Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
According to Sustainable Table (sustainabletable.org), sustainable agriculture is: “the production of food, fiber, or other animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare.”
A mouthful, maybe, but to the handful of sustainable farmers in Macon County, this description is not taken lightly. The goal is to produce healthy food without affecting future generations’ ability to do the same in the same area, on the same land, if necessary. Sweat, tears, and sometimes blood, is intermingled with the determination to eke out of the land a living.
Most farms in this area are members of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), whose mission is: “to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters, and build healthy communities through connections to local food.”
Each local farm family has a unique story about farm origins and how they do sustainable farming successfully.
Don and Belinda Carringer, of Carringer Farms, purchased an existing 70-year-old farm six years ago. A focus on farming is a next chapter endeavor for the middle age couple. Don is a family practice physician who plans to officially retire in January, but will work a few days a week to maintain his medical license, while Belinda left a nine-year job with The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee due to farm demands.
“Both of my grandparents had small farms,” says Don. “We grew and preserved most of our food growing up. I worked alongside them from the time I was a child (7 years old) until I was 19 years old. We also had chickens. I farmed all my life and when Belinda and I got married 11 years ago, before we found our farm, we farmed on Belinda’s cousins’ land for a few years until we bought this farm we currently own.”
To maintain sustainability on their farm, the Carringers collect rain water off the barns and other property buildings to give to their flock of 200-plus chickens and to use for irrigation.
Says Belinda, “We put leftover plant matter and dried leaves in our chicken lots, and then we use the chicken manure to spread on the garden. We practice seed saving, and we have bees for pollination and honey.”
Every week they provide fresh eggs and produce to a half dozen area restaurants and two farmer’s markets (Swain County on Fridays, and Franklin on Saturdays). Recently, they arrived at the Franklin market one Saturday morning with 57 dozen eggs, and by 10:30 a.m. had about six dozen remaining.
“Carringer Farms is one of the best examples of sustainability and success in this area,” says Claire Suminski, whose family operates the two-and-a-half-acre Suminski Farmette along with her husband, Joe, and grown children ages 19 to 30: Jamy Beth, Jerome, Molly, and Annie. What started out years ago as a small hobby farm for the homeschool family increased 10-fold over the years to include at least 30 blueberry bushes, eight apple trees, four pear trees, two peach trees, and two fig trees. The family also grows seasonal items at their farm as well as at a garden plot in two community garden areas, one by the Macon County Library and another at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center.
The Suminskis practice clever sustainability. For example, they researched Hügelkultur, which is a German word to describe using decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials under the ground to seep up and provide nutrients to the soil. So when a pine needed to be taken down, the family buried it under the ground and now has a thriving garden over it. The mohair from their five angora goats provides fiber for weaving and selling. Recently, their goats’ mohair was combined with alpaca, fine merino, and some nylon to create a workable blend that will be sold in local shops, including Silver Threads & Golden Needles on Main Street. Daughter Annie, in fact, is a weaver with a degree in fiber arts.
They also cultivate shitake mushrooms in old logs, raise chickens, and have built a prayer/meditation building out of milled logs from a downed black walnut tree. Chicken drama on the Suminski farm even inspired a book series. (See sidebar.)
“What we produce we give away, consume, or sell,” says Claire. “It’s just so exciting to know things like the mohair in the yarn comes from our land. We’re a very close family and we love to learn, do, and serve. The farm has helped teach the kids how to be self sufficient. Self-sufficiency is definitely a part of sustainability.”
More ASAP farms
Another ASAP farm is Deal Family Farm, founded in 1951, with a stand on Murphy Road that posts on a sign what is ripe and ready for purchase. Also offered is a pumpkin patch and corn maze; the maze is open to the public Sept. 29 through Nov. 3, Fridays and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and by appointment other times. A Haunted Maze will be open Oct. 13, 20, and 27, this year.
Seventy-four-year-old J.W. Mitchell Jr., has been growing tomatoes since he was a high schooler in the 1950s. He farmed in Florida for 42 years and has been farming on the 40-acre Bradley Creek Road site in Franklin for the last 18. J.W. Mitchell Farms is a family affair with his wife, Dorothy, managing bookkeeping and finances, and grandchildren spending weeks or months in summers to work at the farm that is 80 percent commercially cultivated and 20 percent you-pick.
“I’ll always consider myself a tomato farmer,” says Mitchell, who grows at least 10 varieties, including yellows, romas, and heirlooms. Also growing seasonally on the farm is okra, summer squashes, winter squashes, bell peppers, sweet corn, eggplant, beans, beets, and pumpkins. He has peach trees, but not one peach survived this year because of a late April frost.
“Last year we had 5,000 baskets of peaches,” he says.
Mitchell maintains sustainability by using the mulch from trees trimmed or cut down on the property, and by disking spent corn stalks and other plant material into the ground for humus, which is the organic component of soil.
River Road Farm opened in November 2004 as a u-pick blueberries, sometimes blackberries, and flowers. No sprays are used and Lenny Jordan, who owns the farm with his wife, Jean, says their main reward is meeting people who come to pick and witnessing enjoyment of the fruits of their labor. Always, however, there are more berries than people to pick. An important cog in the wheel of sustainable farming is making certain produce is not wasted but enjoyed by locals.
“Providing quality eggs, honey, produce, jams, jellies, and preserves to a farmers market and restaurants … and being environmentally friendly is our great reward,” shares Belinda Carringer.
These farms offer their fresh-picked and harvested goods on Saturday mornings on East Palmer Street in downtown Franklin from 8 a.m. to noon, or they have their own produce stands, or they wait at their farms for locals to show up and pick.