Testing the Soil

“I didn’t appreciate the farm when I was growing up,” says Aaron Bradley, whose agricultural aims manifested two years ago. Today, he and his wife Nicole shepherd 70 acres, including hundreds of free-range animals. Photo by Tim Robison

“I didn’t appreciate the farm when I was growing up,” says Aaron Bradley, whose agricultural aims manifested two years ago. Today, he and his wife Nicole shepherd 70 acres, including hundreds of free-range animals. Photo by Tim Robison

Growing up, Aaron Bradley never considered the economic and hereditary heft of his family’s 115-year-old farm in Saluda. He tossed baseballs in the pasture, but during his childhood, the land wasn’t in full agricultural use. So, like most kids, he failed to see the forest for the trees — or, more literally, couldn’t grasp agriculture’s longstanding dignity beyond the cows and fields.

His great-grandfather, Lewis Hipp, settled in the Howard Gap Valley in 1901, finding the foothills terrain an agreeable interval between unrelenting mountainscape and Piedmont flat land. Like most country folks, he used a logging road as an artery into Spartanburg and Asheville, soliciting blacksmithing and farrier work along the way. His years were defined by travail and sweat — but that pioneering spirit is often lost on children, and Aaron is the first to admit it.

“As a kid, [the farm] served as a place to run around,” he says. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time.”

A decade later, the City of Hendersonville firefighter is still young, just 27 — but his slant is no longer juvenile. Two years ago, he and his wife Nicole, a first-grade teacher at Saluda Elementary, stepped in to help manage the 70-acre production. Their aims scarcely deviate from those of Hipp; indeed, in some respects, environmentally conscious millennials are headed into the hinterland of farming, following their ancestors who toiled before the advent of convenient but dangerous pesticides.

TK Family Farm’s Jon and Brittany Klimstra juggle the raising of three young children with farming 15 acres of apples, chickens, and pigs. Photo by Tim Robison

TK Family Farm’s Jon and Brittany Klimstra juggle the raising of three young children with farming 15 acres of apples, chickens, and pigs. Photo by Tim Robison

Along with Aaron’s grandparents Dean and Pat Bradley, who began selling grass-fed beef in 2007, the couple are set on offering pastured meat, which starts with free-range livestock. But allowing some 400 broiler chickens, 200 laying hens, 70 pigs, and 35 head of cattle — what Aaron generalizes as “a lot of animals” — to roam at will is not just a utopian ideal: it’s a whole lot of hard work.

“An operation like ours is certainly more labor intensive, but that’s what it takes to produce food without questionable chemicals and pharmaceuticals,” says Aaron.

Though the Bradleys follow the teachings of author Joel Salatin, a holistic-food activist and organic beef producer at Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, they find their best counsel at home. Growing Rural Opportunities, or GRO, a nonprofit dedicated to bolstering agricultural prospects in Polk County and Landrum, SC, continually supports their enterprise. The org’s Beginner Farmers Program is tailored to serve unseasoned growers like the latest generation of Bradleys.

The initiative, says GRO Executive Director Patrick McLendon, is a response to agriculture’s dying tradition. Statistically speaking, the average age of a Polk farmer is 60.2, a year higher than the state average. Although county students are exposed to horticulture and animal husbandry in the classroom, GRO is calling for a transition piece — an avenue between high school and maturity that bridges young adults to the land. Otherwise, McLendon fears the agrarian tradition of the region could be lost.

“Citizens want to retain that rural heritage,” he says, noting the area’s lack of big-box stores, its largely unspoiled landscape. “They want their kids to grow up the same way they did.”

Growing Rural Opportunities Executive Director Patrick McLendon helps younger farmers get established, with a passionate goal to retain the rural heritage of Polk County. Photo by Tim Robison

Growing Rural Opportunities Executive Director Patrick McLendon helps younger farmers get established, with a passionate goal to retain the rural heritage of Polk County. Photo by Tim Robison

The Beginner Farmer Program is still in its infancy, but the ambition is there. In 2018, an inaugural class of eight students will be accepted to live and work on a collective farm. “Dreaming perfectly, it would be 40 acres with water,” says McLendon, who also owns Blue Firefly Farm and is the president of Slow Food Foothills. He hopes to acquire substantial capital through grants and donations, and is currently vetting the area for real estate.

Students will branch out as their abilities are honed, eventually moving to a larger parcel of GRO property or a tract leased by local farmers. A deposit of a still-undetermined amount will be required, but graduates who become Polk County farmers will be reimbursed their principal plus interest.

Until then, the organization will implement a tool-sharing cooperative that allows community members to rent harvesting gear, seeders, soil-sampling kits, and other big-ticket equipment. But according to Maryland transplants Jon and Brittany Klimstra, the best tool offered by GRO is networking.

When the Klimstras and their three young children — daughter Natalie and twins JJ and Rylie — left the D.C. metropolis for North Carolina, the farm-to-table advocate showed them around the Green Creek community (a somewhat familiar landscape for Brittany, an Iredell County native, and Hendersonville-reared Jon). “Patrick introduced us to established vendors and other farmers around our age and area,” says Jon, a former employee with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “A wealth of information came from that.”

Direction from agricultural mavens proved vital as the couple readied their pasturage for sows. TK Family Farm — the initials memorably stand for Three Knuckleheads — specializes in pastured pork, free-range broilers and layers, and apples. In their orchard, the Klimstras use a high-density trellis system, a method that typically requires extra care and labor during establishment.

Horticultural learning curves and three kids under age 5 — farming doesn’t happen in isolation, and community becomes as important as the rain report. In small-town fashion, veteran farmers rallied around the Klimstras’ 15-acre plot back in 2014, when it was still struggling to find its legs.

“They came with their tractors to help set up for the pigs,” recalls Brittany — an obliging function similar in spirit to a barn raising. “To weather the storm as a family, they said, we need hard work, honesty, and pride.

“We are certainly drawing from the men and women who have farmed all of their lives,” she continues. “Their wisdom is not lost on us — the next generation of farmers.”

To learn more about Growing Rural Opportunities, visit growrural.org. Patrick McLendon can be contacted at patrick@growrural.org. Also: bradleyfarmsnc.com, and on Facebook: TK Family Farm.

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