On Saturday morning, I loaded my Jeep with two coolers packed full of ice and headed for the country—specifically, for the bison and bratwurst of Roxboro's Sunset Ridge Buffalo Farm.
At last, I'd decided to try the Piedmont Farm Tour, a self-guided weekend exploration of thirty-eight farms in Alamance, Chatham, Orange, and Person counties, sponsored by Pittsboro's Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. This edition marked the twenty-first season of small farms flinging open barn doors and metal gates to a public increasingly curious for a glimpse into where good food begins—as well as to buy it, hence the ice-heavy twin coolers.
As I left Interstate 85 in Durham and took to winding country roads, I passed at least a dozen farms. I was minutes away from the city, but it seemed as if I were in some faraway place, where entire communities carved out an existence exquisitely oblivious to the nearby noisy city.
I arrived at Sunset Ridge in time for lunch beneath a sprawling gazebo built on a manmade lake. Hoping to beat a rapidly growing posse of farm tourists, I wolfed down a bison bratwurst and found a seat on a covered wagon. I was going to meet the buffalo.
A John Deere tractor pulled the squeaking wagon up a bumpy hill. The farm's owner and steward, Jack Pleasant, sat between tractor and wagon, directing our attention to a shaded grove a few yards away. The herd seemed to take no notice of our jostling cart of city slickers and, languishing in idyllic repose, refused to come closer. It was thrilling. Just fifteen minutes earlier, I had eaten the kin of these great beasts on the farm itself; here was the idea of farm-to-table incarnate, in the form of a grilled sausage.
I'm generally interested in the source of my food, but, stuck in the city, I have to glean that knowledge from a sign at the farmers market or the farm named on a restaurant's menu. Hanging out in the same pasture with relatives of your lunch—that's different, humbling, direct.
Throughout the weekend, back at the barns and outdoor markets, my fellow farm tourists eagerly bought anything described as local and fresh. I visited the recommended eight farms in two days, and almost all of these fellow visitors had spent $30 for a ticket and would spend the next two days traversing the region by car because they wanted to learn more about their food and its beginnings.
At W.C. Breeze Family Farm, the last spot I visited on Saturday, one farmer went on the offensive as he sliced up chunks of a fresh turnip and handed them to me.
"All of the nutrients and flavors have been bred out of animals and produce, all in the name of longer shelf life and mass production," he told me. "People have grown up on what's put in front of them at big chain grocery stores."
Large farms exist in order to feed the masses cheaply, he admitted. Still, he lamented the system's inherent lack of taste, nutrition, and sheer joy.
"These local small farms participating in these farm tours," he continued, "show the public how to get back to that better place."
I thought about how or when I'd lost what he mentioned. Sure, I spent most of my childhood on my grandparents' tiny farm in northeastern North Carolina, but during the last few decades, I, too, had become a blind, passive consumer, simply accepting what was convenient. I was miffed.
Early on Sunday afternoon, I made my way up the potholed hill of Hillsborough's Woodcrest Farms and stepped into a realm of controlled chaos. Screaming children ran wild among ramshackle barns, leaning chicken coops, and unkempt hoop houses. Chickens and ducks roamed free, bounding off the backs of goats (that paid them no mind) in order to reach higher perches. They taunted the turkeys, sneered at the tourists.
At other farms, animals had been separated, tucked neatly into their own quarters. At Woodcrest they mingled, bleating, clucking, and chirping in communal cacophony. I bought some lemonade for a buck and surveyed the hubbub.
Suddenly I realized that not all farms and farmers are the same, how—like businesses and people—each will have its own philosophy about the lives it oversees. If I visit a farm often enough, or even its market stand, I can learn those philosophies and products, find the one that best suits me. The chaos of Woodcrest or the calm of Cedar Grove's Windy Hill Farm? Depends on the day, I guess.
At last, I trekked to the outskirts of Chapel Hill to Transplanting Traditions, a nonprofit that provides refugees access to agriculture opportunities. More than thirty Burmese refugees currently work the land while also maintaining full-time jobs at UNC–Chapel Hill.
Farm-tour guide Nicole Accordino explained that these five acres allow the farmers to continue the work they did in their former communities. For these families, self-reliance and growing crops native to Southeast Asia are vital, not just for sustenance but also for community structure. As the sun started to set, we wandered among wooden trellises and raised huts along paths strewn with wood chips. During the summer, Accordino said, the farm becomes a gathering place for the farmers, their families, and friends.
As the group left the fields, I stayed behind, sitting alone on a wooden bench. I marveled at the ways food can connect us, especially in a world increasingly overrun by mass production and splintered by information and ideas competing for our attention. If I pay more mind to those links, I reckoned, I can eat healthier food, better food.
I have no excuse not to, really—I know where it comes from and how to get there.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Green Room"