The challenges of sustaining family-run events
Some traditions are hard to continue without institutional support
This newsletter has explored the ways people and groups are using social networking to promote and sustain communities and local cultural events. Mostly I’ve looked at groups or organizations: informal outfits (the Raleigh Uke Jam*); nonprofits promoting a cause (Bynum Front Porch, Pinecone, Table NC); social entrepreneurs (the Raleigh Night Market operators); and recurring events (IBMA Bluegrass Live!, Merlefest).
I’ve spent more time than I’d planned showing how they’ve coped with the COViD pandemic’s impact on bringing people together, anticipating that sometime, the situation will return to normal, more or less. That time has eluded us. Perhaps it won’t extend much longer.
North Carolina COVID case counts have dropped since the spike — Friday the 13th! — when it surpassed 6,600. Not uniformly, though. New cases rose to 5,256 Wednesday, 1,700 more than the previous day. COVID hospitalizations surpassed 2,900 — more than at any time since February. Hospital admissions lag case counts. If identified cases continue a downward trend, hospitalizations should, too.
I’m hopeful but not yet optimistic. We need uninterrupted good news. Also, get your damn vaccination if you can.
What about family operations?
I haven’t dealt much with another major player in the social fabric universe — family-run, in-person community activities. How are they handling a pandemic that has largely precluded close human contact? Will these activities resume? Can they regain the ground they lost after disappearing from the regular calendar for a year or two?
Maybe. Though not all will return.
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned Rising Meadow Farm, a “sustainable” sheep farm south of Greensboro. Since Ann and Ron Fay bought the property in 1993, they’ve raised sheep for wool, skins, and, yes, meat. A few times a year they invite the public to visit, showcasing the farm and some of the local wares the neighbors produce that highlight time-honored traditions along with contemporary knowledge of sustainable practices.
On the typical open farm day (or shearing day, always a show!), a few hundred people may pass through. They’ll watch the herding dogs perform agility drills. Talk to the women (they’re typically women) plucking the coats of Angora rabbits. Pet some of the sheep at a small petting zoo. Visit the tents of the vendors. Listen to a local bluegrass band or folk singer. Buy yarn, spun from wool harvested on the farm — and, of course, lamb, delicious lamb. (They sell on their website and each Saturday at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market.)
Enjoy a delightful day in a welcome setting.
COVID put all that on hold. The Fays had scheduled an open farm day August 15 but had to cancel at the last minute. Local cases were surging and it wasn’t safe for them, the vendors, or visitors to roam the grounds.
In a phone interview, Ann said she wonders how much longer they can justify continuing events based at their home. They’re getting older. The pastoral novelty of their gathering now competes with the bells and whistles of professionally packaged agritourism events.
How do you pass along this family legacy to someone else?, I asked.
“I think you punt,” she laughed.
Even before COVID, “farmers were having trouble with events, with getting enough people out as we could 20 years ago, because there are so many” new options, she said.
Rising Meadow was a pioneer of North Carolina agritourism. But as farmers grew more savvy promoting their work, and as officials and farmers saw the opportunities agritourism presented to promote the state’s largest industry, Rising Meadow may have gotten lost in the shuffle.
Agritourism is booming. The N.C. Department of Agriculture said agritourism (excluding wineries) generated $704 million in economic activity in 2017. Perhaps it exceeded $1 billion pre-COVID. The Ag Department’s “Got To Be N.C.” program promotes local farms of all sizes statewide. It hosts fairs at official farmers markets and regional event centers. The N.C. Agritourism Networking Association sets up daylong tours of farms and wineries, including educational programs, with a catered meal at the end of the day. Patrons are urged to book hotel accommodations.
All very slick. Far more “corporate” than an open farm day at Rising Meadow.
The Fays insist on keeping Rising Meadow’s events authentic, displaying locally sourced crafts, produce, and products from the farm. They don’t use chemical pesticides on the farm or give the sheep growth hormones or antibiotics.
We’ve attended several of the fall open farm days. They’re wonderful. It’s not at all like stepping back in time. It’s more like a neighborhood pop-up market in a spectacular rural setting. With friendly people. Families with kids. Games. A food truck. The herding dogs. The sheep. The rabbits. And lots and lots of yarn.
Until recently, the Fays had “partners” of a sort at nearby Goat Lady Dairy. Ginny, Steve, and Lee Tate bought the dairy a couple of years after the Fays bought Rising Meadow. They became close friends. They coordinated open farm days, with Goat Lady selling their products, along with pasture-raised pork and beef from other neighboring farms.
But the Tates were ready to retire. A few years ago they sold the dairy to longtime employees Carrie and Bobby Bradd.
The Bradds are younger. They’ve expanded the dairy’s output. Won awards. The cheese continues to be amazing.
But the Bradds aren’t connected with the Fays as the Tates were.
The dairy hosts elaborate dinners (which I’ve heard are spectacular). But the Bradds chose not to coordinate with Rising Meadow for the planned August open farm day. Maybe they’ll continue hosting them on the same date. Or not. An email to the Bradds asking about it went unanswered.
Ann told me they chose not to get involved with the state’s agritourism promotions. The events often highlighted agricultural methods they don’t use and don’t really endorse. As a result, Rising Meadow doesn’t get the indirect boost it could by hooking up with the state’s professional marketing campaign.
She said they’re OK with it. They’re disappointed the attendance isn’t what it was. But their flock is down from more than 200 sheep to about 70. Tending it is a lot of work. They still get a great turnout on Shearing Day, though Kevin Ford, who’s been shearing sheep for them since 1994, isn’t as young as he used to be, either.
There’s no succession plan. The Fays may let these events wind down, as it were.
It’s sad, though there’s no “solution” or “answer.” Someone with PR skills and social media savvy could give the open farm days more exposure, with no guarantee the attention would boost attendance. Maybe leaving these days as a bit of a hidden treasure keeps them manageable.
We’ll keep going as long as they continue. If you learn of any underappreciated gems in your neighborhood, embrace them while you have them.
I chatted with the indefatigable Yaël Ossowkski, who’s sitting in this week on Joe Catenacci’s morning drive show on “The Big Talker” in Wilmington. The interview should air Friday morning. Check my socials for details. I’ll post a link to our conversation Friday afternoon. Thanks, Yaël!
*In my interview with Yaël, I called the uke jam “my stupid ukulele group.” I kid because I love. It’s my main social outlet these days. Though we’ve once again been relegated to outdoor meetings and Zoom, so I have a separate rooting interest for COVID to abate.