A Family Grows Together
"Everyone here has a job to do, that's how this place works," says John L. Council, a Hoke County farmer who enjoys not only farming, but meeting his customers at the Moore County farmers markets.
Council is referring to his devoted family -- including his wife, Willie Agnes; their daughter, Jacquie Rogers; and grandson, Ted Smith -- three generations of an extended family that share in his love of the land.
"I'm training 'em to think like me," he says with a laugh, while glancing at his fresh-faced 24 year-old grandson Ted. But he's obviously serious about entrusting his legacy to those who truly care for farming.
"Ted here, he's had the school learning, but now I'm showing him, teaching him hands-on, how things are done," he says.
That instruction includes all the things they do not teach in school, says Council -- how to sense the needs of the livestock, soil, vegetables, and how to work with customers.
Ted, who received a two-year degree in horticulture from Fayetteville Technical Community College, handles the farm's livestock, prepares the planting and harvesting schedules, runs the tractors, works the fields, and tends to the farmer's markets.
"Today, I got here and Ted had our tent set-up, the freezer was stocked and the vegetable display was ready -- everything was organized," he notes. "There's a sense of responsibility that's good to have. I don't have to tell him to do a lot; he knows what needs to be done and does it."
Council also instills a sense of responsibility and self-sufficiency to his family -- something that was passed down by his father, also a farmer who he says, taught him everything.
Farming in His Blood
Raised on a farm in Robeson County, Council later moved to Camden, N.J., to try somewhere new. He married Willie Agnes and purchased nine acres, farming it for 35 years. He also worked what he refers to as "public jobs," serving as an electrician, carpenter and a maintenance man for JC Penny and Sears.
"But I always kept on farming. Those were jobs I did not like, but had to do them at the time. This is what I love," he says pointing to the table laden with fresh produce.
While in New Jersey, he bought farmland in Hoke County and moved back to the area when his father fell ill in 1994. Since then, members of his New Jersey church family and their families have moved south to help him run the sprawling farm.
To many in Moore County, Council is known by his white step-up truck that is outfitted with a refrigerator and freezer. It is a fixture at the local farmers markets where he sells pasture-raised beef, pork, chickens, turkeys, fresh eggs, and produce that is grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
His 68-acre farm, just four miles outside of Raeford, includes active forestland and pastureland where the family grows produce and breeds the livestock.
His beef herd dwindled after the drought three years ago when the price of hay skyrocketed.
"There just wasn't any hay and we had to sell off the herd," he says.
Today, thanks to the "buy local" movement, he is rebuilding it.
"We find more people want to know where their food comes from," says Jacquie, who handles all the farm's administrative needs, including research, regulation compliance, and ordering. She also arranges farm tours so customers and other farmers can see their operation.
Buy Local Movement
"Our price is comparable to what you would find for naturally-raised products in the stores, but the flavor is better, it's fresher" she says. "And, you know where it's raised."
The cows are grass-fed and do not receive any feed, antibiotics, or hormones. They also have a dramatically better life than their feedlot cousins remaining on pasture from birth to market, roaming around in fresh air and sunshine. Grass-fed beef is leaner than meat obtained from cows raised in commercial feedlots -- it has the fat content of skinless chicken and it is charged with heart-friendly essential fatty acids.
Chickens raised naturally, the old-fashioned way, are also available.
"Our chickens are not living in a mass production coop -- they have free range to roam," says Ted, who loves animals and grew up wanting to be a either a veterinarian or a farmer. "We built a small coop for them to get out of the heat and weather if they want -- but they live outside. When you look at them you can see they are healthy -- not like what you see on the commercial farms."
The chicken coop looks like a large utility shed set up on wheels. They move the coop, and the chickens, around the farm so they get the nutrients they need and can provide their nutrient-rich "natural" fertilizer to the soil. The chicks and laying hens receive a natural corn-based supplement.
The price of raising all this livestock naturally is not small.
"Just this week I bought a little over a ton-and-a-half of natural feeds for my baby chicks and layers, and it was almost $600," explains Council. "If I wanted to save money, I could use chemicals, they're a lot cheaper and that's what the factories use, but that's not how we do things here."
The vegetables, which their brochure says are "as good as gold," are also raised without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Council uses applications of feather meal to enrich the soil and they hand-pick the pests off the plants as necessary. Well-known natural remedies, like cayenne pepper and vinegar are made into solutions and applied to keep pests at bay.
The irrigation needs for the seven acres of vegetables are served by two 96-foot wells on the farm.
"We have a large pond, but we use it for irrigating only our hay," says Council. "We are extremely careful to keep the vegetables healthy and safe for consumption."
Council's commitment to raising naturally-grown food and the use of sustainable farm practices, such as integrating livestock with crop rotation, are two of the reasons that his farm was designated the 2009 Small Farm of the Year by North Carolina A&T University.
He has worked closely with the Cooperative Extension Program at A&T as well as the Robeson County Cooperative Extension agent for many years to sustain the farm and make it more profitable.
"We are always looking at our costs and the best way to manage this place efficiently," explains Council. "Everyone has their designated role. For instance, on Friday, some will pick apples. That night, others will dress the chickens that we take to the Saturday market. On Saturday, while we are at the market selling the chickens, meat, and vegetables, others will be at the farm canning the apples. It's the effort of each of us, we all know what the other one is doing and know when we have to help with a job.
"Even our Great Pyrenees has a job. He doesn't get to sit around the house, he lives out with the goats -- keeps them under control -- that's his job."
The Councils have been participating in the Moore County Farmers Markets since 2007. During the busy spring and summer harvest season they are at the markets in Pinehurst and Southern Pines on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.
In the fall, after the other markets close for the season, they will be at the Thursday market on Morganton Road as long as there is enough business to make the drive from Hoke County worthwhile.
The demands of farm life are not easy, especially when the mind is willing but the septuagenarian body starts feeling the work, but Council, who recently hurt his back picking peas, keeps it all in perspective.
"When I sit on my porch at night, I get joy out of watching my cows, my chickens, my hogs. I get joy out of watching the vegetables grow. It's just what I love to do and knowing that people are getting a good, solid, healthy product, that we grew just for them," he says. "Well, that's the best."
The John L. Council farm may be reached at (910) 875-4937 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst freelance writer and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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