SOUTHEASTERN NC — On a 22-acre farm, only 30 minutes south of Wilmington, Maud Kelley talks to her flock of birds.
“Have you ever read the Jenny Linsky ‘Cat Club’ series?” she asked.
As we walk through the farm to the various coops, she chats up Jenny Linsky, Madame Butterfly and Pickles — three of her Bearded Silkies who are named after the characters in the series. It’s clear the birds at Greenlands Farm are more than breeding animals. They are part of the family.
“My daughter really wanted birds,” Kelley said, referring to 10-year-old Jules. Kelley is preparing her kids for farm life and homesteading, as her parents, Henry and Heather Burkert, who started Greenlands, are inching closer to semi-retirement.
The family began slowing down operations at the farm a few years ago even before Covid hit — lessening events and production to a degree that was more manageable. Last year, as the pandemic shuttered the nation, they decided to transform Greenlands Farm store into an event space and wedding venue for when things began to open again.
“We received some SBA loans,” Heather said. “It’s not forgivable, so we have to pay it back, but that’s how we’re able to do all this work during Covid and get this place to what it looks like today.”
“We saw it as an opportunity to get ahead when there were less distractions, since nothing was really happening,” Kelley added.
One of the projects consisted of building new coops for Kelley’s rare birds.
Over in one of the silkies pens, the coop’s head honcho dances and struts in front of the females, showing off and exerting dominance. Fifty feet away, Malines, Crele Orpington hens, Isabel Cuckoo English Orpington roosters, and peafowl — Indian Blue and Black Shoulder alike — all have separate living quarters.
It’s not the first time the Burkerts and Kelleys had to pivot and shift with the times. Their family farm really got its start at the height of the housing and financial crisis more than a decade ago.
Greenlands as an agritourism site
It was 2004 when the Burkerts made the move from Wilmington to Bolivia, NC — specifically, onto a swath of 18 or so parcels that Heather said was cow pasture before they designed it into Greenlands. Today winding trails curve through the land’s natural habitat, with manicured acres of produce, homegrown tea plants, and an orchard of various fruits sharing space with pine trees that provide shade and respite for its animals.
The Burkerts were running a landscape architect company, H. Burkert and Co., when they first bought the land. They wanted to start a farm but also chose a central place to help grow their equestrian land-planning business.
“The demographics of where we felt that growth would be — to still maintain a farm and have growth around us where we can do landscape architecture — was Brunswick County,” Heather said.
The Burkerts took six years designing the farm and cultivating the land while maintaining their company. By 2010, after the financial and housing crisis hit in 2008, causing the Great Recession, H. Burkert took a hit. They had to lay off 20 employees and face restructuring in order to sustain a living.
Kelley was living in Concord, NC, at the time, with her husband, Ryan — who works in IT. By 2012, the two decided to move their family onto the farm. In essence, they would revert back to the homesteading lifestyle Kelley was used to living during youth.
“We grew up raising eggs and drinking goat’s milk,” she remembered. “[Mom] had her vegetable garden and that was our lifestyle — mostly because we were not in a financial position to live normally like everybody else.”
Kelley explained in Greenlands’ monthly newsletter fond memories as a homesteader: “I remember having my whole fourth-grade class walk from Bradley Creek Elementary through the woods to our house off Oleander for a farm tour,” she wrote. “My classmates LOVED it! Some fell in poop, some picked and tasted vegetables, others milked a goat… there were kids running around all over with smiles.”
Kelley envisioned Greenlands Farm to become an agritourism site much like she remembered from her school days. She also had taken notice of the offerings in the Piedmont region of North Carolina when she lived there, and how plentiful the places were to go and learn about farms, farm animals and agriculture.
“My daughter was 16 months old when I moved from Concord,” Kelley said. “There was tons of educational experiences I could take her to. It was like culture shock moving here — there was nothing in Brunswick County.”
As the families combined, they even lived together in a 3,500 square-foot farmhouse that Henry renovated. “It’s where my son was born,” Kelley said. Her father eventually upfitted a smaller structure on the farm where he and his wife moved a few years ago, as the Kelleys began rearing their two children and homeschooling.
The farm had become fully functional, as they were selling homemade goods and crops and keeping a rotating slate of events on deck. They each had their areas of expertise:
Heather was creating homemade jams from the fruit grown in the orchard. She made and sold all baked goods and soaps.
Henry cared for the land and upkeep of all structures and equipment, and grew produce. The farm had 33 families subscribe to its CSA program one spring when production was at its height.
“They would receive a bushel of produce grown here every week for 10 weeks,” Heather said.
Kelley cared for the animals as part of her nonprofit, Helpers of Our Farm (HOOF) — an educational sanctuary that takes in rescued or in-need farm animals. It opened to the public every weekend for tours, so the community could learn about sustainable farm practices, animal welfare and habitats, and live composting.
Kelley also scheduled events on the farm, booked music festivals, workshops and classes, farm-to-table dinners, and more. “It was a lot,” she said.
By 2017, the family found themselves overextended.
“We knew we had to develop a way to not be on six, seven days a week,” Kelley said, “and make this work for our aging cells.”
At the time they were operating a bakery/creamery/farm store on the property too. They decided to shutter it, as well as cut back events and tours. Instead of opening every weekend, they offered tours only to schools and community organizations by appointment.
Kelley still managed to take the animals on field trips for meet-and-greet science lessons. One of the most memorable came in 2019 when her duck, Pocahantas, met Lukas Nelson, famed musician and son of Willie. They were at a 2019 farmers’ market in Wilmington that Nelson visited and played before he and his band, Promise of the Reel, performed Greenfield Lake that night.
Working for financial gain is only one part of running a family farm, though. Dealing with its basic daily needs and upkeep is the real heft of farm life. Basically, there is always something that needs tending, Henry said: “Unless you try and wisely manage it, it’ll manage you.”
Those needs become amplified when catastrophic weather events take place. Located 11 miles from the water and Southport, Greenlands took a big hit from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and again in 2018 after Florence.
“We lost our fruit trees,” Heather said.
“Yeah, our persimmon trees, which we grew in the last 15 years,” Kelley said. “So the orchard looks nothing like it did. I’m slowly, now, rejuvenating it.”
“There’s about a third left,” Henry added. “Tending the farm after a hurricane can be pretty chaotic.”
Yet, their community always managed to rally and show support. The family was moved when Kelley’s church group showed up unannounced after Matthew and had the farm cleaned up in one day.
“We never could have handled it on our own,” Henry said. “We just would have let it sit there and gathered it, piece by piece.”
“That act of kindness left us with tears of gratitude,” Kelley said.
Gourmet farm eggs and cow cuddling
While the world was forced into hunkering down over the past year, the Kelleys and Burkerts were somewhat used to seclusion on Greenlands’ serene land. They did what they always do: cared for their animals, each other and crops. Kelley began procuring small batches of international wines from other family farms worldwide and selling them to the community.
She and her mom honed in more on their tea plants, from which they pick leaves daily to brew fresh tea. There isn’t enough production currently to sell to the public, though Kelley said she foresees workshops in the near future, to teach others how to make it.
“I like doing classes like that,” she said. “We used to do cooking classes, where people go pick vegetables, come in, prepare them, and eat. We’re planning on doing this again.”
During Covid, Kelley also leaned into ramping up egg production. Dedicated customers had begun raving about Greenlands’ variety, some of which tend to be creamier, richer, and overall more flavorful, according to Kelley.
“You know, there is such a thing as an egg snob,” Henry quipped. “They know the difference between something that comes from a place where it’s not being cared for, or maybe caged, down to what was fed to the animal. They know this — like magic. So when you get a compliment like ‘these are the best eggs,’ it’s really a big deal.”
Kelley raises her birds with a gentle, loving touch: She talks to them when she feeds them, pets them, and especially enjoys their company. Some even make their way into the family living quarters at times — like the Grey Mallard Indian Runner Duck, Dougie.
“He has been known to watch TV with us some days,” Kelley admitted with a smile.
Looking over the birds is Caspian, the livestock guardian dog that Kelley is training in German. Caspian is a young Anatolian Shepherd, a Turkish breed from the Anatolia region — named after the Caspian Sea. He warns Kelley when unwanted visitors arrive at the pens.
“Last night he was barking to let me know a door had opened in the coop,” she said. “He scared off a fox a few days ago. He’s a good dog.”
The birds on Greenlands Farm produce a good amount of eggs — quail, chicken, guinea, and duck alike. Kelley ensures the birds are raised with rotating access to pasture. She also gives them vitamins and non-GMO feed to help produce a gourmet farm egg.
“I have a breed that’s from Belgium, and we are one of the few in the United States breeding really extra large eggs,” Kelley said. “We try to think outside of the box on things that would still draw people to Greenlands.”
Kelley packs up the eggs in cartons and during weekends stocks them in the refrigerator in the black-and-white-striped shed at the front of the Greenlands property. Folks can drop by the shack on weekends and pick up any of the farms’ foodstuff — produce, homemade jams, farm-cultivated honey, eggs — all sold on the honor system. People drop their money in a box and take what they want.
“I used to write down everything I put in there and check it off,” Kelley said. “And then I was like, ‘You know what, if someone needs eggs that bad to steal, then bless them with eggs.’”
Yet, it’s not just neighbors nearby who enjoy the offerings of the farm. Kelley also sources goods to local restaurants, such as Seabird, Pinpoint, Savorez, and True Blue Butcher and Table. They use the farm’s Japanese persimmons, beets, Japanese turnips, escarole, heritage sweet potatoes, white sweet potatoes, and other in-season fruits and vegetables. Plus, she delivers her gourmet eggs.
“We’ve been serving their quail eggs, using the yolks on top of a yellowtail tartare that we’re doing,” Seabird chef Dean Neff said. “We’re mixing it with a little mustard, caper and shallot, and then we’re putting one of those quail egg yolks on top with a little bit of sea salt — and those are amazing. They’re really beautiful. You can just tell that the family is super passionate about what they do, and those are the kind of family farmers we like to work with.”
In addition to birds, Greenlands Farm is home to Coleman, a llama who was surrendered to Kelley through her animal sanctuary HOOF. He barrels through the piney forest with his buddy, Groucho, a white goat, by his side. Coleman’s large almond-shaped eyes stare down visitors, sometimes sniffing them nose-to-nose curiously.
“He’s friendly,” Kelley said, “but he doesn’t really like being petted. He does love having his picture taken.”
Coleman has become a hit at events and weddings. Kelley books him for photo ops. “I have a weird but amazing life,” she wrote to Port City Daily.
Part of that comes from tapping into needs that aren’t necessarily offered elsewhere. Another service that arose from Covid came from Kelley’s husband who had been reading about the self-care practice of cow-cuddling in the Netherlands.
“They call it ‘koe knuffelen,'” Kelley said. “And part of what [HOOF] does is incorporate therapeutic interactions with animals, so it’s a perfect fit.”
Greenlands began hosting cuddle sessions with HOOF’s Zebu heifer calf, Elsie. It also started offering HOOF Farm Yoga, which includes interactions with both baby goats and the calf, as a certified yoga instructor leads up to 20 people through a workout.
Participants are tucked away near open pastures, and will also see Junior the horse grazing land. Kelley used to ride horses, but nowadays doesn’t really have time; running a farm and rearing children full-time takes up most of her energy.
“Junior is Secretariat’s great grandson, from a very loving home,” she said, “sent to us to retire and be used for educational and therapeutic programs at HOOF.”
Also part of HOOF are Pinky and Pepper, two pigs that Kelley and her dad rescued from Greensboro. “They talk back to you,” Henry said. “They look forward to seeing me everyday.”
HOOF homes a turkey, Luke, who Kelley said likes to snuggle too.
Kelley opens the farm to the public on community days, normally hosted every spring and fall. HOOF was able to raise $600 of its $700 vet bill at last month’s event.
“Elsie still isn’t talking to me because she had to get her shots yesterday,” Kelley said.
The calf rubbed against her leg for a quick pat before running off.
“We love serving our community,” Kelley said. “That’s the whole reason why Greenlands Farm started — it wasn’t just about us needing to survive as a family. We are trying to preserve homestead living.”
Greenlands Farm will begin offering events, workshops and classes this June:
- June 5, 10:30am-12pm: Farm Tour & Taste – Wine & Food, $5-$15
- June 16, 9:30-10.30am: HOOF Farm Yoga, $25
Its roadside market opens Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., spring through fall (Saturdays only in winter), loated at 604 Midway Road SE in Bolivia, NC. Check in for updates and more events here.
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