River + steward = bountiful farm

When most people hear the name “Cold Mountain,” their minds turn to images of the award-winning Civil War drama. They might want to consider Haywood County, too, and some of the best farmland in the western part of North Carolina. The pristine Pigeon River makes this region ideal for dedicated small farmers.

Key Points

Century Farm steward strives to ensure future of small farming via education.

Farmer is politically active in order to have a positive impact on legislation.

This small farmer aims to protect the reputation of small, specialty-crop farmers.

River-friendly on a Century Farm

Bethel, N.C., is home to Cold Mountain Farms, a Century Farm owned by Bill Holbrook, and operated by Holbrook and Herman Garrison. Holbrook, a sixth-generation farmer, is blessed enough to have its fields border the Pigeon River on both sides. He can trace the original land grant back to 1791, but it was in 1830 when the Holbrook family got it.

Holbrook left a management job at the local Dayco factory to dedicate his life to farming. “I started full time in 1993, but I’ve been farming all my life,” Holbrook says. “I grew tobacco in high school and was raised on a farm. In high school, I said I would never do this again and here I am, still doing it; it’s in my blood.”

In 1999, Holbrook received the prestigious River Friendly Farmer award from the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District.

It’s the river that gives this area such excellent soil to grow crops like tobacco, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Most farmers will agree that the two most important things needed to have a successful farm are land and water.

For years, Holbrook has used the water from the Pigeon River for his crops. It’s this river that has provided him with rich, fertile soil, enabling him to grow prize-winning, high-quality produce. Without the high water quality, none of this would be possible.

As a result, Holbrook has participated in research and education to preserve this pristine watershed. With the help from a grant from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in 1999, Holbrook built a chemical handling facility, which remains one of the only two in Haywood County.

Holbrook used to back his tractor up to the river when filling up the sprayers for the pesticides used on his crops; there was always potential for a spill. But now, thanks to this state-of-the-art chemical handling facility, the potential for spills is much lower.

The River Friendly Farming program’s objectives are simple: to ensure that farmers protect and preserve their watershed, and to gather important data and share it with soil and water conservation in the area.

Still, its not easy to be as pollution-free as possible and still be profitable.

Holbrook keeps on top of regulations. He has even spoken to Congress, most recently in 2009, to defend the small farmer against too much regulation.

“It’s the greatest challenge for a small farmer: regulation, regulation, regulation,” he says.

Small-farm support

Since the mid 1960s, J.W. Johnson Tomato Co. in Haywood County has packed, sold and marketed fresh produce for local growers. Founded by “John-Bill” Johnson with partners in 1968, vine-ripened tomatoes were the main focus. Second-generation owners, the husband and wife team of Johnny and Claire Johnson, have worked with local growers to expand the product lineup to include Roma tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplants and chili peppers. Today, J.W. Johnson Tomato offers a variety of retail and food-service packaging options to customers all over the Southeastern United States. Increased local demand has benefited J.W. Johnson Tomato, and much of the product is shipped to customers within North Carolina.

“Bill Holbrook has been supplying us with high-quality bell peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes for decades. We rely on his products and consistent farming practices,” says Jay Johnson of J.W. Johnson Tomato.

“Without Cold Mountain Farms’ produce, our product offerings would be compromised. His valuable insight regarding local farming and environmental issues make him a leader in farmland preservation in Haywood County. He recognizes the importance of food safety and was one of the first growers in Haywood County to have his farm and harvesting operations certified by the USDA.”

“Bill is a conservation-minded grower living on a pristine stream that is part of a public water supply,” says Bill Yarbrough, special assistant to the agriculture commissioner and regional agronomist in the western North Carolina region. “He takes his profession seriously and his responsibility for water-quality protection equally as seriously. He also serves on the Tobacco Trust Fund Board and the AG Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.”

Holbrook has what it takes, and is eager to share what he knows with his community. This is why he has taken on a project to create and maintain a community garden for the Bethel Elementary School as part of a Farm Bureau project.

“I read about gardens in schools and figured, hey, I’d be willing to help do that, so we prepared land and started with a fourth-grade class,” he says. “We taught them everything from how to plant a seed to how to harvest. The Haywood County Farm Bureau gave a $500 grant to help sponsor it. It’s not how big it is, it’s how they use that small plot to grow their own food.”

GAP yield positive results

Most farmers in western North Carolina are small-scale, and it’s a challenge to make a living full time.

“Over the years, small farms were 2 to 3 acres; if you even had 1 acre, you had a lot,” Holbrook says. “But now, profit has reduced per acre so you have to have more acreage. When I first started farming full time, I farmed 15 acres. Now I farm 36 acres just to make a living.”

He grows 15 acres of peppers, 11 of tomatoes, 5 of cucumbers and about 5 of tobacco. “Farmers are limited in this area because there just is not much tenable farmland; everyone is competing. So, you need to set yourself apart from the rest,” he says. “For example, food safety is a big issue, but it does come with a price. For example, GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification has a cost, and I’m the first farmer to get it in Haywood County.”

In 2009, he completed the first trainings on fresh produce safety, and continues to be GAP-certified each year. He uses safety practices outlined in GAP, which include hand-washing stations, education for his farmworkers and good hygiene practices.

“Some things you just have to do. If the purchaser of your product requires it, you have to have it, and J.W. Johnson Tomato Co. wants it,” Holbrook says.

It’s a balancing game

“It used to be you just had to be a hard worker; now you have to have book smarts and brawn,” Holbrook says. “You need to know finance and budgets — it’s more of a business now.”

And, with help from the research stations, western North Carolina small farmers have learned better farming methods and chemical control, leading to less cost and more profit.

“While you hope that one or all of your crops will have a good market, farming has always been about surviving disease and weather. You need to diversify, be resourceful and creative,” he says.

Holbrook continues to be a model from whom other farmers can learn. Good stewardship can reap a bountiful life from farming … he’s proof that it can be done.

Sullivan writes from Weaverville, N.C., near Asheville.

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MAKING CLEAN PROFITS: Bill Holbrook, pictured here with Cold Mountain at his back, says it is a challenge to be eco-friendly and profitable, too.

This article published in the September, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.