Open up a jar of Imladris Farm jam, spread some on your morning toast, and you will taste a true cultivated wild food of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Many generations of families here have made jams from native and cultivated blackberries and blueberries – and the all-natural jams made by the Harrill family continue this tradition and are full of flavor. Beneath the more obvious berry flavors are different, more subtle flavor notes – the mountain spring water used to irrigate the plants, the ancient mountain soils amended with cover crops and compost made on site, and perhaps even the family’s deep roots on this tract of land. From the slopes of Spring Mountain, to the shelves of major natural grocery store chains, Imladris Farm berry jams are value-added every step of the way.
Walter Harrill is the face of the Imladris Farm operation, and is the 6th generation of his family to work this land, yet he credits his wife Wendy as the one with the idea to make jam. They began by harvesting fresh blueberries from his grandfather’s bushes and selling them at the tailgate markets in nearby Asheville. They quickly realized that the blueberry harvest lasts about 6 weeks, while the farmers’ markets have at least a 6 month season – they needed a way to extend the berries or grow something else. When Wendy suggested jam, Walter’s famous last words were “Jam? That’s a stupid idea. Nobody buys jam.” He was speaking from experience growing up in a family in which getting jam meant heading to one of his great aunts’ basements, can houses or pantries to retrieve a jar of homemade sweetness, rather than running to the grocery store. Until recently in rural North Carolina, families just made jam and put it up for use year round. Committing to a farm-based business was a gradual process for Walter and Wendy.
“I think that gradual process was essential to our eventual success. Rather than quitting our day jobs to run the farm, we brought the farm online slowly, made our mistakes, fixed them, and moved forward. Then we slowly tapered off of our off-farm work as the farm became more profitable. Those mistakes would have fatally crippled us if we’d jumped right in. Instead, our off farm income subsidized our learning.”
As Walter describes it, he has three primary types of customers and distribution methods:
1) Retail - these include direct sales at tailgate markets, the street cart, and Fed Ex for orders out of the area;
2) Small-scale wholesale – local retailers such as the French Broad Food Co-op and Early Girl Eatery, with deliveries made to each store; and
3) Large-scale wholesale – grocery store chains (such as Whole Foods, Earthfare, Harris Teeter) which require drops to central warehouses or deliveries through a local distributor.
The definition of success changes as their business continues to expand. When Walter became successful selling at tailgate markets, he was able to begin marketing his product to natural grocery chains such as Earth Fare. He tried calling on Whole Foods in Charlotte without much success, but once he was on the shelves at Earth Fare, and once customers started asking for their jams, that got the attention of the food buyers for larger markets. “I was able to leverage one store into the next. I sell to Whole Foods using the marketing skills I learned at the tailgate market.” While 85% of Imladris Farm’s sales volume by unit is wholesale, retail sales still make up approximately 85% of their profit.
The Imladris Farm philosophy has three important principles:
1) Only grow things that fit well in this microenvironment, without chemicals.
2) Reduce, reuse, recycle…all waste is food for something.
These interrelated principles work well together and are woven through all of Walter’s farm stewardship and commercial production practices. Decisions about everything from what plants to grow, to raspberry irrigation systems to marketing jams are made after carefully trying out strategies, watching the outcomes, determining causes, and identifying solutions. A number of Asheville-area farm interns have been fortunate to work shoulder-to-shoulder in the orchard with Walter, as he imparts his wisdom about healthy agriculture and healthy living. As with many historic family farms, the stories of people and land at Imladris are closely intertwined.
The Harrill land consists of just over 165 acres, mostly forested, on the slopes of Spring Mountain in Buncombe County, about 15 miles southeast of Asheville. The 4.5 acres of the main farm sit at about 2,600 feet above sea level, with 3 acres in production. The 3.5 acre blueberry orchard is on top of the mountain, just below 4,000 feet in elevation, with conditions that are well-suited to this crop. Anyone who has hiked the Appalachian Trail across the mountain balds of Western North Carolina in summer has seen the wild blueberries growing at higher elevations of over 6,000 feet.
Part of the Imladris story is a story of a family gradually buying back the land held long ago by its immigrant ancestors. The berry orchard is on land that has been in Walter’s family since the 1700’s – dating back to the original land grant. As the Harrills describe on their website, “Imladris Farms is our recreation of Walter’s great-grandparent’s farm. The Marlowe family has been a driving force in the Spring Mountain community since they immigrated here from Ireland in the early 1800’s.” The land where the present farm is located was purchased by Walter’s grandfather, Burgin Marlowe, from an uncle in the 1940’s. As the story goes, most men in the 1940’s were drafted to fight in World War II, but Walter’s great grandfather was considered disabled and therefore ended up building ships in Norfolk, Virginia at age 18. He was determined to buy back the family farm, and arranged to have money sent from each paycheck toward that goal. Once it as purchased, Burgin moved his parents, Fred and Mabel Marlowe, back onto this family land. Since then, it has been in the family, with Walter and Wendy taking their place as the latest stewards when Walter inherited the land in 1997.
The proximity of the farm to the city of Asheville is as much of an asset for commercial trade today as it was 200 years ago. The nearby hamlet of Fairview was originally settled as an mid-19th century drover’s stop on the “Hickory Nut Turnpike” or “Charlotte Highway” (now Highway 74) between Asheville, Rutherfordton, and Charlotte. Sherrill’s Inn, one of the oldest buildings in the region, was one day’s walk east for drovers moving livestock (often pigs or turkeys) from holding pens in Pack Square in Asheville toward markets in coastal towns of Charleston and Savannah.
The land was swampy in Fairview, so settlers tended to live in these low-lying areas, often with respiratory problems, while higher elevations were reserved for grazing cattle and sheep and building barns. It was with the advent of indoor plumbing that families, including the Marlowes, began to build homes further up the mountain. The early history of Imladris Farm was similar to most of the family lands in the area – it was used for subsistence farming. Families had a few beef cattle, dairy cows, pigs, chickens, large gardens, and fruit orchards including berries, and generally had at least one family member working off of the farm and one running the farm. In addition to farming, Walter describes his great grandfather’s other professions as bootlegger, a shade tree mechanic, and a worker in the local bleaching mill. By the 1980’s, with no one in the family ready to continue the subsistence farm, the land sat idle and began to grow back into meadow and young woodland before the Harrills began to reclaim it around 2002.
One of the benefits of mountain properties can be the availability of spring water. The spring at Imladris Farm consistently flows at a rate of 3 to 5 gallons per minute, winter or summer, even through dry periods. This means a direct source of mineral-rich, gravity-fed water for the drip-tape irrigation system, with no need for large, energy-hungry pumps to move it around.
After raising goats for 10 years the Harrills decided that the market for goat meat in Western North Carolina was too limited, so they decided to raise meat rabbits instead. The decision was both to meet regional demand for rabbit meat among chefs, and as a way to generate a quality-controlled, onsite source of nitrogen-rich manure for compost and soil building in the berry orchard. All of the unused scraps, skins, innards, and bones, are carefully composted with woodchips at up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
The rabbit droppings are integrated into straw and hay on the barn floor which is then further mixed by the scratching of the free-range chickens. The compost is then collected and added to the compost pile with wood chips delivered by local tree trimming crews, where it ages about a year (to reach the optimum 6:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio) prior to being applied in the berry orchard. Some of the compost is put into mesh bags and dunked in 55-gallon drums filled with water, upslope from the berry orchard. After aging this way, this compost tea, full of available nutrients for the plants, is gravity-fed downhill through a drip-tape irrigation system at just the right rates to nurture the blackberry and raspberry plants.
Soil building includes other methods such as the use of cover crops (clover, barley, winter rye) and the use of the “groundhog radish”– an open source version of “tillage radish”, a variety of daikon which, when planted after the Summer Solstice of June 21st, puts its energy into producing a large tuber and very deep roots to aerate the soil and build organic matter once it decomposes. This is a smart step for a small mountain farm with a hard claypan layer in the soil that limits root growth and soil moisture. Planting daikon radish works with nature and reduces the cost, labor, and environmental impact associated with mechanical plowing. Hand weeding with the help of apprentices is another strategy which better fits the land than tractors or roto-tillers.
Annual pruning of raspberry stems or “canes” generates a large amount of biomass that is typically burned on commercial farms. At Imladris Farm, where “reduce/reuse/recycle” is a philosophy, and all waste is understood to be food for something – these prunings have a higher purpose. The waste canes are fed into a homemade “biochar” system – metal barrels which allow the canes to be burned through a “pyrolosis” method that consumes oxyen and leaves behind pure carbon charcoal which is then added to soils as “terra preta” – another traditional method of increasing soil productivity with far greater benefits and much fewer impacts than chemical fertilizers.
Imladris was founded on a belief in quality products achieved through sustainable agriculture. This emphasis on nurturing plants and animals and simple methods of agriculture and living are evident in the high quality products from the farm that contrast with their industrially-produced counterparts. The products at Imladris Farm are primarily the berry jams, though the farm is an integrated system producing compost for on-farm use, meat rabbits for sale to restaurants, and farm fresh eggs.
The first crops Walter and Wendy selected 12 years ago were chosen by observation and guided by one of their core principles – “only grow things that fit well here in this micro environment.” They saw that, out of the various crops planted by Walter’s grandparents, the raspberries in particular had survived and even thrived during the 20-year fallow period. There were 50 year old apples and plums, gooseberries, and nut trees. Blueberries were holding their own in a higher elevation orchard on the farm. But the old patch of strawberries, they realized, were declining, and were better-suited for lower elevation production in sandier, flatter soils and warmer conditions. So the remnant strawberry patch was replaced with more raspberries. Today, the berry orchard is planted with Caroline raspberries, a hybrid “everbearing” variety which produces a June crop and a fall crop. Walter cuts the shoots back in spring so that the plants grow more vigorously and produce one healthy, bountiful fall crop. The tall, vigorous blackberries are grown in a separate orchard on the farm. All benefit from compost (aged wood chips and rabbit manure), mulch, and irrigated with compost tea (spring water with rabbit manure) through drip tape.
The industry standard for typical commercial raspberry orchard is 10 to 12 years before they must be replaced. With the first 12 year old planting doing just fine at Imladris, Walter is finding that raspberries raised with attention to long-term health rather than short-term yield may last a good bit longer than the industry standard. Long-term health includes observation – paying attention to moisture, irrigation, and applying organic mulch and compost in the right amounts, depths, and frequency for each type of plant. As for blueberries, the industry standard is 18 to 20 years. The Imladris blueberry shrubs are an estimated 60 years of age and still bearing beautiful fruit.
The decision to start selling jams meant that the Harrills would have to find a kitchen to start making and canning jam. Like many great food businesses, their home kitchen became their first commercial kitchen. Four years into production, Walter and Wendy prepared 10,000 jars on the kitchen stove. When they reached their limit at home, they had an important opportunity to access a commercial kitchen in Asheville – an opportunity that is essential for small value added food start-up companies, but that is still lacking in many communities across the country. For the next 6 years, Blue Ridge Food Ventures was their second step strategy. This 11,000 square-foot, shared used, value-added food processing facility serves farmers and food entrepreneurs such as the Harrills, who can pay up to $30 per hour to efficiently and professionally cook, mix, bottle and label the jams in jars. (www.advantagewest.com).
A community commercial kitchen was the perfect solution during their early growth phase when orders for Imladris Farm jams exceeded the capacity of the home kitchen. But two years ago, the Harrils negotiated a more cost-effective solution with one off their wholesale customers, Ultimate Ice Cream, an Asheville-based producer of hand-crafted, premium ice cream with locally-sourced ingredients. The Harrills were able to use Ultimate’s commercial kitchen during its down times, for about $600 dollars per month, roughly ½ the cost they had been paying at the previous location. The cost savings allowed them to invest in their own cooking, canning, jarring and labeling equipment and afford to pay part-time staff to assist with production.
Several years ago, they also reached a point in their growth when it was time to partner with neighboring berry producers and a nearby cold storage facility to ensure a steady supply of product for making jams year round. Four partner farms freeze their berries on-farm in 15 lb bags, then deliver the berries to a walk-in commercial freezer where the Harrills rent space in nearby Hendersonville. Here, 1,800 lbs of berries are stored on each palette for the Harrills to use as needed. The Harrills then purchase the berries from the farmers throughout the year to make jam, giving the farmers more of a year-round income stream, including through the winter and spring. This benefits the farmers by offering them a way to move large quantities of berries to a guaranteed buyer, and a place to market fruit that is perfectly good but may not sell well to customers due to visual blemishes or being under-ripe. Rain and storms around harvest time can damage fruits or make them soggy and rotten. If farmers know rain is coming, they may pick early and get slightly under-ripe berries – perfectly fine for jams but not as marketable for fresh eating. It also benefits the Harrills by reducing their risk and allowing them to produce jams as needed.
The berry jams include 12 ounce jars of: blueberry jam, raspberry jam, blackberry jam, and berry best jam (mixing all 3 berries), apple butter (with nutmeg and cloves). These can also be ordered in handcrafted wooden gift crates. Imladris also produces the jam in squeeze bottles for use in restaurants. Much of the retail jam sales are done via Federal Express. Sales typically ebb and flow throughout the year – October through Christmas is the busy season, as jams are shipped all over the country, followed by the slow winter period before the spring growing season starts up again.
The fact that all of the berries Imladris Farm uses for its jams are frozen and then cooked to make jams as a processed food means that the farm is not subject to the same standards for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) that are a concern for many small farms selling fresh produce. The farm is clean and well-run, and the sight of chickens eating from the berry plants in the orchard is not a cause for food safety concern. As Walter puts it, “these chickens eat their weight in bugs, so I’m glad to share some raspberries with them.”
Walter and Wendy’s son Andy wanting to farm at age 6. His parents decided he could start by raising chickens and selling eggs. They loaned Andy the money to buy his first chicks and feed, and started joining his father at the farmers’ markets and selling the eggs he raised. Now at age 12, Andy has learned to manage his income and cover costs – 1/3rd of his revenues are set aside for replacement chickens, 1/3rd to purchase feed, and 1/3rd to pocket as income. Andy raises heritage breeds known as great dual-purpose egg layers and meat birds, such as Buff Opringtons and Rhode Island Reds.
The chickens are raised as part of a polyculture system – where multiple crops are produced from the same land. The chickens graze beneath the blackberries, supplying fertilizer in their droppings and keeping bugs and weeds down, and also in a plantation of young black locust, a native legume tree grown for building soil nitrogen and as a fast-growing, rot-resistant source of wood for fencing and firewood. Walter will gradually “coppice” the locust trees, keeping them trimmed to a height of about 6 feet, using the green trimmings as nitrogen-rich feed for rabbits.
As European cultures have demonstrated for centuries, rabbits are a relatively efficient source of meat-based protein for small-scale production as compared to larger livestock animals. Most industrially raised rabbits are New Zealand Whites or California Whites bred for quick meat production in tight factory farm conditions. The rabbits at Imladris Farm are heritage meat breeds such as Giant Chinchilla, Silver Fox, French Lopps, and Champaign d’Argents. They are brought in from local breeders who specialize in one or two breeds. “Each breed brings something good – we want happy and healthy animals,” says Walter. They are raised together in low densities in an open, hand-built barn in clean, well-aerated, suspended wire cages with constant access to water and hay. The barn was built with the assistance of a $6,000 grant the Harrills obtained from the Goldenleaf Foundation, established to assist North Carolina farmers in transitioning away from the former cash crop of tobacco. The feed includes hay harvested from the neighboring cattle farm with pellets as a supplement providing essential minerals.
Other than the breeding females (does), harvested at 3 to 4 years, most of the rabbits are raised to an age of 12 weeks and harvested at a carcass weight of 2.5 to 3 lbs. The rabbits are processed humanely on-site by Walter or his farm interns, and the meat is immediately vacuum sealed in bags and placed in a freezer. Most are sold to a popular Asheville pub, Jack-of-the-Wood, where the chefs can turn the meat from one rabbit into meals for 5 or 6 people.
Walter is honest about the turning point they reached 3 years ago – when their income level was finally sufficient to cover their expenses and make a decent living after a slow, steady, 9 year climb. “We have been through multiple iterations of failure to reach this success,” he says. Using their philosophy of growing naturally what works well in their microenvironment, reducing, reusing, and recycling, and power of observation, the Harrells can expect Imladris Farm to continue to grow its list of happy customers.
Early Girl Eatery – Asheville, NC
North Asheville Tailgate Market – Asheville, NC
French Broad Food Co-op – Asheville, NC
Earthfare stores – Tennessee, North and South Carolina stores
Greenlife stores – North Carolina
Whole Foods – North and South Carolina stores
Harris Teeter – North Carolina