JEFFERSON — Members of the N.C. Cooperative Extension State Advisory Committee joined Ashe County Cooperative Extension Director Travis Birdsell to tour three locations with agricultural significance Wednesday, July 17, after the committee spent two days convened in Ashe to discuss statewide agricultural matters during its thrice-annual meeting.
Starting out behind the Museum of Ashe County History, the cooperative’s state advisory committee — composed of members from across North Carolina — browsed the victory garden heritage project, a plot of volunteer-built garden boxes and trellises that serve as a living seed library full of crops grown in Ashe County for generations, according to Birdsell.
In the victory garden, Birdsell told the origin stories of a type of cucumber farmed in Ashe for more than 150 years, plus Ashe County pimento peppers, big red tomatoes, turkey craw beans, calico crowder peas, red calico lima beans, Morris’ pole green beans, lemly scarlet runner beans and half-runner beans, which Birdsell said taste just like home to many an Ashe County native.
To get the garden started, Birdsell said he and local Extension Master Gardener volunteers found seeds at farms, barns and seed vaults across Ashe County. Now that the victory garden is producing more than enough produce for replanting, excess seeds are saved, packaged, labeled and given to the seed library at Ashe County Public Library for safekeeping, thus preserving Ashe County’s agricultural heritage, according to Birdsell.
At the Barr Evergreens nursery in Jefferson, Ashe County Board of Commissioners Chair Todd McNeill and interim county manager Adam Stumb joined the N.C. Cooperative Extension State Advisory Committee while owner Rusty Barr displayed more than 600,000 Christmas tree plugs, or first-year seedlings, their pokey little green needles basking in the heat of a mountain summer.
For decades, Ashe County Christmas tree farmers have imported their seedlings from faraway nurseries, many of which are located in the western United States, Barr said.
According to Barr, Barr Evergreens is in its fifth year growing Christmas tree plugs, which are then sold in Ashe and surrounding counties at a rate of about 5,000 to 10,000 seedlings at a time.
Barr Evergreens’ plug operation is a leading innovator in Ashe County’s nation-leading Christmas tree industry, and an important step in keeping the county’s trees born and raised in Ashe, according to Birdsell.
“We’ve got a little work to do, but that vertical integration — look at the hog industry, or the chicken industry — vertical integration is where you’ve got to go,” Birdsell said. “With outsourcing our seedlings, we’ve got no control over the beginning steps of our industry.”
Making Christmas trees a complete North Carolina industry from seed to sale is important to the industry’s autonomy, and freedom from outside influences impacting farmers’ bottom lines, according to Birdsell.
In addition to the expense of importing seedlings, Barr and Birdsell also addressed other challenges in the Christmas tree industry, such as industry consolidation and high startup costs for beginning farmers.
Despite the challenges associated with growing Christmas trees, Ashe County still shipped its Fraser firs to all 48 of the contiguous United States, plus Japan, Central America, the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, Russia and elsewhere around the globe, at a value of $95 million in 2018, according to Birdsell.
Birdsell then lead the group of cooperative extension members to Heritage Homestead Farm north of Ashe County Airport, owned and operated by Lon and Carol Coulter.
Heritage Homestead has been a licensed dairy for a decade, and has become known for its goat milk and goat cheese, harvested and prepared right on the farm, according to Carol Coulter.
“They’re not easy, they look easy, but they’re not easy,” Coulter said about her livestock. “They have a lot of parasite issues, and hoof issues, and you’ve got to really pay attention — a down goat is a dead goat, so you got to get them early. They’re not hardy like cows.”
The goat products, including fudge and caramel, are sold at the Watauga County Farmers Market, and directly on the farm during scheduled tours, which Coulter said are popular among Ashe County tourists, who come to see the goats and watch how their milk gets turned to cheese.
According to Birdsell, Heritage Homestead is a good example of how farms can draw visitors to Ashe County, providing money for the county and its farmers through agritourism.
“It makes Ashe County a name people use around their kitchen table when they leave here,” Birdsell said.
Each of the three agricultural sites visited during the tour have at some point utilized the Ashe County Cooperative Extension and its various services, highlighting the significance of the N.C. Cooperative Extension State Advisory Committee’s meetings in Ashe the day before, Birdsell said after the tour.
“Ashe County has its unique features, but we’re not unique in that great things are going on everywhere,” Birdsell said. “People left that tour with something to take back to their own communities.”