Rickie White and Christopher Fipps jumped into farming when the perfect farm came along. They lived in Carrboro but knew they wanted to move to the country someday, and both had an interest in local foods and farming. Rickie credits his grandmother, who grew up on a farm and later gardened in her backyard in Bessemer City, with sparking his interest. As he became involved with Weaver Street Market, he began to appreciate sustainable methods even more.
The men began looking for farmland half seriously, but when they visited a ten-acre former horse farm miles out of town, they knew they’d found home. The farm was on a river, with natural areas they could preserve as well as land to cultivate, and it had a pond fed by a creek and a spring that bubbles out of the earth underneath an old, sprawling white oak tree. So in 2011, they moved to the country and began farming, in addition to keeping their old jobs. (Rickie works as a biologist for the nonprofit NatureServe, working with rare ecosystems, plants, and animals, and Christopher works at state conservation agency in Raleigh.)
Rickie took classes at the sustainable farming program at Central Carolina Community College, and he and Christopher both took the county’s PLANT @ Breeze program (People Learning Agriculture Now for Tomorrow), a “farming incubator” program that teaches would-be farmers the basics and provides low-rent land. (Read more about PLANT here.) They decided to jump right in with their own land instead of using the well-tilled ground at the Breeze Farm, and it has been a good decision: their land was well-fertilized as a horse farm, and it has the benefits of Person County geology: “sedgefield sandy loam” soil instead of the usual red clay, and “volcanic sills” that pushed through the ground and left lines of good farmland through the county. (Rickie suspects Waterdog Farms is on top of one, since their soil pH is 6 to 7, much higher than the usual value.)
Rickie describes their plans for the land: they’ll preserve the wetland area, which slows the flow of water from their pond to the river, as well as cleaning it, and they’ll more permanently protect their stretch of river with a conservation easement. The North Carolina Natural Heritage Program has identified the stretch of the Flat River behind their house as an area of biodiversity significance; it also links Waterdog Farms with the Triangle as it flows into the lake from which Durham gets most of its drinking water. Two former horse pastures might become home to mixed flocks of sheep and turkeys; they’re interested in the work of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, so they’d like to raise breeds that are in need of help. And Waterdog Farms should be certified organic by April 2014 because of their efforts over the last two years to grow sustainably.
Right now, they’ve got rows of herbs they’ll turn into teas and culinary herbs including hard-to-find varieties; heirloom produce like old pumpkins, unusual melons, and “weird varieties of Asian turnips”; and flowers including spring bulbs (daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and lilies) and native flowers like blazing star and aster. They’ve identified microclimates on their farm, like the “winter garden” area on the north side of the house, where they’ve successfully grown artichokes, or the shady “mountain garden” where they’ve planted laurel bushes.
On the Piedmont Farm Tour, visitors can walk a mown path past the gardens and around the pond. Rickie expects to have flowers blooming, making the farm even more beautiful. Visitors can also follow a short, steep slope past old trees and rocks down to the Flat River, which should be lush by the end of April, and full of wildflowers like Fire Pink and May Apples. “I think the thing that people are going to enjoy the most about our farm is just the beauty of it, the fact that there are no other houses around, at that time of year there’s going to be a lot of flowers blooming, and then being able to get away and walk down to the river,” says Rickie.
Guests are welcome to take off their shoes and wade. You can also keep an eye out for the elusive Neuse River Waterdog, a rare salamander that only lives in the Neuse River and its tributaries. Rickie hasn’t actually seen one on the farm, but the habitat is perfect so he’s hopeful. You’re more likely to see the other namesake of Waterdog Farms, the excitable Juno, jumping in and out of the river and shaking herself dry.
Watch a video of our visit below.