On her family’s land in Clayton, Beth Browne is supporting independent farmers.
Beth Browne is not a farmer in the traditional sense.
The self-described “city girl from New York” was living on a sailboat in San Diego in 1995 when, eager to start a family, she decided to return home to farm 348 acres of land her family owned in Clayton.
Things did not go well.
“I tried to do it myself,” says Browne, a writer, traveler and mother of two from the deck of her sailboat, just-docked in The Bahamas, “and couldn’t even grow one tomato.”
But Browne had a vision.
Over two decades ago, before the flourishing farm-to-table movement took off in North Carolina and elsewhere, Browne dreamed of facilitating an all-organic, chemical-free operation that would be run by independent farmers who’d lease the land from her to grow their own crops. It was a radical idea in the large-scale, industrialized farming community that exists in Johnston County, and it took Browne 20 years to realize her vision.
Today, Browne leases acreage to three farmers—one up-and-comer, one commodity-driven and looking towards raising organic beef, and to Jenn Sanford-Johnson, the owner of Chickadee Farms—who use sustainable, organic methods to grow fresh, pesticide-free crops.
“Being a good caretaker to me means sustainable organic production,” Browne says. “It has definitely been a long time coming and we’re not there yet. But I plan to continue to be a steward to the land and preserve it as best I can for future generations.”
A Family Legacy
In 1865, Browne’s great-grandfather, Edward Robert Johnson, was shot in the head in the Battle of Petersburg in Virginia. He was left for dead by his Confederate comrades, captured by Yankee soldiers and kept at the Point Lookout prison camp in Maryland until the war’s end, when he walked back home to Johnston County. Johnson married Elizabeth Harrison, a woman 20 years his junior, and the couple had six children. After a cyclone destroyed the Johnsons’ first farmhouse, located where the Cleveland School in Clayton now stands, the family acquired 388 acres and Johnson built a four-room farmhouse, in 1886.
Fast-forward more than a century and Browne and her boyfriend at the time, Darrel Tracy, left their boat in San Diego and made a long journey of their own, returning to the farmland that Browne’s father, George McLemore
Jr., had bought from his brothers. The four-room farmhouse had been vacant for some time and was in need of repair; the detached kitchen had fallen down entirely, and the bathroom was unusable.
Browne and Tracy, a landscape architect and a forester who, Beth says, was “much of the inspiration for the management of the farm,” made a makeshift apartment of 20-feet by 10-feet in the barn while they renovated the house.
“It was a place to use after the sailboat,” Browne says. “I survived Hurricane Fran in that apartment.”
McLemore, who was ailing when Browne returned to North Carolina, had been leasing the farmland to a local farmer for decades. Though Browne says she is “forever grateful” to the farmer for working the land in her absence, she says she “could just see that it wasn’t working.”
“I knew my great-grandfather was looking down in disapproval,” Browne says, after she had finished renovating the farmhouse and turned her attention to the farmland. “I could see first-hand what conventional farming was doing to the land.”
Now with two young children, the breaking point for Browne came when she realized that chemicals the farmer was spraying on his crops were drifting towards her house.
“I don’t want my children breathing that,” Browne thought. “It had to stop.”
A Dream Realized
Browne knew she had her work cut out for her. There were issues with the land that demanded serious remediation and expertise.
“For one thing, the soil erosion was horrible,” she says. “A soil conservationist came to look and he said it was the worst soil he had ever seen. There were ruts that were waist deep and you could pick up the soil and it was like beach sand. There was no organic material in it at all.”
It was slow-going at first for Browne in her search for like-minded farmers with an interest and long-term plans in an area known for its large factory farms. Browne hired a soil and water conservation specialist who advised taking two of the larger backfields out of production by planting grass. Then, two and a half years ago, Browne met Sanford-Johnson, the woman who would shape her dream of owning a farm that was chemical-free and all-organic into a reality.
Sanford-Johnson, who grew up outside of Garner, just down the road from Browne’s farmland, fell in love with farming after earning an associate’s degree in sustainable agriculture. Following a stint with the Interfaith Food Shuttle Teaching Farm in Raleigh, she helped start the Well Fed Community Garden, a community-focused urban farm that grows fresh produce for Raleigh’s Irregardless Cafe. After meeting Browne at the Raleigh Farmers Market and learning through friends that some of her land was coming up available to lease, Sanford-Johnson decided the time was right to start her own farm out in the country.
She met with Browne on her land and the two women hit off; it wasn’t long before Sanford-Johnson’s Chickadee Farms was born.
“Jenn is like an angel from heaven and has the curly hair to prove it,” says Browne of her friend and farming partner. Since starting Chickadee Farms, Sanford-Johnson has grown it from one acre to six in just under three years. She grows vegetables and herbs there, and is also experimenting with cut flowers. She also keeps a trailer with 30 hens; Sanford-Johnson harvests the chickens’ eggs and allows them to roam the land, scavenging for insects and turning the soil, a far cry from the chemical fertilizers that farmers once used there.
Sanford-Johnson has three avenues for selling the produce she grows. Through a system known as Community Supported Agriculture, members can sign up for weekly deliveries from Chickadee Farms on 12 and 24-week plans. Sanford-Johnson is also a mainstay at two local farmers markets and she sells directly to restaurants, including Raleigh favorite Crawford and Son.
“I’m starting to build a customer base in this area that doesn’t have many options for organically grown food,” Sanford-Johnson says. “It’s been going great and it has been hard to keep up with demand.”
In addition to Sanford-Johnson, Browne leases acreage to Danny Chastain, who started the Honest Dirt Family Farm last spring with a half acre, growing mixed produce that he sells at the Fuquay-Varina Farmers Market.
“I about broke even, I’m just getting my feet wet,” Chastain says.
This year, Chastain is farming a full acre, expanding sales to the Clayton Farmers Market and adding baby greens to sell to restaurants. Next year, he plans to expand to two acres and add a high tunnel greenhouse.
James “Hunter” Langden also leases land from Browne, about 60 acres on which he grows wheat, following a less successful attempt at growing organic tobacco. He and Browne are discussing potentially raising cows for organic, sustainable beef, a venture Langden thinks will be more profitable than row crops.
Last October, Browne offered Sanford-Johnson and her daughter, Jude, the opportunity to move into the main farmhouse that her great-grandfather built so she can live where she works. Sanford-Johnson says she is appreciative of Browne’s hands-off approach.
“You hear stories about other people leasing land where they micromanage or are really demanding about what your farm does,” she says. “[Browne] owns a couple of pieces of equipment we use, and a high tunnel greenhouse which I use. If I ever need anything, or if there are any repairs that need to be done on the farm, she’s always been like ‘yeah, of course.’ She’s supportive in that way.”
Browne is so hands-off, in fact, that in early March, days before a late-winter snow fell in Johnston County, she set sail for the Bahamas, leaving all of the farm’s operations in Sanford-Johnson’s capable hands.
“I’m looking to stay as long as I can,” Sanford-Johnson says.
“I hope the farm can remain a farm,” says Browne of her land. “That was something my father expressed a desire for before he died. There is a long tradition of farming in Johnston County going back to the earliest white settlements. But with Raleigh sprawling out our way, farms are fast being lost, replaced by housing. It’s critical for Johnston County to retain some of its land for green, open space and wildlife habitats. I hope my farm can be part of that going forward.”