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Wednesday, 18 September 2013 14:25

Cultivating dreams in Appalachia

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coverSunshine spills into Jackson County. The warm late summer rays cascade down into the mountains, ultimately flowing into the fields of Balsam Gardens. A handful of figures are seen wandering the mystical property, picking some of the freshest and finest produce found in Western North Carolina.

“Being able to remake my own little piece of society in the way that I want to with my hands is what keeps me going,” said Steven Beltram. 

 

Beltram and his wife Becca Nestler are the owners of Balsam Gardens, a small independent farm partway between Waynesville and Sylva with big dreams for what their community can become. With their two-year-old daughter Annabelle, the family has carved out a niche among a new breed of young farmers in Southern Appalachia — a group whose ranks are growing.

“Our life is really good, this is our dream,” Neslter said.

But the hand-to-mouth lifestyle of a young family trying to make it as farmers is still a tenuous one.

“While I want you to have this great picture of what we do, we just might fail at it. We don’t want to fail, we want to keep doing what we love doing,” Nestler said.

Though the farm was literally started from scratch, the strong optimism held by the couple is a testament to their pure character and product, which, like their industry, is about quality over quantity. 

“I think there’s a lot of potential here, but it’s all about putting the pieces together,” Beltram said.

Balsam Gardens began as a slow burn.

“We didn’t move here to become farmers, it just kind of happened,” Nestler smiled. “We started with just a small field and began a garden, then went to the local farmer’s markets. People started to buy our produce, and we really had a lot of fun in doing that.”

Beltram was subsidizing their life as homesteaders working construction in the green building sector. With the economic downturn in 2008, the housing market dropped, leaving him without a steady paycheck. With nothing to lose, the couple decided it was time to take a chance at launching their farm.

“As a builder, I suddenly found myself with no work, so I felt I wasn’t missing out on really many opportunities while following this dream right now,” Beltram said. “We wanted to do it, and that was the time to do it, so we tried it.”

Alongside their steadily growing supply of over 30 varieties of vegetables, Balsam Gardens also raises ducks, chickens, turkeys and pigs, which provide fresh meat and eggs for their rising number of loyal customers.

 

The business side

But, all of this isn’t without hardship. Beside the rough hours and sometimes-hectic lifestyle of running a full-time farm comes the hardest part of the entire operation — putting the product in the hands of the consumer.

“A lot of people may not realize how hard it is to do this,” Nestler said. “The labor is the easy part compared to the business side of it, which is the hardest aspect of running a farm.”

“And you can get stressed out dealing with bank statements, spreadsheets and having rain on your head out there, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Beltram added.

Merging their produce with local restaurants is an avenue Balsam Gardens constantly explores. They sell to eight restaurants in Waynesville and Asheville. Balsam Gardens has also delved into the “Community Supported Agriculture” model — known as CSAs — a growing outlet for farmers to put their produce straight into customers’ hands.

In a CSA, people buy a “share” in the farm’s bounty, kind of like a stock share, entitling them to a cut of whatever the farm produces. Members get a robust weekly box of fresh produce throughout the year.

And as the business evolves, Beltram actually relishes the never-ending learning and tweaking of the landscape and product.

“I’m a very tactical person. I enjoy the constant challenge. It’s never the same. There’s always some new technique and weather pattern I’m learning about. I mean today, I’m figuring out how to fix our ice machine,” he chuckled.

And it’s that determined and focused attitude that attracts others to the property to learn the trade. Over the past five years, Balsam Gardens has offered seasonal internships to folks from around the country. Each year, from March to November, three to four interns come to work, learn and live on the property together as an extended family, raising produce and creating their own destiny. 

Ian Mitchell, 23, has been working on the farm since early spring.

“All of the interns here take part in every aspect of the farm, from money markets, to planting, harvesting and feeding the animals,” Mitchell said of life on the farm.

From Otego, N.Y., his hopes to learn the tools to start his own farm someday.

“I just really find the fact Steven and Becca are making it something encouraging to me,” he said. “I want to have an operation of my own, something similar to what they have here.”

 

Finding farmland 

As Balsam Gardens looks to expands, the biggest obstacle is a lack of affordable farmland. Besides their own farmstead, the couple leases two smaller plots of land for produce and livestock. But, that can only go so far, especially if expansion is key to survival for the business.

“The organic food movement is just booming and the demand for the product is enormous,” Beltram said. “But, on the flip side, a lot of us wanting to do this are young, beginner farmers with very limited resources, the biggest being land access.”

The start-up cost of buying land is high, while the returns on farming are low. It’s not an ideal business formula, and one that’s hard to make work if you don’t already have the land.

“The local food movement is getting bigger and bigger and yet somehow small farms like us are struggling. The more attention and focus the movement gets, the better,” Nestler said.

 

 

The road to Balsam Gardens

For Becca Nestler, 29, and Steve Beltram, 30, running a small, organic farm is the ultimate form of environmentalism. Their passion for farming was in born out of a strong desire to live sustainably and do what they could in their own tiny corner of the world to encourage societal change.

 “I’m a hands-on type of person, so I started thinking about things I could do with my life to make a difference, building a community and working to preserve the environment,” said Beltram, reflecting on revelations he had as a teen while growing up in Spartanburg, S.C.

Meanwhile, Nestler, who is from Sylva, honed her passion for sustainable agriculture while attending Warren Wilson College, known for its environmental ethos.

“We had a working farm (on campus) and I had a lot of friends who worked in the fields,” she said. “I became really interested in it, and soon began working their booth at the markets.”

In their own separate endeavors, Nestler and Beltram headed for California and volunteered in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). As “woofers,” they worked on organic farms in exchange for room and board. The farm internship also taught them what it took to run an efficient and stable farm.

It’s the only real way you can learn how to farm, in the breaking dawn and late evening hours out in the fields, in the barns or at the markets — all in an effort to make a living doing what they love.

“I recognize the industrial food supply has resulted in an enormous abundance and diversity in the market, and those things are all things we want, and benefit from,” Beltram said.

What’s not to love about a mango from Chile or avocados from California? But taken to the extreme, society’s dependence on the industrial agriculture complex for its daily food supply is risky.  

“Whenever you centralize a system like that and it becomes mono-cropped and mono-cultured, it becomes susceptible to instability. So, creating alternative production methods and diverse channels in a local region, we have an opportunity for safety and stability in our society,” Beltram said.

Despite both doing stints as woofers on farms in the Golden State, the two met in Asheville after coming back East. The relocated to their current farmstead at Balsam Gardens in 2007, got married a year later, and then came Annabelle. 

 

Want to know more?

Balsam Gardens sells their produce every Wednesday and Saturday at Haywood’s Historic Farmer’s Market in Waynesville and every Saturday at the Jackson County Farmer’s Market in Sylva. They also sell farm shares — for a flat fee you get a weekly delivery of the farm’s bounty from that week. 

Restaurants that buy from Balsam Gardens include Frog’s Leap Public House, Pasquale’s and the Chef’s Table in Waynesville; Balsam Mountain Inn; Guadalupe Café and City Lights Café in Sylva; and Chai Pani in Asheville. The couple also sells to Bryson Farm Supply in Sylva and Mother Earth Produce in Asheville.

www.balsamgardens.com

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