Incubator Farm Program set up at historic Patterson School
By Michael M. Barrick
HAPPY VALLEY, N.C. – With the grays and browns of winter having surrendered to the rainbow of colors that heralds the arrival of Spring, a new farming program is being launched at the historic Patterson School in this historic Upper Yadkin River Valley community.
The Patterson School Foundation has started a new Incubator Farmer Program, having taken the first, vital step – hiring a full time farm manager. In addition to helping oversee the incubator program, Ian Driscoll, a 2014 graduate of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C. will manage the 1,400 acre property.
The Incubator Farm Program will invite new and experienced organic farmers to lease up to half an acre to farm at Patterson, with the availability of farm equipment and mentorship, and with access to farm-related workshops through the farming season.
Driscoll, 24, is from Chicago and graduated with majors in history and political science. So, on paper, he might not seem like the person you’d expect to revel in plowing up an acre of land and working his hands until they have the unmistakable coarse feel of a working man. Yet, he lives and farms in Happy Valley, just three miles from the Patterson School campus, and is experienced in many of the necessary aspects of farming – compost production, planting / tending / harvesting crops, greenhouse building, fencing, animal husbandry, swine and poultry production, grazing systems, mowing and operation of farm implements, haymaking, water drainage systems, lumber grading and general farm maintenance.
I’m more at peace here. I haven’t given it that much thought. It’s just seems natural for me.” – Ian Driscoll
Indeed, upon meeting Driscoll, one would think he grew up in this fertile valley that has been farmed since at least the 1700s, when the first European settlers planted themselves in this mystical and majestic river valley, an area once vital as a food source to the Cherokee. He walks the grounds as if his feet have been rooted in the valley soil his whole life. Baseball cap slightly askew on his head, his blue eyes sparkling, even on a drizzly day, surveying the land he has plowed for the incubator farm and the first raised bed he was working on, he said, “I’m more at peace here. I haven’t given it that much thought. It’s just seems natural for me.” Pausing, gazing across the broad, greening valley, he added, “I don’t have reasons. I can’t explain why.”
He did share one reason he could explain. He met his very soon-to-be bride at college. Her home is Happy Valley. In talking with him, it sounds as if he fell in love with the valley almost as quickly as he did with the lady he is marrying on – appropriately – Earth Day.
Still, he is certainly not the first person in this valley to arrive from a distant home, feeling embraced by its ridges, woods and the meandering Yadkin River, still not able to explain the attraction beyond a sacred connection to the land. It was fertile ground for crops then, and is today. As Driscoll stood alongside his recently plowed field, he observed that the soil is so rich that it does not need fertilizer.
Comparing the valley he now calls home to Chicago, Driscoll offered, “I thought people were rude. There was too much commotion. There was no privacy, and nothing to do if you don’t have money.” In fact, he says he gets bored when he visits home. “There’s something missing,” he observed.
That something might be connection to the earth that he first experienced on a family farm in Wisconsin. He also mentioned that as a Catholic school student, he went on a trip to eastern Kentucky. He noted that while the region was impoverished, there was a sense of community – and perhaps, counter-intuitively – isolation that he found attractive.
And while eastern Kentucky is more isolated than Caldwell County, both are in Appalachia, so there are tribal similarities. Happy Valley has families that are descended from those original settlers. Some still have farms; even more have small family gardens.
Indeed the region has played a critical role in the history of the state’s rich agricultural tradition. Samuel Legerwood Patterson, the first elected Commissioner of Agriculture in North Carolina, was born in 1850 at Palmyra, the family home on the historic property. It, too, is being methodically restored.
We are alive and breathing.” – Liza Plaster
Despite that rich history though, farming is not as common as it once was. So Driscoll is determined to see that the incubator program helps folks in Happy Valley – and beyond – return to the region’s rich farming roots.
Explaining why he initially came to North Carolina from his home in Chicago, Driscoll said “I moved to North Carolina because I had received a flier from Warren Wilson College and was interested in the area. Although I grew up in Chicago, I did not like the city and was eager to leave. It didn’t take much for me to want to move here after visiting.”
He continued, “I had ties to farming growing up through friends and family members; my parents owned an 80 acre farm at one time that we lived on part time. I like to work and provide for myself; farming is hard work and you see your reward with what you grow and eat. Reviving the farm at Patterson School will be good for the community. Working there will be a good opportunity for new and old generations to get involved with the community and learn about farming.”
My mentality is that I’m to work hard. I’ve busted my butt since I’ve been here. Part of it is to prove to myself that I can do it.” – Ian Driscoll
He said that once the incubator program is running successfully, he hopes to hold workshops at Patterson that get the community, especially school children, involved in farming.
Indeed, collaborating with the Caldwell County Schools is an important part of the foundation’s activities now, said Liza Plaster, the foundation’s publicist. In fact, on each of the visits to the farm, this reporter observed numerous school buses and children on the property.
In fact, said Plaster, the restoration of Palmyra, the strong relationship with the school system and the incubator program all send one message: “We are alive and breathing.”
Clearly, the most visible example of that is the incubator farm. “We want to create a way for people to have an occupation that was, at one time, a major occupation in this valley,” said Driscoll. He emphasized, though, that the program is open to anyone. “This is an opportunity for anybody to strike out on their own and save money too.”
As much as he loves the land, he is ultimately motivated by challenging himself to work as hard as he possibly can. “My mentality is that I’m to work hard. I’ve busted my butt since I’ve been here. Part of it is to prove to myself that I can do it.”
Driscoll can be contacted for more information about the Incubator Farm Program and about raised bed gardening opportunities for children on campus during the growing season at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: All photos courtesy of the Patterson School Foundation.
© The Lenoir Voice, 2017.
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