By Nathan Baker
Janet Mahala wants visitors to her small produce stand in Laurel Bloomery to find something they might not be able to find in Mountain City and Damascus.
“I want them to have an experience,” she said last week, standing alongside a row of bushel baskets filled with apples, bananas and seed potatoes as the noisy compressor motor in an ancient display refrigerator in the corner threatened to walk the eggs it contained out the front door and down the street.
“I don’t want them to just come and shop, I want them to smell the apples, to look at them and mix them up; they don’t have to buy a bag of just one thing. I want them to come in here and know me and know that the food they’re buying was grown just up the road.”
Mahala and her husband Barney adopted the small community of Laurel Bloomery, near the Virginia state line in Johnson County, four years ago when they built their house and moved to the Greer Branch Road property.
For a few years, she managed the Mast General Store, a 130-year-old traditional country store in Boone, N.C., but the 45-minute commute soon grew tiring, and Mahala decided to turn her attention toward agriculture.
“I found financially that it seemed I could never afford to make the transition, so I just did it,” she said. “I realized that if I waited until I could afford it, I was going to be too old to work once I got there.”
So last year, Mahala set out a handful of crops and bought a small herd of Dexter cows to keep on the 2.5-acre farm.
Espousing a model of sustainability, she cultivated Laurel Creek Farms with traditional farming
techniques and organic ambitions.
“For me, having a self-sustaining system is what it’s about,” she said. “We’re taking the manure from the cows and putting back into soil, we use draft horses because it’s easier on the soil than the larger machinery.
“We’re going back to what people used to do and what a lot of farmers around here still do.”
She hosted a roadside stand on the property and visited a few local farmers markets to peddle her produce, but realized her veggies needed more exposure.
“The farm’s off the beaten path where it is,” she said. “This year I decided to look for a better location where we’d get more traffic.”
She found it in the aging wooden structure at the corner of Highway 91 and Gentry Creek Road, and opened up shop eight weeks ago with a few products she sourced from other local producers.
“I like this building,” she said, “It needs a lot of love, but it just goes along with the theme of self-sustainability. I’ll slowly fix this place up as I can afford it — it’s much more environmentally friendly than building new.”