Sowing Resilience Heroes: Durrant Farms

Tom and Whitney Durrant with some of their alpacas; photo courtesy of Durrant Farms

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  • “It's a really awful thing when children have to go hungry,” said Tom Durrant of Asheville.
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Tom and Whitney Durrant have faced some unique challenges as first-generation farmers in a post-pandemic world, and alpacas are one of their unique solutions.

Durrant Farms is on 86 acres just outside of Asheville. When the Durrants purchased the farm, it was in pretty bad shape. They have rehabilitated several pastures and renovated a small apartment they rent as an Airbnb. Their income from Airbnb has helped fund the renovation of agriculture projects and connected the Durrants with the tourist economy and a community interested in agriculture. The Durrants own a small herd of alpacas, which are a big part of what draws people to the farm. 

“It’s definitely the cutest thing on the farm,” said Tom. 

Photo Courtesy of Durrant Farms

While not directly related to agriculture, alpacas benefit the farm by drawing people to it, and their feces are a great source of fertilizer for crops. 

“My background is environmental science and land use planning, and so for me, a big part of this has been trying to find a way to be more mindful about how we’re consuming resources and how we’re utilizing the land in our own experience,” said Tom Durrant. “We both really wanted to find a way to live a lot closer to the food that we’re eating and consuming and to live a lifestyle that gives us a bit more time to do things we enjoy, which is a lot of gardening and staying close to our animals.”

“I’ve just always been more sustainably minded and wanted to live closer to the land and know where my food comes from,” added Whitney. 

As new first-generation farmers, Tom and Whitney saw input costs climb after the pandemic.

“The cost of fertilizers shot up dramatically,” said Tom. “I think that if you’re not coming at it from a creative mindset or kind of a whole-picture mindset, it can be very daunting to try to break through those initial costs for sure.”

Photo Courtesy of Durrant Farms.

“It seems almost impossible to make a living off just farming. You really have to have multiple streams of income in order to support the farm,” added Whitney.

The Durrants said that one of the biggest challenges in agriculture right now is getting started and building momentum.

“A great example is with our garden,” said Tom. “We have an area behind our house, and when we moved here, we knew it was a perfect place for a garden. It had been a pig sty before, like a big pen and 50 pigs. So we started building this garden last year, and we realized there was an old septic field under there, and there’s just a number of small hurdles that have taken us a whole year to where we finally have garden beds in place, and we were able to be sure that we can grow food there. So really building momentum is a challenge for any person who’s trying to start farming on land that isn’t generational or doesn’t come with knowledge or experience.”

The Durrants’ location outside of Asheville is considered to be a food desert. Within a 10-15-minute drive, there is only one local grocery store; the only other option is Dollar General. The next closest grocery store is a 20-minute drive away.

Photo from Flickr.

“A lot of people who live, either at or near the poverty line can get access to cheaper foods that way, and most of it usually is processed,” added Whitney. “I think people are catching on to that, and some Dollar Generals will carry some fresh food.”

According to data from the US Census Bureau, as of 2021, there are only 77 grocery stores in Buncombe County.

Tom sees the lack of grocery stores spurring people to grow their own food.

“I think that really feeds something that’s happening in a for-profit grocery environment, where there’s a lot less choice being made around where people are living, and a lot more choice being made around where dollars can be made,” said Tom. “I think that you’ll find a lot of people in food deserts who are trying to grow some of their own food. A lot of our neighbors who are able-bodied and have the available land and access to sunlight, where they have land, they are growing something for themselves.”

The Durrants see opportunities to reduce food insecurity in their community. 

“At farmer’s markets, people who have access to SNAP benefits can use their SNAP benefits to purchase from local producers, and the local producers are often able to double the SNAP benefits for the person who’s using them,” said Tom. “Finding ways to tie in the programs that already support people who are experiencing food insecurity and local agriculture. That’s a double win where it’s possible.”

According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), in Buncombe County, 7.8% of the population receives SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, compared to 12.1% statewide.

However, research has shown that these numbers are not always accurate.

“Research has shown that people underreport their participation in SNAP by between 20 and 50%, meaning in some cases, half the people getting SNAP tell the survey that they don’t receive it,” said Dr. Jeffrey Dorfman, a Hugh C. Kiger Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University. “Researchers need to be very careful and recognize this problem when using survey data.”

For more coverage of North Carolina heroes who are protecting the food supple chain in their communities, visit Carolina Journal’s sowing resilience page.