A handful of packed vans, and a string of vehicles following closely behind made their way around Lincoln and Catawba counties last week during Lincoln County Cooperative Extension’s farm tour. The four-stop route wrapped up Farm City Week — an annual tradition in the county that Extension Agent for Agriculture Libby Yarber hopes will help local residents appreciate and understand the importance of agriculture in the area, she said.
Dairy, grain, livestock and fruit farms were among the stops the group of more than 45 people made.
Piedmont Jersey’s farm in Lincolnton was the first glimpse participants received at a local farm. Owner Corey Lutz talked with the crowd about the importance of dairy farms, what he does and explained the various sections of his property, from the milking station to the grazing fields behind the main building.
Lutz’s great-grandmother started the first Jersey operation in North Carolina decades ago.
He took over the business in the late 1990s and has been raising and milking cows there ever since. He currently has more than 200 cows on his lot, and milks them twice a day with the help of his team.
The group was amazed at the building where an area was set up to milk the cows, the three to four hours Lutz said it takes to milk all of the cows; about 16 cows can fit in the station for milking at once, he said.
Lutz surprised the crowd with dairy statistics: “Only about 40 percent of the milk in North Carolina actually comes from North Carolina; the rest comes from other states,” Lutz told his audience.
Wide-eyed, the onlookers wanted to know more about other milk types that are out there, such as organic. Lutz answered several questions about the difference between organic and two percent or whole milk they see at local grocery stores. He explained his take on organic, and noted that he wasn’t a huge fan of it. The regular milk we buy is safe, he assured the group.
The farm owner finished by showing the hutches where the newborn calves stay, and the grazing field out back. The calves would be the favorite attraction of the handful of children who attended the event, 9-year-old Abby Morris later told the Times-News.
“I liked the animals, but those cows smelled worse than anything I’ve smelled in my whole life,” she said.
The milk produced from the 540-acre lot is later shipped to Asheville, and will later by packaged, along with other milk the company handles, and is sent to Ingles market for purchase.
After Yarber and county Extension Director Kevin Starr were able to round up the troupe toward the entrance where their vehicles were, they headed to the next stop in Newton — L.F.R. Farms.
Thirty-two-year-old Lucas Richard owns the property, but was unable to be there during the tour, so manager Phillip White spoke with the group about the history of the mostly grain operation and its owner.
Richard got involved in the farming business when he was 15 years old and in high school, White said. Strawberries used to be available on the farm as well, but now corn, soybeans and wheat are among the products available.
White stood in front of mountain-high units containing grain, as tractor-trailers came through the weigh station to have the amount of grain inside calculated. White explained the process and answered questions from the crowd over the buzz going on behind him. Participants were curious about chemicals used in the products, and wondered if there were any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) found at L.F.R.
Yarber later responded that it’s near impossible to not have any GMOs on a farm, even if it’s a small, personal farm, she said.
Richard is on the younger end of the spectrum, Yarber pointed out to the group, falling below the average age of the majority of farmers in the country — 57. On the way out, the parade of vehicles passed by the greenhouse on the property, which is home to a variety of vegetable and flower plants.
Twenty-five minutes back toward Lincoln County was 4-H’er Regan Mitchem, who was anxiously waiting with her four lambs behind her family’s barn.
Mitchem has been showing livestock since she was 5 years old, and demonstrated how to show an animal at a show. She explained the criteria she was judged on, which Yarber boasted she passed with ease as she won various awards. Her grandmother sat under a tree across the yard, telling those around her how this was Regan’s first time speaking in front of a crowd and how proud she was of her.
Yarber works with Mitchem and a group of 4-H’ers who show livestock each year. The crowd was intrigued by the 11-year-old’s lambs and asked what the difference is between sheep and lamb; lamb are baby sheep, essentially, she informed them.
Mitchem told her audience how important it is to take care of the animals you are going to show, she said over the sound of the lamb’s noises, making sure they are properly fed and clean will make all the difference later.
“I think the 4-H stop will be one of the more popular ones on the tour,” Yarber said days before the event. “We wanted to add in that youth element this year.”
The crowd seemed to agree, as they eagerly watched Mitchem and her baby sheep.
As the afternoon temperatures increased, the homemade ice cream at Knob Creek Orchard in Lawndale had the crowd rushing back to their vehicles for the last stop on the tour. Owner Jeff Crotts gave a brief history of his company, which Starr described as a progression from an apple and peach operation to a sophisticated business. Acres of strawberries, blackberries, peaches and apples span the lot behind the stand, hidden from the view of drivers on the road in front of the building.
Crotts agreed that his business has come a long way, but credits his family and workers for their hard work — the only way it was possible for him to have the success he has seen over the years, he said.
He also told the group that this is the first year he has been able to say that 100 percent of his workers are legally able to work in the United States. He said he had trouble with undocumented workers in the past, but has everything in order now.
The father of three sells his apples to a company in Michigan — a group that later produces the apple slices now found in McDonald’s Happy Meals, replacing the cookies that used to be found in between the french fries and toy.
Children and their parents took turns getting ice cream cones and produce from the shop, as they reflected on the tour and their favorite parts of the day.
Yarber was excited to see more children then usual participating in this event — the future consumers who will need to understand how important it is to stay local, she said.