SILK HOPE, N.C. — Emily Anderson and Kellie Ann Grubbs had an unusual housewarming on Easter Sunday.
Instead of bringing gifts, the women's dozen guests hauled scavenged pallets and boards to the edge of a muddy field, where they built a barn for goats alongside the lumbering hogs and pecking chickens of Okfuskee Farm in Silk Hope, N.C.
Small, organic-minded farms in Chatham County are making use of bartering, sharing labor and passing up a paycheck as part of the search for sustainability. And partners Anderson and Grubbs are joining the movement with a goat-dairy venture on borrowed land.
In exchange for weekly labor, Grubbs and Anderson will earn a place to graze their dairy goats and set up a moveable cabin as their principal residence, skipping the high land costs that often nip farms in the bud.
"Land access seemed like something that was five years out. We thought we'd be farm interns until then," said Grubbs, 26.
For Okfuskee Farm owner Bobby Tucker, the couple represents another set of hands on the always busy 20-acre farm, which he runs when he's not working a full-time water resources engineering job. Grubbs and Anderson's herd of six goats also will play into Tucker's approach to farming — the animals' foraging and defecation will build Okfuskee's soil, improving it for future crops.
"You're making the land more productive," said Tucker, who also has paid employees. "And whether you're directly making money on it, it's more eyes ... on the farm, and you've got a bigger pool of community to tackle those jobs."
Fifteen miles up N.C. 87, Saxapahaw Village Farm is exploring other alternative labor practices. Suzanne Nelson, 35, has brought on a crew of "free-will nonemployees," to support the exponential expansion of her flocks and herds.
Instead of wages, she offers meals, guidance and experience for a crew of three, who also hold jobs at the Saxapahaw General Store. The store, in turn, takes a below-average cut when it sells Village Farm's meat and poultry.
These kinds of deals can be helpful during a farm's formative years, when money's best spent on infrastructure and animals, said Nelson, a former reporter on Washington politics. And while she hopes to cut paychecks eventually, she also sees bartering and informal volunteerism as an extension of the sustainable food ethos.
"It's not just trading this for that," she said. "It's really recognizing the shared destiny. … We are building this together."
Farms have always employed unique economic systems, from feudalism to sharecropping, agritourism and communism, so it's perhaps not surprising to find a new wave of experimentation beyond the suburban fringe.
"That's the biggest expense for farmers … labor, so of course they're going to seek alternative ways," said Debbie Roos, an agricultural agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension. Even older growers in Chatham and Alamance counties have entered unusual financial relationships to bring new farmers to their land, she said.
Bartering and nonmonetary deals also bring their share of questions about what's fair to workers and landowners, and just how sustainable the economics are.
Ultimately, Grubbs and Anderson aren't sure their venture will turn enough profit to allow them to make a living. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduates know they'll need to keep their restaurant jobs as they search for a life off the grid. Their path isn't sure, but they've got a place now to call their own. Bobby Tucker, meanwhile, will have a few extra hands as he builds Okfuskee Farm.
He hopes his land becomes a model for more productive and organic growing methods, and he's willing to explore new financial techniques, too.
"We've got to be something that's very different than the norm," Tucker said. "The idea of working a job to get money to go and buy land, it's just not that feasible for most people."