WAXHAW, NC – Owned and operated by Sean and Linda Sutton, Piney Oak Farm challenges modern notions of what it means to farm. The Suttons farm in their one-acre yard, cultivating a third to a half an acre of their property.
“There’s a lot of small farms popping up around the United States right now,” says Sean. “We believe in turning lawns into food, and we want to show everyone what you can do with very little land. If everyone did this, we could cut down on our carbon footprint, we could bring food local, and we could build our communities.”
Piney Oak Farm prides itself on being sustainable, a buzzword means different things to different people. “For us, it means leaving the land in better condition than when we got here,” says Sean, “to create soil that can sustain itself rather than have chemical inputs. That’s what sustainable means for us.”
Pesticide-free is another buzzword in farming these days, but the Suttons take it a step further: they farm their land by hand, avoiding any heavy machinery. “It’s 1800s technology we’re using here!” says Sean. “We don’t believe in tractors, we don’t see their worth. That’s part of our giving back to the soil. We’re no-till; we don’t dig, we don’t bother the Earth at all.”
While it would be impossible to operate a tractor effectively on such a small plot of land, the Suttons are motivated by more than practicality. “Humans know so little about soil,” says Sean. “I’ve heard that we only know 2-3% of the total knowledge about soil, but what we are learning is there’s a delicate balance between fungi and bacteria and all the life that is inside of our soil and how those ecosystems work. Fungi are these little strands that go through the earth. Every time you till, you’re breaking that up so it has to start again, or maybe you’re taking out a beetle colony that would come through and kill your aphids. By just leaving the soil the way it is, we’re letting it naturally build itself.”
It may sound new-age, but it works. “We get the same results if not better, by not tilling,” says Sean, remarking that he’s talked to other local farmers who spend up to a third of their time weeding. “I don’t think I’ve weeded in two years. Maybe I pull a couple things out while I’m planting, but with no-till farming, there’s practically no weeding.” Moreover, the Suttons feel no-till farming helps them understand the land in a way machine-farming does not. “It gets us closer to the land,” says Sean. “The view of your land from the seat of a tractor is very different than if you’re actually in the bed.”
When the Suttons moved to their home in Waxhaw six years ago, they knew they wanted to have a garden, so they started with one small bed in the backyard. “I always loved gardening, growing things,” says Linda, who grew up in China. “Growing up, my parents always had a nice garden; they grew everything they ate. We didn’t have grocery stores growing up. You had to grow everything, and I always wanted to grow things, too. When we lived in apartments, I had plants everywhere.”
So how did they get from one small garden bed to a half acre? “The curse of YouTube, right?” says Sean. “It’s addictive. You start having a few successes and you’re like hey, maybe I should try more, and then you fail and you don’t like that, so you’ve got to go bigger to figure things out. I just kind of got the bug.”
Now the Suttons sell their produce year-round at the Waxhaw Farmers Market. In addition to a variety of vegetables like kale, salad greens, celery, arugula, pak choi and spinach, carrots and cabbage, Linda also sells a variety of fresh flowers. Originally, Linda grew the flowers for her own enjoyment and rarely even cut them; now she sells bouquets and arrangements at both the Waxhaw Farmers Market and Union Market on Providence Road.
Maintaining a small farm like Piney Oak brings unique struggles, not the least of which is farming while holding down full time jobs. Employees at Whole Foods, the Suttons are part of the 60% of American farmers who have second jobs. “We always say we are small, but for two people with full time jobs, this keeps us very busy,” says Linda. “Today and tomorrow, we’ll harvest for the market,” adds Sean, “and then we go back to work after the market on Saturday, rinse and repeat. It’s seven days a week.”
Despite the challenges of maintaining a small, no-till farm, the Suttons remain grateful, humble and happy. While they occasionally toss around the idea of moving to a larger piece of land, ultimately they’re happy where they are. “It took so much to build this,” says Sean. “I don’t know if I could walk away.” They’re already planning to expand into other parts of their yard, and ultimately, they hope they can spend less time working for others and more time working on the farm.
“We’re just two normal people growing food,” concludes Sean. “Nothing romantic about us really!”
You can find Piney Oak Farm’s produce and flowers at the Waxhaw Farmers Market weekly. Follow what’s going on at the farm on Facebook @pineyoakfarm.