Matthews store sees future in its farming past

The farmer points toward a long stretch of turned earth warming in the sun. Tomatoes and squash will grow well there, he says. More crops will be planted over there, he says, gesturing toward another neatly plowed rectangle. Behind him, small fruit trees cast shadows across the grass.

It’s bucolic enough to make you almost forget the steady buzz of traffic behind you or the train tracks in front. Because this farmer is, in fact, a store owner, and this farm is in downtown Matthews.

David Blackley, owner of Renfrow Hardware & General Merchandise, is creating an urban farm out of a five-acre parcel left him by Frank Renfrow, grandson of the store’s founder.

Blackley sees the farm as a place where he and his wife, Mary Beth, can conduct more of their popular gardening classes, as a spot where he and the store’s three employees can grow nursery plants and seed, and as a way to help the store survive in a big-box culture. But more than that, Blackley sees what he’s calling “Renfrow Farm” as a way to connect an urban population to local, home-grown food.

“I’ve just always wanted to do something more than just reselling goods. I want to produce something,” Blackley says as he walks the land on a recent visit. “We can’t make pipe fittings … but we can make our own food, grow some of our own seed, and teach people how to grow their food – and I think that’s the future of the store.”

Blackley inherits property

The rectangular property, which Blackley inherited in 2010, is bounded on one end by West John Street, bisected by Charles Street, and bordered on the other end by railroad tracks.

The property looks conventionally residential where it fronts West John Street, but as you walk to the back, surprises reveal themselves: An old smokehouse. Mature pecan trees. A white brick cottage, once home to the Renfrow family’s housekeeper and now the spot Blackley envisions as a future classroom. Beyond that, several plowed fields.

In one, Blackley planted mustard greens last year that were harvested for donation to Friendship Trays, a local nonprofit that provides food for the elderly. Another plot is thick with onions, being grown this year for seed. At the far end, beehives edge a small woodlot.

Anything produced on the small farm will be sold through the store. In a sense, it’s a move that may return the old-fashioned hardware shop to its agricultural past. Once part of a cotton ginning center and feed-and-seed operation, the store over time focused on hardware and serving smaller contractors, as Matthews grew from a village to a suburb of 27,000 that abuts Charlotte’s southeastern border.

The economic downturn and growing power of big-box retailers has all but killed the hardware store’s construction trade. Now Renfrow Hardware is seeing booming business in seeds, plants and fruit trees, chicks for backyard chicken farmers, and canning supplies for a growing locavore movement.

“I think David’s on the cutting edge. He’s onto something,” said Hazen Blodgett, Matthews town manager. “I think they’re going to take Renfrow Hardware and the things they offer to a new level of sustainability.”

Matthews Planning Director Kathi Ingrish says Renfrow Farm’s residential site doesn’t need rezoning to be used as Blackley intends. Coincidentally, she said, the town plans to soon revisit its definition of a “farm.”

“With more emphasis on local food we need to better allow for that,” Ingrish said, explaining that new language will make it more explicit that the town allows urban farms.

Plans include Blackley’s daughter

The Renfrow Farm land has one house, previously owned by a former Renfrow Hardware manager. Blackley’s eldest daughter, Pressly, hopes to live there eventually and run the farm. Pressly, now studying sustainable agriculture and mechanical engineering at N.C. State University, says she grew up eating fresh food from her family’s garden, which gives her an appreciation for local agriculture.

“I also think that the people in this country are going to have to turn back to their agricultural roots at some point in the future, largely out of necessity,” said Pressly, who has managed the farm market at the N.C. State campus. She’s interested in the urban farm in order to, as she put it, “utilize the land we have for a purpose more far-sighted than merely building a bunch of condos.” Pressly also said she’s eager to put part of the Matthews property to use growing vegetables for donation.

Missing from the property is Frank Renfrow’s house: He stipulated in his will that his home was to be torn down.

Blackley got to know the Renfrow family when he was hired as a teen to cut Frank’s lawn. When Blackley was getting ready to graduate from college, Renfrow suggested he buy the store, and Blackley did. At the time, he said, the store didn’t do much in the home-gardening trade, because “people weren’t interested in local food.”

That’s changed. Robust farmers’ markets, including one in downtown Matthews on Renfrow Hardware property, draw hundreds of shoppers. Keeping backyard chickens has gone almost mainstream. Community gardens have long waiting lists for plots. Mecklenburg County beekeeping classes are filled to capacity. A drive through Charlotte neighborhoods reveals vegetables being grown in front yard flower beds.

And Blackley finds himself surrounded by a web of experts offering expertise in helping him develop the boutique farm.

Among them is Will Hooker, who teaches permaculture and landscaping at N.C. State. The Blackleys hired him to help design the farm.

Urban farming, says Hooker, is here to stay.

“Most of our (plant) food in the United States comes from two places and that’s California and Florida. And it’s going to be more and more expensive to transport food. There’s a big movement to grow it here,” Hooker said. “This is just the front end of a large, large movement.”