Louisburg native puts together feast with renowned chefs to highlight challenges for small farmers.
By Clellie Allen
LOUISBURG — There’s no questioning two trends in agriculture in North Carolina: More people are looking for back-to-earth, fresh-off-a-small-farm meats and produce, and it’s getting harder to break into the business of farming.
The rise of social media has made it easier for people to be aware of what are considered negative farming practices: overcrowding of animals, heavy use of herbicides and pesticides and too many chemicals, antibiotics, steroids and other drugs getting into the food chain.
As population figures continue to climb, it would seem farming would be an industry always poised for growth. But that’s not necessarily the case. There are many obstacles for smaller farmers to overcome, says Martha Mobley, longtime resident of Franklin County and current owner and operator of Meadow Lane Farm in Louisburg.
Martha, for whom farming runs in her veins, is wanting to help change that by honoring the wishes of her late mother and husband and setting up the Leonard-Mobley Small Farm Fund.
“It was my mother’s dream to help other women in farming,” Mobley said. “She helped my dad run this farm until his death in 1996. After that, she ran it by herself until her death in 2012 (at age 90).”
The fund is newly established this year and is in the process of securing nonprofit status.
The first fundraiser is, appropriately, a true local farm-to-table feast prepared al fresco by seven renowned chefs from around the state.
The menu, which is being finalized, features everything from meat and vegetables from Martha’s farm, known for its organic beef as well as pasture grass-fed lamb, chevon (Boer goat meat) and Berkshire pork, as well as its plentiful selection of organic vegetables, to cheeses from local dairy farms like The Cultured Cow Creamery in Durham.
Even the table arrange-ments, sunflowers, will be grown on Martha’s farm, also known for its beautiful cut flowers.
And the meal will be served late evening Sept. 21, under tents in the meadow across the road from the Meadow Lane Farm home place.
A family business
Martha’s mother, Marjorie Louise Gardner Leonard, was the first girl in her family to attend college. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics from East Carolina University and went on to earn a master’s degree from UNC-Greensboro. She also completed PhD coursework.
Marjorie taught hundreds of students at Louisburg High School and Vance Granville Community College, firmly espousing equal rights, particularly for women.
When she took over running the farm after her husband died, Martha remembers she did it all from buying equipment, arranging for repairs, checking on field hands to making sure they had plenty of water. She even cooked dinner on a regular basis for those who worked late.
“And through it all, she always wore a dress,” Martha said. “I can’t ever remember her wearing anything but a dress.”
Yet Marjorie keenly felt the discrimination as a woman in what was a traditionally man’s occupation.
“She experienced how hard it was for women to run farms. And she wasn’t the only woman to face the death of a husband and the necessity of carrying on the family business,” Martha said. “She really wanted to establish some sort of collaborative effort to help women.”
That urge to assist others was also in Martha’s husband, Jerry. A lifelong farmer, Jerry worked for the N.C. Department of Agriculture as a livestock marketing specialist. When he retired in 2006, he threw himself totally into the farm and helping with the Durham Farmers Market.
After they both died, Jerry most recently in August of last year, Martha felt like the time was right to get moving on their dreams.
“My mother’s philosophy was to keep moving forward,” Martha said. “Life is really tough sometimes, but you have to keep busy, keep doing what needs to be done.”
The vision Martha is carrying forward is for a type of small farm collaborative where ideas, best practices and even things like equipment could be shared among members of the cooperative.
“It’s hard for first time and small farmers,” Martha said during a tour of the some 1,000 acres of rolling pasture and crop land on Leonard Farm Road. “A tractor is about $70,000. Financially, it is very difficult just to get the tools needed.”
A baler, used during the hay harvest, can run a farmer $26,000. But before the hay can be baled, it has to be mowed with a windrower, easily $35,000 used and then raked, with a $3,000 piece of equipment. And, of course, that’s not counting the cost of equipment and seed to plant the hay in the first place.
Besides cost, the knowledge base for farming is quickly becoming a precious commodity.
There’s an eagerness for many people to return to their agricultural roots, Martha said, but most just don’t know how to do what they need to do to be successful.
“I can’t tell you how many questions I’ve answered for people about various aspects of farming,” Martha said. “Everything from agriculture to cows and sheep.”
Martha has a bit of leg up on most people. She’s an agricultural agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, working out of the Franklin County Center. As an extension agent, she oversees all aspects of live-stock, forage crops, forestry, animal waste management and water quality, just for a start.
She also has put into personal practice nearly everything she teaches at Meadow Lane Farm.
The dinner, Martha hopes, will be the first solid step toward completing what is now her own life’s goal.
“This idea was very dear to the heart of my mother and also my husband,” she said. “I can’t think of a better way to honor their memory.”