In one sense, Norma DeCamp Burns moved a far piece from teaching and practicing architecture a few years ago when she began devoting herself full-time to Bluebird Hill Farm in Chatham County.
But the former NC State visiting professor and emeritus architect has only gone deeper into design and teaching. Bluebird Hill Farm is at once a business, a school and a design laboratory. And now her farm is being spotlighted as a model for others.
The farm in many ways fulfills a vision Burns shared with her late husband, Professor Emeritus Robert P. Burns, who taught architecture in the College of Design for more than 40 years. The couple purchased the land in 1999.
“I think he’d be amazed to see that it’s gone as far as it has,” Norma Burns says.
Bringing that vision to life wasn’t easy. Burns visited several banks for a loan to purchase $25,000 in equipment needed to produce organic vegetables, herbs and lavender oil, but she couldn’t find a lender.
Fortunately, her green business found capital from a nonprofit that uses a microlending model. Burns is one of two initial recipients of a ShadeFund Entrepreneurs loan administered by the Conservation Fund and sponsored by Mercedez-Benz USA. The group solicits donations to help support environmentally friendly small businesses with low-interest, low-collateral loans under $50,000.
Burns’ equipment—a lavender harvester and a distiller—will allow her to harvest more quickly and produce more lavender oil and hydrosol, used in cosmetics and cooking products.
Making Business Beautiful
Burns’ goal has always been to create a farm-based business that combines aesthetics with sustainability.
“That’s the preoccupation of a designer, to devise an outcome that is not only functional but beautiful,” she says. “I think the Conservation Fund was interested in some of the same things that Mercedes Benz was interested in: artisanship and quality of design as well as quality of product.”
Her new equipment is hand-operated and small in scale. And a third of the lavender crop will still be harvested with scissors, then bundled, bound and hung to dry.
Farm visitors will also see the hands-on work involved in raising more than 50 other cooking herbs, teas and spice rubs. They can support local agriculture by joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) at Bluebird Hill Farm. Members receive weekly boxes of fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs during the growing season.
Burns’ background in architecture and education shows in every facet of the business. In addition to offering tours and classes, she consults on garden design.