These Farm Families Have Been Feeding North Carolina for More Than a Century
Once a state primarily known for tobacco production, North Carolina’s rolling hills and verdant mountains are now home to every stripe of crops and livestock. Farmland forms the foundation of the state’s $92.7 billion agriculture industry, feeding residents and connecting them to the land.
This year, North Carolina’s Century Farm program celebrates its 50th anniversary. The program honors families who have owned or operated a farm for a century or more. Since its inception, approximately 2,000 farms have earned the century farm distinction – and, more recently, several dozen have joined the ranks of the Bicentennial Farm program, which recognizes family farms with a 200-year history.
For farms with a long lineage, change is inevitable. Livestock makes way for vegetable crops, machinery replaces manual labor and technology increases efficiency. While one farm fed about four people in the 1930s, today that average has increased to 166 people.
What hasn’t changed among North Carolina’s century farms? A commitment to nourishing their local communities.
Indigo Farms grows fruits and vegetables just north of the South Carolina border in Calabash. Sam Bellamy runs the farm with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. Over the decades, Indigo Farms has produced tobacco, then hogs, then fruits and vegetables. In addition to growing produce, the property now includes a farm market and bakery. For 25 years, the farm also hosted educational events to celebrate local traditions.
“We made it a point to focus on things that we did as kids,” Bellamy says.
This meant including activities such as grinding grits, dyeing with indigo and making molasses, along with traditional games like cob throwing, hay mazes and mule sled rides. Many of the experts in these practices have passed away, so today Indigo Farms finds new ways to engage the community. Throughout the year, the farm hosts pick-your-own-produce days, races for local runners and even employs community members in recovery from substance abuse.
Considering that less than 2% of the U.S. population works as farmers, Bellamy emphasizes the importance of communities connecting with their local farms. He hopes Indigo Farms can become a focal point in the Calabash community and a center for learning, fresh food, and connection to neighbors and the land.
“We’re looking for ways to be more than just a commodity farm,” he says. “The real value of agriculture is about family well-being and community security. If it’s not about people, then it’s not agriculture.”
A Labor of Love
Nestled in the Appalachians 10 miles from the Tennessee state line, Doug Harrell raises grass-fed beef and produces sorghum syrup molasses at Harrell Hill Farms. He and his wife, both in their late 70s, manage the property with help from his brother. On molasses-making days, the children and grandchildren pitch in.
Like Bellamy, Harrell believes that local farms are critical to the health of every community. And family-run farms are especially vital, he says, “because people running those farms have experience and knowledge that have been passed down for generations.”
Harrell Hill Farms has been in Doug’s family for more than 200 years.
“I can go up on the hills and look out over the land and wonder what it was like in 1796 when my forefathers first started farming this land,” he says. “It gives you a deeper appreciation for the land and the farm and what’s been accomplished over the years.”
Harrell was diagnosed with leukemia in 2017 and told he had 12 months to live. But three years later, he continues to farm the land he came from. After a recent chemotherapy treatment, he returned home in the late afternoon, changed clothes and got on the tractor. He worked until dark.
“You gotta love it,” he says. “And I do.”
Harrell teaches his kids and grandkids the same thing. Before taking over the farm, he worked in the corporate world for 30 years. His work took him around the world, but he feels most at home on the land where he was born.
“One night over dinner, my kids asked me, ‘If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?’ And I said, ‘I’m there.’”
Celebrating Century Farmers
This year marks half a century since the Century Farm program’s inception, and North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says the honor is even more impressive today than it was in 1970.
“The Century Farm program recognizes an accomplishment that is increasingly difficult to achieve,” Troxler says. “As land passes from one generation to another, we often see parts of it sold. It is important to celebrate these families who have chosen to keep their land and who continue to produce food and fiber.”
Every four years, the Century Farm program hosts a reunion at the state fair to honor the families who feed North Carolina. Troxler looks forward to meeting new generations of farmers at every reunion.
“It makes me proud to see how much these farms mean to families across this state,” he says. “I know they are passing on a strong bond and love for the land.”
By the Numbers
– Annelise Jolley