Okra grows as tall as an oak tree on a farm deep in the Triplett Valley of Deep Gap.
At Simply Growing Farm, Ali Pack, Jessica Stetter and Butler Mappus couple the process of cultivating more than 50 acres of land with educational opportunities for people from all over the High Country.
“If you have good soil, any plant you try to grow is going to do great; you’re creating the causes and conditions for growth,” Stetter said. People are no different. “We’re looking to say how can we facilitate or help this land create the causes and conditions for people to grow.”
Simply Growing Farm offers enrichment programs for children as young as 4 years old. Each program is an opportunity to connect with nature through gardening.
This summer, with help from kids at Avery County’s YMCA Summer Rec Program and other volunteers, Simply Growing Farm harvested various produce and herbs using organic practices.
Among the greens, beets and peppers, a strange piece of fruit called a ground cherry grew in abundance.
“It’s like a pineapple and a tomato had a baby,” Stetter said, and she was right. “It’s one of the most fun things we’ve grown this summer.”
Stetter received a master’s degree in special education from Appalachian State University, and Pack has a degree in outdoor education.
Stetter and Pack’s backgrounds in education have given them the tools they need to get the farm up and running. This summer, they have hosted more than 20 but, as with the children who take part in the programs at Simply Growing Farm, it is still very much a learning process.
“The harder parts have not been as much growing, but realizing how much time things take to harvest or correctly budgeting for how fast we’ll go through things,” Stetter said.
While the internet is a perfectly useful resource it is inaccessible out on the farm. Cell phone reception is non-existent, spare one patch of dirt in the driveway. Stetter and Pack said the most helpful resource has actually been their neighbor and friend Ally, from Against the Grain Farm.
Ally offered advice when Simply Growing’s tomatoes were flattened by the first heavy rain of the season. Now, the tomatoes grow under a hoophouse, and tethered to a trellis, they are sheltered from intense sun and rain. The hoophouse, Stetter and her husband built by hand. They are working to erect more over the summer.
It is their eighth year on the land, but their first year marketing both the food and the experience of growing the food to the public.
Something magic happens when two strangers sit side by side with their hands in the same soil. “The elements kind of take the edge off and the level of conversation skyrockets,” Stetter said. In a world where people are existing under so much stress and pressure, she said, Simply Growing Farm functions almost as a recharging station.
For children, it is a place to escape the rigidity of the classroom and engage with the natural world.
Pack carried her four-year old daughter, Amaya Pack, on her hip through rows of tomatoes and peppers. Amaya pulled an orange pepper from the vine and bit into it as if it were a piece of candy.
“Some of the kids have never picked a vegetable and then just munched on it,” Stetter said. “It’s a real exciting thing and sometimes people don’t think about where their food actually came from.”
Away from the garden, a creek offers a reprieve from the sun and the opportunity to learn about an ecosystem entirely separate from the farm. Beside the creek a slackline hangs between two wooden posts. Someone painted a sunshine on the post at the far end of the slackline.
“Finding your balance in your physical body translates to finding your balance mentally,” Stetter said. This is something she shares with anyone who attempts the slackline. She is equally shocked and excited to see parents tuck in their shirts and roll up their sleeves to try their hand at slacklining, some for the first time in their life.
Stetter’s vision for Simply Growing Farm is just that: simple and growing. Currently they are partnering with Frontline to Farm, a grant-funded program sponsored by Appalachian State University’s Goodnight Family Department of Sustainable Development and Department of Communication, that helps military veterans and beginning farmers get started in sustainable farming as a livelihood.