Many WNC farm families are finding that agri-tourism activities – Christmas trees, hayrides, educational programs, festivals – can be more lucrative and satisfying than farming itself. Diversified offerings lengthen the earning season and put less pressure on a singular line of business.
Janet Peterson, owner of Cloud 9 Farm in Fairview, has found that vacation rentals and pick-your-own blueberries are a way to keep her generational 200-acre farm from falling into the hands of real estate developers.
“One good thing about the tanked economy is that land developers have stopped calling,” she says. “They would ask questions like, ‘What do you need this much land for anyway?’ and ‘What are you keeping it for - the squirrels?’”
“It dawned on me that the answer to that was, ‘Yes! We are keeping it for the squirrels!’ We want to be good stewards of the land.”
Peterson, a retired science teacher, inherited the property from her parents (“Dad mended fences, Mom processed and prepared the chickens”), and works the property with her partner, Jeff Hambley. They share a deep-seated belief in maintaining and sharing the good life with others. At Cloud 9, this good life comes in many forms – from blueberries and honeybees, to weddings and rentals.
Cloud 9 Farm raises hormone-free beef and heritage breed chickens, along with a substantial garden. Peterson began these operations primarily for family, friends, and neighbors. But as she nails down the process for raising true heritage flocks and recently acquired her meat handler’s license, she can sell frozen cuts and portions of beef to the public.
In addition, an apiary on the property provides the farm’s pollinators as well as honey for Bee Babes, a shared holistic small-batch line of body products. And the blueberry u-pick patch, in good weather years, maintains itself with a profit.
But what really sustains the farm – and ties these many lines of business together – are its two vacation rental cabins. Peterson explains that their rental clients “stay and have an experience of harvesting their own produce, berries, and eggs. They fish in our pond or shop from our meat shed.” They might even witness the miracle of new life; in August one of the renters got to name the calf that was born during their stay.
Peterson calls this all-inclusive experience a “farmcation,” and loves sharing her property – and some good conversation – with her visitors.
“You have to be a people person willing to share your story,” she says. “That’s what our clients are hungry for. I talk all day and evening with our guests, and they return on a regular basis.”
Of course, the energy and dedication required to make all of this happen is extraordinary. And while she seems unfazed by most of it, Peterson admits that organization is her biggest challenge, especially when it comes to bookkeeping.
“When folks check out and you are tabulating all kinds of different tax ratios on different lines of product with a calculator and a memo pad, you quickly wish for a better system,” she says.
To help get her chicks in a row, Peterson worked with a Mountain BizWorks business coach who helped her set up better systems, which she then hired a bookkeeper to maintain. “I carry around a notebook now and track everything I spend and which line of business it’s for. It saves you good money to be able to make the proper deductions.” Proper paperwork makes keeping farm status an easier task, too.
One of the first things Peterson realized, once becoming more streamlined and organized with her paperwork, was that the farm was making less than $3 per hour raising and processing their chickens. But for now, that's okay.
“The bigger benefit from that line of business is working to raise heritage breed birds, to enjoy ourselves, and to build flocks back up for the future,” explains Peterson.
Which begs the question: Which came first? The profitable chicken or the philosophically raised egg?
Cloud 9 Farm is located at 137 Bob Barnwell Road in Fletcher. Tours are available by appointment. Learn more at www.cloud9farm.net or call 828-628-1758.
Carol Lynn Jackson is a business developer at Mountain BizWorks within the FARE (Food, Agriculture, and Rural Enterprise) program.
— Mountain BizWorks helps small businesses start, grow and create jobs through loans, classes and coaching. For more information, call 253-2834 or visit mountainbizworks.org.