An Aromatic Adventure
On a quiet homestead in Dearing, Georgia, Amy Sutter tends to her plants, her expert eye pruning and Harvesting at an impressive pace.
Her husband, Patrick, checks the newly-installed irrigation lines, and becomes momentarily distracted by a carpenter bee, boring a perfect cylinder into the wooden frame of the flowerbed. The Sutters stop and watch the insect, enamored with the way it executes its tasks, discussing their observations with one another as longtime friends and students of the earth. Then, they resume their work, giving it the same careful attention as their study just moments before. This is White Hills Farm, and under the meticulous care of its new owners, the whole operation is blooming.
The 28-acre property here in Dearing is one that has served many a farmer well; since the original farmhouse was built in the late 1800s, all manner of Georgia flora and fauna--both wild and cultivated--has had its day here. At one point, a train ran through one corner of the property, and kaolin clay mines occupy a large part of the surrounding land. These days, though, it is White Hills Farm, a place almost too perfect for words, and one of only a few lavender farms in the whole of Georgia.
While Amy and Patrick have poured their hearts and souls into this venture, a future spent living in the Georgia countryside managing a farm was not on their five, ten, or even twenty-year plan. The pair met at the College of Charleston, and married a month after graduation. Shortly after, Patrick enlisted in the Air Force, and the couple was soon bouncing around from city to city much like Amy grew up doing as the daughter of a military man. After five years, they finally settled in Augusta. Patrick took a job related to medical practice management, while Amy secured a position as the office manager for a family practice clinic. As they established roots in the city, they began to search for a way to connect with the growers of the food they ate, and they quickly discovered Augusta Locally Grown, an organization connecting local farmers to buyers. The pair fell in love with Augusta Locally Grown and its mission, and over the years, Amy served as a part of the Board of Directors, as the non-profit's online market manager, as Board President, and volunteered with Patrick for countless Augusta Locally Grown events. Through her work with the organization, she met a friend, Lisa Kessler. At the time, Kessler owned and operated White Hills Farm, and was passionately transforming it into a beautiful place to live, work, and visit. Amy began helping out around the farm, forging a great friendship with Kessler as time went on, and learning about the inner workings of farm life. Then one day, Kessler received difficult news. After struggling with health issues for some time, her physician began recommending that she lessen the amount of manual labor she was performing each day. Kessler knew she had to sell the farm. She and her husband put it on the market, but nothing came of the listing. Finally, she approached Amy Sutter.
"She said, 'Amy, I know how much you love this property, and I think you'll continue doing what I started out here. Get out here and talk to my husband, and let’s figure out a way to make this work,"' remembers Amy.
The Sutters drove out to Dearing, where they came to an agreement with Ben and Lisa Kessler regarding the property. Soon, they were moving out of their longtime Evans home, situated in a neighborhood just five minutes to restaurants, shopping, and entertainment, and into the old farmhouse in the country, going from suburban life to rural life seemingly overnight. The trip to Italy the couple had been planning to celebrate their twentieth anniversary was moved to the bottom of the priorities list; first and foremost, they had to learn how to run a farm.
It wasn't easy at first. Past the occasional helping hand Amy gave to Lisa, her most extensive horticultural experience encompassed backyard tomato plants. Immediately, they dealt with an infestation of mealybugs, and had to research how to address the issue in order to save their crops. Next, a fungus attacking the enormous pecan tree behind their house sent them to nearby Atwell Pecan Company, where they shared their plight with the expert pecan farmers and got suggestions for how to eradicate the problem. Later, some of their trees were hit with an orange, alienlooking infection called cedar apple rust, and the couple spent hours researching online to determine the nature of the disease and how to treat it. Even a year later, Amy and Patrick are having to look up various farm issues and how to manage them. Most helpful for all of the problems they face as new farmers is their connection to Augusta Locally Grown. Being so close with the farmers on a personal and professional level enables the couple to utilize their network of growers, asking questions whenever they come up.
"In terms of the biggest learning curve we have encountered during this process, I'd say everything," laughs Amy. "This is truly a daily learning experience. It's both a challenge and an adventure."
Though there is a wide variety of plants at the farm including rosemary, tomatoes, french roses, wild blueberries, peaches, apples, and sunflowers, the big star here is, of course, the lavender plants. Here, they grow multiple varieties in what Amy likes to call "extensive gardens." Guests are frequently surprised that there aren't fields of flowing lavender on the farm, but, Amy says, the garden setup is what makes the most sense for an operation of this size in the Georgia climate. Cultivating lavender fit for culinary usage as well as bath and body products, the Sutters maintain a constant growing flow to keep up with the needs of their many products and events. After harvest, they dry the herbs on large, repurposed window screens, often battling the Georgia humidity to get the plants to release all their moisture. Then, they take it into the on-site farm store, an incredible, freestanding structure near their home that is full of beautiful music, fantastic smells, and lavender products galore. In the store, Amy and Patrick mix the lavender into bath salts and scrubs, infuse it into oils and simple syrups, pour it into sachets, make tea with it, and more. Amy often sends some to her sister, who sews it up into small microwavable pillows, perfect for an evening of relaxing. Then, they stock the shelves (both in the physical farm store and virtually in their online shop), and their loyal customers bring them home, adding gentle notes of Georgia-grown calm to their lives. Soon, they hope to expand their reach, aiming to be in local stores and markets, as well as providing lavender products to restaurants, bars, and bakeries, in the coming years.
Still in their second year as proprietors of White Hills Farm, Amy and Patrick have done a remarkable job cheduling events on the property. Every other month or so, they host a yoga retreat, the spectacular Georgia sunsets and aromatic landscape serving as a perfect backdrop for a little rest and relaxation. Cooking classes and body care product workshops are also a big hits, and the pair would like to host a regular farm-to-table culinary event utilizing the crops grown on the land. They often have bridal showers, baby showers, field trips, and Girl Scout Troop events out at the farm, and the few weddings that have used the property as the background for their nuptials have been magical. On Fridays from 10am to 6pm, they open their doors to the public, inviting anyone to come and sample their products, take a farm tour, or just enjoy the beautiful views, and they are often available at other times by appointment.
With a steadfast love for the land and each other, Amy and Patrick Sutter are well-equipped to handle anything that comes their way, whether it be the trials of Mother Nature or the scores of people likely to descend upon White Hills Farm once they hear of its many splendors. Either way, Amy and Patrick are prepared with willing spirits, helpful friends, and hearts for adventure.
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of The New Augustan Magazine.