Maple Spring Gardens
Cedar Grove, NC
Farming has always been a hard life and a hard way to make a living...It has largely consumed my life for close to 30 years. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. – Ken Dawson
A native of Farmville, Virginia, Ken Dawson’s family moved around a lot during his childhood years. However, Ken would spend nearly every summer, starting at a young age, on his grandparents’ farm in Spring Garden, Virginia, which strongly nurtured his love of farming. Ken engaged with a vibrant community of young people who were living off-the-land in the 1970s and tried his hand at many jobs before settling into farming. One of Ken’s many contributions to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market was the diversification of products in the mid 1980s, broadening the traditional offerings with eggplants and kales, for example. Ken was a long-time member of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market board of directors, and has served as President of the Market.
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: Ken Dawson, owner Maple Spring Gardens, Cedar Grove, NC
Date: June 19, 2011
Location: Maple Spring Gardens, Cedar Grove, NC
Interviewer & Photographer: Kate Medley
Kate Medley: Well I’ll kick things off saying this is Kate Medley interviewing Ken Dawson at his home outside of Hillsborough in Cedar Grove, North Carolina on June 19, 2011. And will hold this here and get you to start out by just telling us who you are and what you do.
Ken Dawson: Well I’m a farmer; that’s what I do. [Laughs] Farming has been my full-time occupation since 1984. We grow vegetables, small fruits, cut flowers.
And how did you come to be a farmer?
It was a long history. When I was growing up, my grandfather was still farming the farm that my father grew up on, that my grandfather grew up on, that my great-grandfather grew up on. And it was my favorite place to be. I never lived there except during the summers, but when I was about eight years old, I started going and spending a week with my grandparents in the summer on the farm and absolutely loved it.
So that was that, and when I was in my mid-teens I had a thought that I was going to someday come back and take over the farm there. But then in my later teens I kind of got that notion out of my head.
I went to college. I had no thoughts that I was going to farm. And I went to [the University of North] Carolina with the intent of majoring in Chemistry and fairly quickly got that notion out of my head and studied Psychology and Sociology. My last official major at UNC, before I dropped out for the last and final time, was Religion. So my college career was a progression from Chemistry to Psychology to Religion to dropping out of school and planting an organic garden.
And you grow your crops organically and what did your clientele at the Carrboro Market in 1981, for instance, how did they react to that?
I don’t have specific memories about that. We were growing vegetables organically because we believed it was the right thing to do. You know, I had our first garden in 1972; we’d followed organic methods. One of my roommates at the time was cooking at the First Natural Foods Restaurant in Chapel Hill. He had grown up on a farm, a tobacco farm, in Eastern North Carolina. I had grown up working on my granddad’s tobacco farm. Certainly organic farming wasn’t the family background, but Michael had heard of something called organic farming, and he thought we should try to grow our household garden organically. And so we had Rodale Press’s Basic Book of Organic Gardening. That was our guidebook. And so I was doing a lot of reading at the time on anything pertaining to agriculture: conventional, organic, and otherwise. And during the ‘80s I really became convinced that it made a lot of sense that where agriculture was headed didn't make sense.
And so I was growing vegetables organically, not because it was a favorable market niche, but because I felt like it was the right thing to do; it was what I wanted to do. And that’s what we offered our customers.
I think there was always a certain amount of people at the Carrboro Market who appreciated that and liked what we were doing. Over time, the public awareness of the issues surrounding that has grown a lot and the clientele has as well. But it was pretty early on. You know, this was 30 years ago.
Did you for instance sell an organic tomato or just a tomato? I mean did you call it organic?
I think we did from the beginning. Yeah. We promoted our product as organically grown. Some people had an idea of what that meant and some didn't. This was long before there was any such thing as organic certification. It was before the USDA got involved in it. It was not a regulated term. Organic meant what anybody said it meant at that time. [Laughs] We had other vendors at the Market from a conventional background who would put up a sign saying organic, often misspelled, because they had used some manure on their garden or something. A lot of people just didn't have any clear idea and this was way before any attempt to really define and regulate it by anybody other than people within, you know, the organic farming movement who had some idea of what it meant. But to the general public it was not understood. It’s still not well-understood but more so now than then.
You know for about 10 years while we were selling a large amount of product wholesale to grocery stores we maintained organic certification. Several years back when the USDA assumed ownership of the term organic and required everyone who wanted to use the term to play by their rules and jump through the hoops, at the time that occurred we still maintained certification. And after we stopped wholesaling I decided that it wasn’t worth my while to put the time and effort into doing all the paperwork that the certification required. It was a very difficult change to make because I had a reputation in the community as an organic farmer. I had sold produce in Chapel Hill for almost 25 years under a sign that said organic produce. And the decision to drop the certification meant that under the law of the land I could no longer put up a sign with the o-word on it. And it was almost an identity crisis. I was going to go to town and sell my product without the organic produce sign hanging over my head that had been there for decades.
And that was hard; it was hard to let go of that. I haven't changed my farming practices, but I no longer have that identity that’s expressed through our signs. If a customer comes up to me at the Market, and it happens every week—people want to know about our farming practices: do we farm organically. If they ask me directly, do we farm organically, I will tell them yes. It’s illegal for me to do so according to the USDA’s law. But it’s also a truthful answer. And I don’t skirt around that you know in terms of what I have written to put on my website about organic. I tell about the history of the farm and so forth and what we’ve done but I can't say that our product is organically grown anymore directly.
But, nevertheless, I can still talk directly to customers face-to-face about what we do and what we don’t do. And more and more people—whereas I think the majority of the general public doesn’t really clearly understand what organic farming means, people assume that if you farm organically you don’t spray anything, you don’t use any pesticides and it’s not true. There are many pesticides that are approved for organic production. People want to know: do you use pesticides, do you spray anything? The truthful answer to that is yes, and the truthful answer is also we farm organically.
What does it look like out here on your farm?
Well, I have been told it’s quite beautiful. [Laughs] Every now and then I stop and notice. It’s always a reminder to me when someone who has never been to the farm comes and says, "Oh, it’s such a beautiful place," because when I walk out the door I’m on the job. And I’m on the job during the growing season 60 or 70 hours a week and I meet my staff at 7 o'clock in the morning with a clipboard with lists and this is what we’re going to do and who is going to do this and this is what we need to harvest and this is where it needs to go. I’m at work and I’m running a business and I often forget to stop and look up and think oh yes. I’m awfully lucky to go to work in such a beautiful place.
It’s rolling land. We own 61 acres of land and about 40 of that is wooded. We have some beautiful wooded land that I do not spend much time in this time of year because that’s where the ticks and the chiggers live, but we have about 20 acres of open land and that’s where all the farming activity occurs. That’s where all the farm buildings are and so forth. It’s hilly. It slopes downhill to a pond that we use for irrigation and swimming and fishing. Most of the farm slopes to the west and to the north. We’re on a ridge. It’s one of the higher points in the county, where we are, so we catch a lot of wind. It’s a great place to watch the sky and watch the storms pass. It is a beautiful place and I’m glad when someone comes and reminds me to stop and look up and notice it.
I have spent most of the waking hours of my adult life outdoors. And I’m thankful to be able to do so. There have been many interesting transitions over the years since we bought this farm. This was a worn-out run-down tobacco farm when we bought it. The level of bio-diversity in the fields was not high. There’s not a lot in a tobacco field to draw a diverse population of insects, birds, and so forth. And over the years it has evolved enormously in complexity and, in particular, I’ve enjoyed watching the bird populations change. I began learning about birds as a small child. By the time I was six years-old I could name every bird that was pictured in the bird books that my parents had and provided me with and I knew their calls and so forth. And I’ve commented several times this year there’s more birds and more different kinds of birds on the farm nesting here this summer than we’ve ever seen.
Here we are, middle of June. Tell us what’s growing and what an average day looks like on your farm.
Okay. June is a transition month. We start our planting season in the field around the first of March. Spring, cool-weather crops: leafy greens, root crops, the brassicas (cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower) and so forth. By June those crops are just about all gone. We’re at the very tail end of harvesting spring crops. And so June is a transition month. We’re finishing up harvesting the last of the spring crops. We’re beginning to harvest the summer crops.
Just this past week I mowed down the remains of the field where we had most of our spring crops, the broccoli that was long-since gone to seed and so forth, mowed that down and planted it in a summer cover crop of cow peas and buckwheat and millet, something to improve the soil over the course of the summer until we need to plant that field again. We just this past week harvested the first tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants in the field. Those are our primary crops to harvest in July, August, and September. We’re still planting more of those. We will do our third and final planting of peppers and tomatoes and eggplants this coming week, the end of June. Those will be crops we’ll harvest in September and into October.
Starting in two weeks we’ll begin planting the first seeds for the fall broccoli crop. So we essentially have three seasons of the year in terms of what we’re harvesting: the spring season for cool-weather crops; the summer season for the crops that like hot weather; and the fall season for the cool-weather crops, the same ones we grow in the spring. Those seasons, of course, merge seamlessly, one into another, but really it is three distinctly different types of planting seasons and so forth. So June we’re transitioning from one to another.
The weekly schedule is different depending on what day of the week it is. Monday, from now until October every Monday, my crew is picking tomatoes. We pick tomatoes on Mondays. Monday is almost always a big harvesting day. Earlier in the season we’re picking strawberries every Monday. Some things we pick three times a week. Some things we pick only when we’re ready to go to Market. Strawberries for example ripen quickly so we pick them Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and put them in the cooler. Tomatoes we typically pick certain varieties Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Other varieties we pick Monday and Thursday and then sell them as we need them. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the days that we harvest product and pack and deliver our CSA boxes. We have 185 CSA members. We deliver some of those boxes on Tuesday and some on Wednesday. Wednesday we also go to an afternoon Farmers' Market in Durham. Friday, all the way through the season, is devoted primarily to harvesting and preparing for Market on Saturday. Saturday we’re going to two Farmers' Markets; it’s our biggest market day and so Friday most of the day is taken up with harvesting and marketing.
I have eight young people on the payroll this season. Some of them are full-time and some are part-time, so on any given day Monday through Friday I have six people here. And then we have two people working with me at the Carrboro Market on Saturday, two people working with my wife at the Durham Market on Saturday. So Monday morning I’ll meet my staff with my clipboard and my list and the Monday morning routine: unload the trucks from Saturday and everything that’s empty on the trucks that came back from Saturday; wash all the buckets and the flower buckets and produce containers and so forth, odds and ends around the bar getting things squared away to start the week; and then we’ll pick over all the tomatoes. A lot of the flowers are cut Monday, things that have bloomed out over the weekend and so forth. And then most of the rest of Monday is devoted to working the field, growing crops. Other than certain things that we need to pick every Monday, we’ll busy ourselves Monday. We’re not marketing produce on Monday. We’re not packing CSA boxes. So it’s a day to stake tomatoes. Tomorrow we’ll be planting—our final planting of tomatoes will go in the ground tomorrow. And then things like weeding and mulching and trellising blackberries and things like that, mowing—Monday jobs.
And then on Tuesday, the day is largely dominated by harvesting and packing our CSA boxes and delivering those in the afternoon, but that’s the smaller of our CSA days so that only occupies part of the day and then we’ll have some time in the afternoon to do other fieldwork. Wednesday is completely dominated by preparing for the Farmers' Market in the afternoon. One of my employees goes to the Market that afternoon. And then we harvest and pack and deliver 105 CSA shares on Wednesday. So that day almost all of it is taken up with harvesting, packing boxes, going to Market, and delivering the CSA boxes.
Thursday is another day to actually grow something, so we’ll have something to harvest the rest of the time. And then a lot of our tomatoes are picked on Thursday for the Saturday Market so that we don’t have to do all of it on Friday. Fridays we’re harvesting for Market. Saturday we go to Market. Sunday is everybody’s day off except I’m back and forth outside irrigating on Sundays but I try to have a day off on Sunday.
So that’s a typical day in a week [Laughs] and that’s the typical week this time of year.
And tell us about your Market routine, the Saturday Carrboro Market routine.
I go to the Carrboro Market every Saturday, with the possibility of maybe one or two Saturdays off but generally I am personally at the Carrboro Market every Saturday from sometime in March until sometime in November. I will miss one Saturday in August because Libby and I are going to Glacier National Park for a week. It’s our thirtieth wedding anniversary in August and we’re leaving—we’re going to turn the farm over to the crew for a week and we’re going to Montana.
[Laughs] So you were asking about Market day. Yeah. So, with the exception of the possibility of one or two days off during the season, I’m at the Carrboro Market every Saturday for somewhere between 30 and 35 weeks out of the year—March ‘til November.
This time of year on Saturday morning I typically get up at 3:00 or 3:15. I will leave the farm at 4:15. We have all of the produce, with the exception of any fruit that we have—all the produce is loaded on Saturday evenings—or Friday evenings, rather. So on Saturday morning I will get up and get myself awake enough at that ridiculous hour to drive to town, load any fruit that’s in the cooler on the truck, sometimes depending on how dry it is I may be out putting gas in the irrigation pump about 3:30 and starting some water to run while I’m gone and so forth. I’ll leave here at 4:15. I’ll get to the Market about 5 o'clock. The Market opens at 7:00. It takes about two hours to set up for me and two of my staff people that will be there at least part of that time.
We have a young couple living on the farm with us this year and Kathleen typically goes to Market with me in Carrboro, so she’ll be riding in with me and then our other staff person who helps at the Market lives in Carrboro and walks to the Market. And she comes around 6:00. So Kathleen and I’ll get there at 5:00 or a little after, begin to set up, and Sara will join us around 6:00 and we’ll get set up.
This time of year we start having—the Market officially opens at 7:00, but we’ll have some customers about 6:30 or so as we’re still continuing to set up. And then the Market operates from 7:00 until noon and at noon we’ll pack up. We get out of the market around 12:30, quarter of 1:00, come home, unload anything that’s left that needs to go back in the cooler, immediately go to the greenhouse and water what needs to be watered and go start the irrigation pump and come in and count the cash and take a nap, and don’t go out on Saturday night much. [Laughs]
Tell us a little bit about presentation of goods at the Market.
It’s very important. We work hard at it. I refer to our display at the Market on Saturdays as our Saturday morning art project. We set it up. It looks pretty. I have heard many, many times and always am gratified to hear people come by and say, "You have the best-looking stand at the Market." We work hard at that.
That’s something that has evolved and progressed dramatically over my years at the Market, is people’s presentation at the Market. When we first selling at the Market 30 years ago people brought produce, generally unsorted, ungraded, unwashed, and put it on a plywood table or something like that. We were, I think, the first farm that started grading tomatoes: wiping them off with a damp cloth so that they were clean and put on the table uniformly ripe and so forth. Prior to that people were taking tomatoes straight out of the field, half-ripe, ripe, green, perfect, cracked, whatever, and just piling them on the table. And we started sorting the tomatoes out by a quality by a degree of ripeness. Every tomato that we take to market is hand-wiped with a damp cloth before we go. And so they look nice.
And so sometimes people come along and say, "Oh, these are the most beautiful tomatoes," and other times people come along and say, "You couldn’t have grown these. They’re too pretty. Homegrown tomatoes don’t look like this." But the sophistication of presentation at the Market has increased dramatically. We’ve certainly been a part of that. The competition at the Carrboro Market is fierce. It’s intense. And when I say that I don’t mean that it’s an ugly thing or a negative thing; the level of competition has made us all better at what we do. Somebody is always raising the bar to the next level.
You know my strategy for years, for decades, was to go to Market with great-looking product, present it on the table nicely, and sell it. And we did well. We were really ahead of the curve in terms of the vendors and quality of what we were growing and presentation for a long time. And we’re not anymore because we have a lot of very good growers at the Market. A lot of, you know, other growers have gotten much better. There are several farmers at the Carrboro Market now who learned their craft working for some of us who are older vendors and now they’re there on their own. And so they started at the market way above the level of where people like myself started at the Market. Where we were learning it all, these people had the opportunity to come along and learn from us. And so when they started at the Market, they already knew about presentation and that sort of thing. And some of these young folks are doing a great job now.
One day I looked around at the Market a few years back and it suddenly dawned on me that everybody at the Market but me had a tablecloth on their table. It didn't seem important to me. I had unpainted homemade plywood tables that I had used for years and I so-covered them up with produce you couldn’t see it anyway. And I looked around; hmm, everybody has got a tablecloth. I guess I better have a tablecloth too. But somebody is always raising the bar and making it look this much better and that much better. So in order to just be able to maintain at the Market now, we have to constantly keep getting better. It used to be easy to be ahead of the game and it’s not anymore.
What’s the hardest part about being a farmer in North Carolina in 2011?
Ask any farmer about farming and the weather is bound to come up soon. The weather is always a challenge. It seems to me that the weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable. I mean extreme weather has always been a factor. But every year the local weather sets records for the hottest hots and last summer was the hottest summer in recorded history in this area. The droughts get longer. The hots get hotter. And yet we’ve had colder than average winters in recent years. It turns on a dime. So the weather is always a big challenge.
I remember my granddad saying to me in the 1950s, and he had farmed in the same farm his whole life, and he said it looks like every year there’s some new insect in my garden that I’ve never seen before. Well that process certainly continues. You know, the human population of the world is so mobile now that insects and diseases are moving around the world quickly and every year we’re seeing new pest problems that we’ve never had before. That’s certainly a challenge. There’s a new stink bug that came from Asia into Pennsylvania a couple years ago that we started seeing a few last fall but it’s a very serious concern right now. This is an imported, invasive insect that is potentially devastating for a lot of farm crops. It’s proving to be very difficult to control by organic and conventional methods. There aren't many conventional pesticides that will kill this sucker. And this one was unknown in the United States five years ago and now it’s here.
So we have the extremes of weather to deal with. We have new pest problems to deal with all the time. Those are certainly challenges. For me, because of my age, the work simply gets harder every year. Things that I took for granted that were a piece of cake when I was in my thirties are not so easy in my sixties. [Laughs] And it’s harder just to keep up. Fortunately, you know on the plus side of things every year there are more interesting and talented and bright and enthusiastic young people who want to come work with me. Part of that I think is just the times. There are a great many young people in their twenties right now who are very interested in food and where their food comes from and farming and how it’s done. And several of the young ones that I have working with me this year are seriously interested in farming on their own and they’re here to learn. So that’s a a big plus.
And I think interest in locally produced food and good quality food is at an all-time high right now, so that’s a favorable thing. At the same time, we have more competition than we’ve ever had in the local markets. So it would be hard for me to say what’s the hardest thing that I have to deal with, but big challenges are the weather and an ever-evolving cast of characters in the world of pests, and increased competition.
What do you see as the challenges facing the Carrboro Farmers' Market?
Increased competition from other Farmers' Markets. You know, Farmers' Markets are all the rage right now. Everybody wants to have one. I got an email invitation last week to participate in a brand new Farmers' Market in Chapel Hill, less than 10 miles from the Carrboro Market. So in the bigger picture of things I would say an increasing number of Farmers' Markets and an increasing interest in the population in going to Farmers' Markets is a good thing.
What’s beginning to happen in some parts of the country is that there are so many markets that the customer-base is getting diluted. So certainly one of the biggest challenges for the Carrboro Market is dealing with increased competition from other Farmers' Markets in the immediate area. There are more customers in this area shopping at markets than ever before, but they have more market choices to go to and there are other markets that don’t have the parking constraints that we have in Carrboro. And that’s a huge issue. If we had another 200 onsite parking spaces, it’s just hard to imagine how much product we could sell at that Market in a five-hour morning. But we don’t. And it’s a big limiting factor.
The Market has no geographic area to grow. We really cannot grow our Market vendor membership base much because it’s a limit. Our management is always looking to find new ways to get more customers at the Market, but we’re seriously constrained by parking. We hire off-duty traffic cops to direct traffic in the parking lot just to keep it moving, but sometimes there’s a line of cars backed up out on the street waiting for a place at the Market. And some of those people just simply go somewhere else. That’s a big challenge, a very big challenge to the growth of the Market.
I’m very happy with our level of sales at the Carrboro Market. At this point in my life I don’t need to see it grow. I don’t need to see my sales increase. But I’d like to see them maintain for a few more years, because I spent much of my adult life developing a business that did not pay me very much income for quite a few years. And now I have a very successful business and a few years time to generate enough income to be able to retire while I can still walk upright.
Farming has always been a hard life and a hard way to make a living. It has largely consumed my life for close to 30 years. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. You know, I’ve loved doing it. It’s changed for me a lot over the years. The work is hard, and it’s hard to do that work and make a good income doing it. A great many people work very hard at farming and don’t make very much money for it. On the whole our society does not reward its farmers very well. I think that’s typical around the world.
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