Sometimes the best things in life don’t come from well-laid plans, but instead from taking chances and following where they lead. When Rich and Liz Mason decided to quit their international development careers that took them around the world and back again, they weren’t sure exactly where they would land or what they would do. But they had reached a point in their lives when they knew it was time for a change and they wanted to put down roots. So that they did. Four years later, they’ve literally put down thousands of roots in the fertile soil of southern Caswell County and started a new journey as organic produce farmers. This has changed not only how they support themselves, but is helping to support their community.
When asked when she decided to become a farmer, Liz said she doesn’t remember deciding, but that it just happened. With no background in agriculture for either of the Masons, what they’ve learned and accomplished in such a short amount of time is remarkable. After finding their new home in Caswell County in order to be closer to family, they have grown in many ways. Their original plan was to keep jobs as consultants from their new location, but after a while, they decided to step back from that and try their hand at growing produce just to see what they could do. Turns out they could do a lot, and Honey Bee Hills Farm was born.
Their first year of production was on half an acre of land, with Liz growing the produce while Rich continued to work remotely. Year two found them both on the farm full-time, with the addition of another employee and three acres of produce. By year three, they were up to seven employees and ten acres of produce. Now, heading into year four, they plan to increase employees and acreage once more. Even through winter, the Masons were able to keep three employees and stay busy working three farmers markets and a delivery route. Liz said their philosophy is simple: “If we’re going to do this, we’re going for it with all we’ve got."
The past year hasn’t been without challenges, though. They had planned to double their land in cultivation, and when Covid-19 hit in March of 2020, they already had plants in the ground. When two of the five farmers markets where they planned to sell produce closed, they knew they couldn’t quit, so they adapted by launching both a community supported agriculture (CSA) produce subscription service and a home-delivery program. These options were not in their original plans, but neither was a global pandemic. The Masons’ produce was going to be ready for harvest, and they had to get creative about what to do with it.
They launched an entirely new online sales platform in a very short period of time. At one point in the summer of 2020, half of their sales were coming online for market pre-orders and home delivery. Liz said they are very happy with how it turned out, and it will continue to be beneficial in the long run. Before the pandemic, home delivery wasn’t on the Masons’ radar, but now their goal is to continue to grow that sector of their business, after realizing that it appeals to many of their customers.
When it comes to choices for what their customers can order from farm to plate, the assortment is ripe for the picking. Honey Bee Hills Farm offers over 50 types of produce, including salad mix year-round, seasonal tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli, collards, and okra. They also grow several fruits like strawberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, and specialty melons. All of their produce and flowers are grown as USDA certified organic, following organic rules for the use of pesticides and herbicides.
One way the Masons allow customers to enjoy the greatest variety of their produce is through their CSA subscription program. Customers sign up for one (or all) of three growing seasons and get fresh produce delivered to their homes weekly, or they can pick up at one of four locations. The summer season is the longest at 26 weeks and allows for produce, salad, and flower subscriptions. Customers can pay weekly or pay for the full subscription up front and receive a discount.
This program helps the farm because the Masons are able to plan for home deliveries, on-farm pickups, and farmers market pickups. It also allows the customer to get the best pick of what’s available. Currently, Honey Bee Hill Farms sells weekly at three area farmers markets, including Eno River in downtown Hillsborough, South Durham, and Fearrington Village. Products are also available for CSA pickup.
Their delivery route includes Durham/ChapelHill/Hillsborough and southern Caswell County. Produce and CSA orders can also be ordered online and picked up directly at the farm in Prospect Hill on Saturdays. There are no set hours, making it easy to order beforehand, pre-pay, and pick up at the customer’s leisure.
Since moving to Caswell County, the Masons have been involved in the community and strive to be good stewards of the land they own and cultivate, as well as good neighbors to those around them. Two years ago, Liz started the Caswell Women in Agriculture group with the goal of increasing communication and sharing resources and knowledge between like-minded women involved in agriculture across the county. Pre-pandemic, the group was meeting monthly, holding networking and technical education events. Members hope to resume those in-person meetings as soon as possible, but they interact via a Facebook group for now.
Liz was also recently accepted into the North Carolina Agricultural Leadership program, which is a two-year professional development program for leaders in North Carolina agriculture. The workload is intense, involving classwork, position papers on the condition of agriculture in the state, and legislative training. Liz is the only small-scale vegetable farmer in this round of students, but said she’s learning a lot from the other row crop, tobacco, and livestock farmers in the class and is proud to have been chosen.
Liz said her favorite thing about farming is the process of growing plants from seeds; taking care of the plants; harvesting the plants, and then getting them to people to enjoy on their own tables. Countering that, the most challenging part for her is dealing with the inherent uncertainty that comes with growing anything. Between weather, pests, and economic uncertainties, the toll can be high, but she also said she wouldn’t trade what she’s doing now for anything and she’s happy to have found this passion that has become her new life’s work.
When the Masons started this journey, they had small hopes and dreams that continue to gain as much ground as their farm. Liz said one of the greatest rewards is being able to employ people and create jobs for the community. While they can’t say for certain what the future holds, the Masons are excited about the possibilities. This year they will grow 15 acres of produce, add more plants to sell for home gardens, and continue to expand their cut flower offerings.
This past year provided plenty of challenges to a fledgling farm, but the Masons took that challenge head-on and persevered. Liz said one of the biggest lessons she’s learned in the process of starting their farm is that it’s important to be completely open to failure, to learn from the failures and get back up, figuring out how to do things differently. Pivoting to home delivery provided plenty of chances for things to not go well or as efficiently as they would have liked, but instead of quitting, the Masons invented and reinvented processes to make it work. Liz said they failed a lot during this time, but in the end their successes outweighed their failures, and that was enough to keep going.
Under different circumstances, the Masons had hoped to start offering more agri-tourism opportunities at their farm. Honey Bee Hills has two miles of hiking trails and a fishing pond that they plan to allow visitors to enjoy when it’s safe to do so. It’s very important to the Masons to be able to share their farm with their customers. Updates are available on the website and Instagram, and visitors can enjoy the photos the Masons share online. Find out more about what they offer and how to order by visiting their website at honeybeehillfarms.com and follow them on Instagram at instagram.com/honeybeehillsfarm.
Meredith Bernard is a photographer, writer and farmer living and working with her husband and two children on a beef cattle farm in Milton, NC. Connect with her online at thisfarmwife.com and YouTube at ThisFarmWife.com/youtube.