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Rowan’s Arts and Ag Tour makes its pandemic return to farms, park, school

MOUNT ULLA — With an interested group of children gathered around him, Mike Williams gestured excitedly to a wooden and glass box containing a hive of buzzing bees.

Standing near his booth in the Rowan Country Life Museum on Saturday morning, Williams was educating children about the secret life and language of the yellow and black pollinators. Having maintained several hives at his farm in Mooresville for about eight years, Williams is well-versed on the topic.

Williams enjoys taking care of bees, but he enjoys teaching others about the insects even more.

“The biggest thing to me is to educate folks on the bees themselves, not even necessarily about beekeeping,” Williams said. “But how to protect them and what they mean to the environment.”

Williams was one of many agronomists and artisans who participated in the third annual Arts and Ag Farm Tour on Saturday. Organized by the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce and the Rowan County Extension Office, the all-day event highlighted some of the area’s leading agricultural operations and local artisans.

The event was canceled last year due to COVID-19, but was back this summer with more farms and vendors.

“Everybody was very disappointed that we could not do this event last year due to COVID, so folks are so excited to get back out, see each other in person and this year,” said Elaine Spalding, president of the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. “A number of farms that are not normally open to the public have opened up their gates and are letting people in to see how hard they worked to put food on our table this last year.”

Home base for the self-guided tour was the Rowan Country Life Museum at Sloan Park. From there, people could visit one of five nearby farms or the Future Farmers of America facilities at West Rowan High School.

Williams and his bees were joined at the country life museum by a contingent of local artisans, including silversmith John Mark DeYoung.

The Greensboro-based artist was there to showcase his inventory of handcrafted wristbands, necklaces and rings. For DeYoung, the event was less about selling pieces and more about engaging with the public again after not being able to go to shows due to the pandemic.

“Today is just a celebratory day to get out and it’s a celebration of everything opening, to be able to interact with the other artists, to be able to interact with the community and the farmers,” DeYoung said. “This is wonderful to me. We’re getting our world back.”

Outside of the museum stood Ray Richardson, painting a picture of several green tractors on his homemade easel. Richardson picked up painting after suffering a stroke in 2013 and has sold his work for several years. For him, painting was a form of recovery.

“That stroke set my brain on fire,” Richardson said. “I started getting interested in painting and going outside more, mostly for therapy to calm my nerves and calm me down.”

Richardson has recently started to focus more on painting pictures of trains, planes and old-fashioned automobiles. He specializes in plein air painting, which is the act of painting outdoors.

Not far from Richardson’s tent sat Connie Christman, a middle school art teacher at China Grove Middle School who had her hands covered in wet clay. Working on a pottery wheel, Christmas was demonstrating her ability to transform a formless glob of clay into bowls, mugs and plates.

Other artisans and merchants set up shop at one of the farms featured on the tour.

Ray Horton, who grows soybeans, wheat, barley and corn, hosted dozens of visitors who wandered around his barn and fields on Saturday. Horton said he decided to participate in the Arts and Ag Farm Tour in order to teach people about where their food comes from.

“We have to educate,” Horton said. “It’s very important to spend time and resources to promote what we do because there’s fewer and fewer farmers producing more and more food for the world.”

During the tour, Horton taught people about his farm’s no-till practices. For the past 40 years, Horton said the farm has cultivated rich soil in its fields by disturbing them as little as possible and using cover crops.

Stationed at a booth on Horton’s farm was Martha Goss, an office manager for Carolina Malt House. Located in Cleveland, the operation malts barley and sells it to small breweries across the southeast who use it to make their craft creations. Goss was at Horton’s farm because he is one of Carolina Malt House’s biggest barley providers.

Other stops on the tour included Tranquility Vineyards, Lutheridge Creamery and Evans Family Farm, which is where Tim and Brandi Moore and their daughter Mackenzie started their tour Saturday morning.

“That was neat to see,” Tim said. “You could put that as a homestead. It was interesting the variety of things that (Evans Family Farm) did and the fact that it’s a whole family affair.”

For Tim and Brandi, the Arts and Ag Tour was a chance to show Mackenzie what farmers do on a daily basis.

“We live on a farm, but we homeschool, so this is an opportunity to show (Mackenzie) aspects of farming that we don’t currently do,” Tim said.

After touring Evans Family Farm, the Moore family visited Ray Horton’s fields and then made their way to West Rowan High School where they toured the greenhouses and animal stables maintained by the school’s robust FFA program.

Alex Bouk, who serves as secretary for the FFA program, enjoyed showing people the school’s agricultural facilities.

“It’s been really cool to meet people and to see people you haven’t seen in a while to come out and tour what you’ve been working so hard on,” Bouk said.

Spalding said she hoped the event encourages people to “support local farms and buy local art.”

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