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Bonlee Grown Farm

Second-career farmers find small town life is good

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Amy and Ray Sugg moved to the Chatham County community of Bonlee in 1991 with a dream of opening a hardware store. They both had good jobs working for the Town of Wrightsville Beach--he as the director of Parks and Recreation, she as the department's program supervisor--but they wanted to raise their family in a small town.

For 14 years they ran Bonlee Hardware out of a renovated brick building in what is still a single stoplight town south of Siler City. In the early years they struggled to compete with Wal-Mart before realizing that in rural Chatham County, they were more likely to sell garden supplies than hardware. Now the business, known as the Bonlee Hardware House, is a feed and seed store, and just last year, they moved it out of downtown Bonlee and closer to their home at the end of Al Davis Road.

Today they have two daughters, ages 10 and 12, and 31 acres called Bonlee Grown Farm. They own more than 7,000 square feet of heated greenhouse space where they grow tomatoes and specialty flowers like double-bloom geraniums. During the summer they grow asparagus, broccoli and four kinds of peppers. Amy uses the peppers to make red and green jelly and relish that people buy by the case during the holidays. With growing season over and the markets closed, these value-added products are a welcome source of income for the Suggs.

When Amy left Wilmington, people couldn't believe she was giving up life on the beach for a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. "It was hard to leave," Amy says. "At the same time I was ready to go. I-40 had just opened, and it was no longer the Wilmington I knew growing up."

Ray grew up in Princeton, N.C., so he knew what to expect from small-town life. He was familiar with the hardware business, and he wanted his own store. "On the other hand, I was a city girl who knew nothing about hardware," Amy says. She left behind a beloved group of seniors who took her aerobics class and a long-standing network of family and friends. Both she and Ray worried she would get lonely in Bonlee.

"But," Amy says, "things have a way of falling into place." Outgoing and full of energy, she soon made friends. Before long she was invited to a quilting bee, where she met two women who taught her the age-old art of making preserves and pepper relish.

"They were shocked when they heard I didn't can my fruit and vegetables," she says. "After that, they kind of took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. They gave me their secret recipes for pepper relish and pepper jelly."

Neither woman is alive today but their legacy lives on in Amy, who started making relish and jelly by the batch, with each batch calling for 24 bell peppers. "That's what got us into the garden," she says, "I needed the peppers, and I knew folks would buy the jelly."

Amy took her products to the farmers' market, where she was already selling tomatoes and her signature geraniums. People started buying them and asking for more. When a woman wanted blueberry jam, the Suggs planted blueberry bushes, and when someone requested fig preserves, they planted fig trees. Amy brought home 22 buckets of unsold strawberries from the Carrboro market and learned how to make strawberry jam. Then Howard, the 80-year-old man who delivered the Suggs' mail, came into the hardware store and said he had so many blackberries he didn't know what to do with them.

"I said I'd buy 'em," Amy says. "He'd deliver them every day, and I'd make blackberry jam. He's older and on a fixed income, so I was helping him while he was helping me."

Amy developed a repertoire of about 15 products including jams, preserves, pickles, and banana butter, which is a little like apple butter. "I make these 15 things because they're what I do well." She grows all her own ingredients or buys them from local growers. "Except for the bananas, I don't ever buy from the grocery store," she says. "If I can't get it locally, I don't make it, and when something's gone, it's gone." Every May, when the soil is warm enough, she plants raised beds full of cayenne, habañero, jalapeño and red and green bell peppers to make relish and jelly. Her relish is the perfect complement to collard greens or a bowl of pinto beans, and anyone who likes their pepper jelly with a kick will love her hot variety. Every jarful is cooked on a gas stove in her kitchen, which is USDA inspected.

This time of year the beds outside are bare and the greenhouses are empty, waiting to be solarized. The Suggs use this process, which seals each greenhouse and heats it to 150 degrees, to kill insects and bacteria naturally. "It's the reason we don't save any plants for the next season," Amy says.

When she's not planting garlic or tomatoes, Amy spends her winter days ordering new varieties of plants and seeds and taking inventory of jars, pots and soil. She also spends a lot of time in the kitchen, using up the last of her frozen fruit and peppers, making batches of jelly, jams and relish.

"It's the lean time of year," she says. "There's no money until April, except for whatever comes in from special orders and special events where I can sell things."

During the growing season, Amy sells her homemade products and her flowers at six different farmers' markets. She hopes to drop one or two so she won't be on the road four days a week, but worries she will miss her regular customers: a Siler City doctor who eats her pepper relish with crackers every night instead of ice cream; a Carrboro woman who claims her kids won't eat a peanut butter sandwich without Amy's banana butter; and a Durham man who buys her relish whenever he grills fish.

"I like it when all these friendships develop. I have a regular crowd that stops by at the Durham Farmers' Market. We all stand around and exchange ideas. It's nice."

Amy describes her life in Bonlee as wonderful--she enjoys what she's doing and is glad to be home with her kids--but it hasn't come without sacrifices. "We gave up health insurance and a steady paycheck. It was scary," she says. Over the years, she and Ray have turned their dream into a good living by investing a portion of their profits back into the business. "We've taken it one step at a time," she says. "We bought our land in '92, and in '93 we had a baby. In '94 we built our first greenhouse, in '95 we had another baby, and so on." By December, Amy's stock of jams, preserves and pickles has dwindled. People are disappointed when she runs out of things, and they often tell her she should try to make more, to get bigger. "Well, I'm not planning on it," she says. "To me, there's no greater feeling than to say, 'I'm sold out.'"

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