By Leah Asmelash
An old man sells handmade mugs in a corner, in the same spot every week. He smiles and converses with the vendors and customers around him, pointing at different mugs and grinning with almost every sentence. Across from him, a farmer with three tables filled with different types of mushrooms leans against his truck, while his daughter collects money from customers. There are signs for ethically-raised meat and local dairy up ahead.
A few feet away from the vendors, kids run around on the open grass, playing soccer with a muddy yellow ball. Vans are parked on the grass, some with names of farms on the side. Everyone seems to be talking to someone else – farmers talking to customers and other farmers. They speak with the friendliness of people who have known each other for years, but they could have just met that morning.
This is the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, where every Saturday and Wednesday, dozens of farmers set up tables filled with fresh, local produce and meat. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of customers come to the market every week to shop, chatting with the farmers about new products and what’s good that week.
Although farmers’ markets can be fun for community members, the life of a farmer is not glamorous. It involves early mornings, mud, sweat, animals, animal feces and animal carcasses. It involves early mornings at farmers’ markets and pulling bugs off crops, high costs and hard labor with minimal profits. So what drives people to choose this life – a life without health benefits, a small paycheck and self-employment?
Cane Creek Farm
For Eliza MacLean, owner of Cane Creek Farm in Graham, it was love.
“I was fascinated,” she said, recalling her earlier days managing a pig herd at North Carolina A&T State University. “I fell head over heels in love.”
Although MacLean had worked with and studied animals for many years prior, she said she didn’t know anything about pigs when she started managing the herd. Working with the pigs made her realize she had a tender spot in her heart for livestock, and she became involved in evaluating farms and meat quality for hog production in North Carolina.
Three years later, Peter Kaminsky, author and writer for The New York Times, was searching for someone to care for a herd of rare Ossabaw Island hogs. MacLean was the first suggestion he received, and thus Cane Creek Farm was born, devoted to ethical raising of livestock.
Now, Cane Creek Farm is over 15-years-old. MacLean has pigs available every day of the year, harvesting three to five pigs for her butcher shop and a few more to sell at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.
When talking about the slaughtering process, MacLean said she tries to cater to the customers’ desires and do what works best for her community.
“For me, that’s why I’m so small,” she said. “I want to be able to see my community. I want people to know my little story and be able to see my animals and see what they eat, know why they’re paying a little bit more.”
But no one knows the animals, loves the animals, more than MacLean. She’s the one that feeds them every day and prepares them for sale. She takes them to slaughter herself, in a trailer that she says smells like them, and she’s around the animals when they are killed.
“My kids say I treat them as well as I treat the pigs,” she said with a laugh, before further explaining her rationale.
“I want everyone to have room to be what they want to be,” she said. “A pig gets to be a pig, a chicken gets to be a chicken.”
Despite how well she treats them, the animals are always brought to slaughter and sold.
“It doesn’t make real intuitive sense to raise something to certain death,” she said. “But again it wouldn’t be there in the first place if I hadn’t raised it, and it’s doing a good thing for my land, it’s having a nice life while it’s alive, it’s good for consumer – it all makes sense to me.”
Still, MacLean admits it is not always easy.
“It’s sad a lot of the time,” she said.
The sadness doesn’t stop her from having fun though, which she always makes sure to include in her busy schedule.
“I plan my breeding this time of year so that I’m not having babies in August, and we can be flying off rope swings and doing things that are much more appropriate for August than everybody completely stressed because it’s so friggin’ hot,” she said.
MacLean doesn’t sleep much. Instead, she floats down the Haw River while drinking a beer and kayaks in the moonlight. Her kids, both 16-years-old, chase her up mountains. These playful times are important to her, and she makes sure she doesn’t take on too much work so that there’s always, even in the middle of a workday, time for play.
Turtle Run Farm
Two miles away, on the other side of the Haw River, husband-and-wife duo Kevin and Kim Meehan grow organic vegetables on Turtle Run Farm. Before owning the farm, they were in the construction business and originally bought the land to build a house. But Kim had always loved gardening. Gradually, a few rows of vegetables turned into a few plots. In 1996, Turtle Run Farm was born.
Two years later, Kim applied for a spot at the competitive Carrboro Farmers’ Market. She said they weren’t expecting to be accepted, but they ultimately were. They began selling their produce at the Wednesday market, but eventually moved up to the Saturday one.
“Once we got into the Saturday market, we kicked it into high gear,” Kevin said.
Afterwards, their crop production continued to grow to keep up with demand, so much that they began selling honeysuckle bouquets and strawberries which grew naturally on their property, just so they would have something to sell.
They both admit that farming is exhausting, but they enjoy their job because it’s never boring.
“Farming is very satisfying work and at the end of the day you are physically exhausted but mentally enriched,” Kevin said. “Farming is always changing as the seasons come and go, and the weather and tons of other variables create challenges.”
For the Meehans, their farm is also a type of environmental advocacy, and they refuse to use chemicals and pesticides on their crops. Although Turtle Run is not a certified organic farm, the two are dedicated environmentalists and did not see any other way to farm besides organically.
“(Using pesticides) just never occurred to us,” Kim said.
Since they don’t use sprays and chemicals, Kim said they learned through trial and error which crops will bring a lot of bugs to their land and which ones won’t. That’s the reason why they never sell carrots, she said. They’re too difficult to manage with the bugs and critters they attract. Instead, they try to keep the bugs in check by planting flowers and plants that bloom in order to attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs, to help with pest control.
They also enjoy the community farming has given them, saying the Carrboro Farmers’ Market is a social network just as much as a business network. Local farmers throw parties or host farm-to-fork dinners and other events to bring the farmering community together.
“It’s a tremendous social farmer’s club,” Kim said.
It was the Carrboro Farmers’ Market that pushed the Meehans to move to the area in the first place, figuring that if they had a nice farmers’ market, the town must be pretty nice too.
“It’s a very friendly market,” Kim said.
Kim said the market was one of the best she’s been to in the country.
Alex Rike, assistant manager of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, agrees, but he says friendliness isn’t the only reason consumers come back week after week.
“It’s a form of consumer activism,” Rike said. “When (customers) spend their dollars at the market, they know they’re supporting their neighbor and, with the case at CFM, someone within 50 miles of where they live. And they get to know their farmer. They get to know that their food is fresh – it’s been picked within the week. They can ask questions about the growing practices.”
MacLean prides herself on the social and economic effects Cane Creek Farm, and local farms in general, have on the community.
“My land is open,” she said. “The cross-country kids run their cross-country meets through the farm. There’s a 5K that combines land in Saxapahaw and goes through the farm. Teaching people about what these animals are really like, how funny, how curious, how smart, how dignified. And keeping the money in that community. What I’m growing is being sold to my neighbors and it makes me feel really good.”
It makes Kevin and Kim feel good too. For both MacLean and the Meehans, their farms serve as ethically raised and organic offerings to their community. So what’s a little hard work for something you love, for something that brings you and your community so much joy?
Edited by Sarah Muzzillo