WELL FED FARM
Asheville, North Carolina to Floyd, Virginia
Tucked behind a tall fence in the dusty stretches of the Mojave, just a short drive away from Joshua Tree, California, you find Sara and Rich Combs’ renovated 1940s desert oasis. Their love affair with the desert began in 2011, when the couple began escaping there from San Francisco on the weekends. Those transformative getaways inspired them to buy an investment property in town and renovate it using their distinctive design sensibilities. The home quickly became such a popular AirBnB destination that they rarely had the opportunity to stay there themselves.
In 2013, craving a new adventure, Rich and Sara left their full-time web designer jobs and began freelancing. This freelance flexibility allowed them to work from the road and they embarked on a world tour, finding inspiration in the places they visited and the people they met along the way. Upon returning to San Francisco, they settled back into routine and continued escaping to Joshua Tree whenever their property was free. With a steady stream of rental income and little opportunity to enjoy their desert getaway, they began exploring the idea of buying a second property so they might actually be able to spend more time there. The promise of a breathtaking cactus garden is what initially piqued their interest on their now home.
The listing photographs of the gardens were so beautiful they couldn’t help but take a tour, even though it wasn’t in the price range they had initially imagined. Sara and Rich’s parents, who were in town visiting, came along for the ride. As soon as they walked through the gate they knew they had stumbled onto something truly special. The property offered a large open floorplan hacienda with vaulted ceilings and ample natural light, and a smaller, but equally open and light-filled, casita. Although it was in desperate need of some major aesthetic renovations, the bones of the place were great and the well-established landscaping was incredible. Their parents, also charmed by the place, encouraged Sara and Rich to take the risk and go out of their comfort zone to invest in this unique home.
In order to offset renovation costs, they opened up their personal home for photoshoots and next door casita for overnight stays. It took nearly a year and a half to renovate the two buildings. Looking back, they say it was both the best and toughest times they’ve experienced. They renovated the Casita first for rental income, and lived in the Hacienda as they renovated the space. Most of the renovations they did themselves, learning a myriad of valuable skills as they went. They documented their renovation process on Instagram and quickly amassed a loyal following of people who loved their design sensibilities. By the end, they had created something together that they were proud of, a sanctuary in the desert for people looking to reflect, reset and create.
Guests flocked to The Joshua Tree house in droves and the couple began spending more and more time there. Seeing how transformative and rejuvenating these spaces were for their city-dwelling visitors, Sara and Rich found it increasingly difficult to head back to San Francisco themselves. In early 2016, they decided to throw caution to the wind and move permanently to their Joshua Tree home. At first they weren’t sure if moving away from the city would mean that their freelance design opportunities would dry up, but they were willing to hustle even harder to make it possible to live in the desert full time. Serendipitously, Sara and Rich found that their move actually presented them with more varied creative freelance opportunities, not less. Brands and businesses began hiring them not only to do web design, but also consult on interior design and space build outs. In the last year alone they’ve designed commercial spaces such as the Assembly in San Francisco, and authored their first book At Home in Joshua Tree: A Field Guide to Desert Living. When not working on brand and design projects, Sara and Rich can be found exploring the myriad of trails in the National Park, adventuring in their vintage International Harvester Scout and sharing the serenity they’ve found in the Mojave with their evolving door of guests at The Joshua Tree House. For this couple, escaping to the rural expanses of the desert full time was a gamble well worth taking.
Why did you decide to leave the city?
After our first son was born, we felt a pull to be closer to family and say goodbye to the high desert. Santa Fe, New Mexico had been our home for many years, but I wanted my babe to roll on grass dotted with violets, not crawl through the dusty goat-head studded earth (which was our current yard situation). My then husband Gabriel (now ex-partner) and I both craved the lush verdant mountains of our youth, so we decided to move back east. I dreamt of a large vegetable garden to tend, harvest, and cook from for our family. Our original plan when leaving New Mexico included starting a business with Gabriel’s father, who had an exporting license and lived in Argentina. We were playing around with the different ideas and how it would all look - importing wine, cow hides, and antiques up to our new home base in western North Carolina.
The universe had other plans. All within a year and a half Quique (my father in law) sadly and unexpectedly passed away, and my second pregnancy unraveled with an emergency cesarean surgery and the preterm birth of our second son at 25 weeks. After months and months spent with our babe in the hospital, Gabriel and I were busting at the seams for change, for space, for privacy. In hindsight, we were both desperately needing to take charge of something of our owning making that could help ground and refuel us. (Ironic, I know, as farming is one of the most tumultuous, even uncontrollable at times, enterprises to undertake.) Now more than ever we wanted to have access to the most healthy, nutrient dense foods possible for our young boys and we understood the best way to obtain that was going to be by jumping in and doing it ourselves.
Why did you choose Floyd, VA?
We had learned from our few years in Black Mountain and Asheville that North Carolina just wasn’t for us, and this became even more apparent during a search for land outside of Asheville after we had decided to put our West Asheville bungalow on the market. We kept running into the fact that those available small pockets of farm land we could afford came along with unfriendly old timers who viewed us as unwanted outsiders taking away their land and way of being. Bottom line, it just was not going to be a good fit.
Frustrated, one day on a whim, I came up with the proposition of moving our search up to a small town close to where I had grown up. As a child, my family had a tradition of driving up to Floyd to get a tree each year for Christmas. I knew there was a food co-op and a great old time music scene there but, honestly, that was about it. So, we drove up for a visit and, after that, we both just kind of knew this was IT. We had come…HOME.
The folks we happened to meet that one day were incredibly friendly and kind. We discovered a countryside of green rolling hills and abundant water with incredible mountaintop views. Floyd was full of artists, makers, and musicians. There were just so many people passionate about food and farming. Everyone we met was so welcoming. From the old timers in the local diner and hardware store (which are located side by side and on the corner of the one and only stop light found in the entire county), to the established back-to-the-landers who had been here for decades, to younger families much like ourselves who had recently gravitated to the area as well. When I discovered there was also a small parent run independent elementary school, that sealed the deal, and we began looking for land with a recommended realtor.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the transition from city to small town? What challenges came later?
Honestly, good restaurants! It was difficult giving up amazing food delivery, sushi, the hole in the wall Greek restaurant, the Whole Foods… Our closest ABC store (VA controlled and run liquor store) was an hour away after we moved to the farm! So, yes, there was that culture shock of an adjustment. On the flip-side, it really lit a fire underneath me to learn to cook everything I missed.
Oh, and the absolute dark here took some getting used to as well. I still vividly remember driving up the long gravel driveway after midnight our first night arriving here with a loaded moving truck, two sleeping boys, a dog and two cats. We were exhausted from loading that truck all day and trying to avoid all the deer that kept running out in front of us on the drive up through winding, unfamiliar, tiny country roads. When we got inside the farm house and turned on the lights, I had a small panic attack from the extreme dark of those gaping, curtain-less windows! It’s funny now in hindsight, but at the time I felt like there could be anyone or anything out there looking back in. It felt the opposite of how country relaxing was supposed to feel. I am happy to report that as we got to know our land that feeling completely disappeared, and the only time I draw closed the curtains now is when the temperature severely drops during the winter at night ;)
How has professional life changed since moving away from the city?
Completely. In Santa Fe, we were working in restaurants and I was also apprenticing in the collections departments of two museums and later took a job with one of them. I have a degree in Art History and at the time never planned to become a farmer! I loved meeting with and shopping from local farmers at the markets, even visiting farms, but that was the extent of my connection to the vegetables and proteins I used in my cooking aside from say a pot of cherry tomatoes on the back porch. If someone had told me 20 years ago I’d be hand-milking my own herd of heritage breed cows, making cheese and butter, curing homegrown and harvested pork, butchering chickens, and tending a large market and kitchen garden along with fruit trees & grape vines…I would have laughed.
What do you appreciate most about the life you’ve created here?
I love the wide-open space, the solitude, the woods full of mushrooms, the rhythms of the land and the beasts we care for here throughout the seasons…the perennial gardens I have established full of medicinals, flowers, fruit and nut trees. As an introvert, I am well suited to this type of living. I draw satisfaction from knowing just how strong and capable I truly have become living in this environment and understanding that one way or another I can figure out a way to get it done. (I mean, I may or may not have learned to castrate piglets from You Tube tutorials.) I can now depend on my own resourcefulness and industriousness and feel that at this point I can handle most of what comes my way with a tenacity and a (sometimes) grace I never knew I had in me before. That all comes from failing A LOT, getting older, being a mother, making it through a divorce, and of course tending all matter of beasts these last ten years. I love shopping from my freezer and walking out to the garden right before dinner to help guide my decision about what to include on the plate for the evening. Most of all, of course, I love our kitchen and the cooking and feeding of my family and friends.
Why did you decide to start Well Fed Farm?
Well we dove head first into homesteading after deciding we were going to live this lifestyle. I always knew in my gut, after making this decision to farm, that stewarding rare, heritage breeds was just naturally going to be our focus and that doing so with organic methods was just the way it would have to be done. These methods would draw from what we had in abundance…beautiful woods and forage lush pastures. We began with the firm intention to have our end goal be a closed loop system so that definitely has helped define our choices along the way. It was just the only way we ever saw it all being done. It just made sense.
We began to harvest, and cook, just to feed our family at first, but then it carried over in an abundance to our extended families and friends and which turned into sales at markets for a while and then other clientele came to us via word of mouth. There was a definite recalibration and redefinition (still happening!) that was inevitable after my separation/ divorce which led to me taking over all farm matters here as a solo endeavor.
Is there anything you miss about living in a more urban area?
Sure. Cultural diversity, museum exhibitions, ethnic food…
Would you ever consider moving back to a big city?
Never say never, but it would have to be something pretty big and pretty great that would convince me to walk away from my life here.
What advice do you have for people who want to leave the city but don’t know how to start planning their exit strategy?
Read, dream, sketch, plan… but most importantly get out there and hit the road, visit some places while talking to people along the way and getting your hands dirty.
Did you have any experience growing food prior to moving here?
A bit. I grew up visiting with family every summer who had a huge farm down in Georgia. When I was a teenager and my family moved out of town to have land, we kept a decent sized summer garden and I had experience keeping my horses then as well. We never kept chickens or pigs or goats or cattle or anything like that, though.
What advice would you give to someone interested in growing their own food?
Research, visit and talk to as many different folks as possible. Try to really listen to what works for them, even if you kind of know that it might not be the way you want to do things yourself. It’s all about piecing together just the right strategy for you and your crew or, at least, putting various techniques and tools into the pot, just in case. And, of course, offer yourself up as free labor as much as you can in the process! Talking and reading only gets you so far. Bottom line is there is a wicked and on-going learning curve to farming veg or animals, period. Trial and error, unlimited resourcefulness, and an ability to bounce back and not chastise yourself over poor mistakes or grave miscalculations is something that one is going to need to embrace practicing.
Do you notice a trend of young people wanting to leave city life behind? If yes, why do you think that is?
For us and for a lot of our friends and contemporaries we were just getting priced out. The idea of a slower more fulfilling way of life and raising kids to see where their food comes from and what it takes is also a big draw. Honestly, farming with kids is hard. Good but hard.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
You do not have to love your neighbors, having them over for sunset cocktails once a week on the back porch with a dinner and bonfire later that night (although, cheers to you if you do!), but you realistically do need to keep on good working terms with your neighbors whether or not you share the same values or have a whole lot in common. Out here everyone leans on each other, here and there, throughout the months and years. It behooves you to have their numbers in your phone and have each other’s backs in case of who knows what unexpected things that can and eventually will transpire…please believe me.
Small communities are symbiotic. Being friendly, offering a hand, graciously accepting help, taking care of neighbors and friends is just the plain, decent way to be.
I always say ‘thanks’ to people for their help with some of our pork chops, a bit of fresh cheese, eggs, or bread. Also, try not to go to war with anyone over anything, ever. (If you can help it.) Good fences do tend to make good neighbors. Wave. Smile. Be nice. Mind your own business (to a certain degree). Return any mason jars you received as a food gift back to their owner clean and preferably full of something else delicious you can share with them.
Ha! How’s that for a boiled down country living manners primer?
What hopes do you have for the future of food and farming in America?
Food sovereignty, continued and evolving animal welfare standards becoming the norm with quick on farm deaths at harvest, USDA mobile butchery units, more and continuing diversity of breeds, and customers who actually understand why food from small farms should cost more than corporate mass commodity meats.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming hero’s that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
I remember reading Gene Logsdon’s The Contrary Farmer and feeling so much, YES! (All his stuff is great.) Country Women: A Handbook for the New Farmer by Jeanne Tetrault is much older but had a big impact on me. Goat Song by Brad Kessler was a favorite back when I was neighborhood locked and dreaming of having my own goat herd. John Seymour’s Self Sufficient Life was fantastic. The Foxfire series, Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin… Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country by Les & Carol Scher was a little outdated even when I read it (over ten years ago) but was great for understanding the importance and impact of certain things pertaining to purchasing and owning rural land such as: right of way, zoning, water rights etc. Oh, and my favorite A Patten Language and Gaia’s Garden are good ones to throw in too.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Get all my girls artificially inseminated in tandem so everyone calves together during the months of late April early May 2019. Finish building a new, strong, 10-foot garden deer fence. Perhaps try a new heritage breed of hog. (Specifically, I am interested in the lard type Mangalitsa that take a bit longer to grow out but are amazing in cured preparations). We’ve also been saving to get solid perimeter woven wire fencing professionally installed around most of our pasture acreage and hope to get that infrastructure in place soon. Finally, begin our attached greenhouse that has languished as a project on the back burner ever since we had its foundation dug and laid many years back. I also hope to begin offering some farm based cooking classes again. And, a R & D trip over to Spain wouldn’t hurt either. Who am I fooling? This is a list that could go on for days!
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