Agricultural Renaissance

How the small farm, back-to-the land, edible garden movement is reshaping the way we eat. 

Story by Jamie Cole

Stephen and Dawn Robertson were computer geeks in another life. Stephen was a software engineer. Dawn was a farm kid from way back, and though her father had gifted her an acre and helped the couple build a house, they had a longing for land.

Today, Stephen’s only commute is a tractor ride across East Fork Farm, a pastoral 40-acre valley in the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina, that the couple found after obsessing over real estate ads. After seven years of telecommuting, he quit his job to farm full-time. The goal was to be self-sufficient and sell fresh food—mostly lamb, sometimes poultry and rabbit—locally at farmers’ and tailgate markets. His daughters sport muck boots and wash eggs to earn allowance. Dawn has a kitchen garden and barters meat for vegetables. “We go to the grocery store for some things,” Stephen begins; then Dawn finishes: “But not a whole lot in the summertime.”

The Robertsons made their move during a rural renaissance. At the turn of the 21st century, populations in rural counties—especially across the South and on both coasts—began to grow for the first time since manufacturing drew families out of the agrarian lifestyle of the 1960s. Meanwhile, small farms, such as East Fork, benefited from a fresh food revolution, spearheaded by chefs like William Dissen, who cooks the Robertsons’ products along with stock from his own garden at Asheville’s Market Place Restaurant. “I watched my grandmother do this for years, with a lot of love for her family and respect for the land,” he says.

You don’t need a back 40 and commercial kitchen to eat fresh; your backyard and stove will do. Home gardeners crave simpler recipes, while plant breeders have responded to the demand for small-space gardening with more container varieties than ever before. You can grow carrots in a bucket, potatoes in a barrel. Even on a small scale, “it is about control over some aspect of one’s life during uncertain times,” says Hank Will, a Master Gardener and editor-in-chief of the rural life know-how magazine GRIT. “We want to know where the food came from, and that it was produced with our own health and well-being—and not blind profit—in mind,” he says.

The “back-to-landers” of the past decade are now settled in that ideal, that life. From downtown to the exurbs, city slickers catch on by maintaining rooftop gardens and urban farms, while chefs continue to ride the crest of the unstoppable farm-to-table movement. It all comes together in programs like Outstanding in the Field—farm tours that set tables for guests right in the pasture. When the Robertsons hosted one such dinner, Dissen cooked up their rabbit in a gumbo and grilled their lamb over coals. It was an ideal expression of a diner’s connection to food, but also of a deeper, longed-for connection to the source—the land.