When Robert Elliott imagines his future as a farmer, he sees a large operation with a nice market where customers can buy affordable, sustainably produced vegetables and fruit from a 10- to 12-acre garden or chickens and turkeys from a yearly flock of 20,000.
His customers bring their children to learn about farming and about where their food comes from. He’s able to innovate and stay ahead of the curve when it comes to what people want from their local farmer. And he is able to support a modest, if not comfortable, life for his family.
It may be just a dream right now, but Elliott is making fast progress since the day when he found himself an unemployed veteran with no job prospects. And for that progress, he credits the leading-edge wisdom and the support he’s gotten from the people of North Carolina Cooperative Extension – especially his Franklin County agricultural agent Martha Mobley.
“I wanted to use my family’s farm to join the local food movement. My goals were simple enough, but the logistics of all things involved with growing a product have been far from simple,” he says.
“Martha has been an absolutely crucial resource in showing me how to correctly raise, market and profit from the smallest to the largest farm ventures,” he says. “And she has provided me with new, profitable ventures that I could not have imagined on my own.
“She has taken a beginning farmer and brought me into the mainstream market,” he says, “where my products are continuously selling.”
And not only continuously selling – selling out. No matter how hard he tries, he says he can’t keep pace with the demand for the chicken eggs and heritage and conventional meat turkeys and chickens he produces.
Elliott started the operation on the 850-acre Cypress Hall Farm with his wife, Michelle, in 2012. Most of the farm is leased to a local soybean producer, but the couple has carved out a slice of the land for sustainable production.
In addition to their poultry operations, the two raise pigs, rabbits and ducks, host hunting tours and provide free farm tours.
Elliott knew a thing or two about agriculture, because he’d lived on the farm with his aunt and uncle from the time he was 9 until he left to join the Marine Corps at age 18. And as a 4-H’er, he gained experience with goats and cows by participating in livestock shows and became the national winner of an annual 4-H chicken barbecue demonstration contest.
His decision to return to agriculture came after reading Joe Salatin’s book Pastured Poultry Profits. He began to see sustainable production of his own food as freedom, a chance to revitalize the family farm and, ultimately, an opportunity for a better life.
He perceived that farming was undergoing “a rebirth,” as he calls it, with “men and women leaving offices spaces and going back to the land to become the architects of a strong economic and agricultural movement.”
Elliott wanted to be part of that rebirth. Because Mobley had been his 4-H agent, he decided to look her up at the county Extension center and see if she could steer him in the right direction.
“You’ve got to think, I just came from a Marine Corps air wing hangar out to a field to start an agriculture business,” he says. “I didn’t know who to talk to to get the licenses I needed. I didn’t even know which licenses I needed. All I knew was that I wanted to raise chickens, process them and sell them.”
Elliott says that Mobley – recently named the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Extension Educator of the Year – was swift in her response, steering him toward a sustainable small farm conference that she and County Extension Director Charles Mitchell were offering.
While some might be under the impression that the internet has all the information one would need to start an agriculture business, Elliott found it essential to get the type of guidance, hands-on experience and networking opportunities that the conference and other Extension programs offered.
“A book or the internet is only going to take you halfway. The rest has to be hands-on, with other people,” he says.
After the conference, Elliott started raising hoop-house chickens, then began an innovative free-range turkey operation, experimenting with both conventional large-breasted all-white turkeys and with the hardy breeds that his farming forefathers had raised.
At first, he had trouble finding buyers. He’d sent emails and called local farmers market managers, but they didn’t respond.
“Martha makes a quick phone call, and she says, ‘You’re going to the Rocky Mount market this weekend,’” Elliott recalls. “Business has just exploded since that day.”
Elliott soon made connections with networks of small-scale sustainable farmers, local-food movement leaders, organic poultry producers and others who went on to provide moral support and insight into what works and what doesn’t.
With that kind of help, he says, “things just seem to be falling into place, right when I need them to. It’s been amazing to me how fast things can grow when you have the right people, like the people from Extension, around you.”
— Dee Shore