Producer Spotlight: Alyson Wade of The Farm Connection
The Farm Connection, a young nursery and garden store in Marshall, NC, opened its doors in May of 2020. Alyson Wade and her husband Ian had recently moved with their children from Oregon, where they both had immersed themselves in the world of local food and small-scale economy. After returning to North Carolina in 2019 to be closer to family, they purchased property in Marshall and decided to put their passion for sustainable agriculture to work.
Alyson spoke with us on the phone about her experiences starting up a nursery business and her vision for collaborative agriculture in Madison County. Listen to the full interview below, or scroll down to read the transcript. Their products range from houseplants to vegetable starts to CBD products to macramé plant hangers, so look for them in our marketplace, open from 9am Thursday mornings to 6pm Monday afternoons!
Kade: All right, Alyson, if you're ready, we'll go ahead and get started. Why don't you go ahead and start by introducing yourself a little bit--so, for anybody who doesn't know, who are you, what's your business, what do you do?
Alyson: So, my name's Alyson Wade, and our business is The Farm Connection. We're located in Marshall. We just kind of landed here. I feel like it was some kind of magical blessing. We could have never imagined how perfect it feels like to be here right now, doing what we're doing. Ian and I are from North Carolina, but more of the Piedmont region. I grew up in Salisbury, he grew up in Raleigh. I graduated from NC State. From there, I did chemical engineering and paper engineering degrees at NC State. When I graduated, we moved out to Oregon. We really got into growing food and local food and local economy while we were there. I was part of the local food action team, the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition. We really learned about farmers' markets, and of course local food is huge out there. Oregon grows so much food. People are really supportive of local. We just kind of got immersed in it and started to love it, and growing food ourselves too out there.
Then we had a couple of kids, and my mom was giving me the guilt trip about living so far away, so we decided to move back, but the Piedmont area didn't really speak to us. We'd lived there before. We were thinking Appalachian culture is more like the West Coast culture that we had come to love, and it seemed like a nice area. And then I got a job down in Asheville. They actually moved us across the country. I had this big relocation package, and part of it was covering the closing costs on a home purchase. We had never owned a home or land before. We couldn't afford to do so in Oregon, because while we were there cannabis got legalized and land prices shot up. It's out of control. So we were like, maybe we could own some land in North Carolina, let's go back! On top of that we had this relocation package, so we were like, "Let's do it! Let's buy a home!"
We were originally looking in Haywood County, but the realtor was like, "Hey, this thing popped up in Madison County, and I know y'all were looking in Haywood, but this seems kind of right up your alley." I think we were out here that night. We had an offer in on it the next day. That's the property we're on now, where the business is. The house and the land behind the business--that's where we live. We have part of Hayes Run here--probably three or four hundred feet of Hayes Run on our property. Then we cross this bridge, and the Farm Connection is there on its own little one-acre plot. So we kind of live where we work and work where we live, and it really makes this place super family-oriented. We have three children, and so they're here at the business. They participate in meetings and all kinds of stuff with us. That's kind of how we ended up here.
The nursery and all the infrastructure was here, but the business wasn't operating. That was May of 2019, was when we purchased the property. We didn't get anything going that year. We operated last year--we learned a whole lot--and now we're going to be in our second season this year.
Kade: Oh, wow, congratulations.
Alyson: Thanks! Yeah, we're trying to refer to last year as Year 0 to be easy on ourselves. We had never owned a business or owned a nursery, but what we have done is grow our own food, and we're passionate about local economy and local food. We saw this as an opportunity to take that passion and use it and develop this space and this site and the business to support local food, the local food economy, however we can. That's kind of what we're trying to do here.
Kade: That's great, and I've been out to your place and seen parts of it, because I used to pick up distribution. It's gorgeous out there. You've got such a nice spot.
Alyson: Yeah, again, we just feel so blessed. I'm not quite sure how we ended up here.
Kade: I'm glad you did. So, what all are you making and growing on your farm, now?
Alyson: Well, the farm is kind of separate, and it gets pushed to the back burner right now. We plant trees here and there, and we've got four chickens, but we're really trying to focus on the business. Over at the business, what we're focusing on is edible, medicinal, and native plants. The way that I think about it when I consider if I want to carry something or if I want to grow something is, "Is it useful?"
This year we're trying to do a lot of annual vegetable production and what we're trying to focus on there is seasonally appropriate timing. Right? We want to be ethical with our timing. We don't want to sell you a tomato in April unless you're very well-versed in having to move it in and out and keep it in a pot. But also having things available at the right time for planting. So we not only want people to be able to come and get plants here, but to be informed about how to do it so they're going to be successful. We're trying to offer the service and the knowledge in addition to the plants. Especially for our annuals. We're trying to carry varieties or cultivars of things that are tried and true for our area, looking for proper disease resistance, you know, day lengths, and all the other things that make things grow well in one area and not in another area.
Kade: "I have a lot of respect for that--that you have such an emphasis on bringing the knowledge and bringing the service, and what works for our area, and what do you know already, to the product that you're selling. It's not just "What will you buy?"
Alyson: And part of it, I think, is what we observed of our customers last year. Especially in these times, people are trying to grow food where they had never tried to grow food before. We had many first-time gardeners who were like, "I've never done this before! What do I do?" We're trying to bring in more knowledge, more experience. We see that as part of the value that we add.
We're trying to target some different markets this year. Last year we really were at the right scale for...I'll call it backyard or hobby gardeners, the people that want to buy the $4 tomato plant, but we kind of missed the mark for homestead scale and market garden scale. I think this year I'm trying to have more products at the price point and at the value proposition for a larger scale so we can start to build connections with the major food-growers in our area. What do they need, and how can we service them for this stuff? So that's our focus on annuals. We're also carrying a lot of medicinal perennials, and another big focus this year is fruit trees and shrubs. What we're trying to do is find those and carry those at a more reasonable price point. We don't want to carry $70 apple trees--that's out of the reach for many people. What we're trying to do is get things in small, move them quick, so our costs are reduced and people are getting them at a reasonable price point.
Kade: Well, that's really neat. I love all of that. When we were talking about your farm and your business over email, you talked a little bit about this vision that you have of being kind of a producer hub in the Madison County area. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Alyson: Yeah! I think an overarching statement about that is...when we can lift each other up, we're all going to be more successful. I'm a nursery, right? If I know there's another nursery in the area, my gut reaction as a human is kind of like, "Oh no, competition." But I try to acknowledge that and say, "No, competition, you're not going to win, you're not going to take a hold of me right now, I'm trying to cultivate collaboration." What I want to do then is say, "Okay, you are my ten neighbors who also aspire to grow plants. That's wonderful. Let me source plants from you. I want to be a sales outlet. Let's use our location, let's use our marketing, let's use our processes here, because we're really sales processes here. Let's pull from our neighbors who we're going to work with over the years."
I have one neighbor who has a really wet property. She's really interested in aquatic plants and erosion control. I'm going to her for aquatic plants. I'm getting a high-quality source, and we're going to cultivate that relationship for years. I'm going to somebody else for flowers, and somebody else for tomatoes and peppers. I'm going to somebody else for medicinal perennials. There's only so much I can grow myself. Who are my neighbors, what are they producing, and how can we cultivate relationships where I'm helping lift them up? They're supplying me with a volume of high-quality plants. They get to focus on what they do best--we focus a little bit on growing, but we've only got three greenhouses, so I can't do a whole lot. In order to supply the demand that I'm hoping to generate, I need to pull from other sources. I would much rather get from my neighbor.
At least for nursery, I see us being a hub where we just continue to cultivate those relationships, we work with people to build their own niches, and then we do what we're trying to do here, which is the sales and marketing and the outreach. We're not only supporting ourselves here, but we're supporting all of our neighbors here in Madison County who have aspirations.
That's just the nursery part of it. You know? How can we start to work with local craftspeople, especially people who are producing products that are homestead-related. That's a lot of what we do here. Also, food. Who are our farmers here? How can we start to build a market presence? Once nursery sales slow down, that's when food and produce sales speed up. How can we pivot, then, and become a place where people can come and get high-quality local food and build similar relationships with farmers in the area for produce?
Kade: Well, I love that. I think that's all beautiful. I love that phrase you used, "cultivate collaboration." I think that's really powerful. All of that speaks so much to what we're trying to do here at Patchwork Alliance, too. I think we do kind of have this gut reaction--and I don't know if it's cultural, or social, or where it comes from, but this reaction of "Oh, that person is doing what I'm doing, we're competition, we can't join together in this." But I think you're absolutely right that there's a lot of potential where we could be building each other up instead. I heard a statistic somewhere a long time ago that in Buncombe County, if the supply chains all broke down, we would only have enough food to feed ourselves for three days. If that's the case, then we really don't have any need to be competing with one another. We really need to work together to support one another. We don't need to be beating each other out.
Alyson: Yeah. You add quite a bit of important context there, too. That's an important piece to keep in mind, I think, as we continue to do what we do. In the end, we're all in this together, you know?
Kade: Yeah, absolutely. So this is very different from what you told me your degree is in, and what some of your past work has been. What was that transition like for you? Are you doing the farm and the nursery fulltime now, or do you still have some of your other jobs?
Alyson: I do have another job--I have this work-from-home gig that's super flexible, and they're probably like, "Where has Alyson been?" I have my third child. She just turned one year old, so I was on maternity leave last year at this time. That was from the factory that I was working at down in Candler. I went back, and I had every intention of going back, and I wanted to go back part-time, but they wanted me fulltime. At that point, I kind of said, well, I can't do this anymore because I want to spend time with my new baby. Then this other job came around. My work, my career I guess before now, is in process engineering. So I work in factories, and I've studied, and I have some certifications in lean manufacturing. Basically all that means is how to find efficiencies, which has actually come in really useful.
I guess I'm kind of an entrepreneur in a way that, like... I like to do new things, often. Doing the same thing for ten years...it's hard to do the same thing for ten years. I like to try new things. So I'm hoping at some point one of the things that I can do personally is to visit our area farms and help them understand how to be more efficient, grow food more efficiently, use space more efficiently, use processes and create processes that are more efficient. I'd like to turn my attention of what I've learned in process efficiencies towards local food and growing food and farms.
I think that's a growing trend, actually, too, because there's that book, The Lean Farm, that kind of starts to touch on lean principles, but in the context of farming. From what I know about it, it's been really popular, and farms that implement process efficiencies like lean manufacturing--they do really well. That's just another layer, I think, of potential service for our area farms, is this skill of mine. You know, eventually maybe I can get away from working for somebody else and potentially do that kind of consulting service.
Kade: Yeah, I think that would be a big help in the local community. So, your husband's background is also not farming and agriculture, right? Does he work fulltime on the nursery, or does he do something else as well?
Alyson: He's kind of fulltime Daddin' it! It's a fulltime job with three kids.
Kade: That's fantastic.
Alyson: He does a great job. His background is varied as well, with more entrepreneurial and work-for-yourself type stuff. He and his brother did a silver mining expedition a decade ago. That's kind of how they were raised. They were homeschooled, and they were always really independent. He's always just found ways to be creative and entrepreneurial. That fit really well with what we're doing here. I spend a lot of time on the computer, and we don't like for our kids to be in front of the screen, so oftentimes it's like, I have hours and hours and hours of computer work, and he's on the farm with the kids and being a dad. Of course, there's always watering and planting and all kinds of stuff to do at the nursery.
Kade: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate that.
Alyson: Oh, yeah, thanks so much for following up with me and giving me the opportunity to talk with you! We're super excited to be working with Patchwork, and we got a bit of sales last year, and we got excited about that. We're also excited about, you know, you guys offer such a great service. It just amazes me every day that I can just click a button on the computer, and somebody comes and picks up the stuff, and it's getting delivered into Asheville on really no extra part of my own. It wasn't difficult for me. I really want to encourage--and I talk about Patchwork all the time up here. I'm like, "Hey, have you heard of Patchwork? It's another sales outlet. We're an aggregation point, we're a pickup point." How can we build the Patchwork presence here? Because I don't think it's quite clicking for people that oh, all you have to do is drop it off here once a week and you're reaching a home-delivery market in Asheville. That's so valuable. We want to support you guys however we can and watch the organization grow and talk about it and build it up. We really appreciate the service that you guys are doing.
Kade: Aw, well thank you. That's such lovely stuff to say, and I'm so glad that we have you in our producer market. I mean, y'all are such lovely people, and it's been just great working with you this whole time. It's great talking with you today about the vision you have for your farm and collaborating with local communities and stuff like that. It's fantastic--it lines up perfectly with everything we believe in.
Alyson: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Kade: Yeah, definitely. Thank you. I'll talk to you later.
Alyson: Okay, sounds good. Bye!