Two Years In Transylvania (County)

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It took a lot of hard work, but the De Trinis' greenhouse in Transylvania County, NC turn a small profit its first year.
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A sign welcomes visitors and customers to the nursery.
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Yellow flowers
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Bonnie fills a tray of starter plants.
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The family also keeps chickens.
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Eleven year old Johnny helps tend plants too.
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Assorted flowers for sale.
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Exterior view of the De Trinis greenhouses.

Hey! You out there! …I don’t necessarily mean you that’s doin’, this report is more for the folks who are still readin’ and thinkin’ and dreamin’ ’bout doin’. I’m here to tell you that you really can get up and make those wishes—the “back to the land” wish, the “be your own boss” wish—come true!

Now I know that the methods which work for one person or family could very well drive another to bankruptcy, but when your fantasy gets a little shopworn around the edges, the knowledge that somebody else has “made it” can sure brighten things up again. Not that everything has been peaches and cream for us up here in the mountains of western North Carolina—we’re not even really “out of the woods” yet—but my family does feel that it has found a permanent home here in Transylvania County.

Of course, we didn’t move to the country on a spur-of-the-moment impulse. Even seven years ago—when my wife, Bonnie, and I were still newlyweds—we realized that we wanted to leave our Florida city life behind someday and establish a more independent, more down-to-earth lifestyle for ourselves.

Bonnie was a teacher then, and still is today. At that time I was supervisor of a welfare office. Our homestead dream (though we talked about it a lot) was little more than “wishful thinkin”‘ until some friends offered us a week in their house in the Blue Ridge mountains. Those cool hills —contrasted with the body-punchin’ heat and humidity of a Florida July—were all that we needed to convince us that the time had come to act.

In fact, that short vacation pretty much determined our future. We decided then that we’d be livin’ in those mountains the following summer, come hell or high water.

Bonnie and I had never been really conscientious money savers, but we had invested in a small lot somewhere along the way and we owned our house, so we did have a little nest egg that could be converted to cash to finance our move.

And, as much as some folks try to avoid the issue, there’s no gettin’ around the fact that money is the one absolute necessity for anyone who wants to transplant his- or herself into a rural environment. The idealist who plans to go out and “do his own thing” without a cent in his pockets will more often than not wind up as one of the sorry embittered “also rans” who limps back to town with a horror story.

Of course, money alone won’t do the trick, either. In order to prepare for our new life, I quit the welfare office and took a job as manager of an orchid nursery. The work was hard and the pay very poor, but I figured a year of it would teach me enough about the business to enable me to start my own nursery once we’d settled in our country home.

When the next summer rolled around, we went to Brevard, North Carolina for a week to find a teaching job for Bonnie and to look for a house and land. We had already put our Florida properties on the market, and we sort of expected “dream homesteads” to be thick as weeds up in the mountains. Unfortunately, several thousand other people must have come to the same area with the same thing in mind: a livable house on about five acres of decent land. The realtors just smiled a smile that said they’d heard it all before when we told them what we wanted.

In fact, the whole land-search process quickly depressed us. And, since I had to be back to work in Florida soon, Bonnie and I had just about resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d have to rent when we moved and hope to find a place to buy sometime later. Then, the day before we had to return to Florida, Bonnie went in to sign her teaching contract with the county school system … and was introduced to a woman who wanted to sell a house on five acres!

Were we excited? Man, that’s nowhere near word enough to describe how we felt. We just about tripped over each other in our hurry to have a look at the place, and once there it took us about fifteen seconds to decide that we wanted to buy it.

Sheer luck, or Divine Providence, or something, helped us sell our house and lot in Florida quickly, and the bank in Brevard promised to finance our new home in the mountains. All of a sudden we were bona fide back-to-the-landers!

The money we received from the sale of our Florida properties took care of the down payment on the farm and left me with enough cash to build and stock my first greenhouse. But it would’ve been impossible for us to have survived those first few months in North Carolina without Bonnie’s secured-in-advance job. Her steady checks paid the bills and fed us while I tried to build a business out of nothing.

Thanks to a lot of help from one of our friends, our 22- by 48-foot greenhouse was up and ready for customers by the middle of that first winter. The local folks didn’t exactly beat a path to our door right away, though. In fact, things went pretty slowly while I learned how to run a family greenhouse business. I’d been involved with plants for as long as I could remember, and I’d had the nursery experience in Florida, but suddenly I was owner and manager … and the operation’s income was my salary.

Not that there was a whole lot of income from the nursery at first. But spring came, and spring is a season of change—especially in the country. The warm weather brought (along with the wonderful rebirth of the countryside) a whole slew of folks who wanted garden flowers and vegetable starts. And, thanks to a swap I cooked up with the local paper—free advertising for a weekly column about indoor gardening—those people found out who and where we were and bought everything I had in stock! This success got us through our first year with expenses paid and even a little extra cash for necessities.

I next drummed up some orders from area supermarkets and department stores for winter business. Then once that was rollin’, my eleven-year-old son Johnny and I trudged out into the snow and ice and built a second greenhouse. It was a cold, messy, frustrating job, but we were ready with a larger supply of stock when the breezes turned warm again.

We needed that stock too! The local populace purchased three successive springtime crops as fast as I could supply ’em. In short, we tripled our business during the beginning of our second year, and that year is not over yet. Our family nursery will likely gross a respectable $18,000 from the sale of products that we grow ourselves.

We’re not going to get rich at this rate, of course, but we don’t want to; there are too many complications connected with that kind of success. Bonnie, Johnny, and I are plenty happy with things the way they are right now.

Yep, we’re a long way from self sufficiency. But we are out of the city rat race, we’ve started a business and kept it going, and we grow and can a good bit of food for ourselves, along with the plants that we start for sale. That ain’t bad for just two years on the land.

Sure, Bonnie is still at her teaching job, but even that may not be necessary in time. We know that we’ll never be completely free from the economic world that’s represented by taxes and many of our grocery needs, and that there will always be an element of compromise in our lives. Sometime in the future, though, we might be able to eliminate a few of those “strings,” one by one, and get closer to true independence. For now at least, we’re in there pluggin’ away.

And what do all of our experiences have to do with you folks who haven’t yet headed “back to the land?” Well, I hope they don’t convince you that you should go out and start a nursery … especially not here in Transylvania County. But I do hope our story can help a few people realize that with a little preparation and a lot of hard work and study, they can have the life they want.

The rewards, when you do achieve your “country livin'” goal, are simple, basic, and very, very real. The most important of these, to us anyway, comes when we look across the valley toward the hills and see them with the knowledge that they are a permanent part of our lives. That one “reward” is all inclusive enough to make a long list of others unnecessary.

Oh, by the way: If you ever happen to be near Brevard, North Carolina, stop in and buy a plant or two. We sell a fine product at a fair price … and how often these days do you get a chance to help keep someone’s dream alive?