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Down on the Farm

A few residents of the Johnson Farm in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Sometimes, extra-curricular activities in college dictate one’s career path even before coursework does. That was the case for Joy Owens ’14, the director of the Historic Johnson Farm in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Thinking she might pursue an English major, Owens developed an interest in sustainability after she joined the Environmental Action Group on campus.

“Most of those students were earth and environmental science or sustainability science majors,” she recalls, “and after talking to them, I realized that a lot of my interests lined up with a sustainability science major.”

Joy Owens ’14 director of the Historic Johnson Farm in Hendersonville, NC

During her freshman year at Furman, Owens was the student manager of the Furman Farm under farm director Bruce Adams. She spent about 20 hours a week planning crop rotation, giving public tours, and helping with the day-to-day chores on the farm. She was even instrumental in establishing the farm’s first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares. “I loved being outside and digging in the dirt,” she says of her first farm experience.

As a senior, Owens was encouraged by Angela Halfacre, the director of the Shi Center for Sustainability at the time, to go beyond her comfort zone by presenting her senior thesis on Greenville community gardens to a conference of the Southern Sociological Society in Charlotte. “That was a big turning point for me,” Owens remembers. “Presenting my thesis just before graduating gave me confidence to reach higher than I otherwise would have.”

After graduation, Owens accepted an internship at the Carl Sandburg Home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, where she worked with the education director. “I learned to interpret history to make it accessible for a wide range of audiences,” she recalls.

The work she did there, leading school field trips and developing educational programs prepared her well for her current job. While at the Carl Sandburg Home, Owens realized that working with children was what she most wanted to do. “I became fascinated by history,” she says, “and I wanted to pass on something I was passionate about.”

In fall 2014, Owens took over as director of the Historic Johnson Farm. Built between 1876 and 1880, the original farmhouse is one of 10 historic structures on-site. The 15-acre farm, designated as a North Carolina Cultural Treasure, is a heritage education museum owned by Henderson County Public Schools—one of only three public school systems in the country to own a historic farm.

As the director and sole staff member for the farm, Owens’s tasks are as varied as developing education programs, leading field trips, planning events, creating the budget, and caring for the animals (a rooster, chickens, sheep, and three donkeys who like to pose for photos) that live on the grounds. “It’s a never-ending job,” admits Owens, “but it’s a lot of fun.” Fortunately, the young manager has a cadre of more than 70 volunteers to help her.

Students getting a hands-on experience of life on the farm.

She gives between 20 and 40 field trips a year, and considers this one of her most important duties. “Kids have lost their connection to the land and agriculture,” she laments. “When children come to the farm, it’s so rewarding to see them make that connection.”

Owens’s goals for the coming year will be to find new stories to tell about the farm. She is in the process of pouring through the 3,000 letters and papers that the historic site holds to find unique story lines that she can use as the basis for new curricula.

At the end of the day, Owens credits Furman University for putting her on the path to a rewarding career. “Furman is a special place,” she says. “You don’t realize what lessons you learned there until you get out in the real world.”

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