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  • Shelby Johnson

Water’s Edge Farmstead Profile

By Shelby Johnson

While my journey into agrarianism feels winding and solitary, it’s truly not dissimilar to many other emerging or returning generational farmers finding their way back to the land.  The past decade has seen one of the most promising resurgences of young folks drawn to agrarian lifeways. I am one of the many trying to find the path that can offer reciprocity and joy in agriculture.  However, the realities of navigating the agricultural landscape of the Southeast as a young (and oftentimes vulnerable) Black, queer woman proved to be starkly different than my hopes. With fresh eyes and an open heart seeking that reciprocity, the road into this landscape was often littered with and entangled with extraction, unjust working conditions, patriarchal understandings of hierarchy, and white supremacy.  I wish this experience were only mine to bear, but it is unfortunately commonplace for many, if not most, young farmers I have met. 

For better or worse, this call back to the land was louder and more urgent than the conditions I faced as an emerging farmer, and as such, I and many others continued on the path. My first near decade exploring agriculture was spent curating experiences for myself in a myriad of production settings. Moving from farm to farm, year to year, as a farm hand and eventual farm manager, gave me insight into production agriculture in many different contexts.  It was immediately made clear to me that though growing food, seed, and biodiversity felt like a common value, generating a profit was always more urgent. Through my socialization as a farmer on many commercial farms, I was taught that our values must take a backseat to commercialism. I was taught, explicitly and implicitly, that our philosophies and political orientation as land stewards have to fall in line with our need to commodify the land and our bodies. 

My understanding of production agriculture grew to be that business must come first. At the same time, I felt my values as a land worker learned to take a backseat to prioritize the bottom line first. 

This orientation to farming as a means of generating a livelihood isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it the direct “fault” of any individual farm owner.  Faced with the increasingly crushing variables that small farm owners face, few other realities are possible. I certainly don’t and couldn’t ever assume to have the solutions to the multiple leviathan challenges the small family farmer faces in the US. But I am happy to share how sometimes unorthodox, unexpected, or oblique approaches to our biggest problems can offer mighty resistance for our immediate communities. I firmly believe that our strengths are won when we work collectively - our only future is assured through cooperativism. 

The origin story of our farm, Water’s Edge Farmstead, is one such oblique approach to agrarianism. After supporting other farms across the country for nearly ten years and feeling burnt out through unsustainable working conditions, I intentionally decided to step back from production agriculture at the end of the 2021 growing season, realizing that this would be the only way for me to continue to engage in agriculture long-term. I was given the opportunity to support a farmer organizing network, using my experiences as a farmer as the basis for my day-to-day work. As a farmer and having an inherent understanding that our land stewardship is what grounds us and keeps us, I fully intended to continue to grow food for myself and my family, albeit on a much smaller scale. 

My wife and I were blessed with the opportunity to lease an acre of arable land adjoining our home near Asheville, NC at the start of the 2022 growing season, and we eagerly leaped into establishing half an acre as our first real homestead garden. We approached the garden with a new sense of wonder and unexplored freedom we had never had the chance to feel for ourselves. I could finally play in the openness of a blank slate and within the values that had drawn me to farming in the first place - cooperativism, community resiliency, and working with respect to seasonality and reciprocity with the land and its beings.  We envisioned a subsistence garden that would supplement and support ourselves and the landowners we lease from. Having never grown on such a small scale, this seemed like a reasonable vision for us.

Something magical happened almost simultaneously as we shaped our first beds in the plot. A curiosity arose from many of our neighbors - an openness that we were happy to meet. Situated near a gravel drive, many families in our area frequent, we were happy to get lots of interest and visits from the families living in our valley.  These visits immediately opened up ways of storytelling and sharing that felt locked away from us prior.  Elders shared their stories of how and what their parents and grandparents grew on the very soil we stood on, and children were never without questions for us. In the simple act of making our land practice visible, we were actually making a community offering.  It was in that visibility and openness that the reciprocity that I had long sought was illuminated. 

We immediately realized that we could share more than we had anticipated. We shared our labor, nursery starts, spring harvests, and moments of rest in the garden.  We felt blessed by the offerings our neighbors were sharing back with us - truckloads of organic compost, mechanic and engine repair, purchasing tools and supplies, and generosity of time and stories. As our season progressed, we provided these families with fresh vegetables throughout the year and we never experienced scarcity as we leaned on each other.

In my journey into agriculture, I also caught the “big ag mind virus,” which is that to be a “real farmer,” you had to scale, grow, produce, and sell more constantly. When setting out on our small plot, I wondered if I could still consider myself a farmer if I only stewarded such a small amount of leased land.  What could I grow on a half acre other than what we could eat at home and share with a neighboring family? Am I still a farmer if I’m not selling produce? It’s taken two full years of undoing to reorient myself into the confidence that tells me I am a farmer. Like all smallholder, migrant, subsistence, peasant farmers and farm workers globally, we are all farmers. Undoing my socialization of commercially oriented agriculture has and continues to be an intentional process that began as a very real emotional journey at the inception of our farmstead. 

In mid-spring 2022, after feeding ourselves and a small community of families in our immediate area, we still had an excess of fresh produce each week. Unlike what my decade in commercial production-focused agriculture had taught me through consistent “get big or get out” messaging, I was starting to realize the level of abundance that can be co-created, even on a limited plot of land. Through existing community bonds, we negotiated a beneficial relationship with a local food bank to sell our produce so they could provide the vegetables in their weekly community market days.  As if by chance, we found ourselves unexpected stewards of a small but mighty community farm.  Our hands are blessed to co-create with the land that sustains us and our community. This unexpected spaciousness, an expansion from a single-minded vision of a “simple” subsistence garden blossoming into a community-centered farm, wasn’t ever truly on our radar. But we are thankful for the opportunity to show up in service to those who rely on us - as we rely on them. 

It wouldn’t feel right to assert that careful planning alone allowed us this experience. It’s necessary for me to uplift our ancestors, the land that holds us, and the often ineffable strikes of luck that sometimes precede these moments of opportunity.  The story of the founding of Water’s Edge Farmstead feels organic and easy because it indeed was. While sharing my own story, I want to hold space for the many young farmers across our landscape who are hoping and working every moment for a similar confluence of luck and opportunity - and I earnestly pray that more of us can find our path into reciprocity with our land and peoples. 

Given that Water’s Edge Farmstead is a subsistence (and resistance) garden, first and foremost, we have taken more liberties with what we want to grow and for whom. One of those liberties is exploring incorporating seed production into our crop plan. Again, my decade of socialization reared its head - how can we grow seed on such a small scale? How easy is it to incorporate seed production alongside vegetable production? Many of these thoughts were open question marks without having much opportunity to learn alongside any commercial seed growers. Collaborating with the emerging Appalachian Seed Grower’s Collective (ASGC), I set out my first-ever crop of a grain sorghum, called “Coral,” for the 2022 growing season. 

As a mixed vegetable grower with limited seed production knowledge outside of small-scale seedkeeping, I highly recommend sorghum to anyone interested in learning about and incorporating seeds into their existing production models. I was astounded to see how tolerant and productive this sorghum was! Working alongside other founding members of the Appalachian Seed Growers Collective (ASGC), I learned about processing seeds on a small scale and how models of collaborative seed production can create an impact at the community level and beyond. 2023 was the first season our seed collective organized throughout a growing season. We have had the chance to share food and seeds, teach each other, and learn together as we dream of a more vibrant southeastern seed industry. 

Comprised of a diverse mix of farmers, growers at various scales, and community members, the Appalachian Seed Grower's Collective is an emerging community-led effort to help increase commercial seed production and education efforts in the Southeast. Standing on the shoulders of the years-long thought work and community building of a few key collaborators (most notably The Utopian Seed Project (see page B1 in this issue), the ASGC was initiated in late 2022 with the support of grant funding to organize a body of farmers around the creation and cooperative use of a shared seed processing trailer.

As a farmer with a good deal of experience in a variety of farm settings, not having had access to robust education and hands-on experiences surrounding seed production is another part of my story that is all too common for many farmers across our region. Although the southeast continues to be an agricultural powerhouse, the state of the seed industry in our region deserves far more resourcing, intentional succession building for the next generation of seed growers, and the same level of focused economic development as the industry has had in other regions such as the PNW and NE. Through centralization of the seed industry in a few key geographic regions, we have become more and more distant from the seeds that we rely on in our own region. Additionally, we as farmers recognize that the climate of the southeast is unique - and therefore understand that our seeds must be continually bioregionally adapted in order to perform reliably well. Lastly, seeds hold powerful cultural narratives and economic viability that we cannot afford to allow to be taken from us.

A small yet dedicated team of organizers and I set out to establish the ASGC.  We continue to be blessed to work amongst a landscape of brilliant and committed seed workers, advocates, and communities, even within so many challenges facing the seed industry in our region.  Though our emerging collective is working together under a shared name and with shared resources, our formation could not exist without the preceding work of our allied formations and the individuals who have held this work for years - The Utopian Seed Project, Sow True Seeds, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Commonwealth Seed Growers, and many more.

Although broad efforts have been undertaken to help revitalize the seed industry in the southeast before, we recognized that the greatest deal of impact we could have as farmers and community members would be to keep our organizing efforts close to home. We were able to secure grant funding to help develop and build a shared seed processing equipment to house several pieces of larger seed cleaning equipment that we steward collectively. Our primary points of focus together as a collective are: increasing access to seed processing equipment for small-scale farmers and growers, growing more bioregionally adapted seed for our region more broadly, advocating for more equitable and economically viable lifeways for seed workers and growers, and community education in support of developing more seed growers.

We are coming to the close of our first full growing season together as a collective, and have taken our time in being incredibly intentional about working towards inclusivity, exploring our shared values, building trust in each other, and enjoying fellowship and cultural stewardship alongside all of the work within a season on each of our farms. We have been blessed to travel to conferences and convenings to share about our emerging collective and to offer seed-cleaning demonstrations using our shared trailer. While we are just at the beginning of our journeys together, we are thankful for an infusion of resources and a level of trust from our community to believe that we can carry our work forward together in support of a more vibrant, just, and uniquely southern future for ourselves and the seeds we carry close to our hearts.

Working in community with the seed collective reinforces the understanding that though we may be small, we don’t do our work alone. Working alongside our friends, neighbors, and comrades, we can learn, explore, build, make mistakes, and continue to move forward with the knowledge that we have each other to rely on. As I watch the story of Water’s Edge Farmstead unfold, moment by moment, I am grateful for every winding step that brought us here. By opening ourselves up to unexpected ways of engaging with our land practices and sharing our knowledge and experiences freely with each other, we may get glimpses of what is possible in our food system. 

Shelby Johnson is the land steward of Water’s Edge Farmstead in Candler, NC.


IG @appalachian_seed_collective

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