PITTSBORO — In the rolling-hill country between Pittsboro and Siler City, Bill Dow's farm has fresh crops of cucumbers, peppers, basil, parsley and blueberries just coming in.
Just up the rocky road leading into his place, there's another farm where a fresh crop is coming in: houses. From Orange County to the north and from Wake County to the east, the development pressure is on in Chatham.
Not at Bill Dow's place, though. His was North Carolina's first farm to be certified organic. He was Chatham County's first farmer to make a business of selling directly to restaurants. Now he's the Triangle's first small organic farmer to put land under a conservation easement in perpetuity.
"That's going to have a real big impact," in keeping agriculture alive in Chatham County, said extension agent Debbie Roos.
"I don't know, it just seemed like the right thing to do," Dow said.
Dow, a retired physician, owns 30 acres, a couple of miles from U.S. 64 with woods enclosing the three acres he cultivates spring, summer and fall.
"It's all I can do, with good help," he said. The amount of help varies depending on what needs doing, he said. One recent afternoon Dow had five pairs of helping hands at work - one hoeing weeds, two tying squash vines and two setting posts for cucumber trellises. The numbers vary depending on what's to be done, he said.
Attached to the land
Twenty-two of his acres are under the conservation easement, he said. Besides preserving the property undivided and undeveloped, the easement creates a permanent buffer along a creek.
"I didn't want somebody coming in here and cutting it up," Dow said. "You get attached to a place and you just don't do that. I don't do it."
Dow grew up on a cattle and soybean farm in Mississippi. "Dad was a believer in the chemicals," he said, but young Bill - unlike his farmer brothers - developed a distaste for the herbicides and fertilizers that go on conventional fields. At Vanderbilt medical school, he organized a students' health organization that spun off agricultural marketing projects in five southern states.
He ended up in North Carolina via "a long, circuitous" route - "It would make a good novel," he said - and bought a country place where he could take up gardening. Organically. This was in 1981, and Dow didn't get a lot of local encouragement for going green; but he stuck with the notion because of his "cussedness" and conviction.
"Part of it was the challenge and part, I thought it was important. From a medical standpoint, you are what you eat, as they say," he said. "Part of it was, just the boys at home: 'I'll show you.' There's a certain amount of competition."
'It's got me'
It was about 10 years ago that Dow metamorphosed from gardener to farmer.
"It's not something you plan or anything else," he said.
"You just wake up one day and realize, 'It's got me. ... We're not just playing games here."
Broccoli was his first cash crop, but although it grew well in his soil, one crop wasn't going to earn a living for a small farmer. That takes an appreciation for economics.
"What you've got to look at on this size farm is, not how many acres have I got but how much am I making per acre? I can grow broccoli like this and sell it for a good price, but in that same amount of space there's other crops I can grow and make a lot more."
Now, he raises a variety of vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers and sells most of his produce to restaurants that appreciate the appeal local food has for customers. The rest, he sells Saturdays at the Carrboro Farmers' Market - which he helped establish, along with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and a sustainable agriculture program at Central Carolina Community College's Pittsboro campus.
"He's a dynamic conservation pioneer," said Triangle Land Conservancy President Kevin Brice.
"Bill has figured out a way to make a living offering local organic food to the community," Brice said. He's demonstrated that it can be done, and that inspires other farmers and people who think they'd like to get into the business "to keep us well fed and healthy," Brice said.
"He's very special," said Roos, the extension agent.
"He has totally been a real pioneer in this area," she said. "He has a really big role in mentoring. ... [and] he was doing it before Chatham County had such a reputation for being an organic hotbed.
"He's done more than anyone," said Roos.
"I get embarrassed," said Dow. "There are a lot of people who've done a hell of a lot.
"Somebody needs to be doing this," he said, looking over his rows of cucumbers, squash and peppers.
"There is health and well-being in all this."
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