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.

Sarah: And how do you move them?_tlb8015

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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New Vendor Voice Tuesday June 21st

cropped-afm-icon.pngTesting the New Vendor Voice page.  This is the excerpt that will show on the blog page. It should be about one paragraph long. 

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