This month’s member spotlight gives honor to the talented and magnetic Susan Owen. Susan has been a farmer in Watauga County for 34 years. She became a member with Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture because she believes in giving people in rural communities the opportunities to grow food and become farmers through grants and programs, which helped her begin her own farm.
Susan believes in helping out small farms and providing opportunities to the underprivileged, which she does through her membership with BRWIA and her breadth of volunteerism. She wants to help give people a leg-up, and she enjoys being as involved as possible. Susan is highly involved in the community, serving on a number of boards in the area, from the Mountain Laurel Garden Club, the North Carolina Herb Association, and the Watauga County Beekeepers’ Association; she also helped to establish New River Organic Growers and helped to design the FARM Cafe herb garden. She learned volunteerism from her mother, and she makes an effort to be as involved as possible. “I believe so much in volunteering because I feel like we need to make our world the best we can, and to volunteer on boards makes me feel more connected - I meet a lot of cool people. I like to try and make a difference in the world,” Susan says.
Outside of her volunteer efforts, Susan runs her own farm and grows a unique collection of crops. When she first started farming, her land had lain fallow for 25 years, and because of the geography of her farm, she knew she wanted to farm organically rather than raising livestock. Her foray into growing organic echinacea began in 1985 at the suggestion of the Watauga Herb Company; she was given a gallon bag of echinacea seed and told to grow it for three years, then press the root. Three years later, not only was she the first organic farmer in Watauga County, but the Tennessee Valley Authority told her she was the largest echinacea grower in the southeast. Susan soon discovered she could harvest the plant at 80% flower, which she did with her sickle mower, loading the harvested plants into the bed of her pickup truck and carting it to the quarry to be weighed. Her echinacea plants would then be delivered to the Watauga Herb Company and pressed, then shipped to Switzerland to be made into tincture and shipped back.
What Susan is known for, however, is her pawpaw orchard, which she began growing accidentally several years later. Many people have never heard of pawpaw, or, like Susan when she first began growing, know it only from old-time songs. Susan bought three pawpaw plants at a seed swap, planted them on the ridge of her land, and then forgot about them until years later, when her neighbors told her she had trees growing fruit next to their property.
Pawpaws are the largest native fruit to North America, and they can’t be bought in stores because of how fragile the fruit is, so most people have never heard of it. Unlike bananas, they can’t ripen off of the tree; they must be picked right when they’re ripe, just before they fall off the tree. They stay good for about a week after picking in the refrigerator, and because of the thin skin, they can’t be shipped out for larger distribution. This means that all pawpaw fruit must be grown and distributed locally, which is what Susan is doing in the High Country.
Pawpaw fruit has a long and rich history in North America. Long before the old time songs, the Native Americans showed Lewis and Clark the pawpaw tree during their journey, and the fruit helped them to successfully complete their journey alive. Chilled pawpaw was George Washington’s favorite fruit, and even Thomas Jefferson grew pawpaw and shipped it to France, where the plant made its European debut. There are several rivers and towns across America named after pawpaw, and closer to home, the Doughertys of Appalachian State University had pawpaw trees in their house on Rivers Street.
After rediscovering her pawpaw trees, Susan figured out when to harvest the fruit at its best and began selling pawpaw at farmers’ markets. She attended a tiny North Carolina pawpaw conference to learn more about her plants, and she received the Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture Mary Boyer grant, which paid for her to travel to Kentucky State University, one of the largest pawpaw research institutions, to learn how to start seeds. Since then, she’s been planting a stairstep orchard of pawpaw trees on her farm and revitalizing the pawpaw scene in Watauga County.
Learn more about Susan:
Lily Patch Farm
WNC Magazine article
Lily Patch Farm and ASU
Interview conducted and written by Sophia Mosby