Jay Coman – Local Foods Coordinator

Alleghany County’s local food movement has an unusual connection to a building supply business founded in Durham, NC.  The Coman brothers opened Coman Lumber in the years following World War II.  When the business was sold in the 1970s, one brother, James, bought a farm in Piney Creek and permanently located to Alleghany.

Many remember James as a sheep farmer, but some of his most important work was through the Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust (currently The Blue Ridge Conservancy).  Through the land trust and conservancy over 18,000 acres of northwestern North Carolina have been protected through conservation easements or set aside for public use.

james and jay

James and Jay Coman

Jay Coman spent his high school summers on his Uncle James’ farm.  Jay was a state champion high school wrestler in Durham and his father felt that a summer of farm work gave Jay a better overall workout than time in the weight room.  Through his Uncle James, Jay was exposed to a unique combination of business acumen, love and respect for the mountains and mountain life, and shown the value of hard work.  During those summers in Piney Creek, Jay also grew to love Alleghany County.

IMG_4206Jay was awarded an athletic scholarship to wrestle at North Carolina State University.  In 2007 he was part of a team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.  He struggled with injuries during his final year at NCSU and became interested in coaching.  Jay says that for the first time he fully understood the role his coaches had played in his development over the years with their devotion of time and experience.  Jay determined that it was time for him to repay that debt by coaching others.

After graduation from NCSU, he taught history and coached wrestling in Durham.  In 2009, his Uncle James succumbed to cancer, and Jay took over the farm in Piney Creek.  He traveled back and forth for three years before fully transitioning from city to farm life in 2012.  He loved the local dedication to wrestling and he began the New River Wrestling Club which practices at the Briddle Creek School in Independence, Virginia.  He also began coaching Grayson County High School Wrestling team.  And during all that, he went to graduate school at Virginia Tech.


In what little free time Jay could claim, he began to work the farm.  His operation has grown to 45 sheep, 20 cows and toggles between five to ten pigs.  Although he spent many summers on the farm with James, Jay quickly realized how little he knew about farm life.  He credits his neighbors as being patient with him as he learned to build and repair fences that actually kept his growing herd and flocks where they belonged.  He said the winters have been tough but that each year seems to get a little easier.

This spring Jay took on yet another job – local foods coordinator for Alleghany County.  Working through a grant with the Cooperative Extension Service, he promotes and delivers locally produced farm products to a variety of locations.  Everything from steaks to honey to produce is available the Alleghany Meat Center or Becca’s Backwoods Bean in Sparta.  Jay also services farmers’ markets in Sparta, Roaring Gap, and Independence, Virginia.  Many local restaurants serve Alleghany grown products delivered by Jay.

farmers market

Alleghany Farmers Market

Jay sees great retail growth potential for Alleghany products in the Raleigh/Durham area.  He currently delivers products directly to home customers in Durham.  He says that there is a growing demand in Triangle restaurants for ethically grown meat that is pastured raised with no growth hormones.  Chefs recognize that these products have superior taste that customers appreciate.

Perhaps one of the strongest selling point for locally grown products is the story behind where their food is produced.  There is an increased aversion by some to animals that are raised in large commercial operations.  Customers prefer to know the name of the farm where the products are produced and the farmers who produces it.  They seek a personal connection to their food.  Jay views “Produced on a family farm in the mountains of western North Carolina” as a great way to begin those stories.

In yet another iteration of life, Jay will teach history this fall at Grayson County High School and will continue to coach wrestling.  But he will remain solidly anchored to Alleghany County through Stony Knob Farm, tending to sheep and cattle and an occasional pig.


Alleghany grown farm products can be ordered at http://alleghany.locallygrown.net/.  Jay can also cooridanate special purchases for customers.  He can be contacted at jcoman103@yahoo.com


You can experience a Taste of Alleghany on Saturday, June 18th at 6:30 pm.  This event is sponsored by the Alleghany Farmers Market.  Proceeds will be used to promote locally grown foods and to support the farmers’ market.


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.