Soaring Eagle Farm Dori Fritzinger How Does a House Become a Homestead

“This is the Yadkin Valley.  The wind never stops blowing.  That’s why we can grow certain crops here that don’t do well in other parts of the county,” Dori explains.  We’re standing in the enclosed garden space beside her house, part of her personal piece of Soaring Eagle Farms, a diversified small-holding in the northern Piedmont of North Carolina.

I ask the obvious question, “How can you grow enough to eat and to sell from such a small garden?  Is it by using intensive methods?”  I indicated the raised beds.

“It’s the excellent soil,” Dori told me.  Dori is articulate and confident.  She smiles and laughs frequently.  She doesn’t pepper her speech with “um” or “like.”  She makes whole sentences and often, whole paragraphs, as though she’s said it all before, or practiced being ready to say it.  A reporter’s dream subject.

I’ve come to talk to her about the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) movement, of which she is a member.  But first, the farm tour:

Dori tells me that not only are the vegetables – tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, various cols, and the surprising snow peas and bok choy – set in deep friable beds, but “in the winter, I open the gates and let the ducks and chickens in.  They thrive on the pests that kill the vegetables.”

The back story is this: Dori Fritzinger lives on a commune, though she might not use that label.  She is its most communicative member, but the center of the hundred acres, the pump that makes the blood flow, is her father, PaPa Joe Herbst.  PaPa retired from a career as a mason in New Jersey and with Dori’s mother, Juanita bought a campground in North Carolina.  Dori, his only child, and her husband Keith, moved everything – “the entire Ark” – and came south to occupy part of his estate (yes, there are eagles in Surry County, and Soaring Eagle Farm would be a safe habitat).

“I had to take a long sabbatical from what I loved.  We gradually sold off the goats and other animals to make time for the campground.  I went to school and was getting a degree in Business Administration, and running the campground for my parents.” Dori’s husband was a long-distance trucker.  It seemed that Dori, who had been raised on a farm and longed to go back to growing and sowing, was destined to become a businesswoman whose house sat in the middle of a rural paradise given over to commerce.  Whether the woods and meadows, the lake and the stream, were wasted on campers and fishers is a point that could be argued, but Dori found her dreams being sucked dry by the exigencies of management.  She had a house, but no homestead.

“One cold January day in 1997, my father announced that he was closing the campground, with its many wooded sites and a glorious 70+ -year-old lake, and wanted no more contact with the public.  That was that.” Dori explained.  Dori’s mom Juanita passed away suddenly from a heart attack that summer.  It was a fraught time.

Dori has two children, Rachel and Joshua.  She’d planned for nine, but Mother Nature, in the form of a sudden onset of insulin-dependent Diabetes Type II, had intervened.  There would be no more children for Dori and Keith, and “I wanted littles.  Lots of littles.”

PaPa’s decision changed her life yet again, allowing her to gradually re-build a herd of goats and sheep.  She got rabbits, ducks, a turkey, a retired donkey and a workhorse who needed some TLC, and a dog, and a fulltime dawn-to-dusk JOB that suited her down to the well-fertilized ground.  She got her littles.  The day I visited, nearly every animal except the donkey and the horse was either in heat, soon to be in labor, or nursing a brood of babies.

Dori’s energies were still not totally satisfied.  She makes her own clothes and sews up flounced and decorated dresses for granddaughter Caitlin.  Dori makes aprons, she embroiders (“everything I sew has embroidery on it somewhere”), she put up 90 jars of tomato sauce last year and just slightly fewer the year she broke her foot by falling in a gopher hole (Caitlin called it a “torn leg-ament” and that expression stuck).  Dori bakes her daily bread, which is sold on a route maintained by Joshua as well at the local farmer’s markets.  Dori grinds her own chili powders and makes soaps and bath products to sell at the farmer’s market.

“Having diabetes, I have to watch what I eat, so I make every meal from scratch.  I have a dishwasher but it’s rare that I use it.  It’s more fun to hang around in the kitchen after supper, talk, and get the dishes done by hand.”

Not so long ago, Keith was permanently disabled by a freak trucking accident, so he and Dori have time to be together now.  That’s something that her father and mother missed out on, so despite the difficulties the family faces as a result of Keith’s injuries, Dori is aware that challenge brings its own blessings.  They go to weekly stock auctions in nearby Mt. Airy to buy animals and to the farmer’s market in Elkin to sell veggies and Dori’s other products.  Dori created the website and edits and contributes to her own local magazine, Country Family.

She shares stories and tips with Lehman’s Front Porch e-zine, the information chatline for Lehman’s Store, the bustling Amish/Mennonite business in Lebanon, Ohio.  Dori hasn’t been to Lehman’s yet, but I have several times.  We talk about it.  She figures she’ll make the pilgrimage soon, maybe to buy a couple of windmills.

“So you aren’t one of those eco-thusiasts who doesn’t want a windmill around because it messes with your view?” I’m teasing.

Dori is in earnest.  “Not at all.  A windmill can be a work of art, not like the helicopter kind they have up in the Blue Ridge.  I’m talking about the old fashioned kind.” Dori opines that solar energy is temperamental and unreliable.  “Maybe with a windmill we can operate one of the garden pumps, a support system at the least.”

As we talk, we walk.  Dori introduces me to all the sheep and goats, including Geronimo, the boss daddy sheep who has a flock of three ladies to service.  “He’s such a lover – I mean, such a warm, cheerful personality – that he has a job here as long as he wants it.  All that creative energy plus a good attitude!”

Once a critter comes to Dori, it stays to retirement and death, or if it leaves, it leaves alive.  “We don’t know what happens to them after they leave,” Dori states, commenting on my implication that “her” baby goats and sheep may make a meal for local Hispanic families.  “But when they leave, they’re on the hoof, on the hop, or on the feather.” She’s recently added, “on the buzz” to this list, having acquired 2 beehives.

Dori introduces me to Pedro, her Abyssinian donkey, who acknowledges our approach with a hearty “hee-haw,” a greeting that I don’t get to hear much in my ordinary life.  Dori says that Pedro is a watch-donkey, and if he senses danger, his signal is a “Haw – hee.  It’s a totally different sound.” In this case, Pedro is simply cadging for extra breakfast and Dori reminds him he’s already been fed.

Pedro shares pasture with Gabriel.  Here’s what Dori has written about Gabriel on the Soaring Eagle website:

Gabriel is a light draft horse cross, we think with an Appaloosa (the spotted rump is the LARGEST indication of this).  Gabriel is a retired workhorse.  In his younger days, he served as the power to pull a buggy and a plow.

He has a very sweet disposition and was broke to ride.  However, in these days of leisure if he happens to see you approach with tack he is liable to come up lame.  The only problem is every other step it’s a different foot.  He should get an Oscar for his award-winning skills.

However, come out with an apple or any other imaginable treat and he will run right up to you, no problem whatsoever.

Pedro and Gabriel, old bachelors set in their equine ways, co-exist with a flock of ducks.  Not far away are the rabbit cages, crowded with littles.  Cadbury is retired from fathering duties so Dude does all the stud work.  There are four moms and plenty of bun-lets.  Rabbits get sold – on the hop of course – and have the commercial advantage of reproducing every few months.  How Dori and Keith keep track of all this burgeoning life is anybody’s guess, but it’s my guess that not just anybody could keep up with Dori, who’s always on the hop and on the buzz.

But the subject was the CSA movement, wasn’t it? Dori and I settle down on a fat cozy couch in one of several open lounging areas in her commodious double-wide home.  We’re definitely going to talk about CSA’s as soon as we look at the wall full of family photos and hear more about Dori’s background.

Of Cuban descent (she has a great mane of dark chestnut hair and a fair Celtic face), she was adopted by her Scottish mom and German dad at age 15 months after being badly abused.  “My mother saved my life.  She was a Bruce and was buried with the family tartan.” Dori’s early years were spent on a New York farm where her mother taught her to do everything from scratch.  Then there were the apartment years in New Jersey.  It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that Dori wouldn’t take well to life within small walls.  She and her family moved back into her childhood farmhouse when son Joshua was on the way.   When her father bought the North Carolina campground she and her family migrated – “with the entire Ark”- to a new start in a new area.

Now she’s back into her dream, her years as a student of business administration and of managing PaPa’s campsites having served her well.  That’s where the CSA movement enters our conversation.

Community Supported Agriculture has its roots in Europe in the bio-dynamic movement, as well as Japan.  The Japanese impulse was self-protective; people were afraid of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and worried about losing traditionally grown crops to importation.  Their response was the rebirthing of agricultural smallholdings and small manageable-size markets.  CSA by the European method is a fusion of organic, sustainable agriculture with a model of commerce that springs from the philosophy of E. F. Schumacher (to whom we attribute the concepts of “Buddhist economics” and “intermediate technology”).

The CSA initiative in the United States began about 20 years ago with a meeting of the owners of Indian Line Farm (members of the E. F. Schumacher Society) in Massachusetts, and Jan Van der Tuin, a European proponent of biodynamics and the innovative economic/technological ideas of Schumacher.  Indian Line Farm and the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire quickly set about putting Tuin’s suggestions into action, developing a customer/producer partnership with about equal risk/responsibility.  Consumers buy direct from the farm, and farmers obligate themselves to provide organic healthy products.

Since then, CSA has become slightly more set in its ways, less flexible in practice.  It all comes down to the box.  People pay upfront, in the spring, venture capital that will repay itself with a box full of whatever is growing each week in the summer garden.  The farmer has seed money and in return offers a mix of produce depending on the vagaries of the season.  Many local/statewide CSA organizations make rules, set prices, and advertise for the members.  The push to make the movement more secure and acceptable may be nibbling away its raison d’etre.

According to Dori, “CSAs here expect $300 a year per subscriber.  That’s their start-up money and they look at it as security.  I look at it as IN-security.  What if we have a bad year?”  One winter a rampaging raccoon swept through and got most of their chickens.  “Mostly the CSA season begins in June and ends in October.  I end in September.  I don’t trust our Octobers.  The weather can get very tricky in October.”

Though a member of the CSA association and listed on the national website (that’s how I found her) Dori doesn’t emphasize subscriptions.  “I have regular customers at the farmer’s market, practically family members.  But they want to pick and choose.”  Dori would also prefer a price structure (some CSA’s use them) that allows for a different start-up rate for a single person, a couple, a large family, etc.

If she has a subscriber, she is obligated to prepare a box of veggies and fruits, a dozen eggs, and two loaves of homemade bread every week during the growing season.  Recalling her “torn leg-ament” she asks, “What if something happened and I couldn’t bake every morning?”  It’s hard to conceive of Dori not finding some way to bake, make and rake, even with both hands tied behind her back.  But she has a point.

It’s not that she isn’t philosophically aligned to the CSA initiative.  I’m sure she would agree with the stated purpose of the teikei movement of Japan, the inspiration for the European version of CSA:  “realization of a society where life is duly respected.”  And she would undoubtedly feel a kinship with the typical organic consumers described in Samuel Fromartz’s recently released survey of the natural foods movement, Organic, Inc, people who feel virtuous because they eat well.

Dori Fritzinger lives on a commune, though she might not use that label.  She is its most communicative member, but the center of the hundred acres,

Dori has a business-woman’s eye to the bottom line.  With her husband unable to get out and work a salaried job right now, that bottom line has taken on a new significance.  I tell her about my own small businesses – writing articles, reviewing and selling books – which I call “Butter ’n’ eggs – Without the Manure.”  We agree that Dori’s enterprise started as a butter ’n’ eggs sideline – with the manure.  Now Dori is striving to make Soaring Eagle work for her as energetically as she works for it.  The CSA model isn’t a perfect fit.

“I can see CSA,” I interject, “being ideal in a community like Chapel Hill.”  Chapel Hill is the big university and technology center in the center of North Carolina, a magnet to high-paid yuppies who pump up their sense of personal virtue by shopping at the whole foods grocery and driving hybrid Hondas.  Whereas in Surry and Yadkin counties, our stomping grounds, Dori assesses: “People are really struggling.  There’s no employment.  They don’t have $300 to spare.”

We’ve sat for almost half an hour, a long time, I reckon, for Dori to stay still.  She suggests we drive out and look at the new calf.

Howard Akers, grey-haired and wiry, is a local man, smiling and quiet and as strong in his prime, one suspects, like Gabriel. Born up in the Blue Ridge near Hillsville, Virginia, he comes from hardy stock.

“My name, from way back in the German, means someone who works a field.”  I looked it up.  Our word “acre” originally designated the amount of land one man could plow in one day, and in early more fluid versions of English it was spelled “aker.”  Later an “acre” became a specifically measured plot of land.  Howard is proud to be an “aker” man.  He is Dori’s farm partner, living in a neat single-wide a few minute’s drive from her part of PaPa’s family estate.  The cows live on his patch of Soaring Eagle.

The brindle cow, Wendy, herself born on a cold day in January and nursed lovingly by Dori and Howard, calved on Tuesday.  It’s Friday and mother and calf are doing fine, Wendy nosing the fence to get a slice of bread.  Make that 20 slices.  I try to feed her, to Dori and Howard’s great amusement.  She can suck the bread out of my fingers far faster than I can push it through the opening in the fence.

Howard, Wendy, and the calf
Howard, Wendy, and the calf

Howard and Dori’s granddaughter Caitlin are working together on her 4-H project, a garden plot that Caitlin will till, sow and reap, with the benefit of his caring and experience.  Howard is waiting for Caitlin to name the new calf. Caitlin is everybody’s bright spot.  She and her mom live with Dori and Keith.

On the way home from Howard’s, Dori points out the cottage of PaPa’s brother and the new trailer belonging to son Joshua and his wife Melissa, home from a tour of active duty in the United States Coast Guard.  Joshua now serves in the Coast Guard Reserves and is subject to active recall if the need arises (one of their goats is named “Iraqi Freedom”).  Dori’s mother-in-law also lives on the farm.  Each member of the extended family has his or her own garden site.  Dori tells me that “Every spring, PaPa divides out the seed and we all plant with what he’s given us.  It’s always interesting to see how the same seeds do in different soils.”

She gets me to stop just after we cross the lake.  “I’m going to show you something most people don’t get to see.”  Ever the pedagogue, as we approach a little glade in the woods Dori says, “What do you hear?”

“Running water, a brook, maybe.”  It’s a stream, the spill-way for the dam that formed the lake.  It’s also a small picturesque waterfall that can’t be seen by car.  It was Dori’s mother’s meditation spot.  After her death, PaPa heaved a huge stone out of the earth, squared it off, and set it in place near the little hillside retreat.  By hand, he carved his wife’s name.  The effort and the love can be seen in the straight, regular print painstakingly chiseled into the rock.  I’ve been taking pictures all day, to serve as my reminders (I don’t take notes or use a recorder).  But I don’t take a photo of the rock, sensing its personal vibration, so large and visible and yet discreet, a private symbol of devotion at the heart of the farm.

Dori and I agree that family is all.  Living with her own, and knowing that she never has to leave Soaring Eagle, is Dori’s sustenance.  Caitlin may have her rough patches in life but she will never lack a home or an understanding of how deep that goes.

So the question, when does a house become a homestead, has been answered for me.  Dori has lived for years at Soaring Eagle, but only in the past few years has she been allowed to transform, one could almost say to “sanctify” what goes on under her roof.  Thanks to PaPa’s decision, and her own absolute determination: An immovable object and an irresistible force.

I can’t hold back one question. Dori and Howard have extolled the strength of the old ways. “How do you reconcile the computer with the old ways?”

“Well, I like to think I can blend the old and the new.”

If anyone can pull that off, it’s Dori Fritzinger.

E. F. Schumacher mysteriously pronounced, “Eagles come in all shapes and sizes, but you will recognize them chiefly by their attitudes.”  There’s a lot of attitude at Soaring Eagle Farm.

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