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Young new ownership at a local tree farm is going grassroots to keep their business 

Paving paradise

On Friday, March 18 — Arbor Day in North Carolina — hundreds of people streamed into Mr. Jack's Tree Farm in Steele Creek, many of whom were previously unaware that the farm existed.

Camille Heredia lives right down the street from the farm, but didn't know it existed until she saw an Instagram post from King of Pops, one of the many food vendors on site for the Arbor Day event.

"I think if we would have known about this place prior to that Instagram post we would have been here more often," Heredia said.

Her 8-year-old daughter Arielle was "in love" just 20 minutes after walking through the gate for the first time.

"I wish I could live here," she said. "I love everything about it. My favorite thing is the willow tree. I just love the willow tree."

The "Food Truck FARMDay" event held on Friday was the first of many community-themed events that new owner Casey Bolen hopes to hold on the tree farm grounds, but those plans could be in peril, as developers have been eyeing the farm's 30 acres as a good site for an apartment complex or to build storage units. The land could be bought out from under him at any time.

The farm's founder Jack Turpin lost his battle with ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, in March 2015. Turpin's son now owns the land, and is looking to sell it in order to settle Turpin's estate and what his family said is Turpin's last wish.

Since his grandfather's death, Bolen has run the business with three other twenty-somethings who live on the farm alongside him and a handful of others. He's now trying to put enough money together to purchase the land and continue working on his vision for expanding Mr. Jack's Tree Farm.

He's also launched a social media campaign to #SaveMrJacksFarm aimed at helping him open the farm up to the community and make it a venue for family fun as opposed to simply a business for his clients.

"Most people that come to the farm don't know that the farm is even here. I hear that on a daily basis," Bolen says. "We do like to keep it a secret — that's part of the appeal — but I want to offer up more for everyone now. That's how I'm trying to take it in a different direction."

He said the "sole most important part" of his life now is making sure the land isn't bought and developed, another victim of Charlotte's rapid growth.

"If we can't keep it around, it would just be another place that we're eliminating where people could come and be peaceful," he says. "The more that we build around each other, the less peace we're going to get. We don't have any space. We don't have nature in our lives. We don't have much of that left here, so I don't want to destroy the space we do have."

Turpin first bought the land that would become Mr. Jack's Farm in 1979. At that time, it consisted of 120 acres of woods. Over the years, that has been reduced to just over 30 acres, but it's still home to between 4,000 and 5,000 trees at any given time.

The property is also home to eight species of duck, geese, two bee apiaries, a chicken coop and an orchard where Jack, and now Casey, have allowed neighbors to come and pick fruit for free in years past.

In the era of Kickstarter and GoFundMe, one would think that #SaveMrJacksFarm would just be another way to solicit for money, but Bolen insists that, although he is in need of money in order to buy the land, he's not asking anyone to do anything but come visit his farm.

He said he is looking into ways to purchase the land with his own money and, while he works on that, he just wants people to come to events like the one held last Friday night or the Easter Egg hunt planned for March 26 so they can see why the farm is worth saving.

"I need support. I need people to know what my plans are and why I have that vision," he says. "I don't necessarily think that asking for money is the way to do it and I haven't and I don't think that I will, but it's all accepted. If someone wants to help me that's all I ask. They can decide for themselves how they help, but all I want is people to help."

He's not comfortable speaking about how much money he needs to purchase the land, or talking about his relationship with the uncle that currently owns the land. He said the two are in disagreement about what should be done with the land, but recognizes that his uncle is just trying to settle an estate and move on with his life.

"He's entitled to his own opinion. He doesn't necessarily have much investment in what I have going on in my career," Bolen says. "He sees this in a different way and he's obviously entitled to that so I can't say that he's in the wrong necessarily, he just isn't doing what I want to do. This situation isn't about him. That's who I have opposition from but he has his right. He's obligated to close this estate by law so he's entitled to that. It's a legal obligation I have to pay; if I have to come up with money to chase my vision for this place, that's what I need to do."

Bolen left College of Charleston where he was studying for a business degree when he learned his grandfather was sick. Turpin's condition worsened "exponentially" in a relatively short time, Bolen said, and the two never discussed the future of Mr. Jack's. He does believe, however, that his grandfather would have fought off any attempts to develop the farm he built from scratch out of a wooded area.

"I'm sure that Jack had been offered those things here and there, but it was never something that he discussed with me," Bolen says. "I'm sure from what I do know that it was something that he would turn down forever."

Kori Shannon, who lives with her fiancé on the farm and helps with marketing and other aspects of the business, says she's excited for a new chapter in the story of Mr. Jack's as it becomes a place for the community to visit whether they're shopping for trees or not.

"Mr. Jack actually created this for his friends and family so that's something that's really inherent to me is community." Shannon says. "So that's why we want to open the farm up. That's why Jack started the farm was to get people out here and enjoying the land. He just wanted to come out here and talk to you so that's what we're wanting to do is have people come out here and enjoy it and talk with people."

One of the talking points among Shannon and neighbors visiting on Friday was a rezoning petition to allow developers turn the wooded area just across the street from the farm on Wrights Ferry Road into an apartment complex. The city council's vote on the application was postponed from the original March date until the April zoning meetng at the petitioner's request, but for neighbors visiting the farm on Friday, the nearby changes underlined the pressing issue at hand for the farm itself.

For Shannon, the issue was broader than just the immediate threat to her current job and home.

"With the possibility of the land being sold we were questioning what that could mean and then the land across the street was rezoned for apartment complexes. That's along the same lines of what we're already dealing with, and now it's literally happening to the trees right across the street. We are a business and we do profit off our trees but at the same time looking around it's not just about the selling of trees," Shannon says. "Honestly, look around all of us, that's what we have found here in the last couple years is development, more concrete. I don't know what that will mean if a place like this gets paved over."

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