Carving a Niche in the Local Food Movement

It takes all kinds of farmers to build a local food movement, from small-scale growers to farmers who harvest or raise animals on hundreds of acres. Brian Chatham hits the sweet spot between the two at High Mountain Farms in Ashe County, North Carolina.

“We’re knocking on about 1,100 acres in production,” Chatham says. “Most everything we do is pretty large scale.”

He grows conventional and organic corn, soybeans, wheat, rapeseed, buckwheat, and many other grains on several plots of land. You’ll also see him at local farmers markets selling pumpkins, winter squash, and dried beans. He’s lived and worked on this land for most of his life.

“I was born and raised three miles from where one of my biggest farms is. Both of my grandfathers farmed cattle and tobacco. They and my grandmother were probably very instrumental with my passion for growing things,” he says.

He remembers one summer in the late 1980s when dry weather threatened to destroy his grandmother’s vegetable garden. “I can remember my grandmother, who would have been well into her 60s, carrying four one-gallon milk jugs full of water to her garden every evening. That was her way and I and I’ll never forget she told me, well, if we don’t water this corn and these beans and squash and stuff we’re not going to be able to eat all winter,” he says. The garden survived and he says he learned a lifelong lesson about the importance of hard work.

As a young adult, he studied wildlife biology and did wildlife management at farms and ranches. Then drought changed his life again. “In 2007 we had a severe drought and we were planting crops basically for wildlife use. So that started my farming career here because I had beautiful stand of corn despite the drought and a local farmer contacted me about buying it for silage for cattle feed. So I took that money from that seven acres of corn and turned it into my first profit,” he says.

Now he’s one of the biggest grain farmers in the area. Western North Carolina isn’t known for grains, mostly because the flat land needed to grow and harvest grain is hard to come by here. The mountains force farmers to think creatively about where and how to grow.

“You can’t drive equipment up the highway to work or do anything with six or seven acres. So now we have our land off the mountain, which is 150 acres, and then when we come up the mountain it’s one big farm. We can actually go in a complete circle and catch all nine hundred and sixty five acres in one big circle,” he says.

When he’s not on his tractor, he’s at local farmers market selling winter squash and beans. He and his girlfriend Sonya have a large CSA, and even set up mobile farmers markets for families at area preschools. It’s unusual for such a large-scale farmer to interact directly with customers, but he finds the time.

“The farmers market is rewarding to me because you develop a customer base and you get to interact with them. I’m very much a people person and having been born and raised in the community, I know everybody here and you develop a rapport with these people,” he says. “So that’s rewarding to me, but more than anything is I wake up everyday knowing that I get to get outside and do something that I absolutely love.

Whether he’s in the fields or at the farmers market, his grandparents’ dedication to hard work stays with him. “Both my grandfathers have passed away, but I would really like for them to see it because we’ve got a pretty big operation. I just think they would be kind of blown away by it all,” he says.

Hear more stories about local farmers in our audio archives:

Aired: February 12, 2018

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