Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Anthony Harden
“If you can’t raise food and clothe yourself, you have a big issue,” says Julie Jensen. It’s a lesson she learned as a youngster, growing up on a farm and hearing harrowing tales of the Dust Bowl—a series of droughts during the 1930s that devastated 100 million acres of American farmland, including parts of Texas where Jensen’s family is from. “It was something I heard about the whole time I was growing up,” she says. “My mother remembers when they came and got all the cattle. There was nothing to feed them.”
Today, as the owner of EchoView Farm and Fiber Mill, Jensen is doing her best to take lessons from that time and apply them to modern problems of sustainability—how we as humans can harmoniously thrive with the plants, animals, and land surrounding us.
“We turned the Dust Bowl around, and I think we can turn stuff around now,” she says. “Agriculture may well be part of the problem, but it’s essential to the solution.”
From the Farm and Back Again
Jensen’s connection to farm life began in her childhood. After her family moved from Texas when she was five years old, she grew up on a farm in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She remembers the farm having lots of animals, a big garden, and one of the original Red Delicious apple trees. And she recalls fondly how the local kids used to come over to play basketball in her family’s barn—a fun activity during the cold winter months.
But as anyone who has lived on a farm knows, there was also a lot of work to be done. “We were always busy, so we never got in trouble,” says Jensen. “My father used to send us to pick the mustard out of the fields. We probably had the cleanest hay fields in three counties.” She also dreaded shoveling manure, a chore she detests to this day. But overall, her childhood on the farm is something she looks back on fondly.
While Jensen’s mother ran the farm, her father worked in town as an insurance executive at a life insurance company. He would go on to become a very successful entrepreneur, who started multiple companies and was a venture capitalist. This entrepreneurial spirit would eventually find its way to his daughter.
As soon as Jensen turned sixteen, she left home to attend college. She studied biology at Grinnell College and then earned a law degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, with the intention of becoming an environmental lawyer.
After school, Jensen moved to Washington D.C. to work for the Congressional Research Fund, then the Internal Revenue Service. She married Christopher Meyer, a Washington native, and they had two sons.
She went on to work for the Jenesis Group, a private family foundation founded by her father that empowered disadvantaged youth through education and professional development. She would eventually become the foundation’s chief operating officer.
Then, following in her father’s philanthropic footsteps, Jensen and her husband founded the Chadrew Fund in 1997. The organization provides pro-bono assistance to charities that work with disadvantaged youth. As a tax lawyer, Jensen found that her skills were much needed in the nonprofit community, since 501(c)(3)s depend on tax code exemptions to do their work.
“We worked with some really great groups throughout the country,” says Jensen. “I gave a lot of technical advice, telling people how to set up their books, telling them that they really needed a human resources department, and that even if they made no money, they still had to file their tax returns each year.”
Then, in 1999, Jensen’s husband passed away. She was left to be a single mother to two boys, then aged four and nine.
Around this time, Jensen’s love of D.C. began to wane. While the trauma of losing a spouse undoubtedly contributed, Jensen says she also became disenchanted by the city’s changing culture. She found that politics were polarizing the social fabric, with increasingly divided Republican and Democratic neighborhoods—a stark shift that had happened during her twenty-five years of residence. As a result, “it wasn’t as much fun to live there as it was when I first moved there,” she says.
She also felt constrained by the urban environment and yearned for a return to the rural lifestyle she had enjoyed as a child.
One day, while visiting friends in Mills River, North Carolina, Jensen agreed to tag along to view some houses on Reynolds Mountain. “I don’t really like to look at houses,” she says, “so I didn’t want the real estate agent to be talking to me. So I said, ‘Well, if you have a horse farm, I’m interested.’” Knowing that the area wasn’t known for horse farms, she thought the cute comment would put her in the clear. But the agent happened to know of a miniature horse farm that was for sale nearby in Weaverville.
It was love at first sight. Jensen purchased the home and its twenty-seven-acre lot in 2005. For five years, she split her time between her new Weaverville property and her home in D.C. She moved down with her sons full-time in 2010.
Hops: Not Just for Beer
The first thing Jensen did on her new farm was purchase five goats, to eat down the brush. Then she started a small garden, added some Angora goats, two rescue donkeys, and a miniature long-haired donkey (named, appropriately, Shaggy).
Today, the farm has stretched to 75 acres and is home to a veritable menagerie: two Angora rabbits (Thelma and Louise), two Scottish Highland cattle, 30 alpacas, 35 goats (including Angoras, Pygmies, and three fainting goats named after characters from The Hunger Games—Peeta, Katniss, and Primrose), three donkeys, four dogs, one sleek black barn cat, innumerable geese, ducks, and chickens, and 25 buzzing bee colonies in stacked blue boxes (which produced more than 500 pounds of honey last year).
As far as crops, the property is planted with greasy beans, buckwheat, and Hickory Cane corn. But the crop that attracts the most attention is hops. A small sunny valley on Jensen’s property is lined with what look like telephone poles, rows of 24-foot-tall posts connected by string, supporting the dark green hops vines that will surpass the poles’ height by season’s end.
Jensen was attracted to hops because of their versatility. “I liked hops because it’s an herbal remedy, it’s used in beer, and it has the potential to be used in the textile industry,” she says. As her land was previously a tobacco allotment, Jensen also thought that perhaps hops could replace tobacco. She has since discovered that they can’t due to being a lower-value, higher-labor crop.
Jensen started her hops rhizomes about seven years ago and last year had her most successful yield yet at about 1,000 pounds of dried hops. However, this year has been a hard one for hops, both at EchoView Farm and on a national level, due to an abundance of downy mildew, which no fungicide has been able to control. “I’ll be happy if we get 300 pounds dried this year,” she says.
Of course, EchoView’s two acres of hops, comprising about 3,000 plants, is tiny compared to major hops farms in the western states, which average hundreds of acres each. But Jensen says that for a North Carolina hops farm, EchoView is pretty big. She also has a hops dryer and pelletizer on site (most breweries prefer pelletized hops) and offers pelletizing for other local hops growers. EchoView sells its own hops to a variety of breweries in the Carolinas and Virginia, including Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in Grandy, North Carolina, and Blue Mountain Pizza in Weaverville.
Jensen says that growing hops is more of an experiment than anything. While EchoView grows several hops varieties—including Cascade, Chinook, Nugget, and European varieties—she acknowledges that Western North Carolina isn’t their ideal home, being the southern most region where hops will grow at all. They tend to do better in more northerly locations like Germany and Oregon, where the days are longer. So she’s not yet sure if it’s economically viable for this area.
But it’s clear that the biology major in her is intrigued by hops’ properties and potential. “If you use the beta acids from hops in chicken water, it cuts down the use of antibiotics by about fifty-percent,” she says.
She’s also curious about whether or not hops can play a role in her newest business venture. “We’re going to see if we can use hops as a natural dye for wool.”
The Fiber Mill
While the fiber mill is the newest addition to the EchoView compound, it’s actually the first part you’ll come across, and you can’t miss it.
Approaching from Asheville, take Exit 15 off of I-26, swing left for a few beats, and… BOOM. There it is. An impressive, modern structure of blonde wood, rusted steel, and large windows. The blocky, rectangular edifice is surrounded by an expansive parking lot—featuring a solar-powered charging station for electric cars (which is what Jensen drives)—rolling lawn, and several giant, old silver maple trees.
Jensen explains that the building materials are symbolic, representing the three main types of barn found in North Carolina. The red rusted steel reflects the old red barn style; the cypress wood will silver to the color of a tobacco barn; and the galvanized steel and aluminum represent contemporary pole barns.
Upon entering the facility, visitors are greeted by the receptionist at the front desk (the EchoView logo displayed on giant flat screens behind her) and find themselves in a cozy gift shop made for fiber lovers. The shelves are lined with skeins of naturally-dyed yarns in sunset pinks and indigo blues, soft knitted blankets and winter hats, and giant nests of colorful roving. There are non-fiber options, too, that reflect EchoView Farm’s hops and hives—Bröö shampoo (made in Asheville with local beer), Gypsy Bee soaps, and jars of honey.
Continuing up the giant black metal staircase, visitors find themselves face-to-face with the mill’s working guts. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows looks down onto rows of machinery that process animal fibers into yarn, rug yarn, roving, batting, or felt. Jensen explains that the ceiling of that room is equipped with air foggers that regularly spray mist to keep the environment between 65% and 75% humidity, the ideal conditions for processing animal fibers.
Next door to the viewing area is the “loom room,” which is currently rented to Appalatch, an Asheville-based company that produces one-hundred-percent American-made outdoor apparel. Also on the floor are meeting rooms, classrooms, a catering kitchen, and a library full of books on animals, gardening, and textiles.
At 17,000 square feet, the hulking building, which opened in April of 2012, is an unexpected find in quiet Weaverville. Jensen says it took two years to build, a process that was made a bit longer due to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification process. Jensen says the building attained the first Gold LEED certification for a manufacturing mill in the country. Toward that end, the mill has 196 solar panels on the roof, which, in the summer months, produce about half of the electricity needed to run the facility. And beneath the building are a series of geothermal wells that provide the water needed for processing fiber.
From Alpaca to Apparel
Jensen first had the idea for the mill after taking a class on community mills at Gaston College. “I thought the class would be interesting,” she says, “and I hoped that small farmers would be able to find an alternative to growing tobacco.”
[quote float=”right”]“It has been much more difficult than I had thought it would be,” Jensen says. “But anything worth doing is often difficult.”[/quote]Jensen combined her new knowledge with a past interest in fiber (as a knitter, spinner, and handweaver) and decided to see what she could do. For the most part, she has been learning from scratch, visiting mills and reading books. “It has been much more difficult than I had thought it would be,” she says. “But anything worth doing is often difficult.”
For one thing, some of the machines Jensen initially purchased didn’t have the capacity she expected. And now she knows that she should have placed the scouring and spinning machines in separate rooms because they work best at different humidity levels. Even constructing the building was a challenge; it was hard finding folks with the right expertise because “there hadn’t been any new textile facilities built in North Carolina in twenty-five years,” she says.
But things really turned around once she brought in an expert this past April—Ken Simpson, her new mill manager who has been in textiles for thirty-six years. With Simpson’s guidance, the mill is purchasing new machines that Jensen says will enable the production of more and better yarn, hopefully at a capacity that can serve not just farmers, but small apparel companies as well.
EchoView Mill currently processes about 25,000 pounds of animal fiber per year. 75% of the fiber comes from the southeast, mostly from farmers who sell their yarn or roving in farm stores or fiber festivals. While 80% of the mill’s customers send their fiber to be processed and returned, the rest sell their raw fiber directly to EchoView, which makes it into yarn and other products that it sells itself.
While small farms have made up the lion’s share of the mill’s customers to date, Jensen realizes that the key to profitability is to scale up and find new revenue sources. “We want to provide yarn to Appalatch for their knitting machines and other local groups,” says Jensen. “For the size of the community, there are a lot of small, start-up apparel companies in this area.”
To serve this market, the key is finding good fiber. Jensen describes animal fiber as “incredibly sustainable,” but explains that the challenge is to find the fibers that are soft enough for humans to wear. The diameter of animal fibers are measured in microns; the lower the measurement, the softer the fiber.
In general, younger, healthier animals will have finer fiber. But each species is different. Jensen explains that sheep’s wool is acceptable below thirty microns, but is ideal under twenty-two microns. Alpaca fiber can be a little larger and remain soft, but the guard hair has to be removed “or you’ll still have a prickle factor.” And mohair is a beautiful and very strong fiber, but not very soft, so it’s usually mixed with other fibers.
The softest fibers are spun into yarn or thread. But the rougher fibers are made into felt or rug yarn. Jensen says they can also be used for insulation or as a garden weed barrier. The result is that very little fiber goes to waste.
Jensen is optimistic that the timing is right for niche mills, as consumers shift toward a desire for local, sustainable products. While much word-of-mouth blames cheap foreign labor for the demise of the North Carolina textile industry, Jensen says the problem is not that simple.
“The textile world has never been easy,” she says. “It’s not going to suddenly become easy.” Jensen points to a lack of machine maintenance and a history of textiles being a protected industry in America—protections that were recently lifted. “Now lean manufacturing plays into textiles just like it does any other kind of manufacturing,” she says. “We have the ability to do it. You just have to stay on top of all the latest innovations.”
Doing the Right Thing
With mill manager Simpson focusing on the day-to-day mill operation, Jensen now has more time for experimenting with natural dyes. In front of her modern, state-of-the-art building sits a rustic wire drying table draped with bundles of wool yarn, fresh from the dye bins. Four loose skeins stand out, a deep ochre shade from being dyed in madder, a root used to dye cloth since ancient times. Next to it, are a few piles of pale, egg-noodle yellow yarn, dyed with hops. Jensen is also working with lichen, marigolds, daylilies, weld, and black walnut.
So why does she do all of this? The woman who left the hustle and bustle of the big city for a quiet rural lifestyle now manages multiple businesses, many acres of land, and fifteen employees. Her approach to much of it is matter-of-fact—she feels a responsibility to make payroll every week and is eager to refine the mill’s niche.
But what really leads her forward are those tragic Dust Bowl stories and a desire to make a positive difference—in her community, in her industry, and on this planet.
“What drives me,” she says, “is a need to do the right thing.”