Meet the Farmer – Pressly Williams of Renfrow Farms

RenfrowFarms1Pressly Williams is in her third year as the resident farmer at Renfrow Farms in Matthews, NC. The farm is a sister business of Renfrow’s Hardware Store just down the road, and all together it’s a family operation. Pressly’s dad, David Blackley, bought the store from Frank Renfrow in 1984. Frank and the Blackleys stayed close over the years, and when Frank died in 2010 he passed along his land to the Blackleys. What David originally intended to be a hobby farm in retirement has turned into a full time enterprise, with Pressly leading the way.

She has a degree in engineering from NC State, a notable accomplishment given that she was tempted to switch to agriculture at several points. In fact, Pressly had entertained agriculture as a study and subsequent livelihood as early as high school, but it wasn’t until her family inherited the Renfrow land in her junior year that the opportunity presented itself in a way she couldn’t resist. Now she finds herself in a white farmhouse, a few miles away from where she grew up, living with her husband Matt and earning her keep as a farmer.

Well, technically speaking, her “keep” currently comes from her work at the hardware store, but one day the farm will be enough, she says. They’ve had to build an ecosystem from scratch, clearing out the trees and brush that had grown up and turning the soil into a diverse and fertile ground. It’s a work in progress, but their bounty has been good so far. Tomatoes are their top crop, with collards coming in a close second, mostly thanks to Moe’s BBQ in downtown Matthews that orders hundreds of pounds of the leafy southern green at a time.

On the subject of collards, Pressly’s voice betrays what may be her greatest fear: the harlequin bug. Hyperbole aside, she really actually does not like the bug, but when she sees an infestation on her plants she accepts her fate, mows down the collards, and moves on to the next crop. Pressly and her team have chosen to avoid pesticide use as much as possible, and when they do have to use it, they choose products in line with organic farming regulations. It’s their attempt to move in step with nature instead of employing what they see as a disruptive intervention. Though they don’t intend to apply for official organic certification, they operate under organic standards and are committed to it for the long run. They’re steadily expanding the biodiversity of their nine acre plot, with a growing area of woody edges, fifty beehives, and bluebird boxes in the fields. They place orders for beneficial insects from a company in California and buy ladybugs from the hardware store, and they’ve planted rows of aromatic herbs and flowers in every field.RenfrowFarms3

Pressly, by the way, loves her flowers. It’s another thing she’s learned in the process of strengthening the farm’s ecosystem, and she’s begun to spend more time on growing beneficial and beautiful flowers that she’ll eventually make into arrangements. It’s a burgeoning part of the business, and thanks to word of mouth and the prettiness of her bouquets, she already has many weddings booked for the summer.

This hints at what Pressly identifies as the core personality of their farm: it’s a community driven and community oriented organism. She’s witnessed an interplay that amazes her. When the farm was in its earliest stages, the strong customer base from the hardware store and the many family and friends in the area poured out support for it, nurtured it along. As it’s continued to develop, it has given back and moved outward, providing produce to individuals and restaurants alike while drawing in an entirely new crowd of fans and clients and educating people along the way. Education has turned out to be a major component of Renfrow Farms’ mission. The Renfrow team teaches gardening classes in the store to enable homegrowers across the Charlotte area and support the movement toward seasonal use of local produce. Pressly sends out a weekly newsletter with gardening tips and stories of farm happenings– a newsletter that has over 700 subscribers and high open and response rates. She encourages people to walk around the farm when the farm stand is open so they can see all that Renfrow Farms has done, and become a part of all that they’re aiming to do.RenfrowFarms4

She sees all of this as partaking in a much larger and longer history of relationship and community building. The Renfrow family was a Matthews institution for over a century, leaving a legacy that has gone beyond a mere name on a storefront. Though Frank Renfrow was the last of the family, both Pressly and her dad look to channel his spirit and carry on his commitment to providing people with the means to live well. Returning the Renfrow land to the farmland that it used to be has been a broad means of doing this. Beyond providing food, the farm has re-established a lost connection between the hardware store and agriculture. This has major benefits for both, as the farm has become one of the store’s biggest customers while also absorbing inventory that otherwise would’ve gone to waste. Pressly’s seed saving project, wherein she cultivates heritage strains of certain crops, provides a new source of seeds for the store’s shelves, and her produce shop within the store has become a highlight of customers’ visits.

RenfrowFarms5On a day to day basis, Pressly carries out her work on a personal level, taking the time to attend to each customer’s needs– whether it’s the chef at one of Charlotte’s top rated restaurants, or the lady whose daughter Pressly went to high school with. If she’s run out of a certain kind of lettuce at the farm stand, she’ll have the customer come to the field with her, point out the desired greens, and walk away with as freshly picked a bunch of lettuce as you could get.

RenfrowFarms2And these efforts have been successful so far. People have been interested, they’ve become connected. Some customers come up to Pressly at the end of tomato season to say that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to get their tomatoes from the grocery store!, or will email her with flower requests, or will pop in to the store to say hi and find out when she’ll start doing this year’s produce boxes.

It’s a dynamic, responsive operation, and it has to be. Pressly moves with the seasons and reacts to what nature brings and takes up the new opportunities as they come. What all this has led to is a number of relationships with chefs and restaurants in the area, a wide and widening customer base, an increased self-understanding and a position so grounded in community that she’s tickled at the thought of it.

Which is not to say she can sit back and let things roll. The soil isn’t as rich as Pressly would have it, and the crop selection is only a part of what they eventually hope to grow. They only recently secured a grant to build a well, which will at last facilitate irrigation– previously they were on city water and chose not to irrigate, which meant that last year’s harsher summer resulted in much lower yields in the harvest.

And there will always be more to learn anyway.

Pressly is looking forward to what’s ahead, though. Both long term, and also simply to planting season for this year. After spending the winter working in the hardware store, she’s ready to get back into the dirt.

She hopes that one day she and Matt will have kids of their own to share this with. That she’ll be able to set aside a garden bed for a little person and say, “here you go- plant away!” just like her dad did for her. She also hopes, not so secretly, that she’ll be able to hire Matt once the farm has grown up a bit, though he insists it’ll never happen– he’s an engineer not a farmer. But he might need a different argument, as Pressy herself is evidence that the two can go hand in hand. She’s only been at it for three years, but if her tomato fans are any indication, her prospects are good.RenfrowFarms6

Laura LaPlanteLaura LaPlante once received a book from a friend that changed how she thought about food and farming and eating. Now the “friend” is her husband and the book’s on the shelves, and together they live in Mountain View, CA with their son, Wyatt. She writes content and copy for websites and posts her creative musings on acorntortilla.com.