At Juneberry Ridge, seeds for a bright and beautiful future have been sown.
by Ross Howell Jr. • photographs by Amy Freeman
My destination is a 600-acre retreat in the foothills of the Uwharrie Mountains — just outside Norwood in Stanly County, about 45 miles east of Charlotte. Most vehicles on the highway are log trucks. The rolling hills are thick with pine and hardwoods. Cattle loll by hayricks, and calves frisk and butt in roadside pastures.
I turn onto Old Cottonville Road. The name tells you something about the farm history here. Cotton’s still grown in the North Carolina Piedmont, along with crops for livestock. But essential topsoil is eroding away. Conservationists now say this area has some of the poorest soil in North Carolina.
On Old Cottonville Road, I spot a metal plate announcing, “Juneberry Ridge.” The drive rises steeply up an allée of young maples, with swales cut to catch runoff from the slope.
I pass what’s known as a five stand. With heaters to warm shooters in winter and misters to cool them in summer, five shooting stations, an outdoor kitchen, a gathering space, and loads of technology to support media presentations, Juneberry Ridge — previously known as Lucky Clays Farm — might be the finest competitive clay-shooting facility on the East Coast.
It’s also a conference center and, despite the aforementioned soil conditions, an organic farm — but more on that later.
The five stand was built by Judy Carpenter of Charlotte. Rising through the ranks of National Welders Supply Co., a regional business started by her father, she reaped full value for that enterprise through hard-nosed negotiations to a national distributor. She also happens to be a champion clay target shooter. When someone told her that, as a woman, she needed to find someplace else to compete, she bought this land and built herself one. Everybody at Juneberry Ridge calls her “Miss Judy.” She’s a genial, plain-spoken woman who could well be the most determined person on the planet.
Farther up the ridge, an expansive log house first built as Carpenter’s residence now houses a handful of the farm’s more than 30 full-time workers. Beyond the house is a sizable solar array and a wind turbine. Rob Boisvert greets me outside. A retired news anchor for WSOC-TV and Spectrum News in Charlotte, Boisvert is the business development manager for Juneberry Ridge. I follow his car downhill past the conference center known, because of its proximity to a pond, as the “Toad House.” The building features more state-of-the-art technology and a commercial kitchen that can serve 70. Driving up another ridge, we pass tennis courts, and at the crest, a wellness center, cabins and a cottage.
We pull up at Longleaf cabin, where I’ll be staying. It’s one of five rental units on the property, including three one-bedroom “tiny home” cabins. Longleaf is an airy, light-filled, three-bedroom cottage with a vaulted-ceiling great room. Other cabins were built by Juneberry Ridge employees with lumber harvested on the property and milled nearby.
The details are both simple and exquisite. In the refrigerator, for instance, I find a salad of lettuce grown in Juneberry Ridge’s 45,000-square-foot greenhouse and fresh vinaigrette dressing made by head chef Tiffany Lackey, the hospitality director.
I get it. I’m in a bucolic spot that’s an easy drive from Greensboro, Charlotte or Raleigh. It’s ideal for a weekend getaway outdoors. It’s perfect for a productive corporate retreat.
But Miss Judy tells me what Juneberry Ridge is really about.
“We’re kind of about saving the world,” she says.
After lunch, two members of her young team meet me at the wellness center. Lead designer and Davidson College biology grad Ross Lackey spreads a map across a table. After traveling the country, working on organic farms through the international movement called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, he returned to his hometown of High Point to work at Lindale Dairy and later ran a farm business in South Carolina. He consulted at Juneberry Ridge before joining as an employee. On the map, he points out a small building near Hardy Creek, which he says was the first greenhouse on the property.
“The idea was that the greenhouse would supply food for Miss Judy and all the employees,” Lackey tells me.
“That little greenhouse is where farming here was born,” adds farm manager and Appalachian State University graduate Brian Hinson. Before joining Juneberry Ridge, he worked for the town of Norwood while tending to his family’s 500-acre farm.
Farming at the Ridge got started with a small aquaponics system where the fish (tilapia) waste provided nutrients for the plants and, in turn, the plants filtered the water for the fish.
We climb into a pickup for my tour. “The morel mushrooms will be up soon,” says Lackey, a certified mushroom forager, as we enter the woodlands. “And we’ve found some lobster of the woods down there in the hollow.” As part of a plan to build miles of bike and hiking trails, Lackey will one day lead visitors on foraging hikes.
Trained as a permaculture designer by the Greensboro Permaculture Guild, Lackey explains that an important tenet of permaculture is the notion of “right livelihood,” meaning that practitioners should not harm other living beings. It’s all about emphasizing biodiversity and natural systems while creating jobs.
“Miss Judy takes a very long view,” Lackey says. “She’s making it possible for us to build an infrastructure that will employ people now and in the future, paying a good wage with benefits.”
Mature crops of chestnuts, walnuts and pecans may require 10 to 15 years of growth, Lackey explains. Meanwhile, there are plans to plant a scuppernong vineyard. Quicker maturing crops like chinquapins, blueberries, mulberries, pawpaws and persimmons are being planted now.
We stop at a dilapidated farmstead, where parts of the house date from the 1830s. Hinson points out a thick rock wall that’s waist-high and follows the contour of the hillside.
“That stone wall’s a good 150 . . . 200 yards long,” Hinson says. “All hauled by mule.”
As they point out various sights on the property, including the earthen berms on the drive up to the big greenhouse, their reverence is palpable.
“It’s like a game, seeing how long you can get water to stay in the environment,” Lackey comments. “Any farming system that’s lasted longer than 200 years has intricate water management systems.”
At the massive greenhouse, the farm’s transformation comes clearly into focus. The engine of change?
Nearby, 30 hens wander contentedly in a grassy area defined by an electrified mesh fence. Justine Carpenter, who runs the farm’s logistics and livestock, tells me they’re heritage birds — Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks — long-prized for their egg-laying.
“They’ll give us about 10 dozen eggs a week, not a lot, something we can serve in the kitchen,” Carpenter says. They’re entertaining — funky and feathered and scratching about in the grass. About once a week, the fence and hens will be moved to a different area of the farm.
From behind the greenhouse, a sloped field is visible. A year ago, it yielded soybeans and corn. Now it’s planted with grass and rows of trees and bushes that follow the contour of the hill. Almonds, grapes and blackberries will be added to the rows, and in a year or two, Hinson tells me, livestock will graze in the alleys.
“We’ll use portable fence,” he continues, “so we can keep rotating the animals, spreading manure to have positive impact across the whole farm.” Over the years, this is the process that will restore fertile topsoil to these depleted hills.
A flock of white chickens — Cornish Roasters — pick and kick at the earth nearby. Like the laying hens, the Cornish Roasters are inside a portable enclosure. This is the team’s inaugural set of meat birds. The target is to raise 1,000 Cornish Roasters that will yield upward of 3,500 pounds of chicken to serve from the Juneberry Ridge kitchens.
“These birds eat locally grown and milled grain produced on a fifth-generation farm,” Carpenter adds. “They’ll be processed at a facility that’s only 15 miles away, so we’re really keeping these birds local.”
Inside the expansive greenhouse, big changes are underway. The original Hardy Creek greenhouse grew herbs, flowers, lettuce and peppers, serving more than a dozen local restaurants, and a commercial aquaponics facility was built. Harris Teeter was a client. Now, the space where thousands of heads of lettuce and basil had been grown hydroponically is being converted into a nursery for trees, shrubs and a variety of other plants that will be planted on the farm or sold to consumers. The aquaponics system is still used to grow tilapia and a variety of lettuce and herbs.
Later on, I meet Suzanne Durkee, who spent 10 years as an executive at General Dynamics in Charlotte before retiring in 2007. “After that, I kicked around painting, traveling,” Durkee says. “I was having a great time.”
But fate intervened, in the form of Miss Judy. The two women worked out at the same gym. They started talking.
“I loved what Miss Judy was doing, but I didn’t want to go back to work,” Durkee says. “So I told her I’d write her up a business plan.” That was four years ago. Now, Durkee is the CEO at Juneberry Ridge.
“We’d given ourselves 10 years to transition to regenerative agriculture,” she says. “We’d created a strategic road map with guideposts and benchmarks showing progress and profitability.” Then the coronavirus hit, slowing the farm’s transition.
“We’ve had time to plan,” Durkee continues, “but not that much time to implement.” She says even the huge corporate farms in the Midwest are realizing that continued tilling and massive use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are methods that are not sustainable.
“When we say we’re changing the way the world grows, it’s not just how we grow our food,” Durkee continues. “It’s how we grow as human beings, how we improve our own physical and mental health, how we grow our communities and how we grow as a nation.”
Highfalutin? Maybe. But she’s made me a true believer.
Count on Miss Judy to bring us down to Earth.
“You know, we didn’t start out to be a regenerative farm,” she says. “We morphed here. But our young farmers can make something out of nothing.” Additional plans call for adding a 30-room inn and restaurant and bar on the farm.
Tour complete, my packed suitcase is in the car, but I’m reluctant to leave. I walk over to the vista behind Longleaf cottage, where chestnut, persimmon and juneberry trees have been planted. Scattered among the young trees are clumps of muhly grass, blueberry bushes and prickly pear cactus, along with big stones grubbed up from the land. I look in the distance at the native forest emerging beyond the recent plantings and imagine coming back to this spot someday to see the chestnut trees loaded with nut burrs and the juneberry trees shading the bushes below.
Given my advanced years, I may not be around for that.
But from what I’ve seen and heard, I’m certain Juneberry Ridge will. SP