grain? So, we get New Zealand semen from the best bulls down there. I go to conferences and people say, you can’t have healthy cattle on grass alone. And part of the reason is because we don’t focus on producing high enough quality grass. We fill in the gaps with corn and soy, which in one sense is cheap calories, but when you total up the cost.

N: Externalities. [noun—a side effect of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without this being reflected in the cost of the goods]

R: Let’s go up here and look at tomatoes. We heat with wood. I really like the idea, too, that every bit of heat in our house, we know where it comes from. And some of these logs we then use to grow mushrooms. Shiitake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms. But again, I know right where this tree came from and I can point to the spot where the sun was captured, the wood I’m growing mushrooms with. I just like the idea of local. Local heat source, local wood. I’d rather just use what’s here.

N: You keep going on back to the sun and it seems like you’re very aware of the solar energy component, it all comes back to that for you.

R: Wendell Berry [environmental activist, poet, farmer] says shorten your supply lines. Which is both a challenge and a quest or an adventure, I should say. A journey or an adventure. I don’t wanna see it as a burden, but how can we continue to shorten our supply lines? Because the people that grew up here, this worked for them and there was a time when people could make a good living from farming alone. So, we put out six hundred tomato plants and the most we’ve done is eight hundred. These are all heirlooms, all disease resistant, so we do minimal spray.

S: Did you do seed saving for them?

R: Some of these. Most of the seeds are from Southern Exposure. It’s all organic.

S: And is Southern Exposure a catalog that you can order from?

R: Yeah, they’re a community near Charlottesville. We’ve been growing seed for them for years. They did a great job of what works here. All these tomatoes have a story. This is an “Eva Purple Ball”. This one was developed in 1888 in the black forest of Germany. And it works well for us. This one is a “Mortgage Lifter”.

N: I’ve heard of this one!

R: So, you can look at the size of these tomatoes. This was bred in West Virginia and a man paid off his mortgage in one year selling plants of this tomato. He bred it. But look at the density of foliage and how healthy it is.

N: Didn’t he do twelve varieties and crossed them into one super tomato?

R: Yeah, he’d put them all together and he kept doing that. Selecting for size. Look at this guy!

S: Oh, my gosh! So, it eats off the bacteria?

R: A lot of people see that and think, oh I’ve got to kill that. My kids used to see those and think we’ve got to feed it to the chickens because the chickens will fight over it. But, that is a factory right now in the positive sense of parasites. It’s been parasitized by wasps, most likely, and it’s gonna have tiny little cocoons all over it soon. If we can be patient and leave this here, if I let nature take care of it, I don’t have to spend the time or the money to buy the spray. Why not just celebrate the natural cycles, tolerate a little bit of damage and then allow the predators to come in to control that? Oh! One thing you’ll appreciate, you can see this here. When the bottom leaves die, it’s got all this new foliage coming up. Quality tomatoes need leaves because leaves are solar collectors. Then all the sugars and flavors get stored in the tomatoes. The plant makes tasty fruit. This is my teacher in me…why do plants make tasty fruit?

S: Why do the plants make tasty fruit?

R: What’s the goal of it? They could just make a bare seed, but they surround the seed in something that looks good, smells good, and tastes good.

N: To make it transferrable to help itself spread.

R: Yeah! They want their children to do well, is what the plant does. It’s calling all these animals out here saying that I’ve got this green thing now. It’s hard, it’s crunchy, it’s starchy, don’t bother it now. Come check back when the color changes and it has all these aromas. I’ve got sweetness there for you. I’ve got protein. I’ve got fats. I’m gonna nourish you if you help me spread my children. I want my children to do well, I want my children to go to the world and succeed other places, not hang around home. So, the plant rewards the animals it partners with. So, Neal, there’s a lot of things I haven’t done this year but I have, to do some degree tried to get the tomatoes taken care of. At the end of day, or sometimes first thing in the morning I think, I can’t get everything done today. It’s the time of the year where you’ve gotta give up on some things.

N: Yeah. Let go!

R: You know?? It’s not all gonna get done to my ideal this year and sometimes I’m uncomfortable with this money grubbing thing of, I gotta get my money, gotta get my money! You sit down, you look at your books, what’s coming in and what your outlays are. Sometimes you gotta make money to keep doing it. If you’re gonna hold onto the land and keep this heritage going, you gotta figure out what makes money for you. But part of that is what you enjoy doing. The ideal is when the things that make money and the things that bring joy to you and your customers, when those can come together sometimes. So, tomatoes for us are one thing.

S: Do you have a personal favorite task on the farm?

R: That’s a good question and it’s like asking me to name a favorite child.

S: It seems like, for you as a science mind and everything, that putting together the pieces of the puzzle is something that you enjoy every day. Every day is a new problem to solve.

R: But there’s also a sense of wonder in that, and joy. I wanna keep that in mind, too, because so many people talk about farming as drudgery. We need to figure out how to bring on future generations. Whenever people come to the farm, I say, don’t teach me, teach my kids. I want you to teach the next generation.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Catherine Walden]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.

I have a line in the play I’m currently in that says, “Bob and I like to think we know people when we meet them”. The moment I met Catherine Walden of The Secret Garden Gallery, I had that same sensation. I knew she was a kind and gentle soul. An observer, detail-oriented, and sensitive to the stimulus life offers on the daily. Lucky for us, she’s worked her entire life to hone the skills that bring those visions to life through her art.

Her landscape paintings captivate what nature makes you feel, not just what you see. The way the light hit the trees that morning you walked the trail, or the funny and almost human-like expression on a bird’s face as it sat on a tree branch singing its morning song. Calligraphy, pressed flowers, prints, oils, watercolors, custom framing. She keeps her eyes open and her hands busy.

She found her home in this little southern town, finding common ground in the admiration of nature and how that connects every one of us. After all, isn’t that the point of art? Enjoy the interview below and a small glimpse into her collection of pieces, then go visit her at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 8-1pm at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market Pavilion off of Main Street or at her shop at 416 W. Main Street in Abingdon! You can also visit her online Etsy shops for artwork and prints & calligraphy.


Sarah: First off, how did you get started?

Catherine: Well, I went to art school when I was in college. I got a degree in Fine Arts.

S: Where did you go?

C: University of Arizona. Then I left Arizona and I became a studio potter and I had my own little pottery studio and I sold pottery and I did art shows. I never really stopped drawing or painting but I’ve had periods where I’ve done other jobs, focused on other things because, you know, it can be challenging to make a living as an artist.

S: Absolutely.

C: Any kind of art, right?

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: But when I moved here…I moved here from…well I’d been living in Staunton (Virginia) for a long time and I had a shop there very similar to this and I was doing more of the art that’s like pressed flower art, I was doing that mostly. And then when I moved here I started painting again, I started painting because I got kind of bored with what I was doing and I wanted to start doing fine art again. So, I’ve really been focusing on that and really enjoying that. I moved here because I used to do art shows all over the state when I lived in Staunton and we used to come here for the Highlands Festival, used to come here with my kids. The whole family came and we’d do art shows and we’d travel.

S: That’s so much fun!

C: That’s what we did. My kids have really good memories of growing up and always being at a festival on the weekends. The playing…

S: Meeting so many people, too.

C: Yeah, yeah. It becomes kind of like a tribe of people that you keep meeting everywhere you go. But then I kind of got to a place where it was hard to do it alone with my kids, so I decided to settle into a shop. My kids are grown now. But I really didn’t want to have that lifestyle forever. A gypsy lifestyle…even though it’s fun. Shows got to be less profitable, so many of them. And I don’t know what it was, the economy…

S: I’m sure traveling to them, too.

C: …Is very expensive, and the fees are really high and they’d just keep going up every year. So, I find that I do just as well or better at the farmer’s market because I don’t have travel expenses or any of that, hotels, and food. But it’s very up and down. I could go there and sell ten dollars or I could sell seven hundred, you know? I never know.

S: I was wondering about that, what the market was like here?

C:  Well, it’s better in the summer. Really, my business picks up in May. I’ve got about four months where it’s almost completely dead. That’s the time where I do the paintings. I have some business in the shop, but not a lot. So, from May until December, that’s pretty much my business. So, it is kind of seasonal. This time right now is really pretty busy, and it’s really good at the market usually. I always like to say that it’s kind of like going fishing. It just depends on who’s there, it depends on the weather, on what else is going on around town or if it’s graduation week or Mother’s Day. All those things affect whether people are coming. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with how many people are there. But I really enjoy doing it. I work pretty much alone here, you know, painting is a solitary thing. So, it’s really nice to have the market, and I also get a lot of business there through people who see me there and then they find out I have a shop here. I also do custom framing, so a lot of my business comes from the market.

S: And you do custom framing for pretty much anything?

C: I do all my framing for my work and I have a whole board of samples and stuff. I can do any kind of custom framing. And I do a little bit of online framing. I have two online shops on Etsy. Abingdon’s a small town and there’s very little foot traffic here. I think there’s even very little foot traffic in the middle of town, ‘cause other businesses have told me that they can go all day without getting a customer. I thought it was just ‘cause I’m down on this end. But, it’s just, you know, we’re small. But I get tourists and people who are going to the theatre. They say, oh, we’re just in town and we’re going to see a show and we’re just wandering around.

S: I know that whenever I travel I want to bring a piece of art home and that’s kind of a big thing for me. Whatever country I go to, I always bring back paintings. Where did you grow up? And how did you get to Arizona to go to school?

C: I grew up in New York and I wanted to go to art school and I wanted to go as far away as I could go.

S: Fair enough.

C: So, I picked the University of Arizona. I don’t know why or how I ended up doing that. I wanted to study representational art and they were still teaching that. Figurative and representational art. So, I went to Arizona and lived there for about four or five years and I graduated. I went from Arizona to Colorado and lived in Colorado for a while. I’ve moved around a lot…then I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and lived there. I didn’t do art there. I became a massage therapist there. I moved from there and lived in California for a little while, lived in New Mexico. I always liked the west but I think because I grew up in the East, it always feels more like home to me.

S: Me too.

C: So, I always have to come back because of the four seasons. Just the landscape and all that. I went out to New Mexico because I was going to get a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy and as it turned out I realized I didn’t want to not do art. I just like to do art. So, I came back and since I knew about Abingdon, I decided to come back here. I knew it was an arts place.

S: So, where do you get your inspiration for a lot of pieces? I know that’s such a general artist question.

C: That’s okay. I just really like anything that has to do with nature. I know that’s a big topic but I love landscape. I love still life and flowers and animals. I used to do portraits but I have to kind of focus on what people will buy. People do really like landscape and animals. I love doing the still life but it’s only occasionally that I’ll sell one of those. But that is something that I really love to do, a lot. The still life.

S: Why?

C: Because I really like building a space, a real space. Creating a little piece…I don’t know how to describe it…it’s like a naturalistic space, it’s real, but it also has it’s own…there’s something magical about making something look like it’s real in the space. And it takes a lot of observation. You begin to see so much color in variation, you know, in an object. That’s one of the things about art that’s really exciting, I think. When I started doing art, all of a sudden everything took on a different look. A different life. You begin to see color like you never could before. Things just got more alive. I mean, you look at somebody’s face and you see beauty in someone’s face that doesn’t have to be conventional or a classical kind of thing. You start to see beauty in everyday objects. Incredible beauty in the landscape and I guess that’s one of the reasons I like being here, is because in just a few moments…I can drive out on Valley Street and if I keep going out there, there’s all these rolling farms and hay fields and there’s cows and streams and trees and it’s just beautiful.

S: That’s something that keeps me calm. Every time I drive out of my house I get to see the Blue Ridge Mountains right in front of me and how many people get to see that every day?

C: But you’re an artist and so, that affects you that way and I think a lot of people are not affected by that and they don’t crave that. Because, you know, my kids say why are you living here? There’s nothing here. And I say, well there is. Look around you. Look what’s here.

S: Especially in the past couple of years, a lot of the young people who have been coming up. You’re getting a new generation of folks, too.

C: I really love the south because people are very civil. And they’re very sweet. Even if you’re not from here and you’re a Yankee. There’s things I’ve learned about just the way people interact with each other, it’s a little more gracious, a little slower…even if that can be hard for somebody who’s from New York.

S: It’s a good lesson in patience.

C: That’s right. And you know, I remember when I first moved to this town I was amazed because everybody kept saying hello to me like they knew me and I didn’t know anybody. Like, I only know one person here, but they all greeted me as if they knew me and people even wave to you in your cars. And that’s really nice. As a community, people are more community-minded. And that’s just a really nice thing.

S: What’s your favorite thing to create right now?

C: Oh, did you see the paintings when you came in? I started this series because, you know, I walk on the Creeper Trail just about every day, and I’ve taken hundreds of pictures and I just love the trail. So, I’ve started painting the trail…You know, the light’s different every day. One day it kind of had this blue/purple light on the water, must have been from the sky. And so, I did that one looking down over the bridge. I’m just fascinated with that stream and I want to do maybe some oils.

A closer glimpse of a morning on the trail.

S: Do you take pictures and then come back and paint them?

C: Yeah, yeah, but some of them are composites. So, people ask me where it is and I go, well…

S: A couple different places!

C: Yeah, and photographs are pretty limited as far as color and all that goes, so you have to make up the color a lot of the time.

S: It gives you more creative freedom.

C: I always do sunflowers because people love them and I like to paint them. And I always do nests, too, because people love those.

S: Crab! Maryland girl!

C: Oh yeah, that’s a very popular print.

S: Is framing something you learned in college?

C: No, I just kind of learned it with the years because, you know, you have a piece of artwork and you want to be in a show. You have to go get it framed and it’s super expensive. So, I started doing that myself. And I actually like doing it. It’s kind of a creative thing in itself. You know, setting something up in the right way. I like doing it for other people too because choosing the right framing can really set it off or not, if you don’t do it right. And it’s physical. I don’t like to sit forever. I stand up a lot when I paint but I get to do a lot of different things in my shop. I can frame, I can paint.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Tom & Deni Peterson]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.

We all have dreams. At least, we’ve all had them before. I’ve been working on letting myself dream again, like I did when I was a kid. What I want to see, what I want to become, what I want to leave behind. I truly believe that by dreaming something, you begin to set it into motion. I’m inspired to do this constantly by the people around me who dreamt up a life for themselves and then followed the path to get there, whether they were fully conscious of it or not at the time.

Meet Tom and Deni Peterson of Blue Door Garden. If you’ve ever been to the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, you’ll know them as the flower folks. With the most gorgeous bouquets I’ve ever seen, they manage to bring light into any room with the breathtaking plants they nurture and arrange. I wasn’t someone who bought flowers for myself until I met them. Maybe it’s the way you feel like you’ve known them for years when you meet them? Maybe it’s the way that each bouquet is unique, with detailed touches unseen at commercial stores or vendors. Every piece of art tells a story and gives off a vibe to its audience, floral arrangements included. And I know this sounds a little crazy, but these flowers actually change my mood when they’re in my room. For real. It’s wild.

From New England to Chicago to Virginia, these two have created a life of purpose, growing their own vegetables and bringing up two children with a connection to hard work and Mother Nature. Walking around their property, we stumbled upon apple trees surrounding a bonfire circle for celebrating summer nights and the beginning of seasons. I was immediately taken back to my childhood where my Dad would build bonfires and read poetry every summer and fall solstice. A place of peace is what they’ve created.

Through experimentation, patience, and positivity, Deni and Tom now offer a vast array of flowers and foliage for weddings, dinner events, bouquets, and everything in between! You can find them at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market every Tuesday and Saturday or find them on Facebook. Enjoy my Monday afternoon stroll and conversation below!


Sarah: So, how long have you guys lived here?

Deni: We moved to Abingdon in ’01, and then we moved in here (farmhouse) in ’03.

S: Where did you live before?

D: We were outside of Chicago.

S: Oh, nice! Did you both grow up there?

D: No, we’re from New England. I’m from Connecticut, Tom’s from Pittsburgh.

S: Oh, my gosh! I went to college there.

D: Nice. Yeah, we met in Rhode Island and then we moved to Vermont. That’s where our first kind of farming opportunity started, in Vermont. And then we just couldn’t make ends meet and we found a farming job outside of Chicago in an intentional community that was just being established. So, we took the farming position and created a farm. We had a hundred-member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), we did three farmer’s markets and five restaurants inside of Chicago. We had fifteen acres of organic production going on.

S: Oh, my gosh. That’s amazing.

D: And that’s how I got into flower production, because I inherited a flower farm. It wasn’t all flowers—a small piece was the CSA, with flowers. But, I started doing designs for all the model homes that they were selling in this community. Floral design. So, I got to go in and do all the spec houses.

S: That’s not just arrangements, but flower art.

D: We used to sell at the Evanston Farmer’s Market, which is a huge market in Chicago, and right across from our booth was the flower lady. So, you know, as I’m selling vegetables all day I was just watching her. I thought, someday, I want to be you. When I came to Abingdon, that was kind of the goal.

S: And now you are!

D: Really, we weren’t intending to continue farming when we came here. We came here with the intention of downscaling, because farming is exhausting, and we had these two babies who were born in Chicago. We weren’t able to give them all our time, so we came here with the intention of downscaling, which we did—it’s only two acres now instead of fifteen. But then, through our work with ASD (Appalachian Sustainable Development), Virginia State University was looking for a flower trial when hoop houses were just starting to be built and it came with a grant. We had built our hoop house when we first came here…we took a loan out and built our first hoop. Then flower houses came as part of a grant, and so it was all flowers in those two hoops. We had to do that for a year and then we could do whatever we wanted with the hoops, but we decided to continue with flowers because they were more profitable than vegetables.

S: How did you learn about all the different kinds of flowers? Just experimentation?

D: That and—when I first started we didn’t have internet, you know, so everything was done through books. So, a lot of books and then trial and error, definitely. I mean moving to a totally new region, we had all new bugs, we had a new season cycle, we had different soils. You learn from other flower farmers who are around you. I met up with Linda Doan, who’s the owner of Aunt Willie’s Wildflowers, and she’s in Blountville. We met probably about ten years ago, and we’ve been sharing information and camaraderie of flower farming forever. She’s the person who really pushed me to “quit your day job”, you know, become a flower farmer and do weddings.

S: Hey Tom! How you doing?

Tom: Good!

S: Depending on the year, do you plant different flowers depending on what the weather is like that year? Or do you usually try to make the same ones work every year?

D: I mean, every year I try new flowers. I’m constantly trialing. This year we’re members of the Specialty Cut Flower Growing Association. So, I’m part of their trial team. I’m trialing a bunch of things for them, which is new. I think I have thirteen different varieties that I’m trialing. They give you the seeds and it’s like, see how they do! Take pictures of them, and tell us how they are. And some things worked great, yes, I’d plant them again, but some things failed miserably. But that’s what they want to know. So, our season starts in the hoop houses and outside with the spring bulbs. We plant lots of daffodils and tulips in the hoop houses, and it kind of just rolls through the seasons. The hoop houses kind of slow down and now we’re mostly out in the field. But planting’s already happening in the hoops again so that in the fall, when the frost comes, we’re still in production.

S: Of course, because flowers are wanted all year round.

D: But flowers have different seasons too. Daffodils and tulips are spring flowers, and your ranunculus. You know, the lisianthus starts coming in and it kind of goes out and then it comes back in. Sunflowers, we plant them every ten days on a cycle all summer long. I just seeded the last cycle! Some things take all season long to bloom. For instance, the flowers that you see out here. The purple leaves, that’s hibiscus, and that’s one of my trial flowers. Not really harvesting the flowers, I’m harvesting the leaves for foliage, but it takes until now even though I planted it back in May to be able to use it. Everything has its own kind of timing. There are also perennials and there are annuals. Then there are bi-annuals, so it takes two years before you get something from ‘em. But we try to trick things. So, we plant them now in order to get a flower next season. So, we try to trick them into thinking, oh I’ve been growing for two years, but not really. They’ve been growing for, what, six months.

S: How do you do that?

D: You start growing them now, so they’ve been seeded and we put them into the hoop houses and then they grow up until that frost period. So, they think they’re big guys, but really they’re little guys. Then they go through their winter period, fertilization and the light, and they come back…

T: A lot of guys before us have figured this out.

S: But it’s funny because I didn’t think you could trick a plant!

D: Yes, you can! For instance, the ranunculus and the anemones that we grow in here, we trick them into thinking they’re in Holland. Just because we put them in the hoop house and we coerce them to come in February and March. So, they’re like, oh yeah we’re in Holland, we’re gonna bloom. Our ranunculus and anemones, that season is done by May. It’s just way too hot. We went to Scotland in June and theirs were just starting because Scotland is so cold and cloudy.

S: How did you guys meet up in New England?

D: We met on a staircase.

S: Oh! Is this, like, at a museum?

D: It was an environmental education center.

S: That’s perfect.

T: We were teaching kids and I was hired on as a tour guide, leading kids on adventure trips. “Adventure” in Rhode Island.

D: The wilds of Rhode Island!

T: Deni was my boss, actually. We met the first, second night we were there.

D: Oh, definitely the first night.

T: Had a pretty quick connection.

S: That’s awesome. How old were you guys, if you don’t mind me asking?

T: Twenty five-ish.

D: Twenty-four, I guess I was twenty-four.

S: This is the question I always ask people, but is there something about the Abingdon community, specifically, that is different from other communities you’ve been in or that you really enjoy?

D: I mean, there’s a feel to Abingdon. When we first came here, we were interviewing for ASD and we walked down Main Street and we went to the Creeper Trail and it just had a really cool feel. You could feel the history there, the cobblestone streets. I felt like I was back in New England. I felt like I was, you know, on the coast of Massachusetts. It just felt very homey and very welcoming. I was like, I could definitely live here. And then the trees and the rivers. If you want to get away from it all, it’s a twenty-minute drive and you’re in the middle of nowhere. And the climate here is fantastic for a farmer. Nice short winters, but you still get the snow. You get all four seasons, but the spring is really long. The fall is really long. Summer’s aren’t too bad. It’s just a perfect little place for me.

T: It’s a laid back community. It’s very easy to do things here. Our kids grew up here, it was fun, they were able to walk all over the place. It felt safe.

S: Where are they now?

D: One’s at Tech and one’s at Radford.

S: Nice. So, is this the busiest time of year?

T: It’s a busy time. All times are busy. You’d think that it slows down in the winter time but there always seems to be something to do. Just less pressure then. Less you do in the winter, the more you have to do in the spring.

S: What do you think is most important when you’re building a piece?

D: It’s definitely color, shape, texture, size, the smell of things, how long things last. I love going to market and people come by and are like, hey build me something pretty! And I can kind of look at them and go, okay, this is what I think you’ll like.

T: She’s usually right.

D: It’s really fun when someone will look at their bouquet and be like, wow, that’s exactly what I wanted!

S: What’s your favorite part of doing this?

D: This is the first season that I’ve been a full-time flower farmer. I quit ASD at the end of October last year, so I’m still going through the first year of, gee, this is my job now! And I love not having to get in a car and drive to work. I walk outside and I’m here, I’m at work. Or I’m in my house and I’m at work. I like that. I’ve never been a big, hey, let’s drive around kind of person. I’ve always been like, let’s walk somewhere! So, I love that part. Keeps me at home and that’s what I wanted.

T: Being our own bosses, that’s nice. There’s a lot of stuff to get done and we know what needs to get done and we do it on our own schedule. Nobody to answer to. But with that comes the pressure to make sure that you’re doing enough to bring in enough income to keep the bills being paid. It’s a balance for sure, but the freedom of being able to be your own boss is really nice and we’ve always enjoyed that when we farmed other places. We like sharing, we like teaching too, and we get little bits of that in. I just love being outside. When our kids come home we talk about them having this running regiment and they go to the gym. I’m like, I don’t need any of that! I do that out here! It’s healthy, we’re outside.

D: We’re growing our own food, so we know what’s going into our bodies.

T: We’ve been here awhile. We’ve got customers who are really loyal, we get a lot of positive feedback from them. It’s nice to feel like you’re an appreciated part of the community. If we were to go someplace else, it’d be like starting all over. Which we’ve done plenty of times, but it’s nice to be some place where people know who you are and they appreciate that, too, that you’re there and that you’re doing stuff and creating things that impact their lives. Food, flowers, the connection is great.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Brunson’s]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.

This month I had the pleasure of meeting a new farm on the block. Having sold at Wytheville Farmer’s Market previously, the Abingdon market is lucky to welcome Thirty-Three Acre Farms to it’s fold.

Owned and operated by Donna Huete-Brunson and Tim Brunson, this gorgeous piece of land high in the hills of Rural Retreat is exploring every resource nature has to offer. With an impeccably designed garden layout full of wooden boxes, they utilize the sloping hills and build into the ground, not just above it. Repurposed wood and metal make up the greater portion of their home and workspaces, with antique doors and windows adding character and vibrancy in every corner of the farm. With solar panels powering the majority of their energy needs, I fell in love with their set-up.

The Brunson’s and I also have traveling in common. Love of it, stories from it, and dreams of it. Donna and Tim are life enthusiasts above all, having lived all over the world until they ended up in our gorgeous Appalachian corner of the country. Married in 2009, they live to make projects become reality. If I learned one thing about them, it’s that they dream it and then they do it…and we are the lucky ones who reap the benefits. English peas, carrots, potatoes, blueberries, onions, honey, syrup, jams, salsas, lamb, chicken, eggs…

Another topic that came up was the importance of small to mid-scale farming as a more manageable and cleaner way to raise food. I, personally, am an advocate of antibiotic-free and hormone-free farming. Grocery stores offer lots of food that’s had a needle in it’s butt, a time-release antibiotic on it’s ear, with it’s dinner consisting of other animal feces. Sounds fun, right? “You’re almost hit hard for not doing it the ‘right’ way”, Tim said in regards to feeding animals from more nutritious sources. And he’s right. It’s not possible for everyone to afford and I’m tired of it breaking the bank and forcing families to choose. So, when someone asks me why I buy local? It’s to support the folks who raise food ethically until we can make sure everyone has access to it.

Now that I’ve stepped off my soapbox, I’d like you to enjoy the following from my visit with the Brunson’s! And make sure to stop by and say hello to Donna and her sister, Danielle, at the next Abingdon Farmer’s Market!


Sarah: How long have you all lived here?

Donna: Four years.

Tim: Four years when you moved up, yeah. I say that because…I’ve still got a job. In fact, I’m leaving tomorrow.

D: He works in Texas. He works all over the world, but right now he’s in Texas.

T: Yeah, right now Texas is the center of the world.

D: Oh, my onions are crazy.

T: Those are the overgrown onions and what’s left. But she’s leaving these because the bees feed off them.

S: Those are beautiful, oh my gosh.

D: So, that’s why I leave a lot of the flowers.

T: I call them weeds, she calls them flowers.

D: …Because the bees all come.

T: The definition of a weed is a plant out of place. And that potato right there is a weed because it’s in the sweet potato bin.

S: This is so organized. Wow.

D: That’s what happens when you’re married to an engineer.

S: Understandable. Why did you guys want to move up here? Or how did you find it?

D: We actually looked all over.

T: We had dots all over the map. Here’s where we did holidays, let’s go here looking…

D: We went to the south of Mexico, we went to Arkansas, Northern California. It was really cool, we loved it. It’s not really easy to be a small, homestead type person there. It just isn’t. We collect our rain water for our chickens and you can’t do that there.

T: You can’t stop the water from flowing.

D: No. So, we decided no and then we went to Arkansas and didn’t like it. I have family…my Mom’s family is from a little tip area of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia. I have tons of cousins up there.

T: Huntington, West Virginia.

D: Yeah, which is where she grew up. I have cousins there, I have cousins in Knoxville. Cousins down in Raleigh. So, its like, I actually have family within about three hours all over. You know what I mean? I’ve been to this area before and so has Tim and we both loved it.

T: It’s what the people tell you when you come here. You get all the seasons. It’s thirty-seven degrees latitude, which is….she lived in New York City, I lived in Northern Montana…forty below sucks. We’ve lived in New Orleans and Houston. One ten, humidity and bugs. The weather is good here, the rolling hills, the hard woods. It fit all of our criteria.

D: It’s beautiful. It was just bare lands when we got it, so everything up here we built and cleaned. We bought the property before we actually moved up here, so we used it as a holiday home for awhile. Tim at the time was working in an international group where his company was and he would be gone sometimes for six weeks at a time. He got stuck in the Middle East one time for a very long time. And then our son went to college and he wasn’t around anymore, so it was like, well I could be alone for weeks at a time in Houston or I could be alone for weeks at a time in paradise. So, I quit my job, we sold the house, and moved up here full time. This is what I do now!

S: So, you guys have vegetables and you have chickens and bees.

D: And those are our sheep, and there’s a cow over there somewhere.

T: We’ve got one cow. We don’t keep many cows right now because her here by herself, it’s hard to manage cows, but sheep she can manage. And we sell the meat at the market.

D: And I’ve got two goats. And those are our donkeys.

T: They keep the coyotes away. They’ll kick a coyote into next year.

D: They’re really sweet.

S: What are these right here?

T: The cloches? So you can get an early start on these cabbages, you can start them in early spring with them. They’re like miniature greenhouses. Bought those for Christmas. Those came out of the UK. I think the French actually invented it.

S: That’s so clever.

D: They used to put raw manure on the bottom, dirt on top, and it would start to decompose so they could plant their vegetables in the winter. And it would create heat.

S: It would be great for wine country.

D: That’s what we’re going to do next year.

T: It’s gonna be five rows of a hundred feet long of grapes.

D: Here we already harvested the potatoes, and we planted green beans there. We’re gonna dig this up probably in the next week or two and then…I don’t know what we’re going to plant there. Maybe more beans. And we’ve already harvested all our broccoli.

T: I started with those beds there. That timber came from when the wind blew down the trees over there by the A-frame house. When I started this design, we just started repeating it. It’s going to be terraced down on the side because of the slope.

D: But it’s really helped my projection because it’s so much easier to keep weeded and it’s a lot easier to harvest.

S: When it’s raised in the boxes? That’s great because I hear so many people talk about their backs.

D: Yeah, I might have five more years of crawling around on my knees. But after that I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. But this actually works really well.

T: I’ve already put away four cords of firewood. There’s not a sixteen year old that can keep up with me! But yeah, it’s an advantage of it. When we got to this design…I mean, it just works. This is all going to be blueberries. We’ve had good luck with blueberries in this spot, but we don’t have enough of them.

D: And we got all these from Tamara. I actually bought a lot of starter plants from her.

T: Here, eat some…

S: Ah, so good! What’s your favorite part about working here?

D: That I can stumble out in my pajamas to go to work. I put on my muck boots, t-shirt and pajamas…I do!

S: Do you have a special connection with the chickens or sheep?

D: I actually…my business card calls me the “crazy chicken lady”. I love the chickens. I have like sixty five chickens.

T: We were in a controlled community in Katy, Texas and she wanted chickens so I went by the code of the place and built her a little fence in the back…and she had a half dozen chickens in a subdivision in Katy, Texas. Hidden in the corner.

D: Hidden in the corner. I love the baby lambs, I love my goats. The goats are so much fun. My husband does his own composting, a four pile system. The raw compost. ‘Cause we collect all the poop from the donkeys and the chickens and start composting it with stuff leftover from the garden. We’re so lucky because our farm has so many resources here, it’s just amazing. Like, I tap the trees for maple syrup.

T: And we now have electricity to the barn because she now has freezers for the lambs. Until then, we were all on the solar. Heat with the boiler outside, wood stove inside. There’s plenty of firewood. Some of it falls down on it’s own.

D: Black raspberries! We have them all through there, everywhere. They just grow wild. So, I make a lot of jam. Some of them are ripe, which means I need to put my boots on and…

T: I see a couple dark ones back there.

D: Yeah, me too. All wild. We’ve got about thirty five chickens over there. Come on Carlos! (to the donkey) And that’s Sophia. We named them after the King and Queen of Spain.

S: I love that! Hi, how are you? (to the donkeys)

D: I have horse treats I give them.

T: They’re miniature Jerusalem donkeys.

D: They’re good. They’re supposed to be over there but we had some new babies and for like the first two weeks they don’t like the babies very much. So, I have to keep them separated for a little bit. We had unexpected babies.

T: Juan Carlos and Sophia. Her chickens are coming to see her!

S: Look at them!

T: The white one is always first. Look at him!

D: My sister rescued him from the Tractor Supply reject…you know when their chicks come in and not all of them are healthy? He’s a meat chicken. He doesn’t know it. They’re fat and happy.

S: Look at you all. Living your best life.

D: We collect the rain water here for the chickens.

T: We’re gonna set up an attachment on that barn because that next pasture down, we haven’t got it closed in yet. But it will be a cistern system where we catch the water and it’ll go down a pipe down to there, and I gotta do one from the house to the garden. The garden is about three feet higher, elevation wise, which is just about the right height for a whiskey barrel. So, it’ll be my cistern that will come off the house into that and that’ll give me enough head to push it up to the garden. We’ll just have a tub out in the garden that we can put it in.

S: You’re curious aren’t you? (to the fat & happy rescue chicken)

D: He is!

T: He’s the one who’s always up first because he wants all the feed.

S: Look at him! Still following me.

T: He thinks you have feed in your pocket.

(headed down towards the sheep and goats)

D: Those are the two babies. They were born a week ago, Friday.

T: They’re getting milk when their tail’s wiggling. If their tail quits wiggling, they’re not getting milk. That’s how you know. Here comes the daddy. We call him Shaggy.

D: We give them minerals, so they think you’re bringing them minerals. Hi, boys and girls. Hi, Spotty Spot! And the goats are very friendly.

T: Especially if you have a banana.

S: So, since you’ve been here and been going to the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, is there anything you’ve noticed about the community here that’s different or that you enjoy?

D: We actually know our neighbors here. We lived in a subdivision and there would be a hundred houses and we knew four.

T: And we know everybody to the Smyth County line.

D: It’s a very friendly place.

T: People watch out for you and everything.

D: I like the community down in Abingdon. I think it has a really nice energetic feel. And it’s kind of nice because it’s a mix of generations.

S: That’s why I love going on Saturday mornings, because it’s like I’m going to see members of my family or something.

D: I could easily be a hermit, like easily, so it’s really good for me to get out and do that because I could stay up here all the time and never leave. It’s actually my therapy. Digging potatoes and digging carrots are actually my most favorite things.

S: There’s something about having dirt on your hands.

D: I know! My sister’s like, are you in a bad mood? Just go dig some potatoes.

S: I’m learning that if I start to get anxious about something, I just need to go out in the garden.

D: You really do. It really helps.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the King Family]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.

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I’m going to paint a picture for you. Waterfalls and woods open up to fields against a mountainous backdrop. A ways down the road, the sunshine bounces off of cars parked along the embankment of a river. As you pull up, questioning whether this is the right place, your assumptions are confirmed when a rope bridge appears, laying out a pathway from the world you know to acres of bounty just feet away.

Welcome to River Valley Farm, run by David and Barbara King and their family. I teamed up with Blue Ridge Mountain Bounty to tour the farm and what we saw was astounding. A list of what they grow? It would be easier to list what doesn’t grow on this ten-acre farm in Abingdon.

From fig trees, insulated by plastic and expected to yield several buckets of nature’s candy, to mulberries and gooseberries, they not only grow standard fruits and veggies but rarer specialty plants as well. Years of living with and listening to the land has resulted in an oasis in which they live off of.

I tried fennel, which is straight licorice to your senses, savored strawberries, and was introduced to several farming methods demonstrated by David and his son, Elam. Movable hoop-houses made from ten-foot pipes bent by a local welder are easily taken apart and moved around the farm to keep up with nature and accommodate production.

The feature photo was photobombed by their resident cow and comedian, Faun. Every animal I met had personality, and each hand tool well-worn. Theirs is a unique story, starting in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and landing in Southwest Virginia to find new family and new community. Speaking to Barbara and their youngest child, Malinda, you get a sense that community, living simply, and faith are the cornerstones of their lives.

Community is defined as “a feeling of fellowship with others”, and I received that the moment I stepped foot on their farm…the kittens running around didn’t hurt either. Enjoy the interview below and check out their products at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market and Blue Hills Market in Abingdon, Virginia!


S: How long have you all lived here?

David: Twenty-two years.

S: Twenty-two years. And how did you find this place?

D: Well, we were living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

S: Ah, yes! I grew up not far from there in Maryland!

D: OK, yeah! So, we and several other families wanted to live in a more rural area and we had several different friends in this area. So, they helped us to find this place.

S: And you have children in the area, so a few of them were very young when they moved here?

D: In fact, our three youngest were born here. We have eight children. The three youngest are still home and five oldest have all left and are living in this area. That’s Ranger (the fluffy dog). He’s old and got a little bit of lameness to him.

S: I’m so interested in the bridge too. When you first moved here, is it the first thing you built? And did you get a group of people to help build it?

D: Well, there were two other families that moved here with us at the same time in 1995 and there was no bridge here. The first summer we got together, the afternoons we would be bridge building and the mornings we would be farming. That type of thing. Men and several boys, some neighbors pitched in. It was quite a task to put that up.

S: It’s amazing. I’m trying to figure out how you constructed it. I just wanna run around on it.

D: Well, you know, we put the pillars in place and we put holes in the pillars for the cable. The bridge is held up by four cables as in two on top where you hold your hands and two cables underneath. Lots of people have been on that bridge at one time.

Elam: We’ve never had anybody fall off either.

S: Ha, that’s great!

D: First, we’re going to demonstrate on how we use a bulb planter to plant the plants on the black plastic that we’ve laid. Right here, this is a bulb planter that actually opens up. Most bulb planters don’t do that. They’re made in one solid piece. But for us, we like this. And then just set the plant in, shake the dirt out…pretty fast. Our farm here consists of ten acres cleared, and we rotate with the grass fields and some corn for the animals…‘cause we have a small herd of goats, we have two horses and a cow, and we have enough land that we can do it. So, about half will be vegetables in one year and the rest will be grass fields and some will be for field corn.

S: How long had you been farming before you came here?

D: Been a farmer all my life. Grew up on a dairy and produce farm. My parents had both a dairy and a produce stand, retailed from the farm, and so that’s what I grew up with. So, when we married back in 1982 that’s what we wanted to do. We’ve been produce farmers all our married life.

S: Had Barbara grown up on a farm as well?

D: Yes, on a dairy farm.

S: It was in your blood.

D: Our inheritance as farmers, yep. Here’s our melon field, as in both cantaloupe and watermelons. Of course they’re real tiny yet. Again, these are plants we started in the greenhouse and we did the bulb planter method of putting them in here. This is an area where we had a lot of greens and herbs last fall. This is cilantro that has bolted, and we do our best to let cilantro bolt and bloom because one of the things we want to do here for natural insect control is having a lot of things blooming throughout the season, because that attracts the beneficial insects. It brings them in and they have a habitat they like and then they go to work at getting the bad bugs. You know, the way nature intended. But the more we work on having flowering plants around the farm and amongst the produce the more effective that is, which is called “farm-scaping”.

S: Malinda, what’s your favorite part of living here?

Malinda: I like being homeschooled here.

D: And we could talk about the fact that this farm is a place for our children to bring their friends. We have a volleyball set and we love having them over for playing and things like that. Summer picnics and potlucks.

S: It just seems like such an incredible place to grow up too. I mean, this is such an amazing place.

D: Well, that is why we live here. For different reasons of course, but because of it being an excellent place to raise our family—our oldest being about twelve years old when we moved here. Here, let’s stand over on the bridge for a photo. We love this bridge, it’s our link to the other side. All our produce goes over this bridge. We have an express wagon that we put it on and we’ll pile it as full as we can.

S: Six AM on Saturday mornings?

D: Ha, yes! That’s right. Welcome to our high tunnel where we grow crops year-round. Along there we have some herbs, as in rosemary. This is the French sorrel, where Elam is there is a big patch of oregano, and beyond that is a fairly big patch of thyme. To the side there we have blackberries. Amazingly early. They are actually an ever-bearing blackberry, kind of a rare type, where they’ll bear an early crop and then the next crop will come in, like, August and produce ‘til frost. But having some inside here just extends that season even further.

Elam: They’re starting to get pink down there.

D: Yeah, there’s a couple pink ones which means in ten days there’ll be ripe blackberries!

S: Yes! And it smells incredible in here.

D: It has to do with the basil, I think. Our hoops (hoop houses) are movable. This whole structure was sitting over here in the winter time and the advantage to having it movable is we can have crops “over wintering” here and when they’re not done yet, come April 1st, we can just let them stay here and start over.

S: And “over wintered” means grew too long to be useful?

D: Over wintered just means they survived the winter. Sometimes when we have harsh winters it will actually kill them because of the cold. But this year was relatively mild. Here is our cucumber hoop house. I know that they’ve started to ripen. Right here is one of them. This is the greenhouse type that sells for like two dollars apiece at stores at this time of year, especially. This is a row of gooseberries. In about a month these will be ripe, pink gooseberries. To those who aren’t familiar with gooseberries, I like to say they’re kind of like an early grape.

S: You know I’m going to have to ask about the granola as well. Please tell me about it!

Barbara: Oh, we love it because it’s so crunchy! We make it with the big oats and then the brown sugar, maple syrup, real butter.

D: The secret is the slow baking. I call it baking to perfection.

Barbara: And we don’t bake it on high temperatures. No higher than two-fifty, and usually only for a little while and then I put it down more and more as it dries.

D: Let’s go in the greenhouse. There’s the wood stove pipe to keep it warm in the winter. There’s a couple solar panels. This is where we raise our plants. And this is a unique kind of compost tea or fertilizer tea. Spray it on the leaves and they’ll take in the nutrients, so there’s a lot of trace minerals and different things that feed the plants in this mixture. The reason there’s a little bubbler in here is it enhances the bacteria, the life in this mixture. Putting air into it. Another reason I have this is I’m experimenting with a small hydroponic system, organic hydroponic. And these are little fig trees. Right here, little figs that are just one of the sweetest fruits. These cucumbers were planted here late March and they’re in good production. Picking all these cucumbers, this is actually a thrilling part of the farm to be able to harvest this nice kind of cucumber this early. These are burpless and seedless. And burpless…normal cucumbers will generally make you burp from the gas, which isn’t that comfortable. But there’s a few varieties of cucumbers called burpless and they don’t do that. Easier on your stomach.

S: Do you use your horses for your farming?

D: I do some with horse and some with tractors. One of our primary cultivation tools, it’s called a one-horse cultivator, where we hitch the horse and somebody will be guiding the horse and the other person will be back here behind it. It will adjust down narrow where lots of stuff is growing, and then we’ve got adjustability real wide if you take this wide of a swath. I can adjust as we go. We also have a two-horse cultivator, as in a riding cultivator, where it’ll throw soil on the row and cover the weeds and not cover the corn plants. It’s kind of unique, it’s hard to find a piece of tractor equipment that will be equivalent and can do that same thing. The only cultivator that I’ve found that had that amount of precision. The other thing is that as I’m sitting on the cultivator I have something like stirrups where my feet go and I can guide the cultivator this way or that way.

S: Ahh, look at that beautiful horse!

D: That’s Sparky. You can pet him if you want to. Here we have a row of peach trees. There can be some years where there’s a lot of work to growing peaches and having to thin them out. Nature tends to send way too many and when there’s way too many then none of them can get big and sweet. It’s like nature can only put so much sweetness into a fruit crop and if it’s spread out into too many, then none of them are sweet.

S: Interesting. So, you number the amount you have?

D: Sort of, yeah. We look for defects and we look for saving the biggest ones. We have thirty-three trees and we planted them in order of ripening starting here with, let’s see, eleven different varieties. So, this is the earliest kind and they’ll ripen in July. Just kind of moving down the row in ripening order. If we just had one type of peach tree there would be, let’s say, a three-week window of having ripe peaches. But, this way we have closer to two months. July, August, and maybe into September.

S: You have grandchildren in the area too, don’t you?

D: Two grandchildren, yeah.

S: How old are they?

D: One and two.

S: I bet they can’t get enough of this place.

D: Well especially the two year old, he just loves it.

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [TNT Farm N Greenhouse]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.


Fog clung to the fields as I drove down the dirt road to the high-tunnel greenhouse up ahead. I stepped out of my car and was glued to the muddy location I was standing in. After a few minutes of silent struggling, which no one witnessed—thankfully, I turned the corner of an aging barn to see spinach and lettuce being gathered before the morning sun rose too high.

Meet Tamara McNaughton and Tony Barrett of TNT Farm N Greenhouse. Farming together since 2012, they’ve created an astonishing operation that was born out of love for their work and each other. Greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, garlic, cauliflower, and beets are just a few of their offerings, in addition to ground beef and potted plants to start your own garden.

Talking to Tamara that morning, I immediately felt her grounded and true spirit. A woman who works for what she believes in as a part of the collective, she’s forged her own path. She met Tony in the process, and together they built upon a farm that brings fruits to all its customers, literally and figuratively. (Strawberries, blueberries, ‘maters, oh my!) Tamara grew up in Maryland and relocated to North Carolina for college, but has hopped around at Penland School of Crafts, Greensboro, Mountain City, etc. Tony was born and raised in Meadowview and continues his family’s footsteps of farming on the same land that made him.

Raking, planting, pulling, washing. It’s all a careful science and watching the women work with such intention that morning was inspiring. Having just recently planted my first garden with tomato plants from TNT and strawberries from Wolf Farm, my respect grows daily for the women and men who grow our food.

Below is from my interview with Tamara, walking around the farm as the bugs chattered and the sunlight grew. You can find Tamara and Tony selling at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays!

T: It’s Tony and I that have been doing this for…this will be our 6th year. It is important that he’s included because this is his family’s property…this is property his family has leased for fifty years. So, he’s been farming this property his entire life. We have a quarter acre over there, an acre up front, this high-tunnel, an exact same high-tunnel at our place, and a greenhouse over there also.

S: Is the high-tunnel mainly where you grow the greens?

T: Careful, that’s a hot wire (which I, in fact, leaned up against during our interview–new experiences every day). Yes, everything that’s here and that’s at market came out of the greenhouse. Last week we pulled the collards and planted those cucumbers and squashes in there for the summertime.

S: When did you have to plant all the greens?

T: I plant them in September/October so that they’re large enough to continue producing through the winter. We had a really mild winter so that made it nice. This wire is not yet hot…it will be. (thank you) So, what we’ve got planted right now is just in here amongst the weeds. Strawberries, garlic, kale and chard, cauliflower, the yellow and white, and then a row of stuff that’s not gonna make it. Tony has fifty cows and calves here and this is his herd and then we have thirty cows and calves at our place, and the bull we transport back and forth.

S: So, there’s one bull for all of them?

T: Mhmm. Right now, yeah.

S: How old is it?

T: He is two and a half, three years old.

S: I keep picturing this older bull who has all these ladies.

T: His harem?

S: Ha! Yes, his harem of cows. So, how did the frost effect you guys?

T: Not too bad. Right now it’s more the rain. Not being able to get in and get the weeds out. It compacts soil. “Work it when it’s wet” and you can, destroy is a big word, but you can destroy the structure of the soil by working it when it’s too wet and you can destroy it for years.

S: Really? That’s crazy.

T: Yes. It’s hard to get it back. And also, this soil is unlike any soil I’ve ever grown in. Most of my growing experience has been in Western North Carolina…Boone and Spruce Pine is where I spent a lot of time…where the soils are loamy, dark, mountainous. The terrain isn’t as flat and conducive in that way but the soil is so much more friendly. This clay, it’s either muddy or like concrete. The greenhouse right now is what is rocking. That’s what we’re taking to market pretty much. Plant-ies.

S: You said Tony takes care of the cattle here?

T: Well the cattle here are his, yes, and that’s his main thing. He takes care of them here and I take care of the one’s at our place. He has a full-time job so he’ll come at lunch and feed the cattle here and count them and check them.

S: So, how did you and Tony get started with this? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?

T: Well that’s just what he’s always done. He is one of four children, and he’s the one child that stayed on the farm. I mean, they all worked on the farm. It was a requirement of living. Up to twelve acres of tobacco in a given year, three acres of peppers. This front acre is kind of what he calls the acre of gold. Tobacco has been produced here, strawberries, beans, snap beans that they would pick and snap. So, their family pedaled produce. His father was born and died a farmer and Tony’s just continued that legacy. My story is, my grandparents had a garden and produced most of their food. I did not participate in that, but I went to ASU (Appalachian State University) and studied Applied Anthropology. And when the sustainable development program was very new I just stumbled on it. Agroecology. I apprenticed on a twenty-five-acre certified organic farm out of college and then another one. And then Tony and I met, and I was living in Mountain City, and he had a greenhouse where they grew tobacco and they had this property and I was relatively unemployed. I’d done contract work for about ten years consulting farms and nurseries. I say I’m a greenhouse nursery grower by trade. So, consulting greenhouse nursery operations, their production and strategies and stuff. I’ve grown flowers and native Rhododendrons and Azaleas, aquaponics, Boston ferns, Poinsettias. I used to operate a four green-house range, with four shade houses. It was a lot of work, very rewarding. So, (in the “acre of gold”) these are potatoes and onions right now and we smacked some sunflowers in there. And that’s our super fancy wash wagon.

S: I’ve heard the term GAP-certification (Good Agricultural Practices) over my time blogging the past year. Is that something you’ve done too?

T: GAP Certification? If you wanna sell wholesale, you have to do it. So, we did for the first four years we were here together. Tony, his experience was grow peppers and then run around the country peddling them to restaurants at back doors. He has a full-time job and that first year this was my full-time job and I wasn’t really into running around. We discussed it at length and that’s what we ended up doing. It’s a lot easier to load two hundred cases of peppers and know they’re going somewhere every week than to try, you know, put a hundred cases of peppers on the back of a truck and not know if they’re going to be all sold by the end of the day. And then we spent three months talking about whether we were going to be conventional or organic before we made that choice.

S: What went into your decision for that?

T: I mean I was on the organic side because that was my background. My background is, you know, certified organic twenty-five acre farms outside D.C., and then my personal farming and market gardening experience was bio-intensive. Our style of farming is also a kind of meeting of the two, conventional and organic, bio-intensive sort-of styles. But ultimately for Tony, it was a matter of the price premium for being certified organic. So really, in January of 2012 we decided we were going to be farming together and by March we were seeding peppers and this was planted in the beginning of June. And we were growing an acre of peppers, certified organic. So, we got GAP certified and organic certified between I’d say…in July/August would be kind of standard. I’m the paperwork person, you know, and he’s the tractor man. Even though we don’t grow for Appalachian Harvest anymore we continue to maintain organic certification which makes sense for us for a number of different reasons. We both continue to learn. I’m learning the benefits of having tractors, which I didn’t have before.

S: It was all hand work?

T: Yeah, I mean everything I did was hand work and I’m too old for that anymore. I guess I’m not but I don’t want to do it that much anymore.

S: I wonder, do you think that if everybody started organically farming, would we have enough food?

T: There’s a report that the UN put out some years ago. There are two teams absolutely, and I try to settle in the center. But I’m on the team that says small sustainable agriculture is what’s going to feed the world. Not mono-crop, genetically modified. I mean I do understand from a farmer perspective some of the benefits of genetic modification of corn, for instance…you don’t have to spray as much and there’s less work and time and energy of the person that goes into it. Now the environmental implications scare me tremendously, but from a farmer’s perspective I understand, but I’m definitely on the team that everybody needs to grow a garden. And that even a little space grows a lot of food. Tony and I have investigated beyond organic approaches. We plant by the signs and he always planted by the signs…so, other kind of environmental dynamics that affect the farm organism.

S: Listening to the land more?

T: Mhm, and the rhythms of the moon and all of this kind of stuff. Studying sustainable development at ASU, we learned about Mexico and the whole cultural devastation with corn subsidies and what they do to a whole culture. I don’t think that the kind of agriculture that’s subsidized in order to undermine people’s self sufficiency is going to save the world. Might pad corporate pockets.

S: Absolutely.

T: But it’s not gonna feed people.

S: It’s the short-term solution versus the long-term.

T: Well, you know the issue of food supply is not production. There is a ton of food that is thrown on the ground. On the certified organic farms that I first worked on, there’s a tremendous amount of food that we would throw on the ground. Sometimes we wouldn’t even pick it off, it would just stay hanging on. It’s not production. Production is not the issue. It’s capitalism. It’s distribution. It is not in your capitalist interest to harvest or even to allow people to glean because then you’re undermining supply and demand. You’re undermining the price you can command if you give it away. That’s just capitalism. But, you can have all of these philosophical, rightfully righteous reasons for farming in an environmentally friendly way. If you’re losing money at it, it doesn’t make sense that you’re farming. People who depend on agriculture for a living, I’m just happy they’re still farming. And it’s not my place or really anybody’s place to judge how you do it. We want people to come to the more sustainable approaches but telling them they’re doing it wrong and making them feel like they’re wrong is not going to leave the door open for them to walk through.

S: How did you and Tony meet?

T: A-ha-ha. And there’s silence. We met through some friends is the easiest way to explain it. And we just made a connection over farming. I mean, I’ve never grown tobacco but when I worked in North Carolina in the nursery I worked with a lot of tobacco growers because there’s also a lot of nursery growers who were also tobacco growers. A lot of the work I did in North Carolina was to transition after the buy-out and the settlement. I worked with growers investigating native Rhododendron and Azaleas as an alternative because they already had nursery experience, a lot of them. When tobacco was a big part of your life it’s something you talk about a lot.

S: So, you didn’t necessarily choose this area, it kind of chose you in a way. Is there anything about Abingdon and the local community that stands out to you?

T: It’s interesting that you say that because Tony and I as a match are a curious couple, yes? And so Tony being from around here…I mean, I’m a pretty far-out person and the community I did plug into was Tony’s family. Very old school, very traditional, very ‘from here’. It has been interesting to me because if I had come here of my own volition I would probably be more deeply connected to a different community. But I think it’s better for me this way. I like to spend time on the farm by myself in the silence where I know that I’m living a good life to the best of my current abilities. I can’t control what happens on the farm really, I’m not in control here. I just try to play along and help it out.

Complete with heating pads underneath for cold nights.
Can you guess how many thousands of pepper plants are here?

Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Rhonda Cox]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.


Got a sweet tooth? A diehard fan of homemade cooking? Well then, I’ve just made all your dreams come true. Er, not me I suppose. Meet Rhonda Cox of Four Seasons Catering & Bakery in Marion, Virginia. Family tradition and generations of experience are baked up into her loaves of sweet breads and pastries. In the recent years she’s also added jellies, jams, canned goods, nut butters, and full-on feasts for any event. Country ham? Check. Sausage & gravy? Oh yes.

I’ve seen Rhonda many times at the market, but I was finally able to sit down with her at her Marion restaurant and store location to talk shop. Together with her daughter, Meagan Robinson, Four Seasons was born out of a love for baking. Beginning in their home and expanding to multiple market locations spanning several counties, Rhonda and Meagan are incredibly hard-working individuals. It was clear to me the moment I met them that their number one priority in life is family; both to take care of them and carry out their legacy.

Besides selling delicious baked delicacies and crave-worthy canned goods at the market, they make wedding, shower, and birthday cakes! I guess you’d say that this family kind of does it all. Check them out at the next Holiday Farmer’s Market in Abingdon, Saturdays 10-12 pm, or head to Marion where you can eat, drink, shop, and browse stunning antique stores. Enjoy the photos and interview below!

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Sarah: So how long ago did you start this business?

Rhonda: Well, the restaurant and all about 9 years ago. But, I’ve been catering for about 16 years. And I was kind of doing it intermittently with the baking and all, then I thought well, I’ll just open up a restaurant because it’s not every day you cater. We have regular customers, and it’s funny because locals don’t know you’re here but the out of town person can find you easy.

Sarah: Do you think it’s from the farmer’s market that people know?

Rhonda: I think that’s some of it, because I know we’ve had people come and eat who had been to the market and had bought stuff there. We have people that have come through the market and will call and order stuff and we’ll ship it to them. It’s kind of two-fold, and the markets really helped, I think.

Sarah: And do you go to markets other than the Abingdon one?

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Rhonda: Well, I do Marion. I used to do Chilhowie all the time, but it just got to the point where I didn’t have the help. Then we do the Wytheville market and sometimes Rural Retreat.

Sarah: Wow, that’s a lot.

Rhonda: It is a lot. It is.

Sarah: And you’re open 6 days a week?

Rhonda: Well, we’re open Monday through Friday. Usually open up about 7:00. We used to have a group that would come in at 5:30, so we’d open up at 5:30 every day. And they kind of dwindled out, some retired, this and that.

Sarah: If I don’t have to get up early, then I won’t!

Rhonda: Exactly. And I don’t come any earlier than I have to, unless there’s a reason for me to have to come in earlier. Now, when we go to the 8:00 am market, I’m usually here by 4:00 o’clock to get biscuits and sausage and gravy and everything fried, in order to get there on time. If I didn’t, I’d never make it.

Sarah: Before the restaurant, when you were working out of your home, did you start with just baked goods?

Rhonda: We did. I just started with baked. And then, I can’t tell you why I started doing jellies and jams, ‘cause I really don’t why, but then they just grew. So, then we started doing pickles, and chow-chows, and relishes. This year we added the beans and tomatoes in because I had people asking for them.

Sarah: Where do you get the beans and tomatoes?

Rhonda: All of that’s from the market. Every bit of that. There’s nothing on the shelf over there that didn’t come from the market._tlb4809

Sarah: I saw the moonshine jellies, too. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

Rhonda: The moonshine store is up on main street of Marion. They’re actually moving up on 16. They make local moonshine, and we just take their product and turn it into jelly. Now we also do that two-fold, because there’s also a distillery at Davis Valley Winery, and they started doing whiskey, rum, and vodka. So, we take theirs and we make it just for them.

Sarah: You don’t have to give away your secrets, but how do you turn alcohol into jelly?

Rhonda: You just cook it, and the pectin will help. I just kind of piddle with it until it works. Sometimes more pectin. Now I know what works and what doesn’t.

Sarah: I have to get some today because I’m so curious about the moonshine.

Rhonda: Depends on what kind you want. If you go with the plain moonshine, it’s excellent as a marinade on seafood and chicken. Excellent. The baked apple is really good on toast. And the cherry, I think, is the prettiest of them all.

Sarah: Once you got the restaurant, you started into food. I love your chicken salad, I’ve had that. And then you started making nut butters. Was it just kind of adding on stuff?

Rhonda: Well, actually this is the first year we added the nut butters. They went really well. There were a few weeks I didn’t take them, and I think it really hurt. And the reason I didn’t take them was because I didn’t have room on the table.

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Sarah: You can only stack so high. Especially now, so many people are looking for options other than peanuts.

Rhonda: And pistachio butter is probably the best seller of them all. It’s awesome. I wouldn’t have to put it on anything, I could just eat it with a spoon and nothing else.

Sarah: Ah, I must try that! That’s my worry, that it would be gone within a day. What’s your favorite part of all of this?

Rhonda: Baking, I love to bake. It all goes back to how it started for me…my grandma and mom both are really good cooks, so I just kind of picked it up and went from there with it. There’s a sign out front that says, “Grandma’s home cookin’”. That’s why. That’s where it comes from. It really goes back to her. And we all love to can. My favorite thing to can is weird. My favorite thing to can is beets. I love to can beets.

Sarah: Why?

Rhonda: Easy, simple. You just cook them, run ‘em in your hands and the peel falls off. And my mom is the same way. She loves canned beets.

Sarah: When I moved down here, it was the first time that I really started stepping out of the box with food. ‘Cause my Stepdad, he smoked his own meat and he cans, and my mom started more with him. And we always had pickled eggs in beet juice and canned beets in our house, but I never ate them because I thought, wow, that’s disgusting. But now, I know what you’re talking about! It took me 12 years to try these things._tlb3504

Rhonda: I will eat a pickled beet, but I won’t eat a cooked beet. Well, I was getting down on my beets…I canned more beets this year than I’ve ever canned. I sold that many. When you’re down to 3 jars and you’ve canned 46, I’d say you really move ‘em out. Well, my mom wanted some to cook. We cooked them for her, and it was too many and I got one and wow, I loved it. And parsnips, I used to not like parsnips and now they’re the best things where I’m concerned.

Sarah: I’m meshing Marion and Abingdon’s markets here, but what does the local community mean to you?

Rhonda: Well, I used to, just thought it was nothing and then I learned that no, it does make a difference. Using local, putting those local labels on products because I think people like to know, especially millennials. The local thing means a lot to millennials. I always do local when I can. The breakfast, it’s all local eggs, local sausage.

Sarah: I think with the millennials, we just took so many steps away from that and now people want simple again, at least an element of that, because it’s just so overwhelming. We want some sort of simplicity and knowledge to stay grounded.

Rhonda: It’s different when you actually see someone face to face and know where it’s coming from. Whereas at the store, you don’t.

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Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Joan Beck]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.


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Getting a chance at trying your hand in something completely fresh is a beautiful thing, especially when it leads to a profession. As I see time and time again, you don’t usually get to choose when these life changes occur, but often they’re dropped in your lap and you’re given a choice between sticking to what you know or taking a leap in hopes that something great awaits.

Meet Joan Beck of Abingdon, who owns Earth and Fire Pottery. Through life’s many twists and turns, she ended up becoming a potter and starting a full-time business. We get to reap the benefits of her gorgeous work each week at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market and at festivals throughout the year, including the Virginia Highlands Festival.

Joan’s work speaks for itself, offering calm and cool colors for any room of your house. A piece of handmade work is known to lift the spirits, and I truly believe that energy emanates from the work of artist’s hands. My Mother adored her new vase made my Joan, and it now sits among paintings from New Mexico trips past.

Wow, y’all, I love art. Go visit her next Saturday at the market to see a plethora of her breathtaking pieces! Enjoy the interview below, where I found how Joan got her start in pottery…or in other words, came from the clay. Or to the clay?

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Sarah: How did you get into pottery?

Joan: Well, I developed an appreciation for pottery at a very early age. I grew up in Michigan and I used to go to art shows with my family, and at that time I collected banks. So to me, finding a pottery bank was like the ultimate find. So fast forward ahead, I became a bio-chemist at a pharmaceutical company and later met my husband and we started a family. And he had his weekly tennis night out, and I kind of felt like I also needed a night out from the family. And at that time all my friends were busy with their families. So, a coworker suggested that I take an art class at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and that’s when I basically started my pottery career. This was 1999. And what happened later on was, Pfizer came through and bought our pharmaceutical company out and over 2,000 people in the same sitting lost their jobs at once. I was given an opportunity to move with the company, and at that point my husband wouldn’t have a job. I had been doing pottery on the side, and I had started in a few shows and was making some money. So, that’s kind of how I became a full-time potter. That was back in 2003.

Sarah: Is it more fulfilling than working for the pharmaceutical company?

_tlb2171Joan: It’s not that same salary, I can tell you that much! But I’m my own boss and I’ve learned over the years that I can say no. It’s definitely more enjoyable. I basically touch pottery every single day of the week. There’s not a day that I don’t do something in my studio.

Sarah: That’s awesome. What are some of your favorite pieces to make?

Joan: I would have to say my ikebana vases, just because I know how much the customer is gonna enjoy it. They’re pretty, it’s simple, it’s easy for them to use. They basically cut the flower, stick it down in there, add water and they’re set to go. I’ve had master gardeners tell me it’s even helped with their floral arranging. And the whole key to my ikebana vases is a floral pin frog, because some potters will use holes in their pottery, but by using the pin frog—which is that spikey thing in my pots—it’s not stem dependent. I’ve used everything from herbs to tree branches using the same frog. You don’t aim or anything. You just pick it, plop it down in there and add water. You can honestly use it with the dried or the silk flowers. It’s meant for cut, fresh flowers, but I always just say pick it, stick it, add the water. Ya know! You’re good to go. Easy and simple. They are by far my best-selling item and I’ve had so many compliments of people coming back and telling me how much they enjoy it.

Sarah: So, do you have a set-up in your house? Is there a specific room that you work in?

_tlb2145-2Joan: I have a few. Pottery is not an easy craft; it takes up a lot of space. I do have my home studio. I’ve got a potter’s wheel, 2 kilns, I have a slab roller that rolls out big sheets of clay, and then I also have a pottery extruder that’s like…I always try to explain that to people like it’s a big play-dough machine that basically forces clay through a dye and forms it into a shape. And I do make my own dyes.

Sarah: How do you make the dyes?

Joan: You can make a dye out of metal or wood, but for simplicity I use wood. So I basically draw a design on a sheet of wood, and you use a saw to cut out the design.

Sarah: It’s so intricate. And can you talk about the horsehair and the animal vases?

Joan: Sure. The horsehair pieces are totally different than the other pieces I do in my studio. The main difference is that there’s no glaze on those pieces. What I put on there is called a terra sigillata. It’s an extremely fine mixture of clay and when it’s fired, it develops into a shiny coating. I pull those pieces from the kiln when it’s over 1,000 degrees, and that’s when I’m actually applying the horsehair to the piece, and it burns in and gets that carbon trailing. You get the smoking effect within that terra sigillata layer. And since it’s technically not a sealed clay body…in other words, it’s not glazed, it’s considered decorative. So, water doesn’t hurt the piece but over time it could seep out. I always tell my customers that the horsehair pieces are decorative. The ones I have in my home, I don’t even have flowers in. To me, the pottery is the artwork. You don’t need anything extra.

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Horsehair Piece

Sarah: And you can do that for various animal hairs as well?

Joan: Yeah, I’ve actually started doing it for people’s pets—a lot of the horses have been people’s pets—even pets that have passed away. There’s always a story that the customer tells me and they’re always quite moving. I actually just did a dog for somebody and they literally picked hair out of the carpet that the dog used to pee on because the dog had passed away and they had already cremated the animal. So I mean, they’re quite touching, a lot of the stories I hear. You see it a lot out West because the Native Americans are still doing that style of pottery.

Sarah: It kind of reminds me of speaking to Lillian Minix, and how there’s a lot of remembrance of family members that goes along with it. Just a way of respecting them after they’ve passed on and keeping them alive in your space. It’s something that our culture could seem weird about. But it’s more of a respect thing. So, how long ago did you move here?

Joan: We moved in 2008.

Sarah: Is there anything about the community here that stands out?

Joan: Well I think that the farmer’s market is a special place. I would have never done a farmer’s market in Michigan and maybe it’s just because there were more fine art shows in Michigan. The farmer’s market, I see the same people every weekend. I mean, they won’t miss a farmer’s market even if they don’t need to buy anything. So, it’s a very eclectic place to be in Abingdon. And I have to admit, it’s a huge rush to me when a new or repeat customer returns and tells me how much they enjoy the piece that they purchased, or the many compliments that they receive on the item. I’m very thankful for all my customers.

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Ikebana Vase

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Ikebana Vases

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Abingdon: Meet the Locals [Dreamland Alpacas]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.


I’ve learned that animals have an incredible power about them to lift moods. I’ve also learned that they often reflect their owners. Thank goodness for this. The morning I drove to Meadowview to visit Dreamland Alpacas was a rough morning for me. For whatever reason, I had woken up in the worst of moods and now had to navigate the full day ahead. Lucky for me, I had something waiting that turned it around. I got to spend the morning with fuzzy alpacas and 2 individuals who’s passion for them is contagious.

Meet David and Debbie McLeish. They own and operate an alpaca farm about 15 minutes from downtown Abingdon. To say they’re full-service is an understatement. You can purchase items made from the alpaca fiber at their farm store, which is open daily from noon-7pm, or find them at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market. They offer education and outreach for explorers and crafters of all ages in weaving and crocheting to birthing and raising your own alpacas. This family moves non-stop. But I have no doubt about where that energy comes from, because you can see the love and adoration they have for their animals from the moment you meet them.

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As we walked out into the field, Toasty and Sweetie took an interest in my camera. Sweetie is a baby alpaca, currently being boarded with the McLeish’s. She circled me roughly 7 times, making sweet little noises. Alpacas are curious beings. Toasty went to Debbie’s side, and we all proceeded to the next field over.

The McLeish’s often allow schools to field trip to their farm to meet and pet animals. For children especially, education and kindness towards animals is of the utmost importance. Animals also have that incredible ability to light up a child’s world. In our society of instant gratification, going back to the source of our clothing and “stuff” helps give it value and meaning. If we all took the time to learn about who made the sweater on our backs, maybe we would treat it with more care.

I fell in love with alpacas that day, and I’ll certainly be going back to visit. And now when I wear my fuzzy socks, I know who to thank. Enjoy the interview and photos below, and check out the smiles on those alpacas!

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Baby Sweetie

David: Those she’s made, so they have a business card on them, “Made by Deb”.

Sarah: Do you dye all of them here as well?

Debbie: Anything that is here that has been dyed, I’ve dyed it. I dye skeins or I dye fiber, like all the little baggies over there is fiber that I’ve dyed myself.

Sarah: Where do you do the dyeing?

Debbie: In my kitchen. I have a special crockpot and a special microwave. Once you’ve dyed in it, it has to be specific for dyeing.

David: It’s an acid dye that she uses. So it’s permanent.

Sarah: All these colors are so comforting to look at.

David: We tried to do just natural colors, but then it would get 2 weeks before Christmas and somebody would say, I’d really like one of those hats but I’d like it in red._tlb1552

Debbie: So then I dye it red. And when I dye, I always dye 2 skeins at least. And that way, because sometimes I’ve made a hat for somebody that wanted a red hat and I get it to them and they go, oh I really love this, could you make me a scarf to match? So if I haven’t dyed the other one, I won’t get an exact match. And red is so funky. You know, you can get 2 red shirts and they can be not exactly the same shade of red. I’ve just learned from experience, always dye 2 skeins, and then that second skein I kind of keep away from the general public until after I’ve delivered it and give them a week or so.

Sarah: That’s so smart. Are there different kinds of fibers depending on the different kind of alpaca?

Debbie: Yes, 2. This color here, the tan color, is from a Suri alpaca. Suri alpacas look like they have banana curls and it hangs down. Huacaya alpacas, which is the only other breed…which is most of the animals I have here…looks like a teddy bear and their fiber grows out. So when you’re making something that you want to be fluffy, you use Huacaya. If you want something to be drape-y, then you use Suri. They feel different, too.

Sarah: How long have you been here?

_tlb1541Debbie: We moved here in 2002. We moved down here because our youngest daughter wanted to go to Virginia Intermont College. Plus, for years and years David had wanted me to move up to Maine or New Hampshire because of the mountains. And so this was a really good compromise for us because I didn’t wanna be up in the mountains of New Hampshire or Maine with feet of snow, stuck in a cabin way back in the woods. Because that’s what we would have ended up having. This was a perfect solution for me, because by noontime whatever snow we get basically melts. That’s the long and short version.

Sarah: And did you have alpacas up there as well?

Debbie: No. We had horses, or a horse actually, at the time that we moved down. I grew up with horses, so I have some minor experience with livestock, but taking care of them [alpacas] is more like taking care of a dog than it is taking care of cows. It really just kind of fell into place. Don’t you think? I mean, when we bought our first female alpaca I took a neo-natal weekend seminar with 4 vets that taught me all about delivery kind of stuff, because I really feel like people who own pets need to be responsible about them. Or have someone around that can be responsible for them. We have clients that bring their females here about a month before they’re ready to deliver and I’ll board them. In my opinion, that’s just as responsible. If they know that they can’t do deliveries, or don’t have the time to be on their farm…or some of our clients have their animals kept on a piece of property that isn’t where their primary residence is, and the last month that they’re pregnant you really need to keep an eye on them just in case you have a situation._tlb1550

David: During birthing season, one of us is here 24/7. We schedule everything on when we’re leaving the farm so one of us is here.

Debbie: Most of the time there isn’t a problem.

Sarah: How many do you usually have that are pregnant at the same time, like this past year?

Debbie: I think we just had 4. This has been our slowest year for births. We usually have at least 6 to 8. It kind of really depends. But we do so many things that sometimes it’s a little more confining to be on the farm. We try to plan the births, which you can because they don’t go into heat like dogs and horses. So we plan our birthing season to a relatively short period of time, about 6 weeks from start to finish. Because then we have festivals and fairs and you name it, we’re all over the place. Plus, we also like to have babies for our open house.

Sarah: What’s your favorite part about having alpacas?

Debbie: Definitely the birthing part. That’s my favorite part, well by far.

Sarah: Is it really?

Debbie: Really, if I didn’t have to leave my farm to do all these other things, I could have babies year round. I’d be very happy to do that. I love assisting when I need to, and watching when I don’t. Both parts of it. A lot of times when clients decide they’re going to have babies on their own farm, they always call me and say, oh she’s in labor! What do I do? Get a chair, sit on your hands. That’s my first advice. Then if you have a problem, call me back. Most of the time, unless they have a problem, you shouldn’t be in there because you need to let Mom and baby bond. You need to give Mom the opportunity to do that. You don’t wanna pull a baby that could possibly come out by itself, and most of the time they do.

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Mimosa & baby Princess

Sarah: Nature’s process knows what to do.

Debbie: Because it can complicate things. So, that’s really the biggest advice I give to people. Sit on your hands, call me if you have a problem. And most of the time, I’m on the phone for an hour. Ok, I see a nose, I see a nose. Relax. And when you breed an alpaca, they’re pregnant for 11 ½ months. So during that 11 ½ months, I have females that deliver babies on my farm. And I just tell them, I’ll call you when mine goes into labor, you can come over and hang around all day if you want to. Watch how the process goes. And I do that often, often, often for people. So they watch mine, and then they do 1 of 2 things. They either bring their female here, or sometimes I end up at their place.

Sarah: 11 ½ months is quite a bit of time. I’m sorry girls.

Debbie: But you know what? Most of the time, you can’t tell that they’re pregnant. Really, maybe the last 3 months you can see movement, you know. Because their bellies will, like, jump a little bit and there might be a little flutter kick. Belly watching day, I get out there and feel bellies because they’re all exposed now. It’s difficult when they’re at full fleece to really see and feel. I get out there and just start feeling bellies, because I can feel a kick. Or I’ll feel a knee, something.

Sarah: And they must grow so slowly.

Debbie: They do. And most of the time, they’re about 16 to 18 pounds at birth, so that’s not really a lot. Ya know?

Sarah: Is it in the spring then?

Debbie: Yes. We shear the first weekend of May, and breeding season is right after we’re done shearing. It’s more comfortable for the females and males, because it’s hot that time of year. I don’t want them having heat exhaustion from breeding. And in the same token, the following year when they’re getting ready to deliver their babies, I don’t want them to be overheated when they’re in labor. I call it naked, I like them to be naked when they’re breeding and birthing. It’s just easier. So, that’s what we do.

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Sarah: Is there something that stands out to you about the Abingdon community? Why the local community here is important to you?

Debbie: Well, it really honestly is important to us. We try to do as much as we can for the local community. Yesterday we had a special needs group from E.B. Stanley come out. We don’t charge for that. They come out, I do a whole presentation. They meet the animals, pet the animals, and we bring everything. We have a couple of sheep, a goat, some free-range chickens, and they pet them all. Then after they’re done, I do a little spiel…because kids nowadays don’t have a clue where their clothing comes from. They think Wal-Mart. So, I show them fibers and I show them knitting and weaving and crocheting and needle felting, depending of course on the age of the kids. If they’re little teeny tiny, all they really care about is petting the animals. It takes a village. I think that. I think it’s important to expose kids to as much information as you can.

Sarah: And you said you have sheep and….

Debbie: Yeah, and chickens. We have 3 chickens and we get enough eggs for myself and our kids. And we started with the goat and the sheep because of the field trips that the kids do. All of them are little, they’re not more than 30, 40 inches. And they’re all very friendly and very pet-able. They’ll eat out of the kids hands and stuff like that. I wanted to have something more to, kind of, expose the kids to. I don’t wanna have a whole petting zoo, but I wanted a little something that kids could see the variety and that they’re friendly.

Sarah: I think that’s so important to bring it back to where things are coming from. Because it is, it’s like where do you get stuff? Walmart! Yeah, but where does Walmart get it? You know, where is this coming from? When you place more importance on things._tlb1555

Debbie: Because it cycles through. What somebody comes and buys at my store…the majority of what comes in goes out to our community.

David: And stays local.

Debbie: Stays local, exactly. We really do concentrate on trying to do that. And most of the things that are in our store are either things that I’ve made or we contribute fiber to our co-op, and they combine our fiber with other American alpaca and they make things that we order from them. I do have a few things that I get from Peru, only because I can’t make them myself or I can’t get them from the co-op.

Sarah: Where did you learn all the stitching and knitting?

Debbie: I’ve always been artsy and crafty. And when I was a kid, my mom worked full time and we had a babysitter and she taught me how to knit. And I did it for a little while when I was a kid and maybe stopped when I was 10 or so, and then I didn’t do it forever. And when we got alpacas, I got to feel their fiber. I went for one quick, refreshing lesson and 15 minutes into the lesson I was teaching the person on the side of me. Because it’s kind of like riding a bike. And crocheting, I just picked up a book and did it. Weaving, I went to a fiber festival down outside of Asheville, North Carolina…which is the best fiber festival in the universe…they had weaving looms there, so I bought a weaving loom and I bought a book. I opened up the book and I learned how to do it. Really, I’m self-taught in most of the things that I do. Weaving is my favorite part of it. If I only could do one thing, weaving would be what I do. I end up doing a lot more crocheting than I do weaving.

David: The fiber dying, we had somebody come down from Northern Virginia that dyed. She taught a class here, and we had a bunch of clients here and did all that stuff.

Debbie: That’s one of the things that we have done too, in the past, because we are full service. We really do a lot of mentoring, so I get my clients together and I say okay, what do you guys wanna learn this year?

Sarah: Education and outreach.

Debbie: Yeah, pretty much. But it also gives my clients, who have now bought alpacas from me and now have alpaca fiber, something to do with their fiber so that they can be profitable too. I think that that’s what makes us successful. It’s all part of that community thing, and it’s all part of business too.

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Abingdon: Meet the Locals [the Brackens]

Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.


_tlb8115Have you ever felt like something was calling you, despite the life built around you? Or that you felt a strong inclination to act beyond what your head and heart may have to say? Meet the Brackens of My Shepherd’s Farm in Rural Retreat, Virginia. A little over 2 years ago they were living outside of Los Angeles, California. Linda and Philip, along with daughters Michelle and Kelley, traveled across the country until they found what they were looking for.

This gorgeous 53-acre farm is a dream as you enter the driveway. Dairy cows, bulls, Berkshire pigs, chickens, a turkey, corn and tomatoes a-plenty fill this land. Philip offered me cinnamon apple kombucha as I walked up onto the porch. Family friends had been visiting for a month or so, helping out and living the dream of summer on a farm. Isaac took to the animals, as Rocko took to machinery. With their enthusiasm, I would of thought they owned the farm themselves.

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The Brackens learned much of what they know from Joel Salatin, while training on his farm, as well as from neighbors and friends who offer constant support and guidance on matters as they arise. When you sign on to farm, you sign on for anything and everything. There is no denial about what you put into your body anymore. There is simply seeing life from beginning to end, from soil to plate; through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Brackens exhibit something I search for everyday in my life, and that is bravery. They gave up what they knew to start over in search of a more truthful and natural existence. We always try to do, do, do. More, more, more. Come up with the answers and force our lives into some sort of mold. But what if we listened more? What could happen?

You can find the Brackens at both the Abingdon and Wytheville Farmer’s Markets, as well as contact them through their website. Below is a bit of our conversation while riding in the back of their red pick-up to visit animals, eat fresh corn, and overlook the mountains from high, high on a hill. I was in need of fresh air and a fresh perspective that particular day, and both presented themselves.

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♦ Sarah: How many different breeds of chicken do you have?

Linda: We had a whole big package of them, backyard breed and heritage chicks. So they’re all different, so we’ve got like, Clarions, Buff Orpingtons, Dominiques…

Philip: Rhode Island Red.

Linda: What else? Oh, Americana, Leghorns. I think we’ve got white Leghorns and black ones.

Philip: And a lot of stuff mixed up. You see all the little babies?

Sarah: Oh man, that one got into some dirt.

Philip: Well they dust themselves for mites.

Isaac: Which one’s the one that’s really nice?

Linda: She’s a big one. That’s her coming down there. That one there, Isaac, she’s really friendly. You can pick her up. She’s nice.

Sarah: So, you moved from California?

Kelley: Yes.

Sarah: When did you move here?

Michelle: It was about 2 years ago.

Kelley: Been about 2 years. We lived right outside L.A.

Philip: Well Sarah, do you believe that God speaks to men sometimes? Not everybody believes that, but I think God wants us here. I got it wrong at first, as I often do.

Sarah: Don’t we all though?

Philip: Yep. The scripture says “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts”. So, went to Idaho and did a big ol’ circle of the United States._tlb7915

Sarah: You just knew that you were being called to go someplace else? Had you farmed before this?

Philip: No. But my family back in Ireland, they farm. So we’d go and visit in the summer.

Sarah: What part of Ireland?

Philip: Limerick.

Sarah: So you did a circle around Idaho and then came back here?

Philip: Made a U-turn and came back.

Kelley: We had kind of been reading books and wanted to eat more naturally.

{while passing by corn to grab a snack}

Sarah: I didn’t know you guys had corn, too. What kind of vegetables do you have?

Kelley: Right now we have tons of tomatoes. We canned 150 jars yesterday. And then we do everything for ourselves…

Sarah: So you have almost like a homestead here, too?

Kelley: Yes. We’re kind of trying to do that old farm family homestead. Everyone comes over and they’re like, I used to do that with my grandpa!

Sarah: Do you make cheese as well?

Kelley: Yeah, we don’t buy any dairy. So, cheese and yogurt, milk and cream.

Sarah: Wow. How long does it take to make cheese?

Kelley: You can make really simple ones in about an hour. Or you can do really complicated ones. But there’s farmer’s cheese where you just heat it up, add vinegar, and then you have cheese.

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Isaac: Careful. There’s 2 worms in here.

Kelley: Au natural.

Sarah: This is a silly question, but do you just eat it raw?

Kelley: You can, it’s actually really good.

Sarah: I’ve never actually eaten corn without cooking it.

Kelley: We had it raw in a salad the other day. It’s really good.

Sarah: Wow. That’s incredible. Oh my gosh. That’s the best corn I’ve ever had. I’m not kidding.

Philip: That’s because it’s F-R-E-S-H.

Michelle: We actually had 2 boys stay with us for a month, and 1 of them planted all this corn. He really enjoyed it, and he was so excited when it started coming up. He’s going to college in Tennessee, so we told him he needs to come visit us and try it now.

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Sarah: So, for you, I mean coming here and not knowing anybody and stuff, how has this community…how do you like it?

Kelley: The community is really, really cool. Cause we were right outside Los Angeles, like 45 minutes from downtown. It was crazy. But here, like the community, the neighbors…

Isaac: This is buddy! This is buddy!

Sarah: Oh hi Buddy, you’re so pretty.

Kelley: But we have a neighbor that comes over every day and we’re just learning and he’d give us seeds that he saved that are, like, a 100 years old. He’d say, today’s the day to plant your potatoes. We’re planting potatoes today! He’d stop what he was doing and come plant with us all day long. They come over all the time. So, so nice.

Sarah: Has it been in this area, or Abingdon?_tlb7923

Kelley: A bunch of both. Vendors like the Bullens in Abingdon are really, really cool. At some markets it’s like, oh you’re selling similar products, I don’t want to talk to you. But over there, they’ll help us with what we’re doing. That’s really nice.

Sarah: How about you?

Philip: We have the best neighbors you could ever imagine. And I think they’re actually God-sent. One couple, they’re dairy farmers. They help us wherever they can. They’re older, so they aren’t working anymore, but they heard about us having trouble with a calf and they sent down workers to help. We’ve got another neighbor, he was just here this morning helping me with a baler [for hay], and he just loves it.

Sarah: You find family wherever you go.

{with the dairy cows}

Linda: These are the a2a2 girls.

Philip: She carries the a2a2 gene.

Sarah: What is that?

Philip: So in the 40’s and 50’s, it was at that point in America where all the dairy cattle, their genetics was a2a2.

Linda: So, the industrialized cows they genetically mutated and then it changed to a1a1, and that’s what they’re linking to the lactose intolerance, diabetes, heart disease, obesity.

Philip: A high percentage of people who are lactose intolerant can drink her milk. So what is the intolerance from?

Linda: Those are the meat birds. They get clean grass and get pulled twice a day. So they get moved in the morning and they’re all excited, and then they get moved in the evening and they’re all excited.

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Michelle: Right now we’re doing it with a tractor. There’s just a little piece of rope up in the front and we just hook that on and drag it. And they know and they’re excited.

Sarah: And they walk with it?

Linda: They used to have more free range than that, but they were too open to predators. She lost 12 in 2 nights.

Michelle: But we’re trying this A-frame and it’s working really well with humidity and ventilation. There’s quite a few in each one because we’re in the process of building them, so hopefully we’ll have a lot. We don’t lose too many, so we’re really good out here.

{visiting dairy cows in another pasture}

Kelley: Sadie’s in heat, so you better watch. She’ll jump on the others’ backs.

Sarah: Yeah, I saw that! How long does that usually last when they’re in heat?

Kelley: It’ll last about 2 days.

Sarah: Is it like a monthly thing for them as well?

Kelley: Yeah. Every 21 days. It’s pretty exact. Some of them are pretty calm, and some of them are obnoxious when they’re in heat. They’re just bellowing all day…just running up and down the fence line.

Sarah: How weird is that, it’s in humans too. It’s just so fascinating.

Kelley: Yup. They’re just like their mommas, too. Like her momma will just be obnoxious and playful that way, spunky. She’s that way, too.

Sarah: And what cows do you breed them with?

Kelley: I A-I them. Artificially inseminate. And that way you can get top-dollar a2a2 bulls. And you’re 90% certain to get a female. So for me, if I’m doing dairy, that works out really well. And then I don’t have to pay for feeding a bull all year.

Sarah: How long does the artificial insemination process usually take?

Kelley: The guy, he’s really good, who comes here…usually done within 30 seconds or so.

Sarah: Wow. Okay.

Kelley: That’s an interesting job, that’s for sure. ♦

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