Aaron Ray Tompkins and the NC Blue Ridge Farm School

Life can be tough for farmers.  When it’s considered rationally, pros and cons on a ledger, it seems impossible.  The weather is seldom perfect.  It is often too hot, too cold, too dry or too wet for farming.  Insects and wild animals impact farm production in ways that most non-farmers can’t image.  High prices one year often result in a production glut the following year, causing prices to plummet.

A 2007 report by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project showed that western North Carolina is home to over 12,000 farms.  Over half of these farms are less than 50 acres.  The average size is 85 acres.  This is approximately ¼ the size of the average farm in the United States.  To maintain a competitive edge, regional farmers have to continually look for ways to produce their products in the most efficient manner possible.  To aid in this process, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension has developed the NC Blue Ridge Farm School.

The NC Blue Ridge Farm School is one of four farm schools in North Carolina this year.  Understanding the economic importance of agriculture both locally and statewide, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners dedicated $100,000 to this program.  The program’s mission is to train “farmers to operate successful small-scale, economically sustainable farms.”  The seven month curriculum consists of one classroom day per month where students focus on business applications such as marketing, developing budgets, and writing business plans.  Another day each month is spent visiting working farms to see these business practices at work.

NC Cooperative Extension Agent Aaron Ray Tompkins

NC Cooperative Extension Agent Aaron Ray Tompkins

Leading this program in Alleghany County is Aaron Ray Tompkins.  Aaron Ray is a product of Alleghany High School and a graduate of Virginia Tech University.  After his college graduation, he spent six years teaching agriculture at North Surry High School.  He came home to Alleghany County two years ago and is currently an agriculture extension agent with the NC Cooperative Extension in Sparta.

Aaron Ray describes the Farm School as a program focused on transitional and new farmers.  The current class has 21 students that range in ages from 20-60 years old.  Many students are established farmers seeking to diversify and expand their businesses into areas such as agri-tourism while others are just beginning to farm.  A unique feature of this group is that 88% of these students have access to 50 or more acres to farm.  All will come away from the training with a detailed business plan that will help them become more successful entrepreneurs.

An agribusiness that is growing throughout western North Carolina is the local food movement.  Health conscious consumers increasingly want to know how their food is produced and to feel a connection to the farmer.  In Alleghany County, the market for locally produced beef, dairy and poultry products is strong.  However, the demand for locally grown vegetables currently exceeds production.  Aaron Ray points to the Alleghany Farmers Market and its expansion as an outlet that links farmers and consumers.

The connection of the Cooperative Extension, resident agents such as Aaron Ray Tompkins, local farmers, and local consumers all reflects a core principle of mountain life – that of a self-sufficient yet interdependent lifestyle.  Here, “local food” is not a modern movement and truly encompasses more than just food.  The NC Blue Ridge Farm School is simply a formalized method of teaching that has been passed along by generations of farmers.  Both are examples of neighbors helping neighbors and a way of life that is Absolutely Alleghany.

Adam Gambill and Parton Lumber Company

Wood touches us at a near primal place in our beings.  Wood delivers warming fires on cold mountain days and furnishes shelter from the elements.  In enumerable ways, wood sustains us.

Driving into Sparta on Hwy. 21 South it is hard not to notice the log yard.  The neatly stacked rows of logs stretch from near the roadway some 150 yards toward the treeline.  Even an untrained eye can detect that the logs are sorted by species.

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The Rutherford County based Parton Lumber Company operates four satellite log yards across the region.  The Parton mill is 125 miles southwest of Sparta.  That is a 250 mile round trip for a logger.  The satellite yard saves fuel cost for a small business operating on a shoestring budget. Loggers get paid when they deliver product and shortening the delivery time puts money in their pockets.

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For almost a year, Alleghany County native Adam Gambill has staffed the Sparta log yard.  A former football player and wrestler at Alleghany High School, Adam left Sparta in 2012 to attend Haywood Community College (HCC).  A fourth generation Alleghany farmer, his desire was to find employment that put him outside and in the woods.  HCC’s forestry program fit the bill and after his graduation there in 2014, he went to work with Parton’s.

When the log trucks enter the yard, Adams uses a loader to unload the trucks.  He lays them out individually, and then measures and grades each log.  The measurements give the total number of board feet in each log.  Grading involves assessing a combination of size and quality (the presence or absence of knots or splits).  The assessed grade then determines the price per board foot.  From there it is simple math.  The logger is paid based on the quality and amount of the load.  It is an exacting and sometimes subjective job that requires a person who is trusted by both the company and the logger.

The logs are then stacked according to species.  The mill can saw approximately 1 million board feet of lumber per week.   Logs in Sparta are delivered based on customer orders.  Many of the logs in Sparta will find their way into the furniture and cabinet industry.

By his own reckoning, too much of Adam’s time has been spent in the office or on a loader.  He is leaving Parton’s to become a timber cruiser.  His days will now be spent walking the hills measuring trees, making those same calculations he made on the log yard, while the tress are still standing – exactly what he had in mind when he enrolled at Haywood Community College.

Adam Gambill and Jeff Eller

Adam Gambill and Jeff Eller

Adam is being replaced by Caldwell County resident Jeff Eller.  Jeff has been in the forestry business in a variety of capacities for several years.

The forest sector contributes over $9 billion to North Carolina’s gross domestic product.  In 2012, North Carolina landowners received $391.5 million in revenue from trees.  In Alleghany County, the forest industry’s economic impact in 2012 was $14.7 million.

Yet, forest products tends to be a polarizing industry.  Critics voice a multitude of concerns – soil erosion, stream siltation, eyesore clearcuts to name a few.  But modern forest management traces its roots back to men like Yale educated Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S Forest Service (1905-1910).  Pinchot studied forest management in France and honed his skills on the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Forest Estate in western North Carolina.  Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt are credited with the modern conservation movement.  Alarmed at unregulated overharvesting, their core premise was that forest and wildlife resources should be managed in a way that sustains them for future generations.  Successional forest practices not only benefit the health of the forest, but contributes to the diversity of wildlife species many of which are dependent on successional habitat.

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So, how do we ensure that a proper balance is struck between economic vitality and the wise management of a valued resource?  We entrust the stewardship of these resources to people like Adam Gambill.  Greed cannot replace four generations of connection to the land.  With the skills he possesses, Adam could work anywhere in the United States.  He chose to come home and apply those skills in Alleghany County.

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Suggested Reading: The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Charlie Scott and Alleghany Community Television

Although we tend to view life as a liner progression, the fact is for most of us there is a bit of wandering.  We spend time “here” then “there,” doing “this” then “that.”  Then for those who are fortunate, there comes a moment when we are struck by an epiphany of what becomes our meaning for life.  For Charlie Scott of Alleghany Community Television (ACTV) that purpose can be summed up by informing others of the great things that take place in Alleghany County.

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© 2014 Imaging Specialists, Inc.

Charlie’s life cut a path through Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and then North Carolina managing golf courses.  That career brought him to Roaring Gap, NC in 2001 where he worked as superintendent of High Meadow’s golf course.  He and his wife Vickie settled into the community and attended Sparta Methodist Church.  Noticing a need to record the services for those who could not attend, Charlie began video recording the services.  After his retirement from High Meadows, Charlie spent time driving for G&B Energy and Alleghany in Motion.

During this same time period, Travis Sturgill, taught a class at Alleghany High School that included a student produced cable channel.  Charlie began working with Mr. Sturgill who taught Scott the basics of television production.  Charlie began video recording school events and local government functions.  The county received a $25,000 grant that allowed cameras to be installed in the county commission room and for the purchase of computer equipment that allows programming to be uploaded to the Internet.  ACTV on Demand allows viewers to watch sporting contests, and catch up on local government and other community events at their leisure.

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© 2011 Imaging Specialists, Inc.

ACTV strives to report the interesting local news that occurs across the viewing area.  But, the connection to Alleghany High School remains a core element of ACTV’s mission.  Students assist with filming football and basketball games, and are involved in all steps of production.  During the school day, they make the short walk from the high school to the ACTV studio to film segments of the Trojan News.  The goal is to expose the students to all aspects of broadcast journalism.

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© 2011 Imaging Specialists, Inc.

Behind this community outreach tool is a staff of one – Charlie Scott.  Charlie exhibits all the traits that define Alleghany County – service to others, community involvement, and a work ethic that gets things accomplished.  Though not a native to these hills, Charlie Scott is Absolutely Alleghany.

Photos by Imagining Specialists, PO Box 533, Sparta, NC 28675  www.imagingspecialists.net