Thirty years ago, Allen Johnson put on a monkey suit to sell one of his prized Holsteins. It was 1984, and Johnson got a call from investors at Southfork Ranch — yes, the one in Texas; the one with the Ewing Mansion; the one where the television show “Dallas” was set from 1978 to 1991. The sale organizers asked the Hamptonville farmer to dress nicely — a tuxedo would be appropriate, they said — and bring Ravena, a cow with such a superior bloodline that, now, the No. 1-ranked bull in the nation traces back to her. And he did, and Ravena sold at the auction. She was the prize of the day.
Johnson kept up his standard of breeding top Holsteins at his Jafral Holsteins farm; today, his cows are the only herd south of the Mason-Dixon line designated a Herd of Excellence in the Holstein Association’s national rankings.
In 1974, Dennis Leamon was reading the trade magazine Jersey Journal when he came across an advertisement for Jersey cow farmers to come to Iredell County. Leamon, who is from Tennessee but was working on a large farm in Florida, jumped at the chance.
Now, Leamon and his wife, Mary Beth, milk 200 cows on their all-grazing dairy farm, Lucky L Jerseys, and they can name nearly all of their cows by a nickname. “They’re just like people,” Leamon says. “Every one has its own personality.”
DUSTY ROAD FARM
Ray Elmore’s wife, Linda, didn’t grow up on a farm, although her family always had a milk cow on hand, and her father planted row crops, like potatoes. After a hard season of hoeing potatoes, 16-year-old Linda told her mother, “I’m going to marry a man who buys my food.” That year, in 1962, she met Ray.
The couple dated for three months, got married, and bought their first Jersey just 14 months after their first daughter was born. As their family grew — five children, seven grandchildren — so did their herd. Now, at their Dusty Road Jersey Farm, the Elmores milk 260 Jerseys, and Ray counts on grandsons Carson, 15, and Bryson, 3, to lend a hand.
Reid Gray, patriarch of Grayhouse Farm, didn’t inherit the land he works on with his two sons, Andy and Jimmy. He started in 1965, adding an acre here, an acre there. Now, the Reid clan milks 350 cows — mostly Holsteins but some Brown Swiss — three times a day, on 1,500 acres. It’s a good life, says Jimmy, who now brings his own son, John Roby, 11, to the farm to help out. “It’s a way to feel close to family,” he says. But there’s more to it than that. “Farmers,” he says, “get to enjoy God’s creation every day. You go through the change of seasons, and you don’t just see it through a window.”
Ethan Myers, 37, decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer when he was 8 years old. After he graduated from North Carolina State University in 1999 with a degree in Animal Science, he came home to Union Grove to work the family farm with his dad, Barry.
Barry took over the family farm from his dad, Ethan’s grandfather, Homer Clay — everybody in Iredell County called him “HC” — who started the business in 1947, after he returned from flying B-17 air-sea rescues in World War II.
HC died in 2006, but Barry, his wife, Maryjane, and Ethan carry on the mission of raising superior milking cows. The Myerses’ all-Holstein herd has won the nation’s top honors for milk quality.
In the early 1950s, little Robert Stamey, about 2 years old, was pulling the reins of a heifer not much taller than he was on his family’s farm. A photographer roaming the Iredell County countryside snapped a picture, and it appeared on the cover of The State magazine in 1957. That’s Bob now, standing in his pasture with his hand on the shoulder of his son, David — the sixth generation of Stamey Farms. Although the farm is a family affair, its appeal is international.
Stamey Farms is one of about 10 dairy cow exporters in the entire country, and its Holsteins and Jerseys make their way to places like Russia, Turkey, Mexico, and Vietnam. The milk Stamey Farms’ cows produce, though, stays a little closer to home. It’s all shipped to the family’s Mooresville Ice Cream Company — maker of DeLuxe and Front Porch brands. Delivered today, and processed tomorrow, Bob says his ice cream is “as fresh as it’s ever going to get.”
Sam Dobson’s family has had this farm since the late 1700s, and now, Sam is teaching his 6-year-old son, Chase, the ways of the land. Dobson Farm is the seventh dairy farm in the state to be certified organic, and for Sam, that means a return to one of the oldest methods: all grazing. Here, Sam and his son take the cows to a new patch of grass after milking — their 100-head Holstein herd eats 10 meals a day.
A good meal is the backbone to a productive farm — for cows and for humans. Nobody knows that better than Sam’s grandmother, Martha, who, at age 93, still cooks breakfast — eggs, sausage, cheese toast, and coffee — seven days a week for the entire farm staff. “You learn to drink coffee when you’re a farmer,” Sam says. “Because you won’t find any better cream to put in it.”
When Dr. Ben Shelton finished veterinary school, he “wanted to see if all the things you tell people are really going to work,” he says. So, along with his practice at Rocky Creek Veterinary Services, he oversees the milking of his 1,400 Holsteins at Rocky Creek Dairy, as well as the packing of corn silage to fill the farm’s silos, and he stays on top of advances in genetics research to breed better cows.