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Agriculture meets environmentalism

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Sarah Lasswell

Moss and Thistle Farm is a place where agriculture meets environmentalism, says Gabe Isaac, executive director of the nonprofit Rutherford Outdoor Coalition (ROC).

When Sarah Lasswell started her journey with Moss and Thistle Farm, willow was a solution to an erosion issue, but now, willow is her main focus.

Gabe became acquainted with Sarah and the farm after North Carolina State University's agriculture department shared the need for volunteers to assist area farmers.

Gabe researched the needs in Rutherford County and in December she led a group of volunteers at Moss and Thistle, off Cove Road, Rutherfordton.

Volunteers returned for two days in March.

Sarah is a farmer and an artisan, crafting willow caskets from the plants she grows for green burial. She is one of the only willow casket weavers in the region, said Gabe.

"The time and effort Sarah puts into her craft and her farm is admirable. Along with the efforts of weaving and growing, Sarah dedicates time and energy to the journey her clients are traveling through to prepare for departing this world, mourning loved ones, and connecting with nature through natural burial."

After an introduction to Moss and Thistle Farm, (ROC) saw an opportunity to help local agriculture and provide a unique opportunity for volunteers, Gabe explained.

"Having the ROC group here to help with harvest and planting was so wonderful- not just for the help, which is of course deeply appreciated, but also for the show of support and the interest in our farm and the caskets that we make. It means so much to us," Sarah said.

In December of 2023, ROC volunteers came to Moss and Thistle Farm to aid in the harvest. During this workday, volunteers learned about the kinds of willows planted in previous years at the farm and how to clip them at the bases to create a straight, weave-able willow stalk for future harvests. It was rewarding work and at the end of the workday, the impact was clearly seen.

As a follow-up to the harvest workday, two additional volunteer workdays were scheduled with Moss and Thistle Farm for the planting. Willow planting, like willow harvesting, happens in colder months.

During the first week of March, Sarah usually plants her willow cuttings. ROC staff and volunteers joined her for two of these days. These days consisted of prepping the new rows of willow, by spreading ground covering over freshly tilted compost and dirt, creating holes for the new cuttings, and inserting the cuttings (buds-up) into their places. Volunteers enjoyed the camaraderie of working as a team and seeing the good that came of the process.

Each of the workdays started with a greeting from Thoren and Strider, the two Great Pyrenees guardians of the farm. They're both friendly fluffy creatures, who are never too far off, Gabe said. Sarah also gave a little introduction to Moss and Thistle, the animals she houses, and the story behind her farm. Some volunteers were even introduced to baby goats. Those who wished were able to bring home a willow cutting to plant on their own with instructions on the best planting practices. The knowledge that Sarah shared with volunteers was both enlightening and fascinating, and continued throughout the workday in the form of conversation over plants.

Filled with new experiences, connection with nature and others, and a bit of humor as well, these workdays were positive for all participating. Many hands made lighter work, as the old saying goes.

ROC understands the importance of supporting local farms and was delighted to find this new volunteer opportunity, Gabe continued.

ROC plans to continue supporting Moss and Thistle Farm with annual volunteer workdays during harvest and planting, along with other farm-focused workdays.

The next local farm volunteer work day is April 9 from 10am to 2pm at Cherry Mountain Farms off US 64, Rutherfordton.

This farm is centered on Angora Goats, curly and soft creatures who provide wool for socks. Volunteers who attend these workdays, will have an opportunity to feed peanuts to adorable curly faces and hang out with some friendly guard dogs, said Gabe.

"We will make sure everyone has fun," said farm owner Debbi Stanfield.

"We need extra hands to keep up with the outside work. This will really help me. This is so great and I'm excited," she said.

Gabe said after the initial workday on April 9, she and volunteers will discuss additional workdays at the farm during the busiest tourism season and when there are public events at the farm.

"We'll see how all this goes...and see how we can help out," said Gabe.

For more information on volunteer workdays at local farms, visit https://rutherfordoutdoor.org/events.

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