Bill Dow: Organic Farming / Local Food Pioneer
Photos and text by Debbie Roos, North Carolina Cooperative Extension
Chatham County organic farmer Bill Dow of Ayrshire Farm passed away unexpectedly on December 4, 2012. Bill was one of our organic farming pioneers and he paved the way for so many of the farmers and food entrepreneurs that you see in the Piedmont area today. Ayrshire Farm was North Carolina’s first certified organic farm, and Bill was one of the founders of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. I had the great privilege of working with Bill from the time I came to work in Chatham County in early 2001. We served on the CFSA Board of Directors together and he was on my advisory committee. Bill was a great friend and I am devastated by his sudden passing, as are so many others who admired and loved him.
Over the years I have taken many photos of Bill: at his farm, at the farmers’ market, and even as he delivered to chefs around the Triangle region. I wanted to share some of these photos so people could get a glimpse of Bill’s life and how he touched people. Bill and I worked together on many projects, including a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program where Bill mentored a group of farmers from Moore County interested in learning more about organic farming and direct marketing. I also organized many field days at Ayrshire Farm, always very popular with both new and experienced farmers as well as consumers eager to learn more about how Bill raised the crops they enjoyed buying at the farmers’ market. Many of these photos reveal Bill’s passion for sharing his knowledge and experience of organic farming, which always found a rapt audience.
Bill liked to challenge the status quo, and we had many lively conversations over the years about the role of Extension in supporting organic farmers. He helped shape my approach and my work ethic, and I think a part of me will always be working to make him proud of me and of Extension. He inspired so many of us to want to do more to continue to grow a sustainable local food system.
More about Bill:
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Christy Hamilton Cole:
My memories of Bill are inseparable from my memories of the farm. I worked with Bill for over three years–planning, planting, harvesting, selling, learning, and listening. We walked up and down the incline of Ayrshire’s fields together thousands of times with buckets of tomatoes, bins of lettuce, flats of his famous blueberries.
Bill was a natural storyteller, which made him a fantastic educator and advocate for small, organic farms as well as an entertainer at harvest-time. I have a book of “Bill’s Stories” in my head, each and every one of them relayed in his distinctive, Southern-tinged cadence. Cutting salad mix while he told stories of his meticulously-researched ancestors, packing radicchio while we heard about the early days of converting organic doubters, hunting for nasturtium blossoms to the crazy tales of visiting isolated mountain hamlets as a young doctor.
Working for Bill wasn’t always easy. The heat and long days were grueling. I still can’t smell fresh basil without thinking of Bill running up to the fields as the sun dipped far below the trees, waving the notebook and informing us that we needed five more pounds of basil. The work of growing food is never really done. Even the day I came out of the orchard covered with thousands of tiny ticks, Bill just chuckled, ran down to his trailer, and came out with a mini-Bill outfit for me to wear while we finished harvesting–a pair of his jeans, a belt, a long-sleeved tee shirt, and a signature red bandana.
Many of my memories of Bill are set between and outside of the work of providing food. The memory of being sprawled on a blanket in the shade during the hottest day of the summer, sweating, filthy, and covered with the brown-green evidence of tomato work and hearing Bill on the phone with a fancy restaurant referring to my co-worker and I as “the ladies” still brings Christy Sue and me to peals of laughter.
When Bill’s spunky little dog Chrissy was dog-napped (our interpretation, of course) while we were at a Thanksgiving market, we both cried for a bit, then Bill sent me on a covert reconnaissance mission that turned into an unsuccessful, awkward plea to return Chrissy. In spite of his insistence that he did not want another dog, I still remember the grin he tried to mask when a gangly young Katie hopped out of our car a few months later and trotted over to his side.
Every Friday after market harvest, Bill and Daryl took their work crew and whoever else happened to be around out to dinner. We all loved the ritual and the generosity of it—Bill ladling the Tom Yum soup into bowls, chatting over the week, the weather, the crops. Everyone eating, relaxing, and sharing in the company of friends. Impossible to believe Bill is gone when so much of him remains.
Gerald Moose (father of Farrell Moose):
When one’s children grow older and venture out into the world, we hope that whatever good sense we try to instill will draw them towards rare and helpful mentors. It was therefore good fortune that my son was able to spend time with Bill. I am grateful.
A few years ago, I was talking with a friend, Rosie Hammond, who had moved to the west coast, and I told her we were beginning a farm. She asked if I knew Bill Dow, an old college friend of hers. I told her I knew OF Bill, but didn’t know him personally. She wrote Bill a letter and told him about me and our plans to farm. Bill and I subsequently had a great phone conversation and he invited me to come out to Ayrshire Farm for a chat. He showed me everything. He didn’t sugar coat farming life, but after hearing my plans, he encouraged me to give it a try. As a full-time farmer now, I know how precious time is. I’m thankful for that day on his farm–the hours he spent with me, and the encouragement he gave me. And I know he did this for countless other farmers and want-to-be farmers over the years.
Bill Dow was a local hero. He was the first organic farmer I met in the state, long before my job offer here or the knowledge that I would ever move here. On my honeymoon (bike trip of NC), my husband’s sister was friends with Bill and took me to his farm for a tour. I was so impressed with his farm and his passion, and could recognize he was a real innovator. We all know how he felt about extension and the University at the time (well deserved!), but when I moved to the state, though I was in extension, he always was welcoming when I wanted to bring a tour of agents to his farm (and then he would let them have it!). He mentored me, opened his farm to tours for groups anytime I asked, inspired me and the CEFS interns who met him. He got his way in the end, as Cooperative Extension recently announced “Local Foods” as its flagship program, and regularly supports organic producers statewide. I attribute this in part to Bill and his quiet persistence in making things right. Bill was so caring and gentle – kept in touch, always asking about my kids and how they were doing. That always meant a lot to me. I ran in to Bill and Daryl at CFSA but was rushing off to a prearranged meeting. I wish I had lingered for that conversation.
Larry and Lee Newlin:
Bill attended Spring Friends Meeting with Daryl, and when he spoke in worship, he quoted from Kentucky farmer, novelist, poet, college professor, and sustainable farming godfather, Wendell Berry. He attended Spring last week while Daryl was with her son in Colorado, and today, Daryl was at Meeting with her daughter and a good friend and spoke out of the silence with an uplifting and thankful voice. During open worship I had hoped to quote from Wendell Berry, but a lump in my throat from the sadness and tenderness of the worship silence prohibited that. What I wanted to share was Berry’s, “I stand for what I stand on” and how that will resonate through the ages in the life of Bill Dow.
What Bill stood for and stood on inspired countless wannabe and aspiring farmers, his customers at the farmers market and restaurants, and those who knew him in community. What he stood on at Ayrshire was extraordinarily ordinary — a sloping plot of terraced land that he tended and nurtured to good health even as he had done with his patients in his previous medical career. He stood on a farm where interns and students were taught practical methods and principles of sustainable farming. He stood on a farm that was visited by novices on CFSA farm days and by experts from all over. On our first visit at the end of a farm tour day, Bill was still willing to answer my questions and walk me up the slope of the farm to show me more of his crops and farming methods. While there were others downhill wanting to hear him as well, he let them know that they could join us uphill — that he was happy to talk to me as long as I had questions.
We will miss that twinkle in his eye and that willing smile and especially that gentle, Southern voice filled with such wisdom. Michael Pollan says that we need 20 million new sustainable farmers to build a sustainable food system — a system that will bring health back into our soil, our rural communities, our environment, and our population. We are one of those 20 million new farmers, and we have Bill and other pioneers to thank for the inspiration and advice and example-setting. Like countless others Bill inspired and touched, we too can now say, “We stand for what we stand on.”
I have known Bill Dow for many years and have competed with him selling blueberries to local restaurants. He was one guy I never minded losing to. I used to joke with him about enjoying his engine exhaust fumes when he drove past me making his deliveries. To me was a great guy, a wonderful southern character, and an orthodox organic farmer. Will always enjoy my memories of our repartee.
He had an enchanting, childlike exuberance as he showed me his garden, and asked if I knew any young, strong farmers up for carrying the tasks forward…..what a joy to have had the opportunity to meet him! My deepest condolences to his family, friends, and the farming community, with wishes that we all mind carry on his legacy in his memory.
This is a tremendous loss for Bill’s many friends and students, and an even larger loss for the community of man that he loved so much. I hope we can all continue to spread the word and practice of organic production and insure that his legacy will continue for the future.
There are a lot of people who are inspiring. Many inspire me the way a hawk or an eagle sighting might. It’s up in the air, far away, inspiring me with its beauty and majesty. But it is unreachable and I’ll never be able to fly. Bill inspired me the way a big old oak tree does. He was real. Down to earth. Approachable and practical. He showed by example what could be done. You could climb up on his branches and get a perspective bigger, higher and different from what you could get to on your own. When he and his partner said they love what Farmer Foodshare was doing and brought us food, it gave us confidence. He was also accessible. One time when I had gotten a load of compost that I didn’t trust, I called him up and he told me exactly what was probably in it, where it had been sourced and to call that person up and demand they come take it back. He also told me an earthy story about a fight he got into one time over a similar situation. And I had the best (and ugliest) apple I’ve ever tasted from his farm.
Bill was an inspiration to me with his unrelenting passion for the importance of good food, and the work to back it up. I loved his unwavering honesty and warm smile and hug! I am very thankful for all he gave to this healthy food movement.
Along with his role with the market, CFSA, and other activities, Bill was a founding member of our board and an inspiration for our work. He introduced me to Erick Umstead, co-founder of Toxic Free NC, and was a close friend of many of us, especially Erick, Fawn, and myself. Bill walked his own path to change the world from farming, to medical school, to practicing pediatrics, to deciding that his way to having the most impact on public health was through changing the food system. He didn’t just become an organic farmer, he worked to convince as many as possible that knowing your farmer was at least as important as knowing your doctor, lawyer, or other professionals. He set an example and inspired and mentored as many as possible to find their way to producing, preparing, and eating real food. Along with that he had broad interests that he pursued from politics to tracing the roots and migrations of various branches of the Dow family.
Talking with Bill at the market was one of the joys of the week. He had many loyal customers who stopped to chat whether or not they needed anything that week. They weren’t primarily customers but friends. They appreciated his insightful and sardonic view of the world. They shared his view of what needed to happen with our broken food system and appreciated that he had been way ahead of most in advocating and putting those ideals into practice. I am particularly grateful that Bill believed that Toxic Free NC was a part of the solution and was so helpful in getting us started.
When my daughter Lily was very small, we still lived in North Raleigh. Because the Carrboro Farmers’ Market was the only place I knew of that provided local food and local color, I would buckle her into her car seat and make the trek every Saturday and most Wednesdays. Bill was the first farmer that learned our names, launching what would become a wonderful friendship. I cannot count how much time I spent talking with Bill at the market over the years. When I asked him how he was doing, he would often say with a grin “Able to sit up and take nourishment.” We chatted about food, cooking, jobs we’d had, and places we’d lived. When he learned that I hail from way up in the mountains, he shared that he had practiced medicine in eastern Tennessee, so he understood my stories, both the characters and the context. We often chuckled about how it is quite possible to be both completely proud of and totally perplexed by the places we come from. I will miss him so much.
I started buying Bill’s produce years ago for Il Palio Ristorane were I am the chef de cuisine. We became friends, and as I started taking classes at CCCC for sustainable ag. He was somewhat of a role model and mentor to me. I will never forget him and hope that one day I can have at least a small portion of the impact to the movement that Bill has had.
I have nothing profound to say, just that as long as I have known Bill, which is about 15 years, I have always felt honored and respected as a person and I have had the utmost respect and admiration for him. I have known Bill as a mentor, a teacher and as a friend. He guided many a sustainable ag student through the rigors of farming in the summer heat and all that entails. I always enjoyed going out to visit the farm when one of my students was completing their co-op. The student would get to show me all that they had learned from Bill. And Bill in turn, would share his insights with me about each individual student, gained through his time spent with each one, nurturing them as he would an important crop. He took the time to know the students and workers on his farm, to teach them and to enjoy their company at their Friday night dinners after a long days work. One of the workers that Bill took on because of our friendship was the 4-legged Katie, a foundling golden retriever mix that we needed to find a home for. After Bill adopted Katie, she was always a topic of conversation when I saw him. “That dog of yours…” he would say, and then tell me of her latest antic.
Bill was a good friend and he will be missed by many. We were all blessed by his life and his work and the friendships he made.
Bill was a wonderful friend and great guy. He helped me on many occasions. Not only did he provide me information on growing various vegetables, he asked me to join him and Judy Lessler in a CSA called Chatham Farmers Alliance. It was a wonderful experience. More recently he helped me in the sale of several crops when I had exhausted all of my contacts. I first met Bill at Pittsboro Presbyterian Church where he was an inspirational Sunday School teacher. I also want to remember Bill as a wonderful instructor and speaker on how to conduct Genealogy searches. I will miss him more than I can fully describe.
I knew Bill for many, many years, but I never knew him really well. I will say that I always admired him for giving up his profession as a pediatric physician to become a farmer of the purest variety. He said that he changed professions so he could be more helpful to his fellow man.
What I remember about him happened almost 30 years ago, but it will always be entrenched in my memory.
It was at 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon at the Carrboro Art Center. A panel of local farmers was present to discuss the merits of organics and sustainable agriculture. There was an audience of 50 or more of us, all feeling comfortable after a relaxing Sunday morning.
When it came Bill’s turn to speak, he asked how many of us had eaten brunch out that morning. At least 75% of us proudly raised our hands.
Bill proceeded to tell us how important we all thought it was to check out any doctor or lawyer that we were considering utilizing. We wanted to know everything about the person: his integrity, his education, his standing in the community, his family.
Then Bill popped the question: “HOW MANY OF YOU PERSONALLY KNOW THE FARMER WHO GREW THE FOOD THAT YOU ATE AT BRUNCH THIS MORNING?”
Bill sat down. He had made his point.
Every time I drive Highway 64 and pass the turn to his farm, I say “Hello.” Twice I toured his farm and marveled at the way he used his land to its best advantage. I also admire the efforts he went to for providing fresh herbs for local restaurants. Probably, I will still recognize him as I pass his farm in memory of a fine organic farmer.
I met Bill two years ago at the CFSA conference; it was apparent how the farming community revered him! He invited me come to see Ayrshire Farm and talk about his plans and mine. Each time I saw Bill, each meeting, every conversation, a gift. I mourn his passing and know gratitude for his good works. May the generations carry on his legacy.
Bill was a couple of years ahead of me at Vanderbilt University, but I remember he was always passionately involved in various causes during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I think Bill may have been involved in the famous boycott of lettuce on campus during the Caesar Chavez efforts to organize the farm workers in California in 1968 or so, and he got me to introduce a student government resolution to express support of Chavez by Vanderbilt undergraduates.
One other encounter I remember with Bill occurred in 1970. Bill was then in Vanderbilt Medical School and he was involved with a group of medical students who helped out some health clinics in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky that were organized by a Catholic nun, whose name I believe was Sr. Marie Cirrillo or Currillo. Bill and this group would use their spring break to work with poor folks in the various “hollers” and he encouraged me to go along with him on one of their trips. I remember the innate goodness of both Bill and Sr. Marie as they came to people’s homes and would take the time to chat with them before and after helping out with various medical problems they may have had or taking them to doctor’s visits at the various clinics in the area. Bill seemed joyous in what he was trying to do, even though the living conditions were Spartan at best.
I believe that Bill’s efforts were a precursor of what later became Alternative Spring Break that was initiated at Vanderbilt in the mid-1970’s and became a model that has been successfully reproduced on hundreds of campuses today. Bill was always idealistic, but he was also a “doer” rather than just a talker.
I enjoyed reading about his life as a farmer after he chose this career over a medical career. I doubt too many people have followed that path. He was a unique individual and obviously a good man. I am sure he reflected well on both the college and the medical school at Vanderbilt. Thanks again for letting me know about his unexpected death. I have forwarded the article about Bill in the Raleigh paper to a couple of people who may have known Bill either in Meridian or at Vanderbilt.
Steve Farrington Walker:
On a surprise visit to Ayrshire Farm one April years ago, I stopped by to see Bill. We met outside his humble abode near the apple orchard and I told him what was on my mind. I said,” My manager has requested a meeting with me and I don’t know why.” Bill looked up at me and said, “that could go either way”. Turns out it was praise and not pardon.
He was a very good person, both as a friend and a farmer. I remember Bill coming to CCCC to lecture to students about the importance of Organic Agriculture. Shoot, if it wasn’t for Bill, there wouldn’t be a Sustainable Agriculture curriculum at CCCC. Maybe there would be, but he was so influential in so many things, it’s hard to know where he stopped. I also remember going to see his farm, and being amazed at how much he was able to do. I also saw him at the Carrboro farmer’s market, another thing he helped get started. We have lost a true pioneer in the Sustainable Agriculture movement.
I first met Bill Dow in 1978. I would like to share some of Bill’s story – as I am aware of it since that time. Bill was a pretty private person, so many people do not know much about him so —- here goes ….
I will try to provide a little background and apologize in case some facts below are not as exact as I would like. I think being around Bill stimulated stories. Having worked closely with Bill for over 5 years in the late 70’s/early here is my minor contribution to the story list.
I had just successfully completed helping to organize with many others the construction and eating of a 600 foot long ice cream sundae as a fund raiser to celebrate the first “Sunday celebration for renewable energy at the UNC student union in early 1978. Those involved conducted a meeting following the “eating” to try to figure out the next steps to take in order to build a solar greenhouse with the money raised when some guy looking pretty straight gets up and starts asking us, the group, pretty pointed questions. A number of us were wondering who this “agent provocateur” was because no one knew him and he was asking good questions that in reality was helping us greatly in figuring out the steps we needed to take in order to build a solar greenhouse, while involving the community, doing it in a public way that would result in newspaper headlines and promote our activist oriented interest in solar energy.
Not too long after that first meeting, Bill and I plus a couple of other guys started brain storming ideas for the development of the what would become the Solar Green House Employment Project (or in today’s lingo – renewable energy workforce development), a community organizing activity. It was at this time I began to find out about the “agent provocateur” – Bill Dow. Turns out he was an agitator, but one from the community organizing tradition, where one does not tell others what to do and become a leader, but one asks questions that elicit personal responses and growth from within oneself to enable change while the questioner’s role appears to be almost superfluous.
Bill was influenced growing up in Mississippi right close to the town where 3 civil rights organizers were killed in the early 60’s. He went to Vanderbilt Univ. and became a pediatrician. As he was nearing completion of that work he was provided the opportunity to develop a project over the course of a weekend, that if presumed feasible would be funded. The result of his effort was the Rural Student Health Coalition based out of Nashville, TN, that initially worked in much of eastern Tennessee. This work provided first ever accessible primary care to rural communities. The result was the creation of many local health organizations with the additional benefit that many of these groups were then empowered to successfully construct rural health centers/clinics accessible to their local populations.
Then with other people he met he assisted in organizing the beginnings of community lead – and organic leaning – farmers markets. It became Bill’s responsibility to work with others to spread these 2 organizations to Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas (I think Mississippi, and parts of Virginia too). Prior to my meeting Bill in 1978, he had been working in NC through the school of Public Health at UNC to help start/continue the student rural health groups at both UNC and Duke – that in some form (at last rumor may in some form still be in existence) and to assist with the development of the Agriculture Marketing Project who’s role was to create local farmer owned farmers markets around NC. (The Carrboro Farmer’s Market for example) It was around this time that Bill showed up at that post ice cream sundae gathering.
He and I became the principals of the Solar Greenhouse Employment Project (SGEP), basing our work here in Pittsboro in 1979/81 time frame. Bill was instrumental early on in linking local healthful food to good health to renewable energy to local jobs and the economy. It is probably fair to say that Bill was involved with a huge number of solar installations around North Carolina and the southeast in the early 80’s. and maybe most notably in the area of Sand Hills in NE Alabama where the project enabled a community to employ high school students, including farmers / seniors over a number of years building solar green houses, batch solar water heaters, and solar air collectors on residences, one student built 60’ long solar green house on the high school itself, one on the mayors home, and assisted in the solar design of a new health center.
We would help to organize public workshops here in Chatham County every month and a half or so working with a large list of local community organizations and schools to build solar greenhouses, solar hot water heaters, solar air collectors with between 40-100 people participating each time. People from around the state and the Southeast would attend. During the latter part of this time Bill participated with our local organization to get the Chatham County Commissioners to declare Chatham County the solar capital of NC – which I believe added cache of our counties reputation.
We became kind of the Johnnie apple seeds for solar greenhouses, solar hot water heaters, solar air collectors and more while working to educate and empower local communities. Bill paid much attention to the fact that our efforts were also all about progressive community empowerment and change. Working around the southeast, Bill wanted to settle, in order to continue his families farming tradition – but in a new way so in the early/mid 80’s he purchased his farm here in Chatham County just about 6 miles west of Pittsboro. He began by selling produce both at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and directly to many of the fine restaurants of Chapel Hill. He participated from the beginning with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association which advocated for small, local and organic farms. Participated in a local CSA group and obtained recognition for having his Ayrshire Farm become North Carolina’s first certified organic farm.
I had the good fortune after many years of not being close to Bill of catching up with him while he, his partner Daryl Walker, my wife Alicia Ravetto and I worked together to design and then build a home on his farm which he moved to just earlier this year. I was reminded during the process of his tough, irascible, but with humor (sometimes cutting) character and his continued commitment for issues that are important to many of us (the list is long).
Bill’s challenging questions continued through the years to enable many in Chatham County to get involved, help others and to help forge community. In my mind Bill was always following his medical training – just in a manner I think more should consider. His idea of health care was to work all his life being an “agent provocateur” and challenging the rest of and helping to show us all how to live a healthier, a more fair, a sustainable and an environmentally better world within a thriving local community.