The expanding rich green land stretched out for miles as the sun glared down on the Early Girl tomato plants volunteers were working with. The sky was clear, and volunteer gardeners scattered across the 1,200-acre land. Taking in the scene,18-year-old Clara Coffey told herself she’d only be here for three months then she’d return to Boone to get her college degree.
She’d needed a break from the town she’d grown up in, and leaving for central Arkansas to volunteer on a farm sounded like the perfect way to escape for the Watauga County native.
Only, she never expected to fall in love with the feel of dirt under her knees, the textured touch of plant stems and the sense of community the Heifer International ranch gave her.
Clara ended up staying for a year, then returned twice for three month sections.
“I just couldn't stay away,” Clara says.
Her parents always had a garden when she was growing up, but her time at the ranch is what sparked her passion for gardening, and afterward, she couldn’t imagine her life without it.
“I loved the farm work. I loved working in the gardens, and I just tried to soak up as much of it as I could,” Clara says. “From that point on, I knew that that's what I kinda always wanted to do, and I feel so lucky that I figured that out at such an early age.”
After her time at Heifer International, Clara returned to North Carolina, but not for long. Her time was cut short when a friend invited Clara to WWOOF with her.
WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities at Organic Farms, a print subscription turned online database that gives volunteers contact information for farms willing to give room and board to volunteer gardeners in exchange for work on the farm.
The time commitments varied, and the work locations ranged from small gardens to large farms all over the United States — making the opportunity perfect for a 21-year-old Clara.
From there, Clara traveled all over the U.S., working on farms and land much different from Western North Carolina. She also relearned much of what she knew, like how to shape the soil around tomato plants depending on what the climate conditions were.
Clara volunteered and traveled through WWOOF for six months, working in a wide range of places from dry terrain in Southern Colorado to a large Blueberry farm in Washington.
However, Clara’s time with WWOOF ended when her father offered her the opportunity to run her own farm back home in Watauga County.
“It was obviously life-changing and literally full circle,” Clara says. “We drove a circle from the East Coast to the West Coast and back.”
Clara moved back into her childhood home and began running her own farm. Now years later, married with kids, Clara’s passion has stuck with her. She now has chickens and ducks, doing her best to grow and provide some of her own food.
With help from a friend, Clara also gardens and sells produce at the Watauga County Farmers Market.
“I always want to be connected to the land that I live on,” Clara says. “It helps me feel more connected to my roots and to the Earth, and I love that my kids are growing up knowing where their food comes from.”
In 2018, a friend of Clara’s left her position as the garden coordinator at the Hospitality House of Northwest North Carolina, a shelter in Boone that helps people through homelessness.
After hearing about the position, Clara was immediately drawn to the role where she could share her passion for gardening and its therapeutic benefits with the residents. However, Clara says the position gave her extreme imposter syndrome in the beginning.
“When I first started, I was terrified,” she says. “So now, it’s been about two and a half years, and I just feel like it's exactly where I need to be.”
The Hospitality House created the gardens in 2011 to increase access to fresh vegetables, herbs and fruits for the Hospitality House’s Food Pantry, Bread of Life Community Kitchen and Hunger Relief programs.
The gardens are located at the shelter on Brook Hollow Road, sitting slightly removed from the building near the Greenway Trail. With around an acre of growing space, the area also includes a chicken coop housing 25 laying hens.
As the garden coordinator, Clara oversees the gardens and helps organize volunteers. She also gets to share her experiences and the joys of gardening with the residents at the Hospitality House, like the vitamin D obtained from being outside and the endorphins from physical labor.
Clara guides residents as they help maintain the gardens with the assistance of interns and volunteers like Appalachian State University students, retired Watauga County residents and high school students.
She and the residents use organic methods to maintain the gardens and the plants they tend, like carrots, tomatoes and various flowers that grow behind the Hospitality House.
Clara says she enjoys the way gardening brings everyone together, putting them on what she calls “literal even ground.”
“When you're working together over a garden bed, there's not any barriers between you, and you're learning from each other, so it's such an amazing thing to see,” Clara says.
Now, she also works as the volunteer coordinator and runs the Food Pantry at the Hospitality House.
However, gardening isn't Clara’s only passion. After having her first child, Clara struggled to find a creative outlet for her new role as a mother. Deciding to turn toward her love of art from high school, Clara discovered a passion for embroidery, which gave her the control she yearned for.
“Embroidery … every single teeny tiny little detail, I can control it,” Clara says. “So, it was very therapeutic for me when I first started.”
After teaching herself from YouTube videos and developing a talent for embroidery portraits, Clara decided to open an Etsy shop to sell her work.
“I've loved selling my art for the first time in my life,” Clara says. “It’s been really empowering, but also obviously has its own set of challenges.”
Balancing gardening, embroidery, her work at the Hospitality House and an additional business has its challenges, but Clara says none of it would be possible without help from her husband and family.
Because of her support system, Clara can continue to follow her passion for gardening that started at the ranch when she was a teenager, and continue sharing that passion with others.
“I have this great fear of being bored, and I have this great fear of not taking advantage of the life and privilege that I've been given,” Clara says.