By: Christina Bailey and Mary Pope
Rashell Aunchman’s relationship to farming is one with remarkably deep roots. It was as a small child that Rashell first discovered her love of working outdoors, a realization she credits to her mother for giving her the freedom to explore and connect with nature at a very young age. Years later, at the end of her high school career, Rashell participated in an Honors program at Camp Hill Vintage, where she worked with disabled individuals in a natural setting, and was introduced to Rudolf Steiner’s teachings on biodynamics.
Her learning and experience at Camp Hill Vintage ignited Rashell’s passions in a way that the idea of attending university never had. Nevertheless, Rashell gave college a shot, deciding after a year that this was not her path. She then began traveling and working on various farms, gaining a range of farming experiences. These explorations led her to a earth skills training where she was introduced to a lifestyle she says just makes sense to her. “People lived this way for years,” Rashell says, “and only recently came away from it.”
As the years and her path continued unfurling, Rashell sought further training in Biodynamics, worked with Eustace Conway at Turtle Island Preserve, and shared her knowledge of earth skills and gardening to campers from all walks of life at Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center in Deep Gap, NC. Shortly after the birth of her son, Mason, now 4 years old, Rashell moved back to Boone. It was here in the High Country that she co-founded Grateful Roots Farm with long time friend Thomas Cooper.
Inspired to “build community and nurture a different way of living,” Grateful Roots was originally intended to become a school for farming and primitive skills. Though this hope has not dissipated, as time passed, the Farm’s focus shifted toward herb and vegetable production to be sold at both the Watauga County Farmer’s Market, and through Grateful Root’s own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Grateful Roots is a sustainable, organic and earth centered farm. Rashell and her co-farmer choose to forgo chemicals and large machinery, eschewing even a tractor for their fields. Instead, everything is plowed, planted and harvested by hand.
They even deal with farming’s inevitable pests using the most “natural” methods possible, including allowing certain weeds to flourish in order to distract Japanese Beetles. These decisions are not made haphazardly, but rather stem from a deep personal desire for true sustainability. In Rashell’s words, being sustainable is about “seeing symbiotic relationships and giving nature the space to work things out. Farming automatically disrupts the balance of nature, that’s just how it is, but trying to farm in balance with nature to the best of your ability is the most sustainable way.”
Rashell’s passion for sustainability extends beyond the farm into the realm of natural healing. As she and Thomas are both avid herbalists, they are hoping to move the farm in the direction of medical herb production, as well as spread their knowledge through teaching. “Medicinal herbs are a door to… a whole new way of being in the world. A lot of people get sick and go straight to the doctor. [They] take pills, and it’s this huge circular effect of ill health. If you [first] go to the plants, it opens the gateway to real health.”
Rashell and Thomas spend much of their time at the Farmer’s Market talking to people about plants and how best to use them. Rashell believes that growing and selling medicinal herbs brings a new opportunity for heartfelt connections with people in her community about their health. She’s inspired by hearing the personal stories of individual’s health journeys, about how lifelong medication has left them seeking something different, an alternative way of being. She hopes to continue making these strong connections while also being an herb source for local herbalists in the community. In addition to being a full time farmer and mother, Rashell is currently in training as an acupuncturist, and hopes to incorporate her herbs into her holistic healing practice.
Wise and beautiful, Rashell is one of many women in this High Country community who choose to live lives they are passionate about, despite immense workloads and minimal financial compensation. Rashell measures the rewards of her work in other ways, saying, “farming is a lot of work, and it is really hard. But it’s also really real…a lot of people don’t get to experience that. I am paid greatly in..having friends and community that I can help feed and heal.”
Rashell also spoke of being a mother and the importance of raising her son with these values. She told a story about Mason recently going into the woods to collect Plantain for a friend who was stung by bees. He knew where and what to collect in order to help his friend heal her stings with this native plant. An impressive feat for a four year old, and one of the moments that inspires Rashell to continue on her path.
If you’re interested in seeing or learning more about Rashell’s areas of expertise, come on out to Grateful Roots Farm! Rashell and Thomas always welcome volunteers to the farm in exchange for vegetables and education; they encourage people to make a full connection with their local farmers. And Rashell’s advice to any new and upcoming farmers or folks considering a homesteading lifestyle? “Just do it! Be open and flexible, and tap into the local community that’s already doing it!”
The farm incubator and grower project (FIG), located in Valle Crucis, will host three women growers this year. According to the 2012 agriculture census, women are leaders in the local food movement. Most aren’t interested in operating large commodity farms. Rather, they tend to operate small-scale, diversified farms producing goods for direct sale as principal operators of 14% of the nation's farms.
While women operators do own a greater percentage of their farmland, being successful enough to invest in land, equipment, and infrastructure through farming takes time. Locally, the FIG site provides low cost access to farm resources. The growers lease acreage, and have access to a shared tractor, greenhouse, washing station, a cooler, and other tools. Previous FIG farmer Matt Cooper serves as a mentor by providing advice on production, resource management, and marketing.
Describe what you do on your farm:
We live on four acres, one acre has the house, one has the flat garden area and then we have a two-acre hill. When we moved in we were more excited about the property than the house because it’s perfect for having a garden and I had always wanted to keep goats or sheep. We always knew we would have animals up on the hill one day even though there was no fence when we moved in. We eventually got sheep a few years after we settled in and we use them mainly for pasture maintenance and fiber, no meat production yet. We grow lots of fava beans, garlic, snow peas and flowers. We raise chickens mostly for the eggs but we processed our first chicken recently so that may be something we continue to do. At this point we’re really just doing it for ourselves but eventually we may start growing things to sell. The hill behind our house used to be an orchard so we’ve been slowly accumulating fruit trees with the intent of restoring that area to it’s former glory. I’m sure that when the trees start producing we’ll have more fruit than we could ever eat ourselves.
What is your background? Have you always been a farmer?
My family has always been involved in the farming community and my father was growing Christmas trees when I bought this farm, so he convinced me that I needed to become a Christmas tree farmer. I bought this farm in February of 1986 and planted my first 1,000 trees in early May. Those trees were donated by my father, he had extra that he didn’t need in his fields that year. He kept telling me, “You’ve got to do something with all that land, you have a farm now!” I didn’t want to work with livestock in any nature because I work a full time job in addition to this farm, so that’s how I became a Christmas tree farmer.
What does your family primarily grow and sell?
Blueberries and eggs, mostly. We have a huge garden every year. In the past we had a greenhouse that we used to grow lettuce, we wanted to invest in more of a cash crop. It was okay, but just like with any farming you either have to work 25 hours a day or expand. We weren’t interested in five or six greenhouses, those kind of operations make you more of an administrator.
BRWIA PROFILE PROJECT
Each month we do our best to profile a Woman in Agriculture in our region. These women are diverse - they have come from a variety of backgrounds and include farmers, homesteaders, and activists. They exemplify the multitude of ways women are working to connect with and change our food system.
Female Farmer Profile Project
The BRWIA Profiles evolved out of the Female Farmer Profiles which can be found archived HERE.