by Laura Fieselman, Writer and Folklorist
“We really believe in good food.” That’s Jonathan Ray of Cates Corner Farm on why he and his family choose small-scale sustainable agriculture. “And we’ve got a strong attachment to the land, I reckon,” he says.
Together with his wife, Audrey, Jonathan is reviving his family’s historic farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Under Jonathan and Audrey’s direction, Cates Corner Farm grows over 40 varieties of fresh produce for sale at an on-site farm stand, at the Carrboro and Southern Village Farmers’ Markets, via a Community Supported Agriculture program, and at Weaver Street Market.
Farms sales grew organically out of Jonathan’s return to the farm in 2009. “I had a feeling I wanted to do some farming,” he says, “but I didn’t think it would turn into a full-time thing.” It began with a small garden while Jonathan was working as a stone mason, and in short order Jonathan had excess produce on his hands. The Rays started selling the produce and slowly scaling up their operation. In 2015, things changed: “I put down the trowel and picked up the shovel and the pitchfork,” says Jonathan of his commitment to farm full-time.
Life on the farm is not new to Jonathan. He grew up on this land, and tells stories about tumbling out of the school bus and in to the barns. Fishing in the farm ponds is a favorite memory of time with his father, and time in the dairy with his mother, Betty Cates Ray, is another. “She had me sitting in the corner watching her milk,” Jonathan says, describing his after-school hours.
Cates Corner Farm traces its history through Jonathan and his mother to his grandfather, John Cates, who operated the farm as a dairy. John Cates was married to Ada Long, the youngest daughter of James Daniel Long. The Longs were part of the long family line that farmed this land at the corner of Arthur Minnis Road and Union Grove Church Road in southern Orange County. Their story goes back to an 18th century land grant from the King of England; read the full family history here. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture has recognized Cates Corner as a NC Century Farm, positioning it as one of 1800 farms in the state with 100+ years of continuous ownership.
Jonathan and Audrey are the eighth generation to work this land, and though farming runs deep in their family, success in the 21st century doesn’t come easily. The hardest part of farming these days, reports Jonathan, is keeping up with technology. “I’d rather have my hands in the dirt,” he says of the digital communication that pulls him away from time on the land. But the family is committed to keeping up with technology; Jonathan takes photos during day on the farm and Audrey (who works as a dental hygienist by day) scrolls through them in the evenings, picking her favorites for the farm’s beautiful Instagram feed, @cates_corner_farm. It’s a popular feed, and the couple appreciates that their social media channels enable customers to feel connected to the farm.
Coming soon to Cates Corner Farm is a series of new additions. The couples’ five-year expansion plan includes an acre or two of pick-your-own blueberries, plus livestock and poultry. Infrastructure developments will include a high-tunnel and a walk-in cooler; in combination the tunnel and cooler will diversify the farm’s options for growing and harvesting produce. And the most exciting addition of all? The beginning of the ninth generation of this family farm – Jonathan and Audrey are expecting a little girl this summer!
Find Cates Corner Farm on the 2016 Piedmont Farm Tour. Cates Corner is one of three outstanding farms on the Piedmont Farm Tour Adventure Trail 6. The 2016#PiedmontFarmTour is April 23-24 from 2-6pm, advance tickets are $30 per car for all farms, all weekend; day of registration is $35; discounts for CFSA members. Jonathan is busy sprucing up the farm for the tour now: “It’s not going to look perfect,” he says, “But heck, it’s a farm none-the-less!”