By Emma Castleberry
From flowers to fresh vegetables, women are making a mark on the farming world across North Carolina. “Women can be fantastic farmers, foragers, permaculturists and homesteaders,” says Rain Parker of Eight Owls Farmstead. “Most of us seem to have a lot of patience and finesse for the hard work of homesteading and growing food.” Meet three women who are carrying on the long legacy of homesteading and agriculture in Appalachia.
Wendy Wright of Wendy Town Farms
Wendy Wright of Wendy Town Farms got her start as an urban farmer in Austin, TX. When she and her husband, Matt, moved into a cottage with a front and back yard, she dove headfirst into a long-time gardening dream. “We quickly built one raised bed after another in the front yard and we even got chickens,” she says. The front yard of their Austin cottage filled quickly and they expanded to the unused back yard, building a greenhouse and butterfly garden in addition to rows of crops. Wright began selling her crops at the farmers’ markets and to restaurants.
Eventually, the urban farm life lost its luster in favor of a country setting. “We decided we would like to have more land and be somewhere with a milder summer and more rain,” she says. Wright and her husband camped in the Pisgah National Forest for three months before finding and purchasing their five-acre plot in Marshall. The couple immediately broke ground on Wendy Town Farms, preparing crops for their first season’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share in 2015.
As a woman farmer and a wife, Wright says sometimes other farmers assume her husband is the head farmer. “He is heavily involved in the farm, but I do most of the planning, management and everyday tasks,” she says. “When other farmers ask Matt about process, he’ll say, ‘You’ll have to ask Wendy about that.’”
For the past two years, Wendy Town Farms has sold much of its product through its CSA program and at the West Asheville Tailgate Market, but Wright is taking a different course this year. “We are leasing more land this year and focusing on a smaller variety of crops,” she says. “We are focused on growing heirloom varieties of corn for cornbread, grits and popcorn, as well as drying beans, cowpeas, fresh shelling and green beans, tomatoes and root crops like carrots and potatoes.”
Niki Irving of Flourish Flower Farm
Niki Irving left behind the security of a traditional career to pursue her dream of flower farming. She and her husband William leased a 2-acre plot in the Upper Hominy Valley of Candler and started Flourish Flower Farm. Flourish has since blossomed into a 28-acre farm just outside of downtown Asheville.
Flourish provides fresh, pesticide-free flowers for local floral designers and designers across the country. Irving also sells bouquets to both of Asheville’s Earth Fare stores, hosts on-farm workshops and private design classes and provides floral designs for weddings and special events. “I love the exhausting physical labor that farming demands and the instant gratification that comes with tasks like weeding,” says Irving.
Like Wright of Wendy Town Farms, Irving says people often defer to her husband when it comes to farm-related conversations. “When my husband and I are doing farm errands together—say, shopping for tractor implements—most people begin by addressing him first,” she says. “It takes a few minutes of conversation for some people to take me seriously as a farmer.” Irving adds that people tend to make assumptions about her feminine presentation. “I catch people off-guard when they learn that I am a full-time farmer because I am a woman who likes to wear dresses and skirts and put on a little mascara when I’m not at the farm,” she says.
Rain Parker and Mika Ferguson of Eight Owls Farmstead
Rain Parker and Mika Ferguson, owners of Eight Owls Farmstead in Rosman were drawn to farming as a way to be more sustainable and connected to nature. “For me,” says Parker, “that meant learning about growing more of my own food. For Mika, it meant more time in forests and fields learning about foraging for wild things.” Parker and Ferguson found overlap of their interests in permaculture. “We call Eight owls a permaculture homestead more than a farm,” Parker says. “It’s where forests and gardens can come together and do great things to provide food.”
When Parker and Ferguson broke ground on Eight Owls in 2012, their intention was to start an organic farm that raised animals for meat, milk and eggs, as well as produce crops and mushrooms. While the original plan had no educational element, Eight Owls has grown into a homestead where visitors can learn about permaculture through tours, in-person or online consultations, workshops and overnight stays. The education component is important to Parker and Ferguson in part because of their early struggles as permaculturists. The steep learning curve they experienced shaped the future of Eight Owls. “I’ve focused on sharing our experiences so that other folks, especially other women, will have the opportunity to ask me questions, hear ridiculous stories about how we got started and get some feedback on their own homestead dreams,” Parker says.