Updated: Jan 3
Saundra Lewis’ interest in farming first peaked in the summer of 2015 when she attended a one-day butchery class from Ann Rose, owner of Rose Mountain Butcher Shop in Ashe County. The class–learning the basics of breaking down a pig carcass. Saundra enjoyed the class so much she volunteered to work with Ann every Friday and continued her internship there for two more years.
“Every day when I was at Ann’s working someone would come in, either a farmer or a customer and the talk was all about locally-sourced, ethically raised meats,” says Saundra. “So I came home one day and told Chuck (her husband), I really think there is something to this. I think there is a future in locally raised products for the younger generation. They are interested in how an animal is treated (and) how far away it has to be shipped. They are more interested in finding something that is grown ten miles from their house rather than having something shipped.”
“He just kinda blew me off,” she says with a laugh.
And five years later, Chuck and Saundra Lewis are the owners of Sheraton Park Farms, a very successful local farm located in McGrady, North Carolina where they produce pastured chicken and pork and turkey along with grass fed beef and honey–while practicing regenerative agriculture. Sheraton Park Farms also hosts farm workshops, farm tours, farm related events, and offers consulting services to individuals interested in starting their own farm or improving their current farm practices.
“She told you right,” Chuck adds with a smile. “I blew her off and didn’t think anything about it. We were living in Millers Creek at the time on an acre lot. It was either grass or driveway. We kept a few bees and had a very small garden. We had zero experience in agriculture except for helping our grandparents in their gardens when we were growing up.
“Then we were scrolling around Netflix one night and came upon this documentary called Food, Inc. The documentary talked about where your food comes from and how far it has to travel. There was a guy on there, Joel Salatin, a farmer in Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and he was raising animals on his farm–direct consumer retail and instead of being this monoculture farm having all chicken houses or all hog houses or just raising cattle, he was raising everything. He had pigs, chickens, and cows, egg chickens, meat chickens and turkeys. And he started talking about the natural patterns in nature and how food should be raised and how the chickens, cows and pigs and other animals should be working together. He talked about how the monoculture farms were creating so much pollution and there were other concerns over animal welfare. And it was then a light bulb went off and I thought, you know that makes a lot of sense. And that was the basis of us getting interested.”
The Lewis’ have a combined 50 years of service in health care. In addition to his work on the farm, Chuck continues to serve as the Assistant Chief for the North Carolina Office of EMS and Saundra now works full time on the farm. They have one full-time employee, Jamie Welborn (JW) who came to Sheraton Park Farms with no farming experience, but brought with him many other skills needed to run a farm. Since coming to the farm, he is now fondly known as the “cow whisperer”.
“He’s a recovering paramedic too,” Chuck laughs. “It’s amazing though what adding some labor can do. The key thing there is–and (Joel) Salatin talks about this too, not everything that needs to be done on a farm grows on the same two legs. Frankly I stink as a carpenter, plumber, and an electrician. Those are some strong suits for Jamie. And that is a key thing that has helped us to grow expediently this year.
“And it’s a tradeoff. I think Jamie came with an expectation of wanting to learn and how to do this regenerative agriculture and those are some skills he has picked up. He can manage the cattle herd by himself and a group of pigs and flock of chickens by himself. He’s gotten a lot of skills where he can take and start his own farm now if he wants to.”
“There’s no way we could have done what we have done without him this past year,” Saundra notes.
In 2016, Chuck applied for a job in Raleigh and told Saundra since they were getting ready to move, it would be an opportunity for them to buy some land and begin raising a few chickens and a few pigs for their personal use.
“We ended up buying 20 acres in southeastern Guilford County,” says Chuck. “And we started listening to every podcast, watching every YouTube video, reading every book we could find on how to raise meat chickens. And that’s what we started with–broilers.”
“We ordered 50 and they were supposed to be delivered the week of Valentine’s Day. This was in 2018,” Saundra adds.
“My commute to Raleigh to work was around an hour and 15 minutes and riding back and forth I would listen to Podcasts. And I was listening one day and I heard a guy say, Hour for hour, pound for pound based on your labor and your input–pigs are more profitable than chickens. So I came home that afternoon and made the announcement, we are getting some pigs!”
Looking at Chuck, Saundra says, “And he knew I was going to say yes, because I would never say no to an animal.”
Chuck goes on to explain, “So we go on Craigs List and find the pigs and make the arrangement and on the following Saturday we went to Walnut Cove and picked up the six pigs and then the following Wednesday we got 50 chickens in the mail and we had zero experience with either one. I would not recommend that to anyone. That’s not a good business model–not a smart thing to do. But there’s an old saying, “the Good Lord looks out for drunkards, fools, and crazy farmers!”
Because of Covid restrictions, Chuck job converted into a full-time home-base position and what seemed like an unexpected change turned into a blessing for the Lewis’ and gave them the opportunity to move back home to Wilkes.
“Covid has been a blessing for us,” Chuck says. “I know a lot of people have suffered through that though. I had been home-based for my work for a year and a half and it didn’t look like that was going to change so I told Saundra if we are going to work from the kitchen table, let’s decide where that table is at. And the opportunity to buy this place kinda presented itself. There’s no other way we can describe it but divine intervention. Everything just worked out.”
Saundra agrees, “Frankly, if Covid hadn’t happened we would still be in Greensboro and we were ready to come home. It all came together so easily. I told Chuck we are supposed to do this and if we don’t do this, something bad was going to happen. I felt it, that strong.”
So the Lewis’ packed up their belongings and the farm and moved back to Wilkes.
“Moving a farm is not an easy thing to do,” Chuck laughs. “Two guys and a truck won’t do that for you.”
“But that’s the genius side of our style of farm too,” Saundra adds. “Everything is portable. So if you need to pick up and move–we are living proof you can.”
Giving Back through Educational Opportunities and Workshops
Sheraton Park Farms has hosted the agriculture students from Wilkes Community College and from some of the local high school WCC Career and College Promise students. Over the past school year students have come to the farm and helped with the processing of both turkeys and chickens.
“The thing that impresses me the most about those programs is them allowing the students to see an alternative,” says Chuck. “I think that it is important to see an alternative to conventional agriculture.”
Saundra adds, “I would consider us a successful farm in Wilkes County and they can see they don’t have to move off somewhere else. They can have a successful farming operation here that doesn’t have to deal with conventional agriculture. We can show them here there is more than one way to farm and do things.”
Another aspect of Sheraton Park Farms is offering consultation opportunities and hands-on workshops on the farm. Many have traveled a long distance to learn what the Lewis’ have to share. They have welcomed individuals from many different professions–IT professionals, corporate business owners, teachers, farmers who want to make a change–and more.
“The workshops are great,” explains Saundra. “We have people now asking when we are going to do another one. Everyone is so interested and asks lots of questions. They are very open and it is very nice to be involved with this community. It is amazing.”
“The workshops are really rewarding,” Chuck says. “There are folks out there that really want to learn this. We want to teach and to share. We want to be around people and we want to help people to learn to do these things. I tell people you can read all of the books you want to read and watch all the YouTube videos you want to watch, but until you put your hands on it and do it, it’s only a concept. But to be on the property where it is happening and be standing next to those pigs and picking up the chicken tractor and moving it or dropping the fence, calling those cows and moving them to one paddock or another–you can’t replace that in any way, you have to do it.
“We have seen people that are in conventional agriculture that are looking to transfer over to a more regenerative agriculture. We see people who are corporate. So I think it is going hand in hand as more people are interested in where their food comes from as it is raising their own food. And getting back to the land and returning to some kind of emotional intelligent stability, going back to this kind of lifestyle seeing the natural order of things–life, death, earth, regeneration. I think people are hungry for that. We have become such a consumer culture that is tied to electronics and time on a screen that people are aching for something that is real.”
The Farmers Market: An Integral Part of Sheraton Park Farms
Sheraton Park Farms has a presence at the High Country Food Hub and Kings Street Farmers Market in Boone, in addition to the High Point Market and Clemmons Market.
“We have a strong presence and established customers in the High Point and Clemmons Markets because that was where we were and we are really trying to develop that more,” explains Chuck. “The Food Hub is slowly picking up too and now that we are here we are trying to expand in the Boone area.”
Saundra adds, “I’m not sure about this, but I don’t think they (King Street) have had an all-around meat vendor before that has had chicken, turkey, beef, pork, eggs, and honey. It seems we have hit the ground running there and have developed a customer base pretty quick.
“Selling at the markets is important. With what we are trying to produce and what we are trying to market, that’s really not something that I feel like we can do at an arm's-link. It’s very up close and personal. Face-to-face business and everybody loves our stories!”
“And we are selling our story,” Chuck says. “There’s no story to be had when you buy a pack of chicken at one of the local supermarkets. When you come to the Farmer’s Market we tell you stories about when the windstorm came a few weeks ago and blew the chicken tractor and we had to go out and catch all of the chickens. There’s a story there. And people can personally relate. It is a very relationship based business.
“There’s an investment of time on the farmer’s part and we have seen that over and over again. Customers will come by and ask a bunch of questions and we’ll stand there for 10-15 minutes talking and answering questions and they will walk away and not buy anything.
“They’ll come back the following week and they will dip their toe–let me buy a dozen eggs and then they’ll come back the next week and buy a dozen eggs and a pack of sausage. And then they will come back the following week and buy a dozen eggs, a pack of sausage, two packs of chicken breasts, and ask if we have any ground beef. And before you know it you have this customer and it’s all part of that 10-15 minute investment you put in on the front side.”
Chuck Lewis describes their farm growth as going from “zero to sixty” in five years. And over the five years there have been some frustrations, learning curves, and surprises along the way–evident of any new business. But Chuck and Saundra are very happy with the growth of Sheraton Park Farms and agree there are countless opportunities to continue to grow their farm into an even better well-rounded farm in the future.
“We would like to add a retail farm store soon,” says Saundra. “Maybe some cabins for an overnight or weekend farm stay–afternoon at the farm–more agritourism events like this. The opportunities are endless.”
“And here we are in our fifth year of farming–we have gone from zero to sixty in five years,” Chuck says. “We have gone from 20 acres to 70 and this year (2022) we will process about 60 pigs and process about 25 beef cattle. And somewhere north of 1500 chickens. To say that it has grown is an understatement. I think the thing that has surprised us the most was her prognostication of ‘hey I think this is the future and where things are going’ and just how big it really is and the demand that is really out there. Even now through the pandemic and through some of the supply chain issues and just general awareness–we are seeing an incline of people who are more interested than what they were five years ago.”
When asked who’s the beekeeper, “I started it and she is now,” and Chuck smiles.
And the last question–would you change the last five years if you could?
“Farming is very rewarding and very aggravating–all at the same time and I absolutely love it” Saundra says, as her face lights up–a glow most don’t seem to understand–considering the hard work and endless hours a farm woman endures day after day.
And Chuck, fighting back gratitude that sometimes a face expresses before words will come, he replies, “No, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
To learn more about Sheraton Park Farms, where to buy their products, and follow along with their farm story--Visit their website and connect with them on Facebook, Instagram and on their
YouTube channel. Links are below.
Photos courtesy of Sheraton Park Farms are labeled and copyright of Sheraton Park Farms.
All other photos are copyrighted by Farmer Rhodes Granddaughter.
A humble and sincere thank you to Chuck and Saundra Lewis for allowing
Farmer Rhodes Granddaughter to share their inspirational story of Sheraton Park Farms.