Farming is not just a hobby for Joe Deal and his father, Butch Deal, but it is a way of life. Deal Farms of Franklin has been a consistent local source of food for the people of Macon County since the early 1950s, and the family has farmed for seven generations and counting. With over 500 acres of farmland and over 30 different types of vegetables and various fruits made available at their local fruit stands, the locally owned family farm does in fact have a stellar reputation among Maconians and in the surrounding area.
Since 1951, the family has ran a commercial farm in Macon County , and have since expanded their market share to Atlanta and Asheville. Locally, Deal Farms supplies Ingles stores with their products, freshly made and supplied–something competitors simply cannot match.
Tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers are the bread and butter of the farm’s products, but a quick peak at their website reveals a plethora of foods. A variety of onions, beans, broccoli, strawberries, blueberries, potatoes, and apples can be accessed locally because of the Deal family, something their customers wholeheartedly appreciate. “You can’t beat what you can get there. The quality and price of their fruits and vegetables are wonderful,” said Mary Wallace, a life-long resident of Macon County. Wallace, an 84 year-old grandmother of five and great-grandmother of three, looks forward to spring-time every year to take advantage of Deal’s products.
Their farm helps out local residents in more ways than one. Joe and his father lease much of their farmland, which he says helps a lot of people on fixed incomes make ends meet. “It’s a burden they don’t have to bare when we can take that off of their hands,” said Joe Deal, a full-time farmer since 2007.
When asked why he decided to take up farming, Deal said “I think farming is what I was meant to do. I graduated from N.C. State and worked in the office world for three years, and had to be away from the family most of the week, and decided it wasn’t for me. So I decided to come back here and farm. It’s not always easy, but it’s different every day. It’s not monotonous work and it’s something I was born to do,” he said.
With a degree in biological and agricultural engineering, Deal grew tired of the Raleigh life and came back home, where he now works the farm while raising four children with his wife, Devon. Joe’s father, Butch, has been farming full-time since 1976. Joe’s grandparents, Bobbie and Elsie Deal, began their fruit stand operation– located off of Highway 64 east of Franklin–in 1951.
Asked how their family has been able to compete in the marketplace, Deal responded by dispelling some of the myths about the farming industry. “Agriculture is still the largest industry in the state and a lot of people don’t know that,” said Deal. “98 percent of our farms here in North Carolina are family-owned and they bring about $75 billion worth of money to this state every year, not to mention good food for a lot of people,” he said. “The idea that corporate farms have taken over is just a misconception in the media.”
Still, the importance of finding your niche in the market is essential for people wanting to make farming a full-time occupation. “I spent five years trying to figure things out, the logistics so to speak,” he said. There are organizations throughout the state who assist Deal Farms with advertising initiatives and other efforts. Deal mentioned Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) as an example.
“They are a non-profit so that helps them put together grants for local farmers in Western North Carolina. They helped us put a billboard up a few years ago, and they also put our profiles up in Ingles stores so shoppers can know where their produce and vegetables are coming from. I think all of that helps us a lot,” said Deal about ASAP–an organization aimed at creating and expanding local food markets in WNC. Deal also said the local food movement has done a lot to create a good environment for local farmers, as more and more people are wanting to know where there food is coming from. Larger corporate farms are at a strong disadvantage when it comes to trust and supplying fresh products to customers.
Enjoying one’s work is said to be one key ingredient for a happy life, but there is also a great deal of uncertainty Deal and his father have to cope with year in and year out. Sometimes, as they will tell you, mother nature is not always kind for people making their living off of the land.
While 2011 was a better year for Deals’ bottom line, the previous three years were extremely frustrating, he admits. Droughts are a common threat to any farm, and from 2008-2010, the dry weather Deal Farms carrying on legacy amidst a changing North Carolina economy and intense heat created unfavorable conditions for their crops. “2008 was really dry and hot. 2009 was hot and dry until September, and then we got washed away by some heavy rains that month. 2010 was very hot and dry, so you never can tell. It’s uncertain and unpredictable,” said Deal.
“You can buy insurance on certain crops, but there also crops that are not insurable,” he added. “The USDA provides insurance on all uninsurable products, but you never get the money and time invested if weather spoils it,” he said. Basically, a farmer will get their seed money back, if anything, from the government in the event of a disaster declaration.
Timing and predicting are one and the same in farming too, especially as winter begins to give way to spring. An untimely frost can destroy a crop all together. “That happened to us last year,” Deal said. “We didn’t pick a single apple on nine acres because of a late frost and I’m worried this year too,” he said. The warm winter has caused some of their products to bud and bloom earlier this year. Anyone who has lived in Southern Appalachia for an extended period of time knows the unpredictability of March and April weather.
“I’ve seen frost as late as May,” Deal said. “We’re really careful about seeding too early. You try to do the best you can and the safest strategy is to just wait until after May 10th or the 15th to get started,” he said in acknowledging that time and money are invaluable assets to a local full time farmer.
“Those three years were tough. 2011 was a little better, and I hope 2012 will be even better. All you can do is pray and hope for the best. There are no atheist farmers,” Deal noted with a smile.
Local consumers do not have to wait too long to purchase Deals’ products. Their fruit stand is scheduled to open up on Monday, April 23. Their hours of operation are from Monday-Friday, 9a.m. to 6p.m. Their annual plow day celebration will be held on Saturday, May 5. “I’ve always enjoyed plow day because it allows people to preserve a tradition and heritage–of how things used to be,” said Deal. “I think it’s good for us and it’s good for anyone wanting to remember the past. I’m a big fan of that.”