From U.S. Hwy. 64, I turn onto quiet rural roads. I transition from a four-lane speeding highway, to a two-lane road with a couple of businesses and a housing project, then take a left-hand turn on a …
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From U.S. Hwy. 64, I turn onto quiet rural roads. I transition from a four-lane speeding highway, to a two-lane road with a couple of businesses and a housing project, then take a left-hand turn on a one-lane gravel road: Friendly Pooch Lane.
I’m deep in the woods of Chatham County.
A rabbit hops in front of my car and dares me to follow him.
I slowly nudge toward him and stop. He hops ahead of me, daring me to do it again. I do. Again and again. Boredom ensues, and he hops off in the woods. As I continue down this path, another rabbit plays the same game. I’m amused. In addition, every 100 yards or so, a wooden sign with big handwritten red painted letters warns: “BUMP!”
These are not speed bumps, per se. The “bumps” divert rain to the sides of the gravel road rather than washing down the gravel and creating small erosive streams and ruts in the road. The deeper into the woods I travel, the more sweetly than air smells, with rich woodsy scents. Smells that take me back to my childhood — to the many hikes I’ve taken in the woods of Chatham County and elsewhere in North Carolina.
A proud, beautiful deer elegantly crosses right in front of me. He is not afraid. Sounds of buzzing, humming insects fill the air. Here and there, birds call out to one another. Then, a clearing. I see a small sign next to a table with a canopy and a box of locally grown vegetables for pickup.
I have arrived at In Good Heart Farm.
I get out of my car to the sound of bird song and insects humming. It’s 7 a.m. on an already warm Saturday in July. The sun hasn’t risen above the trees.
I walk down the dirt road beside fenced garden beds with a variety of crops in different stages of growth, listening for the sound of voices. I look for a gate or a person. Finally, off in the distance I hear someone talking and the sound of a wooden gate clunking shut.
There I find Ben Shields, of In Good Heart Farm, his employee Nikki of Alamance County and Finn, a homeschooling intern who lives near Bynum. They’d just finished harvesting vegetables and herbs for online orders including tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers and herbs.
This is part of their strategy to adapting to COVID-19. Customers pre-order and pay online the day before the respective farmer’s market. Three days a week, customers can pick up produce and pay in advance online. On Saturdays, customers pick up their orders at the farm stand located at the beginning of the In Good Heart Farm property between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Then, on Tuesdays, pre-ordered and pre-paid vegetables are picked up from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Fearrington Farmer’s Market, and then again between 3 and 6 p.m. Thursdays at the Pittsboro Farmer’s Market. No money exchanges hands. Masks are required, social distancing practices are followed and you bring bags for your produce.
Eleven years ago, Ben and Patricia Parker were farming on rented land in Clayton. Through friends, they heard Bill Dow’s farm — one of the first certified organic farms in Chatham County — was for sale following Dow’s death.
They looked at the land; it was a good fit for their business. Today, Ben and Patricia and their children, Elliott Shields and Abilene Parker, operate In Good Heart Farm, a family business. They have four (out of 20) acres in intensive production, including a fruit orchard. Patricia’s and Ben’s values are toward social justice, food access and environmental stewardship.
Patricia also works as the market manager at the Pittsboro Farmer’s Market and serves on the CORA Food Pantry board of directors. Ben is on the Agricultural Advisory Committee, formerly as chairman and now as secretary, and also serves on the Pittsboro Farmer’s Market board of directors.
The couple began a program called “Farm It Forward” in 2011. They used to partner with Wake County Cooperative Extension offering cooking classes and six-week community-supported agriculture shares, or CSAs, for families in need, specifically for children at risk for Type 2 diabetes. They no longer partner with Wake County, but are open to partnering with local community organizations. For now, they offer complimentary and sliding scale produce to community members in need. Their CSA members and market patrons give them funds to make sure they are still paid for the produce they provide to families who might not otherwise have access to fresh, local and organic produce.
On the Saturday I’m there, Ben, Nikki and Finn head to the open shed equipped with a walk-in commercial refrigerator chilled by air conditioning, a large table covered in cured garlic, sinks and work tables. Shelves hold flattened boxes, a scale, plastic tubs and other supplies. Nikki begins washing and drying all the vegetables harvested for pick up orders.
After completing harvesting, processing and filling pick-up orders, Finn and Nikki head to the field to dig garlic. In less than 30 minutes, they have a large wheelbarrow filled with fresh pulled garlic.
As I walk back to my car, a rooster crows in the distance. A cat runs across my path. Bird song continues. Butterflies nectar on flowers and 8-foot sunflowers bow down to say goodbye. I slowly drive out on the gravel road. Another deer peacefully crosses the road. I savor the sweetness in the air.
As I reflect on my visit to In Good Heart Farm, I have a greater respect and appreciation for all the hard work organic farmers do in order to bring chemical-free vegetables, fruits, flowers, fish, seafood and meats to us. No matter the weather, crops still need to be tended. Choosing a life and profession of farming is not for the faint of heart. Farms are at the whims of nature and weather: drought, hurricanes, flooding, snow storms, and power outages that affect refrigeration and tender plants inside of greenhouses. Growers work every day: in rain or shine, in ice or snow, to help get high quality organic food for us.
On farmer’s market days, it’s a bit like setting up a stage to share and sell your organic produce, meats, cheeses, cut flowers, seedlings, jams, pickles, homemade bread, pickles and organically made cosmetics, among other items. For shoppers, it is a time of gathering and catching up with friends in the community, as well as supporting our farmers. Vendors also enjoy visiting with other farmers and catching up with their customers. It’s a social gathering created around healthy organic food and community.
“We love the whole package that farming is: the community, everyone who is in it, the openness and sharing, even the friendly competition,” Ben says. “We just love Chatham County.”
In this day and time of COVID-19, we gather less frequently and in fewer numbers at the physical locations of Chatham County farmer’s markets out of health and safety concerns. But we still owe a big thanks to growers who have repositioned and pivoted to find creative ways to safely continue to bring food to our families.
In Good Heart Farm
Benjamin Shields and Patricia Parker
456 Friendly Pooch Lane, Pittsboro
Ben: 919-417-070; Patricia: 919-637-0666