Saturday, August 28, 2010

Asheville, NC: Mike Fortune, Green Hills Urban Farm

Though he seems to be a spectacular farmer, Mike Fortune prefers to think of himself as a pirate. He looks the part, a handsome young man in his early thirties with long hair and a thin, short beard that suggests he’s a few days away from his last shave. He has a beaming grin and welcomes us right away onto his property. Mike has two separate operations; one is a larger-scale farm fair drive outside of Asheville, and then there’s Green Hill Farm, the urban farm we are visiting.
When we walk behind Mike’s house it’s easy to forget that there’s a city all around. The land Mike uses for growing is all behind the houses on this street in West Asheville; he is basically farming people’s backyards. Mike started with his own backyard and his neighbor gave him permission to use his as well. Pretty soon another neighbor moved away and Mike persuaded a friend of his to move into the vacant house and help expand the farm. Cumulatively Mike has about 2 acres in yards to farm and we walked around the gentle slopes to each plot. Most farms we have seen have a certain order; plots are often designed in squares and rectangles but Mike’s design is more haphazard and spontaneous.
He doesn’t actually own any of the land, though he is fairly confident that his relationships with the landlords are solid and he won’t be moving the farm any time soon. When he takes us up to the hill where the berry bushes are we can see one of Asheville’s busiest streets through the trees only a few hundred yards away. The 4 lanes are bumper-to-bumper cars; as they pass the visible Domino's Pizza I wonder how many of those people know that this farm is even here, and they could easily have access to its bounty.
The lettuces, berries, squash, herbs, melons, carrots, beets, etc. are all used to fill weekly CSA boxes and to stock a fridge up in front of the house that folks can pick up and pay for by leaving their money in a coffee can.
When Mike has an extra big harvest he has an outlet with many of Asheville’s high-quality restaurants interested in local and organic foods. He offers his excess to them and it’s a win-win; there is a big demand in Asheville for local fresh organic food that the restaurants can then offer, and Mike gets paid for his work instead of taking a loss.
He has let local artists come and add color to his walls (in a style you'd rarely find on a rural farm) and seems very supported by his community. A favorite piece of the farm was the ducks he is raising around the side of the house, with their homemade house complete with Tibetan prayer flags.

Mike seems truly happy with the present, and believes that what the future has in store will be pretty spectacular. His coffee cup never left his hand during the interview and tour, and he seemed he'd truly be comfortable in the city or on the farm...or both.


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