SILK HOPE — Emily Anderson and Kellie Ann Grubbs had an unusual housewarming on Easter Sunday.
Instead of bringing gifts, the womens dozen guests hauled scavenged pallets and boards to the edge of a muddy field, where they built a barn for goats alongside the lumbering hogs and pecking chickens of Okfuskee Farm.
Small, organic-minded farms in Chatham County are making use of bartering, sharing labor and passing up a paycheck as part of the search for sustainability. And partners Anderson and Grubbs are joining the movement with a goat-dairy venture on borrowed land.
In exchange for weekly labor, Grubbs and Anderson will earn a place to graze their dairy goats and set up a moveable cabin as their principal residence, skipping the high land costs that often nip farms in the bud.
Land access seemed like something that was five years out. We thought wed be farm interns until then, said Grubbs, 26.
For Okfuskee Farm owner Bobby Tucker, the couple represent another set of hands on the always busy 20-acre farm, which he runs when hes not working a full-time water resources engineering job. Grubbs and Andersons herd of six goats also will play into Tuckers approach to farming the animals foraging and defecation will build Okfuskees soil, improving it for future crops.
Youre making the land more productive, said Tucker, who also has paid employees. And whether youre directly making money on it, its more eyes ... on the farm, and youve got a bigger pool of community to tackle those jobs.
Fifteen miles up N.C. 87, Saxapahaw Village Farm is exploring other alternative labor practices. Suzanne Nelson, 35, has brought on a crew of free-will non-employees, to support the exponential expansion of her flocks and herds.
Instead of wages, she offers meals, guidance and experience for a crew of three, who also hold jobs at the Saxapahaw General Store. The store, in turn, takes a below-average cut when it sells Village Farms meat and poultry.
These kinds of deals can be helpful during a farms formative years, when moneys best spent on infrastructure and animals, said Nelson, a former reporter on Washington politics. And while she hopes to cut paychecks eventually, she also sees bartering and informal volunteerism as an extension of the sustainable food ethos.
Its not just trading this for that, she said. Its really recognizing the shared destiny. ... We are building this together.
Farms have always employed unique economic systems, from feudalism to sharecropping, agritourism and communism, so its perhaps not surprising to find a new wave of experimentation beyond the suburban fringe.
Thats the biggest expense for farmers labor, so of course theyre going to seek alternative ways, said Debbie Roos, an agricultural agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension. Even older growers in Chatham and Alamance counties have entered unusual financial relationships to bring new farmers to their land, she said.
Bartering and non-monetary deals also bring their share of questions about whats fair to workers and landowners, and just how sustainable the economics are.
Ultimately, Grubbs and Anderson arent sure their venture will turn enough profit to allow them to make a living. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduates know theyll need to keep their restaurant jobs as they search for a life off the grid. Their path isnt sure, but theyve got a place now to call their own now. Bobby Tucker, meanwhile, will have a few extra hands as he builds Okfuskee Farm.
He hopes his land becomes a model for more productive and organic growing methods, and hes willing to explore new financial techniques too.
Weve got to be something thats very different than the norm, farm owner Tucker said. The idea of working a job to get money to go and buy land, its just not that feasible for most people.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary