By Eva Crawford
In an age when stories abound of small farmers being pushed off their land, saddled with debt and forced to juggle jobs to make ends meet, Elise of Elysian Fields Farm’s story is a true bright spot. A working mom with another one on the way, Elise has been making a living for 15 years growing organic vegetables on five acres of land near Carrboro, N.C. She sells her fruits and veggies at her local farmer’s market and through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Growing organically in the hot and humid climate of North Carolina is not an easy job, but in her words, “I wouldn’t have grown any other way.”
Clean Plates spoke to Elise why CSAs are gathering momentum, why she shifted to just vegetable farming, and the challenges of growing organic.
Clean Plates: Tell us about Elysian Fields Farm. What do you grow?
Elise Bortz: The farm is a 40-acre piece of land, but we just use five acres to grow. We grow a large diversity of crops, all fruits and vegetables. Right now it’s still summer here, so it’s all about tomatoes. In the spring, strawberries are a big crop for us. Randomly, we’re also really known for our radishes. For whatever reason, people really like our radishes!
C.P.: You used to sell antibiotic-free pork as well. Why the shift to veggie-only?
E.B.: I’ve had the farm for fifteen years now, and started that in fifth. For about six or seven years, I was breeding and raising pigs, and processing the meat. It just got to be a more stressful dynamic than I wanted to deal with. I actually got really attached to the animals—it’s definitely a little more emotionally involved than vegetables. So I made the downgrade.
C.P.:: Was it a tough choice to grow 100% organically?
E.B.: I wouldn’t have grown any other way. When I made the decision to farm, that was my decision to grow organic. To me they go hand in hand. My interest in farming was primarily because I have an interest in the environment, healthy ecosystems and healthy eating.
C.P.: Do you face challenges that conventional growers wouldn’t have as a result of that decision?
E.B.: In the South especially, they do have an advantage with issues like fungal and bacterial disease. In North Carolina, we’re really humid, and humidity breeds those diseases. There’s not much you can do organically to prevent it, so the South can have crops at times when we can’t. But it’s still not worth it. Plus, people really are interested in organic down here. There’s actually a large tobacco grower that transitioned to organic. I think it’s becoming more accepted among people who it used to seem foreign to.
C.P.: What do you see as the benefits of the CSA model?
E.B.: It just makes a lot of sense! For the customer, you get a true understanding of how your food is connected to the weather and the local environment. If it’s a crazy wet spring, it’s gonna affect the crops, and you can be aware of that. And for the farmer, it can keep us afloat. Since we’re growing a diverse selection of crops, we still have that support and income even if we do lose some things. It’s just a much more intimate connection.
C.P.: Has it been hard to make a living off of the farm?
E.B.: I personally have always gotten my income 100% from the farm. It supports two owners full-time and three additional people who work for us. But I remember my first farmer’s market, I made $35. Now at a Wednesday market, you make a couple hundred dollars. When I first started going, I was really shy. That’s one thing that’s changed as a business owner—I’ve really learned how to be more extroverted.
C.P.: What’s your work-life balance like as a mom?
E.B.: I have one son who’s 18 months old, and I’m pregnant with a girl, so I’ll have a daughter this winter. I’m really spoiled because my mom just retired and watches my son full time. I definitely would have needed to get daycare – with managing the farm and three employees, there’s no way I could have had him with me at the same time. Really the way I look at it is, I’m a working mom, like any other working mom, and what do we do with our kids?
C.P.: So in addition to adding a daughter to the family, what are your long-term plans for the farm?
E.B.: I’m really happy with where we’re at! I don’t want to add on this or add on that, I just want to keep fine tuning. I’m 40 now. When I’m 65, I guess I’ll retire? Until then I’m good to just keep going, and try to get better at what I do. All in all, farming is something I really love. It brings me a lot of joy and is something I can just feel good about.