Heifer International is partnering with U.S. farmers like Ann Rose, a former nurse who swapped her hospital job for a different path to healing. Today, Rose grows healthy food and teaches others how to farm sustainably.

By Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Stephen Bailey

LANSING, N.C. — Ann Rose is a wise woman on a mountaintop, but she will defy all of your expectations.

The flowing robes of a guru aren’t practical for slopping hogs and milking cows, so Rose sticks with jeans and T-shirts. And although she lives alone in her mile-high, hand-built cabin, she stays connected via her cell phone, which she sometimes uses to watch clips of Louis C.K. standup. Should you make the trek to see her, you will never find Rose sitting placid and cross-legged in the sun. She’s far too busy for that.

A mother of three and grandmother of four, Rose didn’t go off the grid until her youngest daughter left home. Until then, she lived in a house close to the road in tiny Lansing, N.C., a Blue Ridge mountain town about 120 miles from Charlotte. She raised her daughters on her own with the money she earned in her career as a nurse.

Farmer Ann Rose tends baby greens in her hoop house.
Farmer Ann Rose tends baby greens in her hoop house.

But even as she lived in an ordinary house and held down an ordinary job, Rose put a premium on self-sufficiency. She moved to Lansing from the flatlands of Wilkes County, N.C., when her children were young so they would have forests to play in and mountains to climb. She taught her girls all the basics — laundry, cooking, cleaning — but also how to skin rabbits and harvest backyard chickens for the soup pot.

“One of my reasons for coming up here was so my kids would know what I know,” Rose said.

And she knows a lot. A tomboy from birth, Rose learned how to fix and build things from her father, a diesel mechanic, and how to grow, preserve and cook things from her grandmother. She learned how to garden and how to raise and process hogs. With this timeless skillset, Rose knew she could always take care of herself. She raised her daughters to have the same confidence.

Just as her youngest daughter left home, Rose’s work at the hospital was starting to chafe. So many patients she treated suffered from heart disease, diabetes and other conditions brought about by lack of exercise and poor diet. And frequently, by the time the patients were in the hospital, it was too late. Seeing this happen over and over brought on an inconvenient epiphany.

“Your health can’t be bought with a prescription,” Rose said.

At the same time, she saw a solution. In her work at the hospital she often saw people in their 80s and 90s coming in to the emergency room for the first time, passing their hours stuck in a hospital bed fretting about how they needed to be home hoeing their gardens or tending their animals. Rose was convinced their active lifestyles and homegrown diets had kept them healthy for many decades.

And so she made her plan: “Instead of fixing people after they’re all broken up, let’s start with feeding them well.” 

MOVING ON UP

By the time Rose had her epiphany and quit her nursing job, she had bought up the steep mountainside behind her house. And thanks to her daughter’s high school shop class, there was already a wooden shed built at the very top. Rose left the house where she raised her daughters and made the move up the 3,300-foot mud path and into the 300-square-foot shed. 

Helping Farmers at Home

Heifer International’s Seeds of Change is a five-year initiative to end hunger and poverty in Arkansas and Appalachia by boosting nutrition, creating jobs and helping small-scale farmers increase their income and contribution to the local food markets—all using the extraordinary potential of locally produced food.

Learn more

No electric lines run up to the mountaintop, so when Rose wants a bath, she has to heat water over a fire. She just recently got a solar-powered refrigerator after living out of a cooler for nine years. But she doesn’t flinch at the hardships of living off the grid.

“I’m not Amish, but I think they got it going on,” she said.

Before she went to nursing school, Rose spent a decade working construction, so she had the skills she needed to fortify and expand her mountaintop home. Hauling lumber up the mountain by hand, or in the back of her ’88 Dodge pickup she calls Betty, she transformed the shed into a 650-square-foot  house with a wood-burning stove in the kitchen, a loft for her bed and tall windows to catch the sun. A rooftop collections system supplies plenty of water, and Rose built an outhouse a few yards downhill.

As if her living off the grid in a mountaintop home she built by hand wasn’t impressive enough, Rose also grows all of her own food. Every once in a while she’ll buy coffee and organic cornmeal, but otherwise Rose eats fresh eggs from her chickens, fresh milk from her cow, pork from her pasture-raised hogs, organic produce from her garden and apples from the trees that thrive untended on her farm. When the weather turns cold, Rose plants kale and other hardy crops under the protective plastic canopy of a hoop house.

Each day Rose wakes up before sunrise to tend the garden, milk the cow and feed the hogs. She keeps about a dozen breeding sows at a time on steep pastureland where they can forage and nest. Rose sells some of the piglets and raises the rest for meat, which she butchers and cures herself using her grandmother’s know-how.

“She had 12 kids. She smoked and cured meat because she didn’t have a refrigerator,” Rose said.

Rose’s farm produces enough food that she has meat and produce to sell. And that’s where Heifer comes in.

BRANCHING OUT

In 2011, Heifer International helped kick off Blue Ridge Seeds of Change to help build a local food system that promotes the farming heritage of the area, creates jobs and supplies healthy food to the people living in Alleghany, Ashe, Watauga and Wilkes counties in North Carolina and in Johnson County, Tennessee. Heifer’s partners include a local health department, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, the High Country Workforce Development Board, local governments and Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture.

Rose put her carpentry skills to work to transform an empty storefront into her own butcher shop.
Rose put her carpentry skills to work to transform an empty storefront into her own butcher shop.

Projects launched under Blue Ridge Seeds of Change range literally from farm to table. Both fledgling and veteran farmers can get training and resources, including hoop houses that extend the growing season. The program also helps farmers find markets and buyers for their products.

But the program also reaches out beyond the fields to help train people for work in the food industry and to bring healthy foods to schools, a homeless shelter and the pantries of people in need.

Some of the work is simply introducing like-minded people to each other, encouraging them to work together and then giving a small push in the form of funding, training or mentorship. “We want to bring people together, then step back,” explained Jeffrey Scott, Heifer’s Appalachia director of Seeds of Change.

Scott recognized Rose’s leadership potential and knew that with the right resources, she could boost the momentum of the local foods movement in the region. So he helped her secure Heifer funding to open Rose Mountain Butcher Shoppe on Lansing’s main drag, where she sells products from her farm and from other local growers. The shop officially opened this winter after Rose spent a few months renovating the space. As you might guess, Rose did the carpentry work herself. Resistant to the notion that healthy food is a luxury affordable only for the rich, Rose plans to accept food stamps in her shop. “Most of my neighbors are either on welfare or disability,” she said. Offering fresh and healthy food is her way of keeping those neighbors out of the hospital where she used to work.

Shoppers swarmed Rose’s store at her grand opening, taking up all parking spots for two blocks. “I am so humbled by the outpouring of community support,” Rose said. She’s already planing to open a second shop in Boone next year.

Heifer helped Rose get loans and even funded a small portion of her first shop. In return, Rose is sharing her considerable knowledge with other farmers hoping to make a living on the Blue Ridge Mountains’ steep slopes.

Farmer Holly Whitesides, left, receives a pig named Mr. T from Rose..
Farmer Holly Whitesides, left, receives a pig named Mr. T from Rose.

She’s sharing her animals, too. Last fall, Rose passed on piglets named Apache, Mr. T, Thea and Frankie to Holly Whitesides in a sunset ceremony at Whitesides’ farm. Land prices have been shooting up in Boone and surrounding areas as affluent retirees and people looking to build second homes snatch up acreage. Whitesides bought her land during the recent economic downturn, when the ailing real estate market dropped prices to an affordable level. Now she’s trying to pay her mortgage and make a living raising vegetables, goats, chickens, and now, pigs. Rose hopes to see fellow farmers like Whitesides thrive, and she wants to see her neighbors embrace the healthy foods grown in their own region.

Even if her business takes off and she makes enough money to retire to a beachfront condo in Florida, Rose said she plans to stay put. Farming and raising animals is a calling that keeps her happy and healthy. Plus, she knows she would never find a view to rival what she sees every morning when sunlight spills over the Blue Ridge.

“This old girl’s staying right here,” she said. “I done picked my spot.”  

 

Farmer Ann Rose tends baby greens in her hoop house.