Occupation: Founder, The CityFarm Project; Farmer, Builder, Entrepreneur
Family: Wife Abby, son Peter Benjamin
What was it like growing up in Catawba County?
Well, we lived in a little bit of a glass house. When your father's a leading figure in the community [church pastor], there are a lot of people looking in, keeping an eye on you, having certain expectations and so forth. It was a lot of pressure and stress in some areas, and it also opened up a lot of opportunity. Because I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family where mom and dad stayed together and loved us and took care of us, that puts me in a minority of situations.
How did farming come into the picture for you?
My story picks up in Southeast Hickory, where Pawpaw Rowe had a little plot of land that he gardened. There's actually an apartment building on 7th Avenue called Gardenview Apartments, and the back decks look over the garden he tended. They kind of named it after him.
My earliest childhood memories were of digging 'taters and picking tomatoes and sitting on the hill, him with his pocketknife whittling away at a raw onion and expecting me as a five-year-old to eat it.
That was your initiation, right?
Yep! From there, it was Dad growing a garden every year. At the different houses we lived in, it would be either a small one along the fence or a decent-sized plot. When I got into college, it was a very hustled, stressed season of life. Something about the garden and the general homestead life became very appetizing. Not just growing plants, but getting back to the basics. How to move water, how to build things, how to make things, how to make do. Then my wife, Abby, began schooling as a registered dietitian. Her passion for cooking and healthy eating and my passion for growing food and living simply, if you will, collided. We started to get really excited about wanting to grow our own food. I've got experience in construction, more experience than the other areas I'm interested in. I knew how to make money there, but I wanted to grow food. We combined those ideas to help other people grow food. It's one thing to grow food and sell it to people and expect them to do something with it. It's another to help them grow their own food. That’s how the CityFarm Project got started.
Where did you go to school?
I went to high school at St. Stephens, graduated in 2006. Right after high school, I went to the Universal Technical Institute in Mooresville. It's bumper-to-bumper mechanic training. I did a year there, graduated, and did another year at CVCC [Catawba Valley Community College] to get some preliminaries out of the way. Then I moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, and studied music for three and a half years. Graduated in 2012.
Through that whole time, were you still involved in farming somehow?
My college years are when I really started picking it back up. I was on a music and biblical studies pathway as far as college is concerned, so I spent a lot of time in the library. I would say probably half or maybe more of the time I should have been doing homework, I was watching YouTube videos of old homestead stuff.
I’m the type of person who went through phases in high school. I was a jock kid, I was a music kid, I was a skateboard kid. I found that carried on into college life, where I was all about mechanics, and then all into Liberty [University], and then spending three solid weeks studying about milk cows, or hydraulic ram pumps and electronic systems, or how to grow wheat so you can make your own bread.
What happened after that? What steps led you to starting the business?
Well, because of personal stress going on behind the scenes, at the end of college I started spending a lot of time out in the woods hunting and just getting away from the madness of college life. I got very burned out on people. For about two weeks, I stayed in a tent in the woods by myself, and I thought I was going to get a few things out of it.
What actually happened was realizing that I like being around people. I like the diversity. I like community. I like how community works. I like the maybe unrealistic ideals of community from 100 or more years ago, when tribes and villages worked together to do things. We began understanding how biblical communities formed from a diverse group of people, and that thought very much influenced the way we think about business and the marketplace in general. We wanted to develop a community just as much or more than we wanted to develop a business. You've got to make a living to pay the bills, but our passion is in building and sustaining a smaller community that's benefiting the larger community.
Your ultimate goal isn't selling product, but how the community comes together around what you're doing?
Exactly. We found ourselves with a team of 25-30 folks, and only three or four of us are paid employees. It's a for-profit model, so we're not out having to raise funds. However, there have been very benevolent people in the community supporting our business. John Wiley at Concept Frames is one of those. He read a newspaper article about an aquaponics project we did, and he approached us and said, "I really like what you're doing, and I want to get behind it. I want to help seed it to see it flourish." He's a very community-driven, benevolent person who is getting toward his retirement years, and he wants to see the community that blessed him so much continue to flourish. We’ve been the beneficiaries of situations just like that.
It's one thing to sit in a garage and have cool ideas. It's another thing to be able to take those out and have a brand that people recognize. It's very much a community effort around a for-profit model. Our mission statement and values are helping people grow their own food so they can eat healthy; growing food to sell to people so they can eat healthy, and then educating people around healthy eating and how to prepare food from seed to digestion.
You can do community work in any way. Our vehicle just happens to be trying to get agriculture back to masses of people who happen to be in an urban setting.
How many years have you been doing this?
I started at Liberty in 2009 and began my heavy interest in it. I jumped into a conversation with fellows named John Gruver and Rodney Morris around wanting to start a business. We talked for two to three years about it. John Gruver bought a book on aquaponics, and I read the book cover-to-cover, found a couple more books to go with it, and we launched into an aquaponics project in Rodney Morris' backyard. We then moved over to Johnny Gruver's 3-acre property, where we began to get community recognition for the project. Because of the relationship that was developing there, it was beginning to become less of a commercial aquaponics venture and more of a project for the Gruver family. The CityFarm Project was birthed to be the contractor to finish out that project so they could continue growing their food. While the whole aquaponics venture was going on, we were figuring how to get more people involved with this and how we could serve other people. It was May of 2015 when we got our insurance and license so we could be a legitimate business.
We landed a couple of projects in ‘15, a few more projects in ‘16 and ‘17, and now we’re working on anywhere from eight to a dozen legitimate, decent-sized projects.
The CityFarm Project is strictly a construction-based company that goes out and builds the system. We’re in the process of trying to set up a slightly separate farm venture on a 60-acre plot just south of the Town of Catawba on Joe Johnson Road. We’re hoping to produce broilers, pork, and a market-sized garden out there for the larger community. So that's in the pipeline.
Tell us about your Catawba Science Center project, which is how a lot of folks came to know about the CityFarm Project.
The Science Center project started maybe three years ago, when John Wiley began to say, "You should go talk to them and say here’s what we’re doing, if you ever get into anything like this, know that our services are available." I never got around to doing that, so he did it for me and kind of planted that seed.
A year later, I met a guy named Marcus Miller at Transportation Insight who was starting a community garden group. He really liked the idea of the greenway that's going from downtown to the lake, and wanted his community garden group to be involved in that greenway. They landed at a spot on the SALT Block to do their initial raised garden. When he landed the SALT Block property, they contacted us to build the gardens on the Block.
As that relationship developed between Marcus and the SALT Block folks, Marcus plugged my name with Alan [Barnhart, Catawba Science Center director]. Alan called and said, "We've got a grant, and we'd like to do an aquaponics project. We heard about what you're doing. Let's get together and talk about this."
During my childhood, my grandmother would take us to the Science Center on our Saturdays with her. The Science Center was always a place I loved. It developed my love for science and the natural world in combination with my grandfather's love for agriculture.
As we started our first aquaponics project, I realized how educational it was. It takes the mystery out of the dirt, and explains how, when you put the seed in the ground, you get this fruit. Aquaponics explains that if you get into it deep enough. Early on, me and the guys started talking about how cool it would be to build one of these for the Science Center.
We were finally able to build the educational aquaponics system we’d dreamed of on the SALT Block through the Science Center. To a degree, it was a pinnacle of my young professional career, because it was something we had talked about in the past as just an idea, and here it was in real life. It was especially meaningful to me as a kid from the area, a kid from a home with good parents who stayed together, loved each other and loved us, with grandparents who loved us and poured into us and passed on wisdom, and made sure we were getting out to places like the Science Center.
On some days it's almost an overbearing sense of responsibility to not just make them proud, but also to give back to the community that they've been giving to for years and carry that on. To be able to have the opportunity to be involved in a Science Center aquaponics project that educates kids and helps them reconnect with food, for me it's about being able to leave something behind. The greenhouse is very much a fruit of everything that has come before the CityFarm Project and me as an individual. It puts a great deal of responsibility on me and my wife and my son to continue on that legacy and continue being benevolent to the community that has made opportunities available to us.
Your story reminds me of the idea that it takes a village to make things happen, and it sounds like you’ve found that here in Catawba County. How has that contributed to what you've done and the success you’ve had?
The whole CFP team is 30, 30-plus people depending on how involved certain people are. It’s very much a village effort, very much a tribe effort. We try to get together on an annual basis and have dinner together so everybody can meet each other, even if they don’t know everyone or their relationship to this initiative. It’s neat to see how there's a business owner here, there's an educator here, there's a couple of nurses here... You see how even though they don’t know each other, they’re all feeding into this one idea. They’re doing their own things, and they're giving out of their willingness to want to help the community.
We found that same sentiment after moving onto our little homestead, a 10-acre homestead in South Hickory. It didn’t take too many times for our pigs to get out and run around the neighborhood before we realized there are good people in our area.
We moved onto this property and our eyes got big. My eyes got big. We’re going to do it all! We moved in August and started pigs in September – very, very bad idea. I don't know that we would’ve met any of our neighbors through any other portal except, "Hey! Have you seen the pigs? Sorry about your grass!”
One of our major hands-on guys is Dennis Cook, who lives with his wife Melinda up the hill from us. To a degree, they’re us in 20 years. They raise cows for their consumption and to give away to friends. Our pigs got out one time and ended up at his farm eating his cows' feed, and one of his neighbors came over and asked if I knew Dennis. I didn’t, so he called him. He left work, came home, and before we could even shake hands we’re fencing in the pigs. After 30 or 40 minutes of getting them into the trailer, we finally stopped long enough to introduce ourselves.
Before I knew it, he was bringing me stuff. He’d call me and ask, "Could you use some of these wheels? Our company's getting rid of a bunch of them." He's leaving me bulk trash bags, bringing me hay. He’s another older figure in the community who wants to pour into the younger generation. He's continued to keep our relationship alive. We hang out on a consistent basis and do little farm projects with each other.
Hugh McCameron is another one. He is an older gentleman, 75 or 78 years old, who moved here from out of town. Three years ago, John Wiley sponsored my participation in a master gardening course at the Extension [Catawba County Cooperative Extension], which is a great resource for the county. I sat down beside Hugh on the first day of class, and we got to talking. He’s a homestead at heart kind of guy. I said, "That's a really neat organizer you've got there." It was just this little seven by nine organizer. And he said, "Yeah, you like that? Here, you can have it." First day, hardly even know this guy, and he just hands it to me.
From that, we get to know each other and come to find out, he lives two miles up the road from me. We start to connect outside of class, he starts to get more involved with the business, and now he's one of the people on our board of advisors. He’s very much involved in helping me get organized and keeping my stress level low, because he's just a very calm figure. He’s hired us out to do a little bit of work at his house. For his 50th wedding anniversary, he and his wife contracted us out to build them a greenhouse. He’s just been very hands-on. He’s someone who moved to the county, saw what's going on, and sees that there's a community of people here who want to make the community better. He’s a retired educator, so he's already got a heart for passing on wisdom and passing on knowledge. He’s just another example of how we've just been beneficiaries of a lot of benevolence from a lot of people who have poured into this idea.
It sounds as if you’re fulfilling your mission of actively building community everywhere you go. That's actively happening every time you're reaching out to people, or they're reaching out to you.
Absolutely. We believe that you can’t separate humanity from food and agriculture, so when you give people a connectedness to it, it just brings something alive. It hits a switch. You get a lot of people wanting to “build the barn” too, like a real community barn raising. This business is our metaphorical barn that everybody's jumping in to help build.
Would you talk about the variety of work you do?
Apart from the actual growing and raising and selling of food, we started CFP to help build infrastructure so people could grow their own food. We thought we wanted to do consultation, but that's a hard business to sell. We’re moving into education, but it’s more benevolent education. We thought we could potentially make a full living on making raised gardens, but we found out real quick that that's seasonal. It’s real hard to build an employee team that you can only employ from March to October. It’s beginning to make sense to create other brands that represent a community of people within the CityFarm Project business venture.
One we’re launching this summer is a handyman's guild where we can help fix things. It’s carrying over skills from farming, because you’ve got to know how to fix things out in the field. I've got a couple great guys on the team now who are very smart and have a lot of experience with handyman employment. We’re hoping that will carry us through the winter season. Because of the framing-style carpentry we do with gardens, we're hoping to launch a construction brand next year that helps people build custom lifestyle spaces like patios, carports, sheds, offices, and pool houses. Because we already have earth-moving equipment, expanding into grading and excavation also makes sense.
All of these ideas are opening up doors to build community and help people get healthy, which is where our passions really lie. It really pulls in the sustaining force of what we're doing around what my wife brings to the table, which is healthy living. That’s why I really value the partnership I have with my wife. For me, I'm about farming and being a handyman. But you put the passion of the health side behind it, what my wife brings to the table makes it crucial.
If you met someone who didn't live in Catawba County and they were thinking about coming here to make a life, to take a job, what would you tell them about the community?
We're really passionate about attracting families, young families, young people, and I think the county as a whole is interested in that. What I would say is, if you want opportunity, it's here. If you want a community of people to belong to, you can find it here. If you want a purpose for your life, you can find that here. The CityFarm Project is just one little pocket. There are pockets of people all around the county that are very similar and provide a place of belonging.
There aren’t too many places in our country where you can go to the mountains and be there in an hour, or go to the beach and be there by lunch. We live in a beautiful part of the country, and it's a relatively safe place to live. It's not without its problems, but you're going to find that anywhere. There's opportunity, there's economic opportunity, there's opportunity for kids and families, and we've been the beneficiaries of a long, rich tradition of people.
Interviewed on June 27, 2018