WNC CRAFT farm tour participants get to see landscape fabric in action on Thatchmore Farm’s upper field.
For the June WNC CRAFT farm tour, we visited Thatchmore Farm—a clever example of a small-scale, diversified mountain farm. As Tom Elmore explained it, he and his wife, Karen Thatcher, caught the farm fever in 1980 while living in Colorado. But considering their Colorado town had a minuscule 11-day growing season, they began a nationwide search for a more suitable place to settle down and start their farm. They landed in Western NC and started Thatchmore Farm on 10 hilly acres in Leicester, NC in 1987.
Both Tom and Karen continued to work full-time jobs for about 20 years while running the farm full time, selling their vegetables entirely wholesale to start. Then they started attending the North Asheville Tailgate Market to sell shrubs. One day they took a box of tomatoes and quickly sold out, encouraging them to bring more and more produce. Now they sell their certified organic produce entirely retail through two Asheville tailgate markets.
Liz Elmore talks with tour participants about shiitake mushrooms.
Tom and Karen have adopted a variation on Eliot Coleman’s farm model which promotes five acres in production, family labor only, and human-scale equipment. At Thatchmore, they grow vegetables on one acre with fruit and perennials on the hillsides, use labor that is half family and half farm crew, and till with a BCS walk-behind tractor. This year, their daughter, Liz, became Thatchmore’s first full-time employee and farm manager!
Tom explained that the terrain and micro-climate shape what they grow. Because there is limited flat land, they focus on high-value crops, making sure that each square foot is productive with intensive, multi-crop production. The upper field and lower field are about half an acre each, and there isn’t room to turn around a riding tractor. Small-scale equipment has become a mainstay at Thatchmore.
Tom Elmore demos his BCS tractor.
The Western NC mountains have a lot in common with farms in Northern Europe, and Tom has found equipment designed for small landholdings there a great fit for farming here. Their powerhouse tool is their BCS walk-behind tractor. It has a small turning radius and allows them to work one bed at a time on demand, saving valuable square feet for production.
According to Tom, the economics of a walk-behind tractor compared to a riding tractor is 10:1. He was able to get his walk-behind for $1,200 used. A smaller, brand-new version costs about $2,000. They come with a variety of tillage implements and are really a multi-purpose tool. While in Italy, Tom was quite impressed to see a farm family traveling down the road to market at 20 miles per hour on a BCS.
Landscape fabric hole burner.
Another key tool at Thatchmore is landscape fabric and a plays a big part in their crop planning. Liz said they are able to reuse the fabric season to season, and several pieces have been with the farm since it started. Benefits of using landscape fabric include reducing weed pressure, keeping the soil covered, retaining moisture, and producing cleaner food. The landscape fabric is 12-feet wide and covers three 4-foot beds. To plant into the fabric, you must create holes at the desired spacing for each plant you’re growing. They advocate for burning the holes so that the fabric doesn’t unravel. Tom fashioned a hole-burning tool made from rebar, vice grips, and a two-inch pipe fitting. They create a small fire and throw in three pipe fittings to heat up. With the vice grips, they grab one pipe fitting and can burn about 50 holes in the fabric before the fitting cools down. It takes about 30 minutes to prep a 12×50 ft. length of landscape fabric.
A tour participant tries the goumi berries.
As we walked across the farm, we saw the variety of crops growing on the hillsides. While they are too steep to till, they are good for fruit and perennials as long as you can still mow in between your rows. We saw Hazelnuts, Hardy Kiwi, Goumi Berries, and their stand of Yaupon Hollies. This particular type of holly, also known as Ilex vomitoria, is native to the southeast and the only known indigenous caffeinated plant to North America. It’s used to make a caffeinated tea. We also saw their small apple tree orchard, organic Christmas Trees, and mushroom logs.
On one hill, they have a prominent array of 32 solar panels where they “harvest green electrons,” as Tom puts it, and run both their house and farm. They were able to install these panels with a 50% cost share through the Resource Conservation and Development Program and receive tax credits.
Ripe tomatoes inside the greenhouse.
Our last stop was at the greenhouses. They have three in production where they grow high-value crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. Thatchmore Farm is known for having the first ripe tomatoes each year! They seed them in early November and transplant in January with the goal of having ripe tomatoes by early April. They are also trialing ginger this year.
It certainly was a beautiful day to be out on the farm, and we are grateful to Tom, Karen, and Liz for being such gracious hosts. After farming organically for 30 years in these mountains, they have so much wisdom and knowledge to share, and they generously give it freely. Until next time!
WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers, and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. Learn more about and join WNC CRAFT today! If you have questions, please contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director, at (828) 338-9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Cameron Farlow
Cameron Farlow is the Executive Director of Organic Growers School. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a dancer, baker and avid adventurer.