Bill Osborne – Small Farm Advocate

A simple chat about a frigid, January day kindled a memory for Bill Osborne. A memory of hogs.

“When I was a kid, we raised seven hogs a year to sell,” he begins. “We would butcher the first one around Thanksgiving and then spread the rest out over the course of the winter.” Bill goes on to explain that after they had killed the hog, they would scald the hide with boiling water and then scrape off the hair. After it was scraped clean, they would hang the hog and an individual would come by to purchase the whole hog for processing. He said they referred to the practice as “selling from the pole.” As he describes the entire process, it was obvious that the recollection was a flood of memories of old ways and times past. More important was the remembrance of a community coming together around a communal activity. “It seems like everybody showed up to help,” he said.

This memory twists and winds together thoughts that surface in any conversation with Bill Osborne. He is clearly an advocate for family farms and a self-sufficient lifestyle. He is deeply embedded in his community. The strongest theme of all is one of the importance of family.

Bill married his bride Jill when he was only 18 years old and she was 16½. Those were some tough years for a young couple. “There were times when we would have to sell a cull cow to make ends meet,” he recalls. “But, those hard times definitely helped us appreciate the good times even more.”

Bill and Jill

Bill and his brother, David, took over the operation of the family dairy in the 1970s. When David decided to go to college, Bill bought out David’s share of the farm. But when Bill talks about partners on the farm, the conversation always drifts back to his immediate family.

“My daughter, Tammy, never particularly liked driving a tractor. There was one day she was on the tractor most of the day when we were getting up hay. Over the course of the day, the lug nuts worked loose and the wheel came off,” Bill laughs. “After that, I told everybody that she can drive the wheels off a tractor.”

A story about his son, Todd, reflects the dangers around the farm. “Todd was mixing up milk replacers in the pump room. He slipped on some oil and his finger found its way into a pulley. I wrapped the finger up in paper towel and drove him to the emergency room. They sewed the severed finger back on and it grew back just fine.”

Tammy and Todd

Bill speaks glowingly of his wife Jill. “When I was away, she basically ran the operation.” He adds a compliment that can be best appreciated by those who have spent time on a farm, “I’ll tell you in all seriousness, Jill is as good of truck driver and silage hauler as anybody in the county.”

By the mid-1990, dairy farming was getting increasingly difficult. Environmental regulations created a quagmire of expensive upgrades and the twice daily milking schedule made it difficult to have much life off the farm. In 1995, Bill and Jill decided to close the dairy. They focused on tobacco and their greenhouse operation where they grew tobacco seedlings, strawberries and some cabbage.

These days Bill has once again adjusted his farming – this time to cigar tobacco. The plants he grows function as the wrapping leaves for cigars. It is a labor-intensive process and requires near perfect leaves, but he is optimistic that is a good direction for the farm.

US Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and Bill

When asked about the future of agriculture in our community, predictably he comes back to a theme of self-sufficiency. He points to the shrinking number of meat processing facilities and how local farmers have little input on the prices of the livestock they raise. He is concerned that more of our beef and pork comes from foreign sources. He worries that the empty shelves we sometimes see in the grocery store are a harbinger of things to come.

An alternative he envisions is shortening the link between the producers and consumers. Bill is a strong advocate for a vibrate farmers market where customers can talk directly with the farmers about their products. He recognizes an increase in demand for food that is free from preservatives. It brings to mind those cold winter days of his youth when those hog killings were a community event and farmers “sold from the pole.”

Maybe that’s why he still raises a hog for slaughter each year. In addition to great sausage, it is a strong connection to the days of his childhood when the highlight after a long, cold day was a supper of fresh pork tenderloin – locally sourced food before that became a phrase. Perhaps that is less a look into the past and more a glimpse of the future.

2 thoughts on “Bill Osborne – Small Farm Advocate

  1. GREAT article! The family photos really added to the story and WOW the cigar tobacco leaf is huge!

    My husband’s dad raised hogs and made delicious products at his small abattoir in Burke County. We really miss fresh meat and dairy from the “small” farmers. Hopefully, Mr. Osborne’s vision of a more direct link between producers and consumers comes to fruition before the only option is plant-based factory-processed foods. Please share my high regards with the author of the post and to Bill Osborne. This is EXCELLENT journalism!

    Best, Jeanne Powell Ennice, NC

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  2. I enjoyed reading the article about Bill and his deep roots in farming, family, and caring for his community. I have always found Bill to be honest, forthright, dependable and truly does care for the people he represents as a county comissioner. Thank you for highlighting Bill because he truly is an excellent example of the fine folks in Alleghany County.

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