The daily work of a farmer often involves a lot of physical labor, but farmers also do plenty of analyzing and strategizing.
“We are constantly talking about, thinking about, planning, asking ourselves, ‘How do we market better? How do we sell this better? How do we grow this differently? What is the market wanting? What are chefs wanting?’”
Those are questions that Savannah Salley from Headwaters Market Garden asks herself all the time. She grows produce in Alexander, North Carolina with her husband Will Salley.
They started their farm in 2017 and have been asking themselves these sorts of questions since day one. I wanted to know what they’d learned about growing vegetables and a farm business, so I met Savannah while she was packing up her tent at Asheville City Market. Will was already back at the farm, but Savannah was glad to talk about how they got started and their goals for the future.
Savannah and Will met in Hawaii where she was working at a middle school and he was working at a hotel. Farming wasn’t their initial career path—Savannah is trained as a speech therapist and Will has a degree in biology.
It might seem unlikely that they would end up starting a farm in Western North Carolina, but both of them have ties to the region. Savannah’s grandfather was born in Boone and she still has family in the area. Will’s grandmother and parents live in South Carolina. Farming wasn’t in their blood, but it was always in the back of Will’s mind.
“His dream was always to start a farm and he knew this area very well,” Savannah says. “He is familiar with the soils here. He worked as an agronomist in North and South Carolina for years before we met, so I think coming back here was natural for us.”
But they still had to find high-quality, affordable farmland near a city center where they could sell their produce. “We were kind of torn between a couple of different places—Greenville, Asheville, Boone—but we landed in Asheville because of its local food movement,” she says.
They found land through the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy’s farm incubator program. The program offers land, infrastructure, tools, and training to beginning farmers for up to five years. It was a great support system, but they still had a lot to learn about the actual work of farming.
“We have had a lot of challenges; starting a farm is not easy. It’s mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging because as a farm business, you’re so involved. Every aspect of your life is tied with this farm. It’s not a job that you just get to go home from, that you just get to leave at 5:00 p.m. and you’re done with that. I take a lot of detailed notes on every crop. I map it all out. When did we start it? When did we seed it? When did we start harvesting it? How much are we making from it? All that kind of stuff has really helped when we’re trying to do a plan at the end of the year for the new season,” she says.
Even with careful note taking, access to land, tools, and mentorships, there were some stumbling blocks at the beginning, especially as they learned how to grow produce.
“Our first season, we decided to plant almost a whole greenhouse of tomatoes, but we spaced them way too close. We decided to plant five different varieties because we wanted to try a whole bunch of stuff, but they all had different needs. Come to find out that a greenhouse our size requires about 20 hours a week in just pruning. That’s a lot of time especially when you’re only two people. We don’t have time to do that. So the first season I spent nearly 15 hours a week just pruning tomatoes. Since then, we do not grow nearly as many tomatoes, maybe a third of what we did before because we just don’t have the labor to do that,” she says.
In addition to dividing the labor between just two people, they had to learn a whole new skill-set during their first year.
“Neither of us had ever farmed before. We’ve never worked on a farm. We’ve never apprenticed on a farm. We’ve never farmed before physically. So that was a huge learning curve, but somehow we made it to market by August. Since then we have continued to just be committed to farming,” she says.
Now, they grow fewer tomatoes and have expanded into crops that are less labor-intensive, but still appealing to farmers market shoppers and chefs. They grow things like lettuce, herbs, broccoli, and kale, plus a more manageable crop of tomatoes. Savannah says their focus on quality over quantity has paid off, and they’re ready for their next challenge—finding a permanent place for their farm.
“We are hoping to buy a property next. I can’t really imagine putting so much work and effort into somebody else’s property again—all those amendments and how we take care of the land, we can’t ever get that back. So I think we’re ready to really transition into what would be our long-term farm. There are a lot of other things we’d like to do, like perennials, that we just don’t feel we can do on somebody else’s land. So we’re starting that process now,” she says.
Savannah hopes that beginning farmers like her and Will can learn from established farmers and contribute to the future of sustainable agriculture.
“One of the reasons why Will and I decided to get into farming is because there is such a need for farmers. Farmland is changing and farmers are changing,” she says. Savannah points out that the average age of farmers is steadily increasing. As of the most recent census, one-third of farmers in the U.S. are over the age of 65.
“So in the next 20 years, what our farms look like will be a lot different. We would love to see a small model be successful for farmers. One of the reasons we love this area is that there seem to be a lot of small farms here that are successful. We’d love to model after that and we’re interested to see where things go in the next couple of years for small farms,” she says.
We’ll continue to bring you stories about new and beginning farmers this year. Learn how to support new and established farms in ASAP’s local food guide www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: September 23, 2019