Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Starting Point

The following piece, sadly homeless, dates from July:

“I’m a lazy farmer,” says Carolyn Fryberger, contemplating a fried Duck egg. Indeed, an 8 AM wake-up is late, especially if midday heat is to be avoided. But it’s an unusually cool summer in Swannanoa, North Carolina, where she is halfway through the first season on her new Crossing Point Farm.

This morning, she’s helping a friend harvest chickens. Crossing Point is small, just under an acre, with a ten member CSA, so to make extra money she hires herself out to other farmers, as well as working a part-time job as a School Garden Educator for the Town of Black Mountain. “The farm pays for itself, but not for me…yet,” she explains. After a little weeding—ragweed is threatening her pepper plants, already stressed by a fungus—she drives a few miles down the road, where a mobile chicken processing unit is waiting. Thanks to the USDA, a farmer must process any chickens he sells on his own farm. It’s a labor-intensive job, so between neck-cutting, feather-plucking, and eviscerating the birds’ guts, it helps to have five on the job besides the owner and Carolyn.

Raised in Black Mountain, just east down I-40, Carolyn attended Macalester for two years, studying Geography and Environmental Studies. “It means a lot to me to be from a place,” she says, explaining her subsequent transfer to UNC-Asheville, where she completed her degree in 2007. Farming “is the culmination of many different threads in my life.” These include African dance—“A lot of those dances are based in celebration of harvest”—as well as her academic studies. “Within the Environmental Studies field there’s a negative paradigm of the human-environment relationship. Farming is something I can do to restore it.”

After graduation, Carolyn moved to Austin, Texas, where she interned with an ambitious young farmer supplying urbanites with organic produce. The summer heat was brutal, and the farmer, burdened by debt, worked his interns hard. “After Texas, I had still survived,” she says. “I figured if I could make it in that heat, then I can do it. But I wanted to be back home.” She learned about the small parcel of land available for rent in Swannanoa, conveniently situated near Asheville. Nestled among houses built for workers employed by the Beacon blanket factory, it has been cultivated on and off for 70 years. “This whole thing is only possible due to the community here. I’m supported by this whole group of family, friends, neighbors and other farmers. Everything I have on this farm is used. Some people buy from me simply because they know me. For a first year farmer, that’s huge.”

She hopes to work on this piece of land for four years and then take stock of her situation. “I think of this as my graduate studies.”

Back at Crossing Point in the late afternoon, Carolyn and her intern, a young engineer who recently quit her job, are weeding again. It’s work that makes the body stiff and sore, and unlike harvesting, it is peculiarly frustrating because it lacks finality: the weeds always come back. Tomorrow is pick-up day for the CSA, and Carolyn is thinking about how to fill out the bags she prepares for her customers. Most pay $25 a week (for a 15 week season), so it is important that she give them good value. But in this, her first year of production, yields are unpredictable, particularly early on in the season. Her neighbors are surprised that she is not growing more corn, beans, and potatoes, but arugula and bok choi are what customers want.

Finally, at 7, Carolyn and the intern return to the house. “It’s difficult finding balance between how long I actually need to work and being able to get away from it and have time for myself, especially since it’s right in the backyard.” She works later in the day than most farmers—“When I go to sleep at night, it’s looming outside the window.”

Tonight, however, she’s off to the Swannanoa Gathering, an annual folk and bluegrass music festival at the nearby Warren Wilson college campus. Knots of people sit here and there, starting informal jam sessions, while the curious and appreciative look on. Banjo left at home, she’s brought a kale salad and watermelon to share in a potluck with friends who are thrilled to see her away from the farm. Square dancing follows dinner, then more catching up. She doesn’t return to the farm until midnight.

In the morning, she comes in after breakfast bearing a cardboard box. “Here are the first tomatoes!” She is harvesting, washing vegetables, and bagging lettuce mix. Customers will begin dropping by around mid-afternoon. “My favorite thing about doing this work is my position in the community. I love going to the farmers’ market. I love it when my CSA members come to pick up…People who I’ve known for a long time meeting each other and getting to be friends through the farm. I feel like I’m creating something that people want to come together around.”

All photos are courtesy Ms. Fryberger

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