Working Farm

Ownership

This farm was owned for well over 100 years by the Sluder family. They grew crops including tobacco and had a dairy for a number of years. The farm was originally almost twice its size and included another approximately 50 acres adjacent to us on Sluder Branch Road. We were able to purchase 69 acres of the farm in March of 2006 from a descendant who had inherited the land. The acreage included the old dairy barn and the tobacco barn. In September of 2007 we were able to purchase the 1911 original farmhouse and an additional 2.6 acres of land surrounding the farmhouse. In 2013 we were also able to purchase a Log Cabin located about 100 yards from the Farmhouse. Our son, Aaron, and daughter-in-law, Anne, built  and own their house and property on the farm. They are Gaining Ground Farm and raise organic produce, flowers, and antibiotic and hormone-free, grass-fed Devon beef which they sell at local markets and to restaurants in the area. The total acreage of the current farm is about 71 acres.

Although farming in this area remains a strong tradition, Western North Carolina lost 679 farms and 115,447 acres of farm land between 2002 and 2007.  We are very excited to be able to keep this land as a working farm.

The Land

The farm includes about 13 acres of “bottom” land that is excellent for growing crops. There are about 8 acres of forest that is in a timber management program and about 50 acres of rolling hills and meadows that is excellent for grazing. A bold stream called Sluder Branch runs west to east through the bottom land on the farm. There is a second stream running north to south that empties into Sluder Branch. Sluder Branch in turn runs into Newfound Creek just down the road.  The farm is in the Newfound Watershed District.

 

The Challenges

The Pastures

When we purchased this property the pastures were overgrown and in very poor shape. We spent a good deal of time bush hogging through brush and small trees that were initially higher than the tractor. Some “scrub” trees such as scrub pine and dead or dying trees were removed. Then with the help of soil analysis we added appropriate lime to bring the pH to an acceptable range. We do not add commercial fertilizer and are counting on appropriate grazing plans to build and maintain fertility.

We have run several miles of no climb woven wire fence attached to driven 6-8 inch treated pine posts around the entire perimeter of the farm. This is of course to keep our animals in but also to keep other uninvited visitors out. We were told that there is a new bill being considered requiring that organic produce farms be fenced to reduce the risk of contamination from an outside source.

Aaron, who finished college at Warren Wilson and spent three years on the farm crew while in school and another three years redoing a farm in Madison County, was invaluable in restoring the pastures to where we are now and in planning and getting good help from Warren Wilson students with building our solid fences. We have gotten lots of compliments on our fences from surrounding farmers.

The “Bottom Land”

When we purchased the farm we found that the bottom land needed some work and some rest. We began working with the land to bring it back to a more natural and sustainable state. We sub soiled and surface tilled and planted winter rye, Sudan grass, and clover and have since cover cropped with Austrian peas and have tilled these into the ground.  We left the land without planting any farm or garden crops for nearly three years to allow the prior chemicals to escape and/or break down. Anne, who already has had over ten years of experience with market gardening before moving to Sluder Branch, has a deep and caring relationship with the soil and is our expert in continuing to improve this  productive land.

The Streams

We are part of the Newfound Creek Watershed Clean Water Initiative. We have done two separate cost sharing projects on our farm with Buncombe County Soil and Water installing automatic waterers and then fencing to keep all of our livestock out of the streams. This type of project can have a huge impact on water quality. The large rain garden next to the barn site was also built in cooperation with Buncombe County Soil and Water. This retention pond or rain garden is designed to contain any runoff from our new barn and barn site and is one more way to protect our streams.

 

The Buildings

The Tobacco Barn

When purchased, the tobacco barn was mostly open on the road side as well as open on both ends as its primary function was to provide ventilation by allowing the warm breezes to circulate through the barn to dry the hanging tobacco leaves. We finished enclosing this barn, added additional roofing (especially after losing a number of sheets with a tremendous wind storm), cleared out the tobacco infrastructure and added electricity. Water also needed to be diverted away from the barn. A chicken coop has been added as well as a small loft area for drying garlic and onions and for storage. With the addition of two milk cows Aaron and Anne have built a small two stall milking parlor.

The Dairy Barn and Silo

We do not have the exact dates on this barn but it is obviously quite old and is very interesting. All of the siding was attached with cut nails rather than the round wire nails that are used today. A cut nail is sheared or cut from a sheet of steel and has two matching flat sides as versus the square nail that is forged and usually has four fairly equal sides. The heyday for the cut nail was from about 1820 to 1910 and so we figure that the barn is of about the same vintage as the 1911 farmhouse; perhaps a little older. Unfortunately the dairy barn was in very bad shape and not structurally sound when we bought the farm. We are currently in the process of reroofing and restoring as much as we can of this interesting and historic old structure.

The Springhouse

A spring house, or springhouse, is a small building used for refrigeration and was commonly found in rural areas before the advent of electric refrigeration. It is usually a one room building constructed over the source of a spring. The water of the spring maintains a constant cool temperature inside the spring house throughout the year. The main use of a spring house is for the long-term storage of food that would otherwise spoil, such as meat, fruit or dairy products. Pioneers looked for a spring and built their homes near it. It kept their thirst (and that of their animals) satisfied and their food from spoiling. It was the only refrigeration known for years. A stone trough was built in the spring house. Through it ran cold, slow flowing spring water. Earthenware crocks of milk were placed, neck deep, in the water. It is always cool in the spring house, even on the warmest of days. A gourd dipper hung in it so that men coming in from the hot field could stop for a draft of cold water.

The Raw Milk Storage House

The dairy gathered their raw milk in round milk containers with no seams, (to avoid a place where bacteria could grow and contaminate the milk), and stored them in the milk house until the milk truck came to pick up the milk for processing. The floor of this house is sunk so that water from the spring could run onto the bottom and create a “pool” of ground temperature (55 degrees) water to keep the milk cool.

 

The Animals

The Devon Beef Cattle Herd

Devon cattle were developed over several centuries on the southwestern peninsula of England. The breed’s name comes from Devonshire, though cattle were also raised in the neighboring counties of Cornwall, Somerset, and Dorset.  Devon’s were valued for the production of both high quality beef and the rich milk used in Devonshire cream. They were especially well regarded as the quickest and most active oxen in the British Isles. The breed also had the reputation as easy keepers, able to thrive on rough forage.

The Pilgrims brought Devon cattle with them to New England beginning in 1623. The hardiness and practicality of the breed, plus the availability of Devon cattle near the ports of departure, made the Devon an obvious choice for early immigrants to the Americas. The breed became well established in New England during the 1600s and spread down the coast as far as Florida during the 1700s and 1800s. The cattle also went west as Devon oxen were the draft animals of choice on the Oregon Trail. A registry was established for the breed and herd books have been published since 1855.

By the late 1800s, however, the Devon had been gradually replaced by the Shorthorn, a more productive multi purpose breed. By 1900, Devons were rarely seen outside of New England. Only in this region did the breed continue to be valued for hardiness and the ability to thrive under rugged conditions, qualities in which it surpassed the Shorthorn.

By the 1950s, the market for multi purpose cattle had disappeared and the Devon breed neared extinction. In response to this challenge, the breeder community split. The majority of breeders began to select intensively for beef production in order to compete with other beef breeds. This population was called the Devon or the Beef Devon. A few breeders continued to select their animals for meat, milk and draft; this population was called the American Milking Devon. Beef selected Devon cattle populations are found in several other countries, including Britain and Brazil, though the long separation of these populations makes it unclear whether they are still a single breed. Research continues internationally into the status and characteristics of the Devon.

Devon cattle are ruby red with black tipped, creamy white horns. Cattle are medium in size, with cows averaging 1,100 pounds and bulls 1,600 to 2,000 pounds. Their appearance is compact with a straight top line, square set legs, and well formed udders.

The Devon has several assets which recommend it for use in today’s competitive beef market. The breed’s history as a dual purpose animal gives it greater maternal ability than most other beef breeds. (Any decline in this characteristic is easily corrected through the use of a Milking Devon bull, which can be registered in the Devon herd book.) The Devon is known for high quality beef, and the breed’s hardiness and grazing ability makes it an excellent choice for grass based production. They are a smaller breed of cows making them more efficient on grass. Being a smaller breed of cattle also means they cause less erosion when grazing here in our mountains.

Studies have shown the meat of grass-fed beef to be higher in CLA, conjugated linoleic acid, and omega 3 fatty acids. A study of beef in Pennsylvania published in 2008 by Penn State University Department of Crop and Soil Sciences concluded that compared to retail ground beef or beef from cattle fed stored feed, grass-fed beef had 239% greater omega-3 concentrations and 91% greater CLA concentrations.

These are the most relaxed “chill” cattle that you will have seen. The babies are the exception. Watch for them to run a bit and “play” in the hour or so before dark.

Matilda the Donkey

We purchased Matilda about two years ago to guard the Devon babies from coyotes. Donkeys have a natural dislike/hatred of dogs and since coyotes resemble dogs – watch out! Matilda is now about seven years old and had a baby about three years ago. The best guard donkey is a female who has already had a baby and has developed that extra protective instinct. It is also important that they are independent of humans and thus we do not encourage feeding treats etc. When we went to pick out a donkey there were a number of possibilities including several very friendly ones, several that never paid us any attention and then there was Matilda. She stood off on her own and acted quite independent but each time we made even the slightest move she noticed and her ears went up and her eyes locked in on the “strangers”. Matilda has been our guard “cow” since. She goes everywhere with the herd and they all seem to love her. We frequently see the cows licking her long ears and she really seems to enjoy their attention. She loves the little ones and will be found standing guard over sleeping babies while their mothers are off grazing.

Free Range Chickens

Anne and Aaron have a flock of free range chickens. They arrived in a box by mail when one day old and have been raised here. They eat an organic grain mixture along with what they find on their own and they do not live cooped up and confined though they do have a nice shelter when they want to come in. They are put up at night to protect them from predators. Eggs are gathered daily and usually in the evening and can be found almost anywhere around the barn though most are in the laying boxes.

Other Critters

Close to the event barn or in the stalls you will see some miniature llamas, a small driving pony named Prancer, a miniature donkey named Pebbles and her daughter Itsy Bit.

 

Farm Protocol/Procedures

The Cattle Herd (Aaron’s Domain)

No antibiotics or hormones.

Grass-Fed – no grain to “finish”

No stockyard or “pens for fattening”

Aaron does rotational grazing which involves breaking up the pastures into smaller portions and then moving the herd usually every two days from one pasture to the next. This has been proven to maintain, sustain, and improve the land and pastures and at the same time reduce parasite and vector problems. There is higher grass production in pastures that have “time off” and are not overgrazed and a lower parasite load in animals that are moved from pasture to pasture frequently as the animals are not grazing in and around parasite eggs. Parasite control is done with a special soap that is added to the automatic waterers. This soap is not supposed to kill the dung beetle which is important as the dung beetle buries the cow mature in the ground. Flies don’t have as much manure to lay their eggs in meaning there are less flies than normally found around cattle.  Diatomaceous earth can also be added to the free flowing salt placed in troughs to help further control parasites in the cows.

 

The Market Garden (Anne’s Domain)

The Greenhouse, (also known as hot house, hoop house and high tunnel house)

Anne grows over 50 different varieties of vegetables. Things get going about mid February in the greenhouse. Seeds are started in organic potting medium kept warm on heating pads. The greenhouse is kept between 50 to 75 degrees depending on how cold it is outside. With our mountain temperatures this means heating with a wood stove with at least one visit after midnight to load the fire each night in addition to keeping it going during the day on cold days. When the days start to warm up parts of the greenhouse may need to be opened during the day to keep it from getting too hot inside. As the seeds germinate and grow, the plants need to be stepped up into larger containers at least once before they are ready to be put into the ground. Anne’s biggest crops are garlic…..she plants 300#s of garlic that will yield 1200#s of garlic… and onions, of which she plants thousands. Tomato plants in the field number around 800. She has a number of Heirloom tomatoes. We have three growing seasons here so there is starting, stepping up, and getting in the ground activity occurring continuously to produce the spring, summer, and fall harvests.

Irrigation

Aaron and Anne’s house well serves that side of the farm. They were lucky in being able to find good water at a little over 100 feet deep with the well producing 20 gallons/minute. This allows the use of drip irrigation to water crops with safe clean water on a routine and regular basis.

Insect Control and Fertilization

Anne uses natural insecticides if used at all. Fertilization is done mainly with cover crops. Kelp, fish emulsion, bone meal and composted manure are also used to some degree.

Our Fields

This is Anne’s fourth year in this location and she continues to “learn from the land”. There are always some things that grow a little better here or there on a farm and it takes a little time to figure all of that out. Anne is trying to rotate crops and rest and renew portions of the farm with nutritious cover crops that are tilled back into the soil at maturity. Some of the cover crops can really be quite beautiful in addition to their nitrogen fixing potential for the soil. We miss the beautiful patch of red clover when it is tilled under. And some are quite delicious such as the Austrian peas whose pea tasting vine is great in salads. Enough untilled land adjacent to our fields is left to accommodate our friendly and beneficial insects. A good productive field depends on the interaction of seed, land structure, nutrients, water, insects, and yes, people, making good informed responsible decisions.

We do not use potentially harmful chemicals.

We use good clean water for irrigation and for cleaning the produce for market.

We try to pick produce at its most tender and yet nutritious time.

We know that LOCAL produce is fresher, more nutritious, tastes better and is right for our planet and our children

Anne likes to try new varieties when they look interesting but is also very interested in and committed to heirloom varieties. She does grow repeat crops as there are a number of things that her customers look forward to every year like her garlic.  They maintain that her garlic is the best. A look up when visiting the chickens will look like “garlic from heaven”. Bunches are tied together on 2 ends of a string and thrown over a support to allow them to dry. They are sold individually, in a bunch, or braided into a decorative kitchen hanging that you can cook off of for a few months!

Gaining Ground Farm sells its produce at different farmers markets and also supply restaurants in the area.

They also have a very nice C. S.A. (Community supported Agriculture)

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer.

Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a “membership” or a “subscription”) and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

This arrangement creates several rewards for both the farmer and the consumer. In brief…

Advantages for farmers:

Receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow

Have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow

Advantages for consumers:

  • Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
  • Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
  • Usually get to visit the farm at least once a season
  • Find that kids typically favor food from “their” farm – even veggies they’ve never been known to eat
  • Develop a relationship with the farmer who grows their food and learn more about how food is grown

You can call (828-545-2362) and get more information about C.S.A. shares from Gaining Ground Farm for 2014   

Fruit

We have close to 100 mature blueberry plantings and have now planted and are developing an organic apple orchard.

The Future

Plans for sharing the farm through events and farm tours.

Plans for developing products from our healthy produce for sale locally.

Maintaining/Sustaining!!