A slight man with a quick smile, Tommy Houser has been a farmer much of his life. He was able to attend one year at the University of North Carolina before being drafted into the United States Navy. When he returned to North Carolina after four years of service, he worked with his parents at Houser Dairy in Vale. Eventually he took over the dairy and ran it for 30 years.
In 1974, Houser became a supervisor with the Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District. He was recently recognized at the North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meeting for serving 45 years as a District Supervisor.
“Mr. Charles Wallace (a former federal government employee) came out and got me interested in soil and water conservation,” he said. “I’ve been in it ever since. The main thing that got me interested was Clark’s Creek. All these companies were dumping in it and blaming it on the dairies, so we had to straighten that out.”
During the time that Houser became involved with the district, Clark’s Creek was often referred to as “Rainbow Creek” for the color of the water from the chemicals being dumped in it. As a dairy farmer himself, Houser was able to work with the other farmers, whom he said were initially resistant to the proposed changes, to prevent livestock from accessing waterways and runoff through fencing, erosion control, building farm ponds and good farming techniques such as use of terraces. Some of the expenses were offset by federal and state government cost share funds.
“Terraces were presented as a way to protect the land, to keep the soil from washing away,” he said. “As time goes on, we’ve had to get bigger and bigger in order to make a profit. Things are so tight right now for farmers. Now they’ve got different programs like no-till farming and they’re introducing easements where a farmer can set aside his land to the government.”
Farming and preservation of farmland is important to Houser and he wants to leave the land better than it was when he found it. He still farms more than 100 acres of land and has put his entire property in conservation easement so it’ll always be kept as farmland. As is the case with most full-time farmers, his land is Houser’s social security and retirement fund.
“Today, people don’t know where their food comes from,” he said. “They think they can go to the grocery store and it’ll be a never-ending supply but that isn’t the case.”
As of 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 46,400 farms in North Carolina. That's 3,800 fewer than there were in 2012 and 6,500 fewer than there were in 2007. As Houser said, today’s farms are bigger than they were back when he got into the dairy business.
In North Carolina, farms were operating on a combined total area of 8.4 million acres in size in 2018 - about the same as 2012, according to an article published by the University of North Carolina Charlotte Urban Institute. The caveat here is that the average individual farm size is 181 acres, up from 168 acres in 2012 and 160 acres in 2007. That equates to the loss of small family-run farms.
“Mr. Troxler (N.C. Agriculture Commissioner) said that we’re losing about 15,000 acres a year,” Houser said. “People have found out what a secret North Carolina is to live in and everybody wants to come here. The population is doubling and tripling.”
The unfortunate fact, Houser said, is that unless someone comes out of a farm family, young people aren’t interested in farming. Labor is difficult to source as well. Houser’s son, Daniel, is continuing the Houser farming heritage.
“They’ve made it too easy,” he said. “Farming’s not easy.”
Clark’s Creek, while not particularly clean, is no longer referred to as Rainbow Creek, but the Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District faces new challenges, such as bringing awareness to the district’s role in the community.
The services it provides includes providing cost share assistance to landowners to install best management practices, managing the voluntary agriculture district program to bring an awareness to farming, providing enforcement of sedimentation and erosion control, increasing environmental education and public awareness of the services the district provides and working with landowners on conservation easements to protect farmland from development.
Houser’s farm was named Conservation Farm Family of the Year in 1992. He also served on the Lincoln County Soil and Water Commission from 2012 to 2015, president of the North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation District in 2013 and on the Lincoln County Board of Education for 12 years.
The Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District will hold its annual tree seedling sale on Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Citizens Center in Lincolnton from 8 a.m. – noon (or until sold out). The following seedlings will be offered:
- Baldcypress - four for $5.00 / $1.50 each
- Silky Dogwood - four for $5.00 / $1.50 each
- Red Maple - four for $5.00 / $1.50 each
- River Birch – four for $5.00 / $1.50 each
- Waxmyrtle – four for $5.00 / $1.50 each
- White Pine - $5.00/bundle of 20
For more information contact the Lincoln Soil and Water Conservation District at (704) 736-8501.