I am a new farmer, on an old farm. I am currently the farm manager on my family's 200 year old farm, one of the last with a Charlotte, NC address. I am the ninth generation of my family to work this particular tract of land.
We were never a plantation, or anything on such a grand scale, but rather matched more than 80% of North Carolina's population, in the 18th and 19th centuries, and lived on what the land provided. For the last century or so, our story does not stand apart from many of our neighbors... horever, in today's landscape, with Charlotte surrounding us on all sides, I feel compelled to share some of my experiences as a farmer, 15 minutes from one of the fastest growing cities on the east coast.
Of course, with the rich resource of a farm in the family, my sister, cousins and I grew up eagerly anticipating family get togethers, holidays and weekends spent with 150 acres at our disposal. We got dirty, ran from bulls, got scolded for venturing too far and lived to do it all over again. We threw a few hay bales and listened to stories about my grandfather, who at 20 years old, took out a massive loan and traved half way across the country, returning with a herd of cattle, with which he hoped to build a business and his legacy. He succeeded. It was not untill 1999, after laws changed and milk could be shipped across state lines, that our family sold the herd and ceased to be a functioning dairy farm. I still remember being sent out to the 500 gallon refridgerated tanks and dipping out a pitcher of ice cold, fresh milk for breakfast. I also remember being picked up early from school on the day that the last of our holsteins were loaded onto a trailer and sent to their new home.
But real farming? I did not get a taste of the farming life until I turned 17 and went to work at a living history farm in Huntersville. I had been working for my uncle, the same who had taken over running the family farm after my grandfather passed away. My uncle, an avid antique collector, had taken up restoration and dealing in antique furniture in order to get through the lean years on the farm. I would help restore a piece, learn the history of it and then would recieve a comission if I'd help to sell it.
My uncle was also a member of the board of directors for the historic site that would eventually employ me for more than a decade. At a board meeting, it was mentioned that the farm manager could use some help and my uncle mentioned that I was not afraid to work hard and would only need enough pay for gas and the occaissional movie...so, in 2004, at 17 years old, I started out as a part-time farm hand making $5.15 an hour.
My boss, the farm manager, was a former Police Officer, biker and U.S. Marine. I quickly learned that I would need to work hard, keep my tools sharp and dry, as well as offer solutions, instead of complaints, if I wanted to keep my job. All the more, if I wanted to earn respect. I stumbled more than once, but I'm stubborn and learn fairly quickly.
During My time as a living historian/farmer I learned to do as much as possible the old way, as we were expected to perform our duties on the farm under the eye of the public, who had paid good money to be taken back in time.
I learned animal husbandry, with the added flair of crowds of people watching most of what you do...I learned to plant and harvest heirloom vegetables and even cotton. I learned to plow with horses and mules, of which the latter earned my resolute favor. The old man, who retired from training regular mules in order to raise and train miniature mules, was quick with sharp criticism, but slow to give up on a student.
We met and interacted with all walks of life, both in the form of colleagues, as well as the general public. I have demonstrated flint and steel fire started for local boy scouts and sheered sheep for a vice president in the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
Eventually, I worked my way up to Farm Interpretation Manager. Basically, I still shoveled out stalls, did tours of the house and grounds and spent the night in period correct sheep stalls to help a rejected lamb to be taken back into the fold. The differnce, at this point, was that my job, officially, was to make farming relatable to the general public. I was to help kids and adults alike, not only understand the history of farming in the North Carolina back country, but to help them to understand the role farming has/still plays in our society.
After five years as a Farm Interpretation Manager, my uncle, the same with whom I'd spent so much time sanding and repairing relics of bygone carpentry, asked me to quit my job, start over and come learn to run the family farm.
To this day, I still don't know what came over me, but, after a long talk with my wife, I said OK.
I gave my boss two months notice and promised to help get them through the busy season and provide as smooth a transition as possible. These folks were more than just co-workers, they had become like family to me and the decision was not made lightly.
My transition came in late October, right at the end of the month long Pumpkin Patch on my family's farm. I spent my first weeks finishing up school groups, learning machines and preparing the fields for winter.
A little more than five months later, in April of 2014, my uncle passed away, suddenly, of a heart attack.
I knew how to harness mules, rive shingles and make medicine out of tree bark...on four cleared acres... It turns out, working with modern machines on 150 acres, with your family as your board of directors, is a whole other animal.
It was not just a question of whether or not I still wanted the job, but if I was prepared to be the link that continued, or broke, an over two hundred year old chain.
There have been some tough times, a few stitches, one MRI for a post driver to the scull and lots of blood sweat and tears, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Right?
With the support of my wife and my family behind me, in many cases, working right along side me, I've made it to a point where I'd like to share some of what I've learned...