Preserving a Farm’s Beauty in North Carolina’s Big Sandy Mush

How one couple restored a bucolic farmstead and realized a dream.

By Des Keller

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Kim, Dave and their constant companion, Gus.

Dave Everett has driven us in a four-wheeler up a steep slope of wooded pasture on his western North Carolina farm. We stop at a flattened grassy patch that affords sumptuous views of the Big Sandy Mush Valley and several 4,500-foot-plus peaks beyond.

There are hints of yellow and orange in the hardwoods on this mid-October day, but the temperatures are relatively warm, the grass still green. Fooled by Dave’s presence in the pasture in the early afternoon, a handful of their 30-head of cattle begin bellowing, anticipating a meal.

“To me this is the embodiment of what we’re trying to do with our land,” Dave says, nodding toward the fields, woods and streams spread out below, much of which he and his wife, Kim, have helped restore and preserve. “We said that we want this farm to be recognizable to folks who lived here 100 years before us.”

In the bucolic Sandy Mush area, such preservation efforts are not as easy as they may sound. The region—actually two valleys with several coves in each—is within 15 miles of the bustling mountain tourist mecca of Asheville. Nearby mountains and valleys are prime targets for vacation and second home developments consisting of 3,500-square-foot “cabins.” Kim and Dave themselves first used the area as a getaway when living near Washington, D.C.

Simply put, the value of the land in the area is worth a lot more for development than it is for farming or open space.

Despite that, owners of nearly 25% of the valley’s land (approximately 7,000 acres) have placed their property in conservation easements. Going forward, the easements require the land be kept in agriculture, forest and/or open space regardless of who owns the property. This is true for the Everetts, who have put their entire 130-acre farm in such an easement, which is held by the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District.

“That one-quarter of the land in this valley is in conservation easement is pretty darned impressive,” says Dave. “There are few things in life that carry your imprint into perpetuity for the enjoyment of future generations. That is hard to put a price tag on.”

Shared Vision

The Big Sandy Mush and Little Sandy Mush valleys were first settled by Europeans about 1800. The Cherokee lived in the area for many generations prior. Despite its proximity to Asheville, the mountains ringing these valleys made the region relatively inaccessible even into the 20th century.

Today, Sandy Mush is prized for its scenic beauty and agriculture, consisting of small farms raising cattle, sheep, pork, poultry, honey, vegetables and other crops. In addition, the area has become a haven for various artisans and artists.

The Everetts have helped restore and preserve their 130-acre farm.

The Everetts have helped restore and preserve their 130-acre farm.

“The overall goal,” says Terri Wells, the ninth generation of her family to farm in Sandy Mush, not far from the Everetts, “is to conserve our valuable farmland so that people will be able to continue to farm in this valley for generations to come. This agricultural heritage and our scenic mountains inspire many of the artists who call this home.”

Wells’ Bee Branch Farm produces vegetables and honey, and also provides pasture for a cousin’s cattle operation. In addition, she organizes agritourism experiences to get the public to the farms and visit craftspeople in the area.

“We are working with the Buncombe County preservation coordinator on a Farm Heritage Trail that should be ready by April 2016,” says Wells. The scenic driving and biking route will traverse the northwest part of the county through prime conserved farmland and will include stops and events at various farms.

Labor of Love

The grand opening event for the Farm Heritage Trail will take place at the Everetts’ farm. Dave and Kim moved here full time after he retired in 2004. Rehabbing the house and farm has been a labor of love, but their 24/7, 360-day-per-year efforts have been anything but a typical retirement.

The Everetts have cleared overgrown pastures, fixed fences, the house and roads. Riparian buffer strips, 40 feet wide, blanket the banks of the Big Sandy Mush Creek with grasses, shrubs and trees. Fencing the cattle off from the stream and natural springs meant they had to dig a deep well and run 1,800 feet of water lines to several insulated livestock tanks throughout the pastures. This system will serve any future owners of this farm very well.

Only now does Dave consider their operation “break-even,” yet the improvements continue. The Everetts wouldn’t have it any other way.

On the day we visited, the couple were collecting walnuts under a grove on the property. The walnuts will be given to an 88-year-old valley resident who will spend her winter months in front of a fire cracking the nuts and selling the meat come spring.

Then, Dave showed us the small springhouse next to their 105-year-old farmhouse. The spring still regularly trickles from inside the mountain, cooling the structure that, understandably, was used to keep fruit and vegetables into the fall and winter.

“Like many things in the realm of conservation,” says Dave, “it is hard to put a dollar value on what we got in return. I can honestly say having a good crop of bluebirds is hardly differentiated from healthy calves. That’s a good place to be.”