Eco Farm - Chapel Hill, NC
by Cat Moleski, Features Writer
John and Cindy Soehner of Eco Farm
Nestled back in the trees of Orange County, Cindy and John Soehner are working hard to create a farm out of a tangle of North Carolina woods. Eco Farm consists of twenty-three acres set in a lush pocket where the weeds grow as vigorously as the flowers and the vegetables. Like many of our small, local farmers growing the organic way, they do most of the work by hand. They are fortunate that the soil is rich and fertile with good drainage, and that they have a deep well and ponds for irrigation to get them through periodic droughts. John is also grateful to the farmer who once tilled his land. "There's not a rock out there," he says with a smile. They continue to build their soil by tilling under stalks and leaves left behind after harvest. As they pick the tomatoes, John throws the culls over the fence for the turtles to eat. When other farmers have run out of fresh tomatoes, check out John's stand. He's staggered his planting so he'll have fresh tomatoes through October.
Both John and Cindy agree that it takes a lot of hard work to grow without the use of pesticides and other chemicals, but they freely acknowledge that they've gotten a lot of help from the farmers in this area. "We have unbelievable farmers around here who will give you the shirt off their back," says John. One such farmer gave them a flock of chickens that now provides eggs for them to sell. When I scrambled up a batch of those eggs at home, I noticed that they were bright yellow. Cindy has no scientific proof, but she thinks that may be because she feeds the chicken lots of greens and vegetable scraps.
As we wander over their fields, I am amazed at the variety of things they are growing. Basil, eggplants, pepper, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and more crowd the rows that stretch out in the sun. Cindy and John will grow anything that people want to buy and have become known for their arugula at the Farmers' Market. Their spicy mesclun salad mix makes eating salad fun again. Toss in a few tiny Sungolds and you have a great treat. I can identify zinnias, cosmos, and eucalyptus in their flowerbeds and several more varieties I don't know. The flowers are bright and beautiful in the July heat. Cindy picks everyday and stores the flowers in a walk-in cooler that was also given to them. We pass the porch hung heavy with garlic waiting to be planted in the fall and under a tree, John has yet another tray of seedlings where he can water them every couple of hours. The sprouts are so small I can hardly see them. In the back field where the soil is almost as dark as the soil in Iowa, there is a single tree between the beds, loaded with the biggest figs I've ever seen. The fresh fig I eat right from the tree seems magical, as does the enormous black pig that appears out of the grass when John calls. Grab a few fresh figs yourself while you can, the season is too short by far, but John will take all he can get to market.
Finding fresh goodies from Eco Farm is easy. They sell at all the local markets, Carrboro on Wednesday and Saturday, Fearrington on Tuesday and Southern Village on Thursday. You've probably eaten John's greens at a number of local restaurants and many of you know Cindy from her years behind the bakery counter at Weaver Street Market.
Every time I visit a farm, I am moved by how hard farmers work: planting 20,000 seedlings by hand, cutting arugula on hands and knees, spreading manure at night, and harvesting by hand in the heat of the day, just so I can have a salad with my dinner. Food that is grown with that much care is amazing to me and I'm so grateful there are magicians like John and Cindy who return again and again to market with an abundance of good food for me. Oh, and you, too.