602 Friendly Pooch Lane
Pittsboro, NC 27312
I think we have been very fortunate to have the people we have had that have been with us on both sides, both as producers and consumers who aren't just passing through, you know. I mean a pint of sun gold is good and you eat it as little kids or adults, but it’s not the sun gold that’s going to do it. – Bill Dow
Bill Dow comes from a long family tradition of farming. Born in Ohio and raised on a farm in Mississippi, Bill and his brothers knew the interworking of farming from a young age. Bill considers those early years on the family farm to be a very formative experience that significantly shaped his outlook on life. After completing a medical degree and a residency in pediatrics, Bill decided to return to farming. He now farms organically on Ayrshire Farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina.
Bill was involved with the Carrboro Farmers' Market from its early conception, and has always been a staple of the Market community. On Saturdays you will find a variety of organic produce and unique herbs at the Ayrshire Farm stand, and, during blueberry season, you can head out to Ayrshire Farm to pick your own blueberries.
Bill and his partner, Daryl Walker, recently started a lessee program on their farm where they mentor beginning farmers and teach them not only the growing aspects of farming, but also the importance of marketing and selling their produce.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Bill Dow, farmer, Ayrshire Farm – Pittsboro, NC
Date: August 29, 2011
Location: Ayrshire Farm – Pittsboro, NC
Interviewer & Photographer: Ashley Rose Young
Ashley Young: This is Ashley Young with the Southern Foodways Alliance. Today is Monday, August 29, 2011. And I am interviewing Bill Dow of the Ayrshire Farm for the Carrboro Farmers’ Market Oral History Project. We are currently sitting in Bill Dow’s home at Ayrshire Farm near Pittsboro, North Carolina. Bill, would you please introduce yourself and state your profession?
Bill Dow: I’m not sure how to handle all that. Anyway, I farm. We’ve been involved in starting a farmers’ market where you get direct sales from the producer to the grower or the grower to the producer. And once upon a time I was a physician; that was a long, long time ago.
And would you please state your date of birth?
That tells you how long—if I can remember, February 15, 1945 actually.
It’s a good month, February. I was also born in February. So now we’re going to build a context for this interview and I’m going to ask you some general questions about where you grew up and how you eventually came to become a farmer. So first, where did you grow up?
Well we moved around some and it’s been one of those fortunate things for me that it’s worked out the way it has. But I was born in Middletown, Ohio. My dad was in the Air Corps during the Second World War and was stationed there and that’s where I appeared.
Then we moved to Mississippi and that was a major change in appearance and the way of doing things. And I was trying to think the other day when exactly that was. I think it was in ’60. I remember what was going on but I don’t remember the dates. And from there I went to Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee, part time if I had money and if I didn't have money I went to Mississippi State. And if I had it to do over again, I’d do it the same way. I think that each had its contribution to make and it was a privilege to
do it that way.
Did you grow up on a farm or what was your relationship to food growing up?
Well the family, and by that I mean the larger historical family, almost all of them were farmers and when I was a kid, the year after we moved to Mississippi, I had two younger brothers and I think that the folks decided that they really needed to keep us busy especially since we were living about halfway between Meridian and Philadelphia, which was an interesting place to be in those days.
And so they went down to the hardware store and bought a couple of axes and a
cross-cut saw and we went out and they had bought this 300-acres of worn out cotton land from Mister—I can't remember his name. At any rate, and they basically said, "Go to it boys. We need to clear this off so we can make pasture out of it and don’t call us, we’ll call you."
And a little incorrectness there but not much. At any rate, Mississippi was Mississippi. The Civil Rights workers were buried within twenty miles of the house. The schools were not integrated at that point. When my younger brother came through his class did integrate and it was interesting because it was the football team that did it. There were some that agreed with it and some that didn't and by John’s reckoning, anyway, they went into the shower room after practice one day, locked the door, and sort of had it out and that was the end of that. And from then on they went on to win the State Championship and I think it really changed the racial context of not only the school but of the whole area.
What happened after that? Well the first year as I said I went to Vanderbilt. I was way out of my league but at any rate it was an interesting exposure to things. Didn’t have the money to go back so went my sophomore year to Mississippi State, which was also a privilege—definitely a different context to seeing the world—and then went back to Vanderbilt for the last two years. I majored in Molecular Biology and it was interesting, both academically, you know, between all the music that was going on and most of it being blues and bluegrass and the mountains being as close as they were and so on. It was a great place to be.
Excellent. I also wanted to follow-up with a few more questions about the farm that you worked at when you were younger. So what kind of farm was this?
[Laughs] I mean it really was 300-acres of old worn out cotton land and it had grown up in sweet gum and pine and half of it was swamp. And it was a good place to, you know, gather up the boys on Saturday morning and take them up to the farm and say, "We’ll come back and get you later on."
And as bad as it was, I must say that my brothers and I all agree that it was probably the most important thing that happened to us. It was a whole new world and a great place to be in a good sense of the word anyway.
Did you grow vegetables or was it a cattle farm or what kind of farm was it?
Cows and soybeans. You know, I don’t know if this is where you want to go exactly,
but the problem with agriculture was it was dictated by people who had a lot more land than we did. Three hundred acres is not much. And then half of it is swamp—it really isn't much. But the way that the system worked was that, you know, the more you produced the better off you were and then they couldn’t figure out why prices didn't go up. And you’d go to the stockyards and put stuff up for sale and you’d just get nothing for it.
And my dad and I had many arguments about the whys and wherefores of that and he wasn’t going to come my way and I wasn’t going his way, so I ended up back up in Nashville and my other two brothers were there at the farm. It’s hard—there’s a way of doing things as far as agriculture and a lot of other things. You know, there’s a way of doing it, and if you don’t do it that way then there’s a price to pay. And so at any rate, when I was up in Nashville, I just started hacking around with vegetables and so on and so forth and, you know, you could grow a head of broccoli that’s twelve to fourteen inches across and it brought better money than cows and soybeans.
But I’ll never forget the time that I was selling to a supermarket and the guy that was the produce man was really very helpful to me and a nice guy. And I came in one day with a big sackful of broccoli and he said, you know, "I had a complaint about your broccoli last week." And I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, I had a complaint about it." And the heads—we were getting prune cropped heads that were probably twelve to fourteen inches in diameter, and this lady had complained because she had two large stalks in her bag of broccoli. She wasn’t looking at the head. She was just looking at the stalks to make judgment about how much was there. Well, you know, you just
think oh my goodness. [Laughs]
And it was a learning experience for me, too, so—. But at any rate that’s where it went. And then, in the interim in there, went to medical school and got a residency in pediatrics and was fortunate enough to be able to be involved in a lot of stuff that we did up in East Tennessee in the coal fields which is still going on unfortunately. And ended up back in Nashville to do a residency and so there you go.
Would you also explain how many acres are here and how many acres you’re currently farming?
Hmm. There’s twenty-two acres and of that there’s probably fifteen that have some sort of production on them, not very traditional production.
I understand that Ayrshire Farm was the first farm in North Carolina that was certified organic. I was hoping you would speak about some of the early challenges you faced trying to become an organic farm or trying to be an organic farm from the start.
Well the idea of certified organic really was in its premature state and Debbie Wechsler and myself and several others began meeting about, you know, "What can be done to advance organic agriculture?" And one of those things was to have it certified.
Was there a demand for organic produce at the Farmers’ Market or in local communities when you first made this effort to be organic?
Occasionally you would find people that were interested and might know something about it. There were several chefs in Chapel Hill, some of whom I think you probably know, but were very helpful in giving us a market on an individual basis and they deserve a lot of credit for that because they were stepping way out of bounds.
I agree with certification. I think if you haven't been certified you need to be certified. And I think that the public ought to be concerned about that. If you’ve been at it as long as I have it’s sort of like one of the politicians here in the state used to say, "It’s the oldest mule in the shed." Some people haven't been at it as long as I have, so.
Which restaurants or which chefs in particular do you have a relationship with?
Now you’re going to get me in trouble, see, because my mind is that I can't remember very well and I’m going to forget somebody. But Bill Smith was one of them and I think you know Bill Smith. There was another guy, Russell somebody, who I wish that I knew what happened to him. He had been in Nam and had come home, was cooking for what is now Margaret’s and he’d come to the Saturday morning Market and come around and just say, you know, "Bring me this, this, this, and this," and walk off. And Russell was a good man. The last time I heard he was working in a pizza place over in Durham but I had been in there once at least looking for him and nobody had heard of him, so. I’m not sure what happened to him.
And Pyewacket was another one that was there early on and I, with my apologies to those who were there also and I have forgotten about, but without them we wouldn’t have made it [Interviewer's note: Pyewacket was a restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC that was open from 1977-2002 and was known for its vegetarian dishes].
And I understand here at Ayrshire Farm that you have a mentorship program of sorts to help other farmers coming in who might not have experience with farming to learn the ropes, so to speak. I was hoping you might talk about some
of these individuals who are working here as well and what your mentorship style is like—how you teach them to farm.
[Laughs] I’m not so sure that’s going to be very enlightening. I’ve been very fortunate to take on a lot of people over the years, sometimes we got as many as twelve, fifteen young folks that, you know, think they might want to try it on for size. And some have done well and a lot of them have found out that in fact it was nice but it really isn't what they want to do. And so they’re doing something else.
Yeah, we’ve just been very fortunate to have a lot of folks; not all of them have become farmers. I wouldn’t expect it to. We had a good time getting there though, some days better than others. It’s hot and this summer has been one of those hot summers. But that’s part of it and I think that what a lot of those young folks learned was that you can do it. You may not like doing it and you may not want to do it again but it can be done. And we get letters and cards and stuff from folks that have been around—part of it just to say, "Hello," and part of it to say, "Guess what I’m doing?" And [Laughs] so, it hasn’t all gotten lost.
You also take some of these lessees to market as well to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market and they set up a stand next to you. Is this also part of the mentorship process?
Right. Yeah it doesn’t make any difference about being able to grow it. If you can't sell you’re going to have to do an awful lot of eating yourself or give it away and that isn'tgoing to be very beneficial. So I think that learning how to sell things, how to market things is certainly the equivalent of how to grow things.
At this point in the interview I was hoping that we could move towards discussing the Market a little bit more in detail. And the first question that I wanted to ask you how were you involved in the early foundation of the Market?
Well I think I mentioned before Debbie Wechsler who was involved in it. Laurie Heise who had been in—when the original program got set up over in Nashville it got set in part because that particular period of time, the fertilizer prices were going out the roof and it was really tough financially. And the NFO, the National Farmers Organization, was going around the country with freezer trucks with ground meat and pulling in somewhere with permission and having a sale. And all you had to do was go over there and realize holy smokes; look at all these people.
And you know, why aren't they out there all the time? And so you begin to learn about the politics of food and pricing and the planning and, you know, certification of stores and there was a lot to learn. But the bottom line was that it was being done for somebody else besides the farmers.
And so I don’t mind looking for a fight sometimes. It, you know, sort of keeps life interesting. So you know, there was a woman named Lindsay Jones, Laurie Heise, John Volcheck—now this was over when I was still at Vanderbilt and we put that together over there and then when I came over here to Carolina, I got together with Debbie Wechsler and a couple others and put the same sort of thing together here.
And when the Carrboro Farmers’ Market was brought to Carrboro, how was the community reaction? Was it supportive? How did they perceive the Market at first?
The Market actually started at the Church of Reconciliation, if the truth be known, and then it outgrew that and we moved over to East Gate. And to give you an example of the politics of the situation, East Gate had one supermarket over there which will remain unnamed and that group of stores voted probably once a quarter, maybe, as to whether or not to allow the Market to be there in the parking lot. And it was always a twelve to one vote and the one was the supermarket.
Now you don’t have to be too smart to figure out that, you know, if there are people going to that market out there out in the broiling sun right in front of our store and they’re going out there to get it rather than coming to our store we’re missing here somewhere. Now corporations, some are smarter than others, and so that went on for several years. And then we moved over into Carrboro, not where the Market is now but back behind where the Fire and Rescue Squad is which was a great place to be and there were some politics played in there and we ended up moving over to where the
old high school was—was another City Hall. And the main thing about a market is whether or not it’s covered. A market without shade is very difficult, shall we say. So the Market itself has moved around several times. It’s been the same group of people, you know, and just sort of adding on as time has gone on and I think they’ve become much more sophisticated but it’s been the same people. And they’ve been fortunate to have places to go to sell and not necessarily because they were invited, but sometimes they were.
Can you speak about the early growth of the Market through the 1980s? Were there any specific changes or large changes in the Market over time as it began to grow and become more popular?
Hmm. Well that deserves probably a long thought but the main thing that comes to mind anyway is that the Market as it started out just grew the traditional stuff which did not include such esoteric things as broccoli and cauliflower and so on and so forth. And then with time, there began to be a demand for those strange things that nobody had.
The Market then and the Market now is almost unrecognizable. It’s the same people, well with a number of additions and unfortunately a number of subtractions. I mean a number of them have passed on—they’ve aged out. But the variety—whether you’re talking about flowers or mushrooms or beans or you name it, it’s there and it didn't start out that way. And so the folks that are selling there and the buyers, I think, have become much, much more sophisticated about what they can get, what they would like to request from people. I’ve had a lot of people say, "Well, why don’t you grow such
and such, and such and such?" Well, I may have a good reason for not growing it, or it may be that I just wasn’t smart enough to figure that one out and so let’s give it a try.
I think the other thing is being that the consistency not only of the farmers there but of the people that came, the people that shop at the Market you see every week. It’s not just sort of a fly-by-night—it’s cool and groovy, you know, market thing; it’s a very serious and financially beneficial operation.
How have the customers' tastes changed over time? And why do you think their tastes have changed?
There are a lot of people that have asked for us to grow things that, you know, I— rutabagas, I mean I know what a rutabaga is now but I didn't then, and there’s a lot of other things in the same category.
So you know, we end up growing things like all these varieties of lettuce, fennel, broccoli. One of the presidents that didn't like broccoli or something—and then a good one is radicchio. I mean I’m not sure how to spell it but it's a salad vegetable, which quite frankly, I think about the only way you can eat it is develop a taste for it but it’s got, you know, it’s developed a hell of taste because there’s a big market for it. So it’s been fun with time, you know, to see not only what people want but what the growers are willing to grow.
I used to deliver at night. I worked during the day and then delivered at night. And La Residence was one of the restaurants here in town and the chef at that time was a fellow by the name of Bill Smith, who is still among us and still doing very well.
At any rate, I went in there one night at ten o'clock at night I guess and he was still at the stove. And there was a metal table there in the middle of the kitchen. And there was a box opened that had these twelve round red somethings in this Styrofoam box. And each one had its own little compartment. And I had never seen anything like it before, and then I thought what in the world? I said, "Bill, what is this stuff?" He said, "Radicchio." I said, "What the hell is that?" And he said, "Well they grow it in Southern Europe. It’s a salad green." And I said, "Well, where do you get it?" He said, "Well, we get it from England, I mean Southern Europe." And I said, "Well, how does it get over here?" He said, "We fly it in." I said, "You fly in radicchio from Southern Europe to serve here?" He said, "Yeah. Yeah, yeah I sure do." And I said, "Well, why aren't we growing it?" And he said, "Well, I don’t know. You could." So it took about two years to find somebody that knew something about radicchio and to figure out what varieties would grow and how to sell it.
But that’s how the Market has expanded. It’s little encounters like that where somebody says, "Well, why not," you know? And that’s the right question: why not?
You’ve spoken a lot about your relationships to chefs in the surrounding areas. From the produce that you’re growing here at Ayrshire Farm how much of that is going to restaurants and how much of that is going to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market?
That’s a good question and I probably ought to know the answer to it, but I don’t. For us I would say that probably half of what we do and maybe more than that goes to restaurants. If somebody says, "We need such and such, and such and such" I say, "Well how do you spell it," you know? And we have to sort of get over the recognition and then, you know, with time you can figure out how to grow it or maybe it’s already being grown. It’s the chefs in large part that—for me anyway—I’ve learned a lot and I would not be selling what I’m selling today if it weren't for them.
Of course now, you know, the appetites of people have also changed, so that it’s made it possible to sell these things, but I don’t know how many people have ever eaten radicchio but it’s stout. You remember it, so.
We’ve talked about the consumer interests of the chefs who have formed a relationship with you. What concerns or what questions are everyday consumers at the Market asking you about? What does the average Joe ask you about when they come up to your stand at the Farmers’ Market?
"Why haven't you got such and such?" [Laughs] Or, "When are you going to have such and such?" Yeah, the questions are inquisitive, you know. They haven't seen a lot of these things before. They’ve heard of it and don’t see it or they see it and it looks pretty good but they’re not sure what it is. So yeah, there’s a lot going on between the public, the chefs, and the growers. The public is an important part of that triumphant—. Without them you’re nowhere; without the chefs the same; and without the growers you’re the same. So we all need each other and I think that the Market, the markets, I should say, that are being set up these days, for the most part, recognize that. And so it’s not as hard as it used to be to find a restaurant that serves locally produced food.
How would you describe the community of the Farmers’ Market? What’s the community like?
[Laughs] The community has to do with what the weather is and what time of the year it is and we’re fortunate in the respect that the population turns over on a fairly frequent basis because of the University and so you have new people that are interested in what’s going on and so on.
On the other hand there are a lot of folks who have been there year after year after year after year and you couldn’t get by without them either. But it’s a very different relationship; I mean that’s a friendship.
What would you say the legacy of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market is? How would you describe its influence on other communities for starting markets? Or, in general, what do you think its legacy is?
Well it had the good fortune of being in a place early on where there was enough parking and shelter and so on and so forth that the Market expanded fairly quickly. And so you had some observers from other places that realized that these things can change fairly quickly and "Why aren't we doing this back home?"
So there’s a plethora of small markets right at the moment. I some are going to be, you know, staying with it and some aren't. But the number of markets and the quality of what’s there has made the difference and, you know, on Saturday morning you’re there at eleven o'clock and there’s this mass of people moving by in front of your stand and you haven't got time to sort of say, "Hello, how do you do, my name is—" you know, and there’s none of that because there isn't any time. It hasn’t always been that way. But it’s not a bad thing. It is an unfortunate thing in the respect that Market on Saturday morning is not just, you know, meet and greet sort of stuff. It’s checking in with the people. And so there’s a lot of little markets that have set up around that are doing pretty well. And you know, they have identified population centers in their communities where, you know, they’re kind of making themselves available to people who wouldn’t be there otherwise.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add about the Market or speak about in regards to the Market before I move onto our last few questions?I think we have been very fortunate to have the people we have had that have been with us on both sides, both as producers and consumers who aren't just passing through, you know. I mean a pint of sun gold is good and you eat it as little kids or adults but it’s not the sun gold that’s going to do it.
Well as we get to the end of our interview I just want to ask one more question. Is there anything that I did not ask you that you’d like to speak about or any topic that you’d like to speak about?
Well with your permission the item that’s been left out is that it takes more than one to do it and Daryl Walker who has been a part of this for several years and on my better days is willing to deal with me, and on my less better days she can sort of whip me into shape. But at any rate, yeah. There are those that are important.
Wonderful. Well thank you so much for participating in this oral history. It has been a pleasure speaking with you today and this will conclude our oral history for today.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.