A dream of settling down and becoming self-sufficient leads the Thomas family into a diverse farming business that deals with produce, beef, logging and other cash generation. Part of its success rests on including a second generation in farm operations and vision.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff and Bettie Thomas and their son, Will, are some of the western North Carolina farmers featured in the just released Blue Ridge Farm Book. The book, published by Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture of Boone, North Carolina, is part of a larger project designed to help new farmers find mentors and technical support. The Blue Ridge Farm Book, from which this article is reprinted, focuses on the stories and culture of farming in the North Carolina High Country. A complementary website provides more technical information.
“We bought this place, and I’d always wanted a farm. Just as a romantic type thing. Our plan was to come out here and be self-sufficient.” Jeff Thomas explains how he and his wife, Bettie, first came to live on their property, which sits in southwestern Ashe County, skirting the Tennessee line. “I was an Army brat so I was moving every three years or more when I was growing up. So once I moved up here on my own, I never left. I guess I just wanted some roots somewhere. And we just love this community; I mean it’s still a farming community. And we were different than everyone here but they did accept us, which was nice.”
What began as a quest for self-sufficiency grew into a complex, active farming operation, Creeksong Farm. “Originally we just bought the house on a half-acre. This was the original house on the land that the family had divided all up.” Gradually, though, they expanded the farm to 105 acres. “The neighbors would start coming over and talking to us and they’d end up asking if I had any interest in buying more land.” On their expanding acreage, the Thomas’ began selling at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market and experimenting with wholesale outlets. “We did a little bit of tobacco for a couple of years. And then we started doing the bean market. And I think the last year we did the wholesale bean market was the year Will was born.”
Will Thomas, now an adult with a family of his own, participated in the farm from a very young age. “He was always staying home instead of going to day care. I’d put him in my backpack and we’d go out or I’d put him in the garden digging dirt. Just little things that he liked and enjoyed.” As Will grew up, Jeff and Bettie never pressured Will to become a part of the family farm, but that’s exactly what he chose to do. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” Will admits. “I grew up doing it and I spent summers home from college here. I think I started out saying that I was coming back here for a year. But after a few months, I realized that this was what I wanted to be doing.”
With Will added to the operation in 2003, Creeksong Farm expanded its reach and production. Now in addition to growing produce, Creeksong Farm activities include grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, and some logging. Their food products are found at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market and through their CSA. With Will involved, production has not only expanded, it’s become carefully monitored. “Will is very business oriented,” Jeff explains, “He’s a really good record keeper. I mean he keeps exact records, knows what each crop makes and all that.” This is helpful for weeding out an ineffective venture, Jeff explains, adding, “So we can dump it if it doesn’t make money.”
Jeff is pleased with what his son’s changes have meant for the farm. “I’m really proud of how Will has managed to keep this place profitable all year long. Because he does the logging and firewood, he has cash flow for 12 months.” This year-round cash flow is difficult for many farms to achieve in the climate of the High Country. Like many farmers, Jeff sought off-farm work in the winter. “When it was just me, I would quit around November and begin again in March. I always just got off-season jobs not making very much money.”
But shifting more of the farm operations into Will’s hands wasn’t without challenges. “By now Will sort-of does everything. Bettie and I still help out, but he pretty much makes the decisions.” Jeff says transitioning took compromise and time, “The hardest part on me personally was giving up my control. When you make all the decisions for 25 years it’s difficult to hand it over to someone else.”
Will recognizes how difficult it can be for his father. “I think it’s easier for me because I’m ready. It seems inevitable to me and I don’t have anyone pushing me into anything.”
One of the most positive aspects of passing on the farm for Jeff is seeing the land preserved agriculturally. “Building this place up I was spending 12 hour days, months at a time, and when you put that much work into something you want to see it be saved.” As the High Country has become more developed, agricultural land isn’t as commonplace as when Jeff moved here in the 70’s. “I see a lot of the farms and land around here being split up and going to different uses. I hate that we aren’t a farming community like we used to be.”
Being part of a strong farming community was essential to Jeff when he got started. “If I ever had a question I would always go ask my neighbors. When I moved here everyone that was out here did their own repairs and everything. We were so isolated that you had to out of necessity.” Asking a neighbor was far more useful and timely than the other options when Jeff first began. “When I started farming in the ‘70’s, there was limited information available. Our only up-to-date resources were magazines. ATTRA [The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service] was also extremely helpful at the time.”
“I think we have it a lot easier now than we realize,” Jeff admits. “You don’t have to write a letter to some guy in Maine now to ask a question like Dad would. Honestly if I need to know something, I Google it.” Will says that he gets out of the search effort what he puts into it. “I’ve learned a lot by just being curious and accessing all the information that’s available.”
Still, despite all the benefits of the Internet, Will’s biggest advice is to seek out strong relationships — just as Jeff did when he first began farming. One such relationship is Will’s friendship with Jason and Shiloh, of Tumbling Shoals Farm.
“Their Farmers’ Market booth is like my second home.” Will says, “Sometimes we have conversations and it highlights how important certain aspects are that I wasn’t focusing enough on before.” To Will, those conversations are invaluable. “Another successful farmer to share ideas with is one of the best resources available.”