I woke up the Saturday morning of our interview on my godmother’s farm, ten minutes down the road from NanLee Farms, tucked away down a long dirt road in Ballard, West Virginia. It was a scorcher, the air sticky and thick, a dreamy vision of a July day.
I cranked up the Eagles on my way down the drive. Up and over and around through the curves of the back roads I know like the lines in the palms of my hands, etched on my memory.
I pulled up alongside the front of her adorable white farmhouse, sitting pretty as a picture alongside her garden and overlooking the valley behind. The chickens out back clucked and crowed when I closed my car door, and I smiled to myself in anticipation of meeting them later. It had been awhile since I’d interacted with chickens!
Just as I began to feel nervous about knocking on the door, purse and keys jangling around and binder stuck to the inside of my arms with sweat, Brooke comes through the screen door. With a smile as sweet as her jam, she pulled me into a hug and I knew this was probably going to go well.
She’s the kind of person who instantly makes you feel welcome and at ease, and it’s not hard to see why she hasn’t had a single complaint about her business since launching a year ago on August 3rd. She specializes in homemade jams, bread, baked pies and cheesecakes. She also works with her husband on some decor items, and accommodates birthday parties and special requests. In addition, she ALSO works two days a week as an X-ray technologist and sometimes stays up as late as 2am to finish her orders to ensure freshness. And she doesn’t drink coffee! (I’m still just completely baffled by this)
As soon as we walked in, she proudly showed me her office/reception room, where she welcomes visitors (sometimes late at night, who just stop by on a whim) and conducts her business. It’s neat and cheery, an accurate visual representation of her business model and her warm disposition.
After I oohed and aahed at her adorable decor and jam lineup, she led me through the living room and into her kitchen.
It was characteristically country & comforting, sweetly DIY, with signs of her loving touch and family pride all around.
I was excited to sit down with her on the cusp of her one-year anniversary and discuss her journey so far and what she’s got cookin’ for the future.
What follows is a transcription of our kitchen table chat on a hot Saturday afternoon:
Q: Tell me about how you had the idea for NanLee Farms, and how it came to fruition.
The business is named after my grandmother, whose name was Nancy Lee Hobson, so I just put the two together. We were really close. I love to bake, I love to garden, I’m all about the homesteading thing. Everything’s made from scratch, fresh ingredients, so I thought, I’m gonna throw this out there too and see how it goes! That’s what I did, it exploded, and now we’re here!
I didn’t think it was gonna get as big as it has, but I’ve always canned and love to, and I thought, ya know, maybe I can start selling my jams! I’d already given them as gifts and everybody loved them, so I thought why not try? So I posted it on Facebook (of course that was the first place I went) and it went crazy.
Q: Was she from around here?
My parents and grandparents lived in Maryland before they moved down here in 1988 onto the old Noonkester Farm, which is where my parents live now. I’ve been here my whole life. She passed away when I was in 10th grade, which I guess would be nine years ago now.
Q: Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m sure you try to live on in her name, ya know, what do you remember most about your grandmother that you try to embody in your daily life?
The simple way of living. Everything’s so complicated nowadays, so stressful, I don’t feel like that’s the way she grew up. I want my life to be as simplified as possible. I thank God I married someone that feels the same, who supports and wants me to be able to work from home and be my own boss. I don’t wanna work for somebody else.
My grandmother didn’t work off of the farm. She was the “farm wife” and her husband’s other half, helping tend to a 300 acre farm with several thousand sheep, feeder hogs, and beef cattle. They started a dairy farm in West Virginia and tended 500 sheep while I was growing up, so that’s what I grew up watching, ya know, her example. I think she’d be proud that I’m carrying on in her tradition.
Jordan and I got married on my Mom-mom and Pop- pop’s anniversary. Everything I do is for her, the old-fashioned way.
Q: I know she would be proud of you! Do you use her recipes?
I use a lot of her recipes, yes. My pie crust recipe, a few more, but I tweak them a bit. Even with hers. I use some of my great-great-aunt’s recipes as well, that my Mom has, so really, I just like to pull from an older generation of recipes that I try to stick with and make them my own.
Q: What are your offerings like right now? Do you offer the same stuff or is there any kind of a rotating menu?
Cheesecakes and pies all the time, some type of weekly cookie that you can grab real quick. And the jams of course, as well as breads. White, wheat, and honey oatmeal are my biggest sellers, so I plan on keeping those in stock.
Q: Honey oatmeal, huh? I’ve never had that.
Oh, it’s delicious! It sounds like it would be a dense bread, but it’s really not. It’s a little sweet because of the honey, so it’s a little sweeter than white, but I’m not a big white bread fan. I can eat MY white bread, but not store bought because it sticks to the roof of my mouth. [laughs]
Q: You operate on 2 acres, right? You do a lot with a little! What does your husband do?
Yeah! We also have the chickens, and we’re working on some decor items for sale as well. My husband helps me with that part. Eventually, we want to own the business together where he can do such and such part of it and I can do all the baking and food parts.
Jordan makes roof bolts for coal mines right now and they’re booming. He works 7 days a week right now though, and I miss him because we’re used to being together, but it is what it is.
But I sell my produce as well, and my eggs. Jordan & I have been talking about getting some goats. I’m gonna start small, but eventually I want a store in the shape of a barn with a silo. That’s my ultimate goal.
Q: Oh my gosh, I love goats! I hope that happens for you, I really do. And a store, eh? I was going to ask about that! So you plan on expanding into a brick and mortar?
Yes! I am so excited! We’re building it at the edge of our land down there by the corner, just by the road. We planned on having it open by the end of the summer, but life has happened and it hasn’t gotten there yet, but my husband plans to start work on it in the next month. Hoping to have it open by December. That’s our current plan right now and I’m SO READY to have a store.
I bet! That’s just so fulfilling creatively and emotionally, to be able to have this THING that you MADE, and do what you love. To have that satisfaction of building it all yourself has got to be a great feeling.
Yes, yes, absolutely. I like to put a personal touch on everything. I hand punch all of my labels for the tops of the jars, write the ingredients on the back, and the canning date is on the actual lid. That’s what I’m doing right now, but eventually I’ll have to have real labels for the store.
It just takes so long to write on them, especially since the canning process itself takes so long on its own, and I don’t use pectin unless it’s a jelly. All of my strawberry, peach…I don’t use pectin. Just the fruit, sugar, and lemon juice, with the least amount of sugar necessary to get the jam set. No preservatives or anything like that, except for what it’s supposed to be.
Sometimes with my baked goods, I feel like I should put a label that says ‘Eat this in five days or less!’ cause I don’t put anything in it! So like, eat it quick! [laughs]
Q: I just love seeing people do what they love. It’s so inspiring. You work a full-time job besides this don’t you?
No, I actually just went down to two days a week. But the only reason why I work away from home right now is because I have student loans!
Q: I feel ya there! So, you are making an income right off the bat then? How long did it take you to reach that point?
Probably after the first six months of running the business. Now that I’ve gotten into the baked goods and people wanting me to do things for birthday parties and such, it’s really taken off.
I try to keep my prices really reasonable. We always look at homemade goods wherever we go and compare it to those prices. Mine are always lower; so I’m making a little bit of money, but not a whole lot. I turn a profit, but it’s not by a huge margin right now. Hopefully when I get the store I can reach more people, because right now I’m working solely off of Facebook and ya know, not everyone has that.
Q: So, the community. You’ve said that everyone has been really supportive, have you floated out the idea of the store? What kind of reactions have you gotten?
Everyone seems really excited. Lots of people ask me to buy or rent their properties actually, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me about that, which is great. And then people have been asking me to do coffee once I open the store, but I’m not a big coffee drinker, so I’m thinking no specialty drinks or anything like that.
Oh, I’m obsessed with coffee. If you need any help on that front, just let me know.
[laughs] Yeah, I see you eyeing my Keurig over there…
I’m not judging, I swear! I totally get it! (I was dying of laughter at this point, by the way, because I was totally staring at her Keurig unintentionally)
Yeah, yeah, well I can make a simple drip! But yes, everyone has just been wonderful. I haven’t had any complaints, none. But it’s gotten so big that Pearisburg and Princeton know about it and I drive to meet people. I’ve sent jam to Florida, Tennessee, Arizona…it’s just crazy!
Q: Do you think of yourself as an Appalachian primarily, or a West Virginian? Are they one in the same to you?
It’s one in the same to me, really. I just think mountains. Outdoors. Country. Fresh air. A serenity you don’t find in the city. Living off the land, with your family, and just helping others whenever you can.
Q: How do you think growing up here has affected you as a person, as far as how you live your life, maybe any mottos you live by?
I just think this is the best place to grow up. I wish everyone could grow up in a small town. Growing up, we didn’t have money. My mom and dad just made it work and now, as an adult, I’m just baffled by that and think ‘How in the world did you do that?’ So times have changed, but there’s an element that stays the same.
I think I keep my cool better than most people. I don’t have this sense of superiority that it seems like other people from different areas have. They think they’re better than you. People around here don’t act like that. We throw up a hand to everyone who passes and help out strangers every chance we get.
Q: If you could tell others one thing about Monroe County or West Virginia that they might not know, assuming they have a preconceived notion about the people or the place in general, what you would you say to them?
Why is this such a hard question? I feel like I have so many things to say!
Just say you’re trying convince someone from…let’s say California. You’re trying to convince them to come visit.
Okay, okay. I think nobody realizes what all we have to offer. The mountains, the hiking. Everyone always seems amazed when they actually see. People ask, “What do you do around here?” and I say, “I’ll show you what we do ‘round here!” I take them riding down some back roads, go float the river, hike, visit all the cool little shops like the Cheese N’ More that are unique to the communities….and just the people in general. We all have so much more to offer than people see. We’re not stupid.
Come visit because of the people, because of the terrain, the views, even the weather! West Virginia is the bomb! If you give it a chance, I’m sure you’ll find (as my parents and grandparents did 35 years ago, there’s no place better. Our souls are in these mountains.
Jordan and I have traveled a lot in our five years of marriage, and there’s no place like home.
Cheers to that! It’s like a visceral thing for me, too. Like driving down Virginia Line Rd. and cresting the top of that hill when the view opens up in front of you? I get a feeling in my stomach, it just feels…different. Like a wave of peace.
For sure! I know what you mean.
Well, I admire you! You’re doing it! You’re doing a great job and have done so much in such a short time. Thanks for sitting down with me!
Thank you, thank you. It’s all about the people. The community around here is just like no other.
Driving home, our conversation and everything I had learned running loops in my brain, I passed two trucks, a four-wheeler, and a guy mowing his front lawn. Each threw up a hand in greeting as I passed, though I knew not a one of them personally. Brooke’s words about the people in her community came to life right in front of me.
In these mountains, it’s all about sharing. Sharing the road, sharing stories on front porches, sharing a glass of sweet tea, sharing traditions from one generation to the next, sharing sugar with your neighbor. That way of life isn’t lost. There are so many people who, like Brooke, are merging the old with the new to create a new generation of Appalachians. Appalachians who embrace modernity, yet honor tradition in a way that I feel would make all those grandparents like Nancy Lee Hobson proud.
Thanks for reading our first ever Wildflowers feature! I’m no expert in interviews or journalism, so I hope I made it interesting for ya’ll.
Let me know what you think in the comments & stay tuned to my social media pages this week for a chance to win a jar of Brooke’s homemade jam for yourself. 🙂
You can like NanLee Farms on Facebook and follow along as Brooke opens her store.