by Karen Johnson
photographs by Travis Dove
Farming isn’t just for the country any more. Farmers – people growing their own food – are as common today as a suburban next-door neighbor or a favorite downtown restaurant.
You can find farmers at work in an apartment courtyard on Hillsborough Street, on the roof of a condominium at North Hills, or atop a restaurant like Sitti on South Wilmington Street. Full-scale, organic farms on many acres exist within the city limits as well, run by folks who have chosen farming as a calling and profession. All of them are re-defining farming and reaping the rewards.
Meet some of Raleigh’s most interesting farmers: Father-daughter Hillsborough street beekeepers; a twenty-something corporate refugee; and legacy farmers working 60 close-in acres. All have tales to tell and food to share.
From corporate to cooperative
A couple of years ago, Matthew Cronheim, a 25-year-old Raleigh resident, had a high-paying job at a Fortune 500 technology company. “I was not stimulated intellectually, and I had nothing to show for my work except a great paycheck,” he says. Worse, he felt himself to be “invisible, and apparently worthless to society as a whole.”
A craving for meaningful pursuits led him to begin working with his hands. “I wanted to be good at what I did,” he says. Carpentry and farming appealed, he says, because “they inherently benefited people. There is intrinsic value in a tomato, or a well-built house.” He wanted his knowledge “to contribute to physical and social good.”
After working a season for a farmer and spending a cold and income-free winter, Cronheim decided to take matters into his own hands, grow his own food, and sell it at local markets. But he had a big hurdle: No land. So he emailed his friends with lawns, and offered to turn their grass into vegetable gardens. The proposition was simple. He would farm their land rent-free, and they would enjoy the bounty of fresh vegetables. After some persuasion, Cronheim and a friend secured six plots of land inside the Raleigh beltline, for a grand total of one acre. Year one required 70-hour work weeks, but it resulted in 80 kinds of produce. Unheard of for a first-year farmer, Cronheim even managed to break even. The next year, he tweaked the formula slightly, growing fewer varieties on that same combined one acre.
Now in his third year, Cronheim and Evan Hughes, his business partner, have moved on to their own place. Together they operate Commonplace Cooperative Farm near Brier Creek. It’s a collective farming operation focused on collaboration, sustainability, and education.
Rows of kale, collards, cilantro, radishes, pea shoots, turnips and arugula share space with chickens, goats, and fellow farmers. All partake in the care of the land and its bounty. Arrangements are ad-hoc. By allowing an aspiring farmer to use part of the land rent-free to raise goats, for instance, everyone wins, Cronheim says. The goats are happy clearing brambles, the farm can increase its offerings, and everyone shares in the profits.
Cronheim says he is intent on encouraging a new generation of farmers and has established a regular agrarian discussion group interested in the intellectual, ethical and practical issues of urban farming. Topics at these potluck affairs range from the ethics of meat production to Thomas Jefferson and the agrarian underpinning of America. If that sounds like heady chat for a group of farmers, Cronheim says that’s the whole point. Farming is hard, he says, and it takes hard thinking.
Matthew Cronheim’s Commonplace Cooperative Farm is at 3017 Coley Road in Raleigh. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As cars zip along Hillsborough Street near the campus of N.C. State University, traffic of another kind buzzes behind one of the buildings set back from the road. On their own little airborne highway, thousands of honey bees are making their way from an air conditioner to their hive, about 50 feet away. The bees load their wings with condensation, deliver it to the hive to keep it cool, then do it again. They’re not there by accident. Al Pleasants and Sarah Myers, father-daughter owners of Piedmont Litho Printing, are the bees’ hosts; the small space behind their printing business is the duo’s inside-the-Beltline bee farm, so to speak.
What started as a hobby for the two has grown into a full-blown beekeeping business, and both say they hope eventually to replace their printing careers with honey production.
Undeterred by the fact that they have no land on which to raise, keep and grow their bee hives, Pleasants and Myers have turned the space they do have into a staging area. Here, the hives mature before being transported to local organic farms and gardens to pollinate and encourage healthy and vibrant crops.
The pair currently maintains 24 hives around Wake County, and aim ultimately to make a living fully supported by beekeeping, with at least 100 hives on local farms
Pleasants and Myers became certified beekeepers in 2008 and are in the process of becoming N.C. Master Beekeepers. It’s no simple proposition: Beekeeping in North Carolina is serious business. The first state to regulate and certify beekeepers, North Carolina insists that honey remain authentic, pure, raw, and contain no added sugar or corn syrup.
But honey is just part of the job. Between maintaining the hives, disarming swarms, and harvesting honey twice a year, Pleasants and Myers are already busy as bees. They also market and sell their honey and honey products through community supported agriculture shares, retail outlets, coffee shops, the Midtown Farmer’s Market at North Hills in Raleigh, and online at thepleasantbee.com.
The Pleasant Bee is located at Piedmont Litho, 3126 Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. For more information on the Pleasant Bee, go to www.thepleasantbee.com.
It’s safe to say that Bob Kellam and Susan Wyatt are naturals at farming. After all, it’s in their blood. Their 60 beautifully designed acres at Kellam-Wyatt Farms are a family heirloom, inherited from Bob’s grandfather.
The legacy, which sits within Raleigh’s city limits, is one the couple say they were honored to receive. There’s no question that it changed their lives. After 30-year careers with the Environmental Protection Agency, the couple’s retirement years were transformed into farming years. And at Kellam-Wyatt Farms, farming is no leisurely pursuit. It is an active exercise in sustainability.
Kellam, Wyatt and their current staff (all graduates of NC State’s horticulture program) grow more than 40 varieties of vegetables and fruits using organic methods. Their wide expanse of land is beautifully and thoughtfully maintained: Grass borders surround each garden plot, serving as buffer and partial barrier to deter pests and help prevent the spread of disease. Fences keep out hungry wildlife; hoop houses (semicircular, polyethylene-covered greenhouses) and traditional greenhouses extend the season at both ends.
Crops are carefully rotated, solar energy supplies a barn and greenhouse, and chickens do double duty by laying eggs while they naturally weed, till, and fertilize the land for the next crop. According to Kellam, it’s a technique handed down from past generations.
“Farmers have always had to be innovative,” he says. “We are just building on our heritage.”
Heritage is important here, but so is the future. Educating the farmers of tomorrow is something Kellam, in his easygoing manner, takes seriously.
“Several years ago, at the age of 59, I was the average age of North Carolina farmers,” he says. “There is a tremendous need for young farmers and more local farms.”
To that end, Kellam and Wyatt create and participate in programs that teach young people about land, vegetables, fruits, and animals. They host tours for high school horticulture classes and hope to create an incubator farm for young people interested in farming.
And at the end of the day, the couple says it’s that kind of sharing that makes it all worthwhile, and that their biggest reward lies in the people they serve. Sharing the fruits of their labor with the customers they see each week at the Midtown Farmer’s Market and through their small community supported agriculture association, they say, is their greatest satisfaction.
Kellam-Wyatt Farm is located at 731 N. Rogers Lane in Raleigh. Bob Kellam can be reached at email@example.com.
My father is a part-time farmer, which means that farming is his love, not his job. He loved it well enough that I grew up knowing only the taste of fresh and home-canned vegetables. My dad planted his Johnston County farm and my mom picked, shelled, and froze everything that he grew. We spent the rest of the year enjoying mouthfuls of delicious food. Our family had more freezers than a Sears’ showroom, but my grandmother had a rule that you couldn’t eat out of the freezer until after Thanksgiving. Until then, everything we ate came straight out of the garden.
As I became an adult and moved across the country to the Rocky Mountains, the suburbs of Detroit, and then a New England village in Connecticut, the one item that moved with me every time was my grandmother’s freezer. When my parents visited me in each of these places, they would bring coolers packed with home-grown vegetables to sustain my body and soul. Thanks to them, I was able to introduce my new friends to the sweet taste of such Southern delicacies as collards, six-week peas, and butter beans.
I knew I had a strong respect for the hard work, dedication, and faith that goes into a relationship with the land and Mother Nature, but I had little hands-on understanding of the work it requires.
That would change. When I moved back home from Connecticut three years ago, I decided it was time to dig deeper into the farming life and learn about the sweet rewards and harsh realities that accompany it.
I decided to start with something manageable. Tucked back in a wooded corner of our 40 acres of farm and pastureland in Johnston County is a two-acre blueberry patch, home to 600 bushes. It’s hardly big enough to qualify us as blueberry farmers, but we take the harvesting, culling and sharing of our berries seriously. As a result, our fruit delights us each year with its rich sweet taste and nutrients.
It has also delighted me by teaching me about life. In my short life as a blueberry grower I have already experienced bounty and scarcity, drought and hurricanes, birds and pests. My days of picking are shaped by the light, heat and humidity as well as the quality of my help.
I have learned the pure excitement and gratitude that comes from a bountiful crop, the faith that what doesn’t kill us will teach us a new way of doing things, and an acceptance of having little real control. My father (at 80) does a lot of the heavy lifting for the blueberry patch. We have a running joke: He manages the expenses; I manage the revenue.
My greatest pleasure comes from picking the fruit and sharing it with our amazing customers every Saturday morning at the farmer’s market at North Hills. Some of my most interesting customers are farmers themselves, albeit in an urban setting, with innovative approaches to space, labor, and tools. Their paths to farming are as varied as the crops they grow, and I learn something new every weekend.
Each of these farmers sell their wares at the Midtown Raleigh Farmers Market, open Saturdays at North Hills shopping center from 8 a.m. until noon. The market operates weekly until November 17.