From fourth through eighth grades, I attended Farmer Elementary School, in the rural community of Farmer in southwestern Randolph County. The bus picked me up on the one-lane dirt road
From fourth through eighth grades, I attended Farmer Elementary School, in the rural community of Farmer in southwestern Randolph County. The bus picked me up on the one-lane dirt road behind my house, and on the 20-minute ride to school, I pressed my cheek against the window and watched the fields pass by, a landscape scattered with giant rolls of baled hay and herds of cattle grazing in the morning light. We passed horse pastures and tobacco fields, acres of collards and corn.
The cover of my sixth-grade yearbook featured an illustration of a farmer in overalls, holding a pitchfork, with a caption that read, “Farmer: Outstanding in the Field.”
You don’t grow up in a place called Farmer without gaining an appreciation, an understanding, an affection for that word and everything it stands for.
There are nearly 50,000 farms in North Carolina, covering more than eight million acres. As much as I love seeing whitecapped waves breaking onto the beach at Emerald Isle, or Pilot Mountain coming into view, or the glassy reflection of Lake Toxaway, for me, nothing compares to the sight of the sun setting over a plowed field. Wisps of clouds. Stalks of corn shooting skyward, their blades grasshopper green. Hundreds of watermelons and pumpkins. Rows of woody grapevines in the Yadkin Valley; peach trees in perfect formation in the Sandhills.
In Raleigh, on Edenton Street, alongside government buildings like the Education building, the Justice building, and the Highway building, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture oversees all of these farms. The organization has been in place since 1877 and housed in this imposing Lego block of a building since 1923. From the street, you might think this place is as far from farming as the Alaskan tundra.
But go inside, and you’ll see the antique Farmall Cub tractor, firecracker red, in the lobby. You’ll see the Got to Be NC Agriculture quilt, a gift from the Ashe County Piecemakers Quilt Guild, each square commemorating an agricultural commodity: seafood and apples, cotton and cows, milk and chickens and sweet potatoes. In the transom, you’ll see a six-foot-wide stained-glass window, meticulously cut by Tony Driggers in High Point: clams and oysters and Christmas trees and poinsettias; wheat and tobacco; pecans, peaches, peanuts, and pigs, each image luminous beneath the word “Agriculture” engraved into the building’s stone facade.
In here, it’s a museum, an exhibit hall, a gallery, an archive. Antique farm implements fill every corner. Tobacco baskets and feed sacks, from Hinkle’s in Thomasville and Central Carolina Farmers in Durham, hang everywhere, along with art: a braided rug from Virginia Boone in Asheville, who worked at Champion Paper and Fiber Company in Canton and learned to make rugs from the mill’s recycled wool; the found-material collage of a mule plow, created by Whiteville High School art teacher Mark Bannerman; an oil painting of a Rocky Mount seed-farm shed by Benson’s Doug Strickland.
And just outside, a pollinator’s garden, lush with black-eyed Susans and brilliant poppies — firecracker red! — and another garden filled with the agricultural symbols of this state: dogwood branches and scuppernong vines and blueberry bushes, a rich and flourishing tribute to the abundance across our land.
Editor in Chief