Joe Deal and his family are gathered in front of a pile of straw bales at Deal Family Farm in Franklin, North Carolina. Joe’s wife, Devon, and their five kids jostle into a semi-circle for a group photo. Anyone with a big family will recognize the joy of getting everyone together for a family picture. Add a field full of pumpkins, a corn maze, and baskets of late season produce, and you’ve got just the right amount of chaos.
“We have five kids and six opinions,” Joe says with a laugh.
It takes the whole family to keep Deal Family Farm up and running. They have a fruit stand and sell wholesale to Ingles grocery stores and other outlets. They have a CSA during the growing season with about 60 members, and in the fall the farm is a hub of agritourism with a pumpkin patch and corn maze.
One of the goals of this multifaceted business is to bring in different kinds of customers.
“It’s a whole different demographic,” Joe says. “We do see a lot of crossover because folks who may not have been fruit stand customers join the CSA and that’s how they got introduced to us. Then, over time, they become a fruit stand customer versus a CSA customer. Then folks come for the corn maze in the fall and say, ‘I’ve never been here before.’ Then they get introduced to the fruit stand and the CSA also. So there is a lot of crossover and a lot of repeat and word of mouth.”
This diversified farm business is a big change from how Deal Family Farm started out. It began with a fruit stand, founded by Joe’s grandparents, Bobby and Elsie Deal, in 1951. Joe considers himself a third generation farmer, though the family’s connection with agriculture goes back much further.
“We can trace the farm and lineage back seven or eight generations. Most of those first generations, they were just sustenance.” he says.
That farming knowledge got passed down, and the fruit stand grew over time. Years later, Joe took over. He added many of the new elements of the business you see on the farm today.
“We incorporated the farm in 2007 and I’m the president of Deal Family Farm, although my dad’s vice president and secretary. I get reminded often that I’m still the young punk who hadn’t been doing this near as long as he has. In 2007, I started making a lot of the day-to-day decisions, and we still sometimes butt heads on those responsibilities. I think that’s one of the dilemmas with working with family. I’ve said, ‘Yes, sir’ to him for years and years and still do, but you know, we each have different responsibilities within the farm now,” Joe says.
Joe’s father prefers to work in the fields and let the rest of the family run the fruit stand and agritourism. In addition to overseeing the farm, Joe works a full-time job as a livestock agent for the NC Cooperative Extension, and his wife works as a teacher. Yet, with the help of their kids and extended family, they’ve been able to grow the business and stay flexible as the needs of the community change.
“When we first started our CSA in 2010 or 2011, we were in the middle of the recession and our fruit stand business was taking a nosedive. We thought, ‘Why in the world is this happening?’ Folks who were in construction didn’t have jobs, but everywhere you went, everybody was putting in a garden and that hurt our business,” he says.
“So my thoughts were, OK, I need to go to where folks are not planting a garden. So our first two years, the majority of our CSA customers were in Atlanta. We would run a weekly truck down there with our CSA to the Atlanta area. After a couple of years of that, we started picking up customers here locally and then just focused solely here in the area,” he says.
They’ve worked to increase their fruit stand customers, though they haven’t seen as many people buying bulk produce in recent years. Now, they sell fewer beans by the bushel and tomatoes by the box because some fruit stand customers are getting older and aren’t physically able to preserve food like the used to.
Though bulk produce sales at the fruit stand are slowing down, other aspects of the business are thriving and there’s been an influx of youthful energy in the pumpkin patch, including school groups and Joe and Devon’s own kids, like eight-year-old Kenleigh, who helps deliver pumpkins. She says the customers and farmers are “pretty cool” and that she’d be interested in keeping a garden when she grows up.
Addie, age 10, helps with the corn maze after school and the fruit stand in the summer. She says she’d never want to be a farmer and would rather go skiing or ride motorcycles. It’s hard to know what you want to do when you grow up, especially when you’re in elementary school, but their father isn’t deterred.
“Very few farm kids say when they’re twelve years old that that’s what I want to do for a living, but I think as they get older and get out and see how the rest of the world is and the importance of farming, they go back and say, you know, that wasn’t that bad, that was actually some of the most fun that I’ve had,” Joe says.
“All five of them have a different personality, and I try to incorporate their personalities into the operation so that they’re doing something where they fit in. I think that’s very important to keep them interested and plugged in, giving them a chance to succeed and do something that they love and be successful at it,” he says.
Deal Family Farm’s fruit stand opens back up in April, their CSA starts in May, and fall activities run October through November each year. Learn more about the farm and other multigenerational farming families in ASAP’s local food guide www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: December 23, 2019