When Sierra Cox, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy originally from Parkersburg, finished her tour of duty in which she’d been a surface warfare officer stationed out of San Diego, she followed her partner, fellow Naval officer John Pennacchio to his last duty station in Washington state. Not sure what they wanted to do or where they wanted to go after life in the military, they stumbled upon Sequim, which Cox described as “this little peninsula covered in lavender.” It is known among those who pay attention to such things as the lavender capital of the United States. “We’re there, hanging out, sipping lavender flavored Margaritas and we’re like this is fun. This is what we should do.”
Were this a romantic fiction novel, we would cut immediately to a successful lavender farm in the heart of West Virginia. This, however, is real life, and business ventures rarely move in a straight line from start to success. Wonder Valley Farm in Roane County is not one of those few that did. The original idea was to have, in Cox’s words, a “showstopping lavender farm.” The hope was to distill their own oil. “But after doing that for a while, we kind of learned that you just have to have so much lavender.” So, though lavender is still a big piece of the puzzle, it is just one piece. “Needless to say, our plans have evolved, which I feel like a lot of people who get into farming, that happens to them. We just realized that diversification was important.”
Beyond their lavender, from which they sell plants and dried buds for sachets and adding to foods and beverages, they have branched out to beekeeping, cultivating and harvesting forest botanicals, and herbalism. On top of all that, they are working on renovating their 30-foot O’Day sailboat. Yes, in the middle of Roane County, miles from a large body of water, they have a sailboat. The idea came from when they were both serving in California. “And that’s kind of the bougie thing to do out there. They will renovate sailboats or old Airstreams and stuff.” So, instead of building a cabin for guests to rent, they decided to renovate a pre-existing vehicle. “And with both of us being Navy, we’re like, oh, boats, that would be really cool.” They got the funds for the boat through the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council’s Launchpad Competition. It has a kitchenette, will soon have plumbing, and sleeps up to six. “Four comfortably,” Cox said with a smile.
I like working with people. And so, any way that we can get people and farming together, I’m happy. Even if I don’t sell a dime.
While it is named Wonder Valley Farm, the hope is to make it much more. “So, long term we’re hoping to kind of be like a destination place for people to come and decompress.” A real emphasis for them is to connect with veterans. “John and I work a lot with veterans groups. So, we’re part of the farmer veteran coalition. We do a lot of stuff with the Department of Agriculture and the VA. We would love to do something around veterans and agriculture.”
In the short term, though, one of the emphases is on growing the farm itself. Toward this end, they are collecting honey from their fifteen hives of bees, as well as developing botanicals on the 100-acre property, most of which is covered by forest. “Rural Action came out and they did an assessment of our forests. They told us what things they see and what things could possibly be planted, like ginseng and goldenseal and black cohosh.” They are also cultivating yarrow, comfrey, and even ramps, which they’re digging up along public roadsides and planting in patches all over the farm.
Their second emphasis is education. “Yeah, that’s a big one,” she said. “I feel like that’s kind of what we’ve been directed to.” While she humbly claims she’s no expert, she is fast becoming one on nearly every aspect of sustainable farming. Beyond that, “I like working with people. And so, any way that we can get people and farming together, I’m happy. Even if I don’t sell a dime.”
They hope to help people learn from their mistakes, but even more, they want people to know that farming is possible.
“I’ve talked to people that say that’s so brave to just drop everything and buy a farm. I think there’s a lot of people out there that want to do this and don’t think that they can, but you can.” Cox hopes to give people the benefits of her experience to eliminate some of the pitfalls they faced. ”Yes, there’s a lot of learning and a lot of prep you could do to make it a little less painful than some of the things we did.” One of those things she stressed was taking advantage of all the resources available to the small farmer, the most important being the many hard-working, resourceful farmers all around the state.
Whether you’re considering taking up farming or would just like to pick up some local honey or herbs, you should definitely visit Wonder Valley Farm in Roane County. Sierra Cox will definitely become one of your favorite people really fast. If you would like to visit, look them up on Facebook or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.