Welcome to Old Milburnie Farm

Daniel Dayton does not like to talk about himself.

We’re sitting outside the little house he lives in at Old Milburnie Farm, and I’m trying to get his life story straight – all 30 years of it. The mere chronology should be simple, but he keeps skimming over parts and skipping around. Our conversation sounds something like this:

Me: So, what countries did you farm in while you were in Europe?

Daniel: Well, after the Peace Corps in Mali I worked on farms in France and Ireland.

Me: Wait, the Peace Corps? In Mali?

This is the first I’ve heard of the Peace Corps in Mali.

Daniel leans back in his rickety wooden chair and pets Abraham – a sturdy but friendly mix of pitbull and something less threatening. He looks up at me – not unkindly – and asks, “How many more questions do you have?”

You know those bumper stickers that say, “I’d rather be [fishing/scrapbooking/riding my Harley/etc.]”? It’s pretty clear to me at this moment that Daniel would rather be farming.

Abraham

Born and raised in Raleigh, Daniel first became interested in farming and environmental stewardship during an Outward Bound course he took in high school. Later, at Warren Wilson College in Asheville he studied sustainable agriculture and biology, and was a member of a garden crew that tended the school’s five-acre farm. After college he took a job at a plant nursery, where he worked to create a biodiesel reactor that would convert used vegetable oil into fuel for the nursery’s tractors.

Daniel’s next adventure took him overseas to rural Mali, where he enlisted in – yes – the Peace Corps for two years. As a PCV, he worked on sustainable agriculture projects. He helped women procure seeds, and taught them about composting, nutrient cycles, and natural herbicides. After the Peace Corps, Daniel traveled around Europe for three months WWOOFing – working on organic vegetable farms that provided him with room and board.

Daniel came home to North Carolina in 2010, and briefly enrolled in a master’s degree program in horticulture at NC State. But the return to academia didn’t suit him, and he decided he was ready to start a farm of his own.

Besides, there was this plot of land. And this girl.

Seedlings

First, the land: One hundred plus acres of fields, woods, and the marshy Beaver Dam Lake had been in Daniel’s family since 1929, the year his great great grandfather and two hunting buddies decided it would make a good hunting property. In the ensuing years, the three men built small cabins. They brought friends, played poker, hunted, and fished. Summer getaways to the property became tradition. Tradition lived on in the children of these hunting buddies, and their children.

The girl – Erika Gutierrez – had a master’s degree in public health from UNC Chapel Hill. Erika knew of the value that farms bring to communities to make them and their residents healthier. The idea of starting a farm that would strengthen the local food system appealed to her. Also, there was Daniel.

The two decided to get their hands dirty, and in 2012, Old Milburnie Farm sprouted on three acres of the Old Milburnie property. Daniel and Erika lived in the original log cabin built by Daniel’s great great grandfather. They grew fresh produce and mushrooms. This spring, they started raising chickens.

Choi
Chard
Chard 2
Farming isn’t easy of course, especially without the infrastructure and machinery that are commonplace at larger operations. Even with 12-hour workdays, it’s hard to turn a profit. Moreover, both Daniel and Erika have taken time to pursue professional development opportunities away from the farm site (a good thing for ambitious young entrepreneurs, but it means less hands working the soil). Erika kept the farm running largely on her own while Daniel was still pursuing his master’s degree. Then, last year, Erika left to spend two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, a step she felt was necessary to move her career in public health forward.

And then there are the hardships that are more unexpected, and sometimes tragic: this winter, a snowstorm-related power surge set fire to the historic cabin the couple lived in, burning it to the ground with two dogs inside.

But farming teaches you resiliency and optimism, and gives you the ability to adjust your outlook to account for bad weather. You turn the soil, and plant again.

Luckily, Daniel and Erika have a herd of fans – supporters of all things locally grown – cheering them on from the sidelines (while trying not to trample the seedlings).

This Sunday, these supporters will come to Old Milburnie for a dinner featuring ingredients grown by Daniel and Erika and other local farm entrepreneurs. Farmers’ Chef James Edwards – who also helps with farming tasks while Erika is away – will cook the meal. There will be an auction of VIP dinners at Raleigh restaurants. It’s going to be a good night.

The dinner, of course, is about more than just celebrating local food – it’s about supporting the people behind the local food. Young farm entrepreneurs who really did come back to the land – their land.

They’d rather be farming after all.

Notebook