The Art Of The Farm

The Art Of The Farm

Aubrey Cupit embraces an ancestral call of the land with 21st-century know-how

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Brandi Swarms

Like any good Millennial, 31-year-old Aubrey Cupit appears to be biologically attached to his cell phone.

He has an Instagram account and a Keurig coffee maker.

He favors long-sleeve T-shirts, and his short auburn hair descends to a rusty mustache and beard.

You could envision him loping down the streets of Charlotte or New York City, as many of his former high school and college classmates do.

But you probably won’t see that — unless he’s visiting — because Aubrey Cupit is a farmer.

A small-time, independent, one-man-show farmer.

A get-up-with-the-sun farmer.

A ground-hog-cussing, weather-watching, dusty-jeans-wearing, worn-out-by-Saturday-night-and-ready-to-sleep-in-until-8-on-Sunday-morning farmer.

He owns 9 acres in northwest Guilford County and works two of those acres to make salad, essentially. He raises leafy greens, tomatoes, herbs, carrots and a smattering of other vegetables.

At the moment, he’s heavy into broccolini, that leggy, small-headed cousin of broccoli. Also, he’s getting into cauliflower, which is trending now. Kale is dead. You heard it here first.

He sells to local restaurants and to the general public at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market. He also peddles produce from a roadside stand at the mouth of the gravel driveway to his land.

Gate City Harvest, that’s his place on Pleasant Ridge Road in Summerfield. As the crow flies — which it actually does out here — it’s very close to where Cupit grew up, in The Cardinal, a 1980s neighborhood molded around a golf course, swimming pool and tennis courts. In other ways, it’s oh-so-far away from the childhood of a guy who chose to go back to the land he never had.

Aubrey Cupit (rhymes with Muppet) was a typical suburban kid. He kicked soccer balls and slugged baseballs on well-groomed fields. He played first-generation Xbox video games. He loved Taco Bell Cinnamon Twists. In middle school, he jettisoned sports for art and photography. He painted watercolors to give to his mom on Mother’s Day. He drew every one of North Carolina’s seven lighthouses.

“My brothers had bigger personalities than I did,” says Cupit, who was a fraternal triplet and one of four boys growing up. “I was more introspective.” No one grew vegetables at home, but Cupit’s mom, Sharian, was an avid landscape gardener. She tended a beautiful yard.

Cupit didn’t notice.

He went to UNCG to study art. His junior year, he needed an elective. He took one that sounded interesting and relatively easy: “Religious Traditions and Care of the Earth.” The lecturer was Charlie Headington, an expert on permaculture and sustainable gardening. Headington talked about how religions viewed the Earth differently — some as a thing to be ruled, some as a thing to be revered — and how that played out.

The ideas fell on fertile soil in the mind of the young artist, who threw himself into writing papers for the class. The essays jumped out because they went beyond the minimal requirements. “You can tell people’s comfort levels with ideas by how closely they stick to the guidelines,” Headington says. “Aubrey’s a person who feels comfortable with intellectual discussion.”

Cupit supported his arguments with ideas he’d read about elsewhere. “That’s what a teacher really enjoys — having a person with an original mind. I think that really comes from his art background,” says Headington. Before the semester was up, he suggested that Cupit intern in the gardens at Greensboro Montessori School, which Headington designed and maintained.

Cupit appreciated the offer but let it slide.

That summer, Headington ran into Cupit in the store where Cupit worked, Video Review on Battleground Avenue, a now-defunct touchstone for local movie buffs.

Headington pitched the internship again. “Aubrey was taking my money, and I said, ‘Well, hey, how about it? Are you interested?’” Headington remembers. It wasn’t much, that second offer, but it was enough to nudge Cupit’s life down another track.

He didn’t become a farmer overnight. First, he wandered in the desert. Correction: tomato patch. He put in sweaty hours at the Montessori gardens, digging out tangles of Bermuda grass, a maddening chore. He didn’t mind. “It felt good to be a part of something bigger,” he says.

He progressed to planting. He learned the underpinnings of permaculture, a way of growing that mimics nature and minimizes human intervention. When it works well, Cupit says, permaculture yields food that is healthier and cheaper than food that comes from high-input agriculture.

Cupit took a degree in fine art, but he kept his hands in the dirt at Montessori — where he still manages the garden and teaches part time — and he signed on at Whitaker Farms in Climax, a large grower of strawberries and greenhouse tomatoes.

Under the tutelage of Faylene and Richard Whitaker, he toiled in the greenhouses and worked their stall at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market on Sandy Ridge Road. Faylene schooled him on the psychology of the market.

“She would always say, ‘Pile ‘em high, and watch ‘em fly.’ If you have a few tomatoes at the end of the day, you’ll never sell them. People will not buy the last ones. Psychologically, we respond to copious amounts, not skimpy stuff,” says Cupit.

He gleaned more from Daniel Woodham of Greensboro’s NIMBY (Naturally in My Backyard) Gardens. Cupit watched Woodham woo customers by waving bouquets of fragrant herbs at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market. “He’d be like, “Hey! You know you want some of this basil!’” Cupit recalls. “You couldn’t help but talk to him. He’s a very charismatic guy. He kind of helped to bring me out more.”

Cupit, who describes himself as a “book farmer,” supplemented his education by reading. He digested The Market Gardener, by Jean-Martin Fortier, and two volumes by Eliot Coleman: The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, and Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.

Cupit loved the conviction that saturated those pages: that you don’t have to farm big to be successful. Small, well-managed, Earth-friendly farming could work. It was working. The practitioners weren’t getting rich, but they had comfortable lives. They could support families. They had enough.

And that would be enough for Cupit. It was a long germination, but at the end of five years, he was ready to be transplanted to the field.

For generations, farmers have come into land by inheritance. But, as family-owned acreage has dwindled, the farmers of Aubrey Cupit’s generation have come into land by other means, namely Zillow and Trulia. Starting at about age 25, Cupit combed real estate websites, looking for a few acres where he might start his own farm.

“I was just dreaming, but I knew that it would happen,” he says. He looked into a couple of listings, but nothing seemed right. Then, his grandmother, J’Nell Hofstetter, answered her landline. “I understand your grandson is looking to farm,” the caller said. It was Elaine Pegram, a former neighbor on Pleasant Ridge Road, where Hofstetter had grown up on a farm. The Pegrams had a few acres to spare. They could sell to developers anytime they wanted to — but they didn’t want to.

Hofstetter alerted Cupit, whose mother and father helped him to secure a loan. Thanks to family, Cupit was in business, right across the blacktop from where his great-grandfather, Clyde Huff, had raised tobacco, corn and hogs. Cupit never knew Huff, but his mother tells him that Huff fished the Pegram pond behind Cupit’s house. He spent time in the barn that now belongs to Cupit. “I think about it a lot. Where did I get it from? How did it all come about, this passion? My mom always tells me I remind her of her Pawpaw Huff,” says Cupit. “I don’t know how I feel about religion, but it does make me think sometimes that there is some kind of art to this — something out of our control.”

Because Cupit’s operation is small, so is most of the equipment he uses day to day: a hand tractor, which is basically a motor with wheels and a place to attach implements; a wheel hoe, and a broad fork, which Cupit grabs at the cross bar, stabs into the dirt and rocks back and forth to loosen the soil before planting.

Since the initial preparation of his land, he has avoided tilling, a costly procedure that stirs up weed seeds and aerates microorganisms, causing them to gobble nutrients and deplete the soil. Cupit brags that he can turn over a shovel of dirt in his field and find earthworms, a sign of healthy soil.

He doctors the dirt sparingly. His fertilizers and soil conditioners are composted horse manure, mineral dust, green sand, feather meal and bone meal.  For pesticides, he uses neem oil, chrysanthemum oil and bacillus thuringiensis.

Cupit, the farmer, is still very much the artist. You can see it in his insistence on quality materials and in his devotion to scale, He started out small, putting into production only two of his 9 acres. He spent the first year preparing the soil, an oasis of well-drained sandy loam in a region heavy with clay. The ground, once home to strawberries, wheat and tobacco, had lain fallow for 20 years, the perfect prescription for soil to rest and rejuvenate.

Cupit plowed, disc-harrowed and then seeded with clover and rye. He watched as a fresh, green blanket covered the ground. He plowed it under and disc-harrowed again. He planted his first crops in the fall of 2014. “It was profitable from the beginning,” he says, noting that farmers generally sink their profits into improvements, which he has.

Last year, he added a vegetable-washing station and a walk-in cooler to an old barn beside his new 350-square-foot log cabin. A crew of Amish builders raised the one-room shell and topped it with a red tin roof. Cupit plumbed and wired the cabin by himself.  “I’m kind of a YouTube carpenter and electrician,” he says. “It was what the budget required, and I knew I didn’t want to live big. I wanted to be simple.”

Within view of his front porch, the ground bristles with rows of vegetables that change, like garments, on a seasonal wheel. Beets, collards, kale, radishes, lettuces, broccolini and carrots — sweet, warm-colored darts that thrive in the sandy soil — emerge in the sweatshirt weather of spring and fall. Yellow squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, green beans, peppers and eggplant flourish in the sleeveless heat of summer. Sweet potatoes, winter squash and cauliflower store sunlight as hats and gloves appear again.

Cupit extends the growing seasons of his bestsellers with two heated greenhouses and two moveable caterpillar tunnels.

“We push lettuce, tomatoes and cukes as much as we can — at least 10 months,” he says. “You make more money when you’re the only one who has them.” Many of his tomatoes will spend their lives in a greenhouse, growing on twine trellises in the “lower and lean” method that he learned at Whitaker Farms. The practice allows vines to stretch 10 feet or more from one spot in the ground.  As each vine grows, Cupit lets out the twine from an overhead spool and slides the spool along a wire. The diagonal curtain makes the fruit easier to pick.

Cupit might be a throwback to old-timey truck farmers, but he embraces current science, technology and ag-fashion, if there is such a thing. He owns a shiny green John Deere 4120, which he uses to mow and move manure, but you won’t find this farmer advertising tractors with a baseball cap. Instead, he wards off skin cancer by wearing the kind of broad-brimmed straw hats favored by West Coast lifeguards. He buys the sloping hats on Amazon. He slips his feet into Mucksters, low-cut rubber garden boots, not brogans. His Levis bear the telltale outline of a cell phone carried in his front pocket. He consults it often.

Someday, he’d love to use his iPhone to control irrigation and move his greenhouse walls for optimum heat and light. Controlled growing environments will become more important, he believes, as global warming causes more extremes in weather.

He expects that, one day soon, phone apps will allow people to order local produce and schedule pick-up or delivery. All of this would increase the margin of error in farming, which is especially important for small operations like Cupit’s. His labor pool consists of him and his mom, who is retired from Burlington Industries and visits the farm almost daily. She mows, washes and packs produce, and minds the roadside vegetable stand. “She wants to see me succeed, and she loves farmwork,” says Cupit. “I think she’s proud to see the evolution of the business.”

Cupit’s commercial customers are happy with the results. Jody Morphis, who with his wife, Anne Marsh, owns Blue Denim, a Cajun-Creole restaurant on South Elm Street in Greensboro, has been buying produce from Cupit since they met a year ago at a Greensboro Farmers Curb Market fundraiser featuring locally sourced bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches. “I think his tomatoes won Favorite Tomato,” says Morphis, who buys nearly all of his produce from Cupit now.

“He’s definitely my favorite farmer to deal with, first of all because he’s growing great stuff, and he has a great personality. Most farmers aren’t able to go out and shoot the breeze with people. A lot of the older farmers are men of few words.”

Cupit’s prices don’t hurt. “Aubrey’s prices are better than anybody’s,” says Morphis.

Cupit’s other restaurant customers include White and Wood, Cafe Europa, Table 16 and Jerusalem Market in Greensboro, as well as Michelle’s Kitchen & Table in Burlington.

Twice a week, Cupit delivers produce to them in his 1998 Ford pickup. Twice a week, he carries his produce to the Yanceyville Street curb market. Most weekdays, he works in the gardens and classrooms of the Montessori school. That’s when he’s not tending his own farm.

His early-to-bed, early-to-rise lifestyle exacts a cost: limited opportunities to socialize.

“I have to say ‘No’ a lot,” the young bachelor says with a rueful smile. Many people his age have no clue about the gritty realties of farm life, which Cupit is quick to list. “It’s dirty. It’s hard. It’s hot. You’re in the sun. You’re always cutting yourself. About once a month, you want to quit, but you just have to wait until the next day,” he says.

He finds solace in online communities of other Millennial farmers. They might be as rare as hen’s teeth, but they find each other on Facebook and Instagram. They share advice and photos of what they’re growing.

Cupit’s generational peers run Fair Share Farm in Pfafftown; Pine Trough Branch Farm in Reidsville; Mighty Tendril Farm north of Hillsborough; and Sugar Hill Produce, also north of Hillsborough.

While they’re eager to scratch out a living, Cupit says, he and his young agrarian friends believe there’s more to life than accumulating titles and dollars for themselves. They want meaningful work, he says, and they’re finding it in the ground beneath their feet.

“There’s something about taking care of this dirt we have,” he says. “If you have the itch and the passion, it’s worth it.”  OH

For more information, go to;  @gatecityharvest on Instagram; or

The Omnivorous Reader

To Boston and Back

A history of the psychedelic ’60s

By Stephen E. Smith

The stoner who said “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there” got it wrong. Most of us who lived through those times recall what went down, even if we did inhale. But if your memory is less than eidetic, Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is an engrossing aide-mémoire, a jumbled catchall of social upheavals and artistic convergences that occurred in Boston half a century ago.

Walsh focuses on two narrative threads, one societal and the other musical, that evolved in parallel. The first is the founding of Mel Lyman’s Fort Hill Community, variously identified as a commune, cult or family; and the other is Van Morrison’s mystic stream-of-consciousness song cycle Astral Weeks recorded while the Irish blues rocker was hiding out in Beantown. Both events, although unrelated, had a transmutative effect on a flower-power generation searching for “peace and love” and alternative lifestyles.

Walsh begins with the not-so-secret culture-shifting decision by Bob Dylan to electrify his backup band and crank out a high-decibel version of “Like a Rolling Stone” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Members of the audience still debate whether Dylan was greeted with widespread booing, but Walsh maintains the crowd was exiting in a funk when harmonica player Mel Lyman took the stage and intoned a 20-minute dirge-like rendition of “Rock of Ages.” Lyman was a member of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, a Boston group that had achieved modest national success. By 1966, he’d emerged as the charismatic leader of a community that squatted in abandoned houses in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury.

Lyman had drifted from California to North Carolina (he learned to play banjo from Asheville’s Obray Ramsey) and settled in Boston, attracting a coterie of subservient followers. His Fort Hill Community was no run-of-the-mill hippie commune. Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette, the stars of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point; Paul Williams, the publisher of Crawdaddy magazine; musician Jim Kweskin; Jessie Benton, the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton; two children of the novelist Kay Boyle; and Owen DeLong, a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, were all active members of the Fort Hill family.

Lyman asserted complete control over community members and employed LSD trips, astrological readings and physical intimidation to maintain discipline. Members remodeled dilapidated dwellings and distributed the counterculture biweekly newspaper Avatar to support themselves. The cult’s sole purpose was to serve Mel Lyman and his creative enterprises, and in 1973, Frechette and two other members of the family attempted, ostensibly at Lyman’s bidding, to rob a Roxbury bank to fund a film project. One member was killed by police, and Frechette was sentenced to prison, where he died under suspicious circumstances. Walsh delves into the cult’s internal disputes, most of which concerned the content and publication of Avatar, and he details the less seemly workings of the Fort Hill Community, branches of which are still active in Boston, Los Angeles and Kansas. What became of Mel Lyman is a mystery. It was reported that he died in 1978, but no death certificate is known to exist.

The second thread of Walsh’s secret history traces singer-songwriter Van Morrison’s gradual rise to national prominence via his recording of Astral Weeks, a 1968 Warner Brothers release that went unnoticed at the time but has since achieved cult status. Morrison had first emerged on the music scene as the lead singer of the Belfast band Them, who charted with “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night.” Morrison had a 1967 solo hit with “Brown-Eyed Girl,” but he’d made a bad business decision, signing with Bang Records, a company with mob connections. Warner Brothers had to buy out Morrison’s contract, and the singer moved from New York to Boston with his girlfriend Janet Rigsbee (aka Janet Planet), where he began composing the songs for Astral Weeks and playing rock clubs, high school gyms, roller rinks and amusement parks across New England with a group of local musicians known collectively as the Van Morrison Controversy.

To record Astral Weeks, Morrison traveled from Boston to New York and laid down the tracks backed by jazz pros who’d never heard of the 22-year-old singer-songwriter wailing away in the vocal booth. Morrison never spoke to the studio musicians, but guitarist Jay Berliner, drummer Connie Kay, vibraphonist Warren Smith and bassist Richard Davis (the name of the flutist is lost to history) provided the backing that helped bring Morrison’s lyrics to life. The songs are about childhood, death and rebirth, and in “Madame George,” “Cyprus Avenue,” “Astral Weeks,” “Slim Slow Slider,” “Sweet Thing” and “Beside You,” Morrison’s craggy voice rings with a coarse authenticity. Astral Weeks has survived and sweetened over the years, and Walsh’s thorough investigation of the recording process reveals the inner workings of the musical experience without diminishing the album’s subtle ability to mesmerize listeners.

A slew of pop culture luminaries make brief appearances in Walsh’s history: Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground; Peter Wolf, future front man of the J. Geils Band; bluesman Howlin’ Wolf; singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman; Tufts University Shakespeare scholar David Silver; LSD guru Timothy Leary; and others. Since video and audio recordings of most of the principals exist, readers can access images of the characters and hear the crazy ideas they espoused. Dick Cavett’s painfully uncommunicative interview with Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette can be viewed on YouTube, and the album Astral Weeks is streamable on internet devices, as are numerous recordings of Mel Lyman, including his Newport Folk Festival “Rock of Ages” performance and eerie album cuts featuring Lyman and the Fort Hill Community. Jim Kweskin’s America Co-Starring Mel Lyman and the Lyman Family is available on CD. Fifty years out, a replay of these historic recordings in conjunction with a reading of Walsh’s detailed history will remind readers that the Grateful Dead had it right all along: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

Wine Country

Wine Uncorked

It can be simple, easy and eco-friendly

By Angela Sanchez

Why not drink wine out of a can? Why not drink wine from a bottle with a screw cap or Stelvin closure? Maybe, even a keg? Before all of you confirmed cork devotees get too upset, I’m not talking about grand cru Burgundy or first growth Bordeaux or single vineyard California cabernet from Screaming Eagle. I’m talking about wine that is made to be consumed young — what some people refer to as table wine — without oak or bottle aging. It’s the stuff we everyday folk consume on a regular basis. It’s what we take on boats and road trips and keep chilled for the backyard barbecue and camping in the summer. It’s the wine we have in the fridge and on the rack in the kitchen for when a friend drops by and needs a friendly ear. Nothing serious, just a good bottle we enjoy.

Like a lot of people these days, I want convenience that’s also eco-friendly, but my primary reason for exploring alternative closures and vessels for wine is the cork itself. Harvested from cork trees grown in Portugal and then crafted into fitted closures for wine bottles, the cork contains living organisms that can go bad and “taint” the wine. It can happen as often as one in every 12 bottles. According to, fungi which naturally reside in cork can come into contact with bleaches and other sterilization products found in wine cellars, tainting the wine and rendering it “corked.” Have you ever opened a bottle of wine that smelled and/or tasted like wet cardboard or gym socks? At home you might suffer through it and never purchase that wine again. At a restaurant you paid double, sometimes triple, the actual cost of the bottle and probably just decided you didn’t like the wine or simply chose the wrong bottle. But, no cork, no taint.

This, of course, doesn’t apply to high-end premium wines, single-sourced or from small, highly acclaimed biodynamic vineyards. I’m talking about that bottle you pick up for under $15. If you’re headed to the beach, boat or backyard this month, you want something that tastes good, fits in a cooler, chills quickly, stays that way, and is easily disposed of and recycled. And since you can’t ask the waiter to bring you another bottle, it helps if it’s not tainted. Convenience, taste and an eco-friendly container can all be achieved from wine with a screw cap, in a can, keg or even a box. Studies show, and I have confirmed through years as a wine professional, that screw caps and Stelvin closures keep wine fresher longer, creating less waste. You might even want to avoid the bottle altogether. No glass on the beach or by the pool, and who wants to dig around for a wine tool? One can of wine is equivalent to a half bottle. Coolers are made for cans and, at the end of the day, cans are recycled at an 80 percent rate compared to 20 percent for glass.

Let’s face it, wine can be snobby. A lot of people don’t even like to drink beer out of a can. To each his own. If nothing but a bottle with a cork will do, fine. But it is summer, so don’t be afraid to try something for fun that’s also convenient and friendly to the environment.

Keep your snacks simple too. Easy wine and summer outdoor activities require cheese with great flavor but not too serious aging or washing. Snacking cheese, not thinking cheese. Try a great aged cheddar like Tickler from England with a bit of crunch from whey protein or a Southern classic like pimento cheese. All Southern cooks have their own recipe, usually a blend of cheddars, pimentos, Duke’s mayonnaise and maybe pickled jalapeños or olives. Easily shared and great with simple crackers or used as a dip with celery, pimento cheese is the perfect summer snack. Whatever you choose, it’s July, summer is here, keep it simple and easy.  OH

Angela Sanchez owns Southern Whey, a cheese-centric specialty food store in Southern Pines, with her husband, Chris Abbey. She was in the wine industry for 20 years and was lucky enough to travel the world drinking wine and eating cheese.