Raised in rural Buncombe County, Holbrook grew up farming tobacco and hay, seeing years of plenty and years of want. And while he got himself a regular job upon graduation from Enka High School — he worked two years for rayon producer American Enka and then took a position with Dayco Corporation in Waynesville in 1968 — he always knew he wanted to get back to farming.
“When I bought this land, I remember when I met the man that owned it and walked down into that bottom,” said Holbrook. “I reached and got that soil and I knew I wanted this land.”
He bought that rich bottomland, going in as a partner with full-time vegetable farmer Hugh Kuykendall. At the time, Holbrook was in the midst of what would become a 25-year career with Dayco, so farming had to be a part-time endeavor.
That first land purchase amounted to just 11 acres, a small portion of the 175 acres he now owns. Over time, Holbrook bought up more and more land, and in 1993 he made a big decision — to leave his steady, well-paying management position at Dayco and start farming full-time.
“Was it scary to quit my job and start farming full-time?” asked Holbrook, repeating the question posed to him in a recent interview. “Not really. I never even thought of it.”
To Holbrook, agriculture is an instinct, a key ingredient to a happy and well-lived life, and over the course of his career he’s fought for the survival of Cold Mountain Farms and for the agricultural community of Western North Carolina as a whole.
This May that legacy earned him the highest honor that community has to bestow — induction to the Western North Carolina Agricultural Hall of Fame. But it’s far from being the only honor he’s received for his contributions. He holds numerous awards from the Haywood County Farm Bureau and Haywood County Soil and Water District, designation as a River Friendly Farm by the Tri-County River Friendly Farmer Program and has served on a variety of state and local boards, including the Haywood County Planning Board, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Advisory Board and the N.C. Tomato Growers Association.
“I’m a blessed man to be able to be a farmer. I look at it that way,” said Holbrook. “I believe in three things — God first, family second, land third.”
A lifetime of farming has earned A lifetime of farming has earned Bill Holbrook a place in the Western North Carolina Agricultural Hall of Fame. Holly Kays photo
Holbrook loves the feeling of accomplishment that comes with shepherding a crop from seed to sprout to ripened vegetable, of looking back over the challenges of the season past — drought and flooding, pests and disease, frost and heat — and knowing that, despite it all, he’s succeeded.
“Every year I had satisfaction in the challenges I went through,” he said. “The hardships, whatever it was. I always survived and made it.”
Then, the vegetables harvested and the weather cooling, he had his winters free to hunt deer and grouse with his bird dogs before beginning to plan for the next season in December and January. The greenhouse would get going in February, with planting in May and then full-force ahead until September wound down once again.
“There’s a great sense of accomplishment when you completed a crop,” he said. “The bank account might not have been too much, but I never did lose money.”
It’s an existence of self-sufficiency and interdependence, of respect for the land and the generations that have come before. Every acre has its stories, and over the years Holbrook has made it his business to learn those stories.
That business became serious about 15 years ago when he began researching his farm’s deed history to apply to the state’s Century Farm program, which recognizes farms that have remained in continuous operation by the same family for 100 years or more. Holbrook knew that some of the acreage went back four generations, but what he didn’t know was that the Moore family, from whom he’d bought that original acreage back in 1982, would eventually appear in his family tree.
“I knew my great-grandfather owned part of it, but he bought part of it and his wife inherited part of it,” Holbrook explained. “His wife was a descendent of the Moores.”
That discovery meant that Cold Mountain Farm had been in the family since 1830 — his was only the second family to own it since the government originally dispersed the acreage through land grants, with Holbrook’s great-great-great-great-grandfather purchasing about half of the original 640-acre land grant.
Before the land made it to the state’s hands for dispersal, it was part of the enormous territory of the Cherokee people. As colonial settlements expanded and the United States was formed, Native Americans were continually pushed out of more and more of their land through a series of increasingly unfavorable laws treaties. One of those laws was North Carolina’s Act of 1783, which left land west of the Pigeon River under Cherokee control. However, the state gave land grants there anyway, resulting in protests from the Cherokee and, decades later, the case’s arrival in the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court ruled that Native Americans had the right to occupy the land but not to own it, and the settlers remained.
“If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the Indians I wouldn’t be here today,” Holbrook mused.
As a kid, Holbrook said, he wasn’t too interested in lessons in history and genealogy. But once he became a landowner, the past took on a new life.
Protecting the rural
Holbrook remembers his childhood in Buncombe County with fondness, recalling entire days spent walking the creek and catching fish and climbing trees. Things have changed in the decades since. The family farm adjoins the Asheville city limits, with people and traffic flowing all around.
“It was just a good place where kids could get out and play in the creeks and stuff, and the parents not worry about them,” said Holbrook. “It’s not that way now.”
It’s different in Bethel. While Holbrook does have to be more concerned than he used to about safeguarding his riverbank from folks leaving nails in trees and empty beer cans on the ground, the area is still largely rural, and that’s by design.
Holbrook was one of the founding members of the Bethel Rural Community Organization and helped establish the group’s Rural Preservation Committee, which formed in response to an effort from the county to extend water and sewer utilities into Bethel.
The BRCO fought off that attempt — twice.
“It wasn’t that we were against sewer and water. We were against what came with it,” Holbrook said.
Where there are water and sewer lines, there will be development, and where there’s development, agriculture won’t last long. In the face of pressure from developers and rising land values, Holbrook said, the farmer will eventually sell out. And Haywood County simply can’t stand to lose its agricultural heritage.
“Agriculture is the largest industry in North Carolina. It’s very important, fixing to go over $100 billion,” said Holbrook. “It’s very important to stay and keep agricultural land growing. Most people don’t know where food comes from — if you ask them, it comes from Ingles. They really don’t know.”
While the landscape featured fewer and smaller trees than it does today, Cold Mountain Farms circa 1940 (pictured) looked much the same as in 2018. Donated photo
But development is far from being the only threat to farming. Holbrook’s seen a lot change over his decades in the industry.
“Years ago, (a farmer) could make a living with his back,” said Holbrook. “Now he has to have his head. You can’t do it all yourself. You can’t get enough volume production, so you have to hire labor. You’ve got to manage that.”
In addition to being physically strong and savvy about the ebbs and flows of the seasons, a farmer is an employer, a manager and a record keeper. He’s got to stay up on the latest in science and technology, making countless decisions about how to apply that knowledge to his craft.
“A farmer, he owns the land and depends on the land and he don’t like people telling him what to do, but I relied on individuals with the N.C State University,” said Holbrook. “I relied on the extension service, trials at the test farm.”
At the same time, he bristled at some less helpful government-farmer interactions.
“Three things I didn’t like — regulation, regulation, regulation,” Holbrook said.
That’s not to say Holbrook didn’t comply. He did, and in fact was the first farmer in Haywood County to be certified in the Good Agricultural Practices program, instituted through the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011. To non-farmers, the requirements of the act probably sound like good things — they ensure that all agricultural products are traceable, with records showing which crop was in which field, what pesticides were used to treat them, how they were irrigated and a host of other data points. In case of contamination, those records are quite valuable.
But for a small farmer whose main goal is to plant his fields and coax them to yield a crop, meeting those requirements can be a tall order.
“It’s a hindrance to the farmer, it is,” said Holbrook. “It’s an expense to the farmer, and we’re always trying to cut the costs and don’t want to add cost.”
He testified to that effect before a U.S. House of Representatives committee in 2009, speaking up for affordable crop insurance and food safety requirements appropriate for small family farms.
In Holbrook’s opinion, the push for traceability comes from big grocery stores wanting small farmers to take the fall if a batch of spinach is found to be contaminated with salmonella or E. coli. It’s a scary thing, he said — his land is his retirement, and the prospect of losing it all because of one contaminated crop is terrifying. That’s a big reason why he decided to retire from farming five years ago, two years after the Food Safety Modernization Act passed.
“It wasn’t a difficult decision to make when I was 66,” he said. “I wasn’t going to take that chance of losing what I’d accumulated over a lifetime. You don’t get enough insurance to cover all that. That was probably the key decision. Yeah, labor is hard to get, those kinds of things, but that wasn’t a big thing. It was regulation, the chance of losing what I had accumulated.”
Holbrook isn’t the only longtime farmer leaving the business. Increasingly, farming is an older man’s game. According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average age of farmers in North Carolina is 58.9, and 87 percent of them are men.
Holbrook blames much of it on the difficulty of securing high-quality farmland.
“Prime farmland is in high demand because there’s just not much of it in our community as far as vegetables goes,” he said. “So a young farmer, he starts out small as I did and then you’ve got to have a bigger truck to make money. You have to have more land to have more volume. The profit gets less and less per acre, so you have to have more acreage.”
To make a go of it, you have to jump in with both feet. Such an approach makes a swift exit difficult, but it guarantees firmer footing than would a more tentative dip in the pool.
“If I rented land and I invested into equipment and into my farm and all of a sudden I lost that land, I’ve lost the farming,” said Holbrook. “So I learned to try to purchase land, to be self-sufficient and not dependent on somebody else.”
Though he’s not farming anymore, Holbrook still has his retirement — 175 acres of land sprinkled throughout Haywood County and a home that’s surrounded by cornfields and within view of Cold Mountain. He walks down to the Pigeon River each day for a swim and to hear the birds sing and the leaves rustle, and he’s grateful for where he is.
“Bethel to me, with Cold Mountain and the river, is the key to this community,” he said. “I get up every morning and I look at Cold Mountain.”